Marking 100 years since Light Horse Charge of Beersheba

Lighthorse brigades. Photo: SMH.
Lighthorse brigades. Photo: SMH.

On October 31, it will be a hundred years since the last great mounted charge was carried out by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba (Palestine) on October 31, 1917.

The capture of this strategic town was the turning point in the British campaign to expel the Turkish Ottoman Empire which had ruled the Middle East for 400 years.

Most of the troops were from the country and the volunteers from the Boorowa area were mostly in the seventh Light Horse Regiment which was part of the 2nd Brigade commanded by Major General Granville Ryrie. 

Margie Arnott’s father, Trooper Mark Lamond (Nowra) enlisted at sixteen and was in the 7th Regiment. 

Coincidentally, when the Regiment was at Gallipoli, it was commanded by Colonel J. M. Arnott. Some Boorowa area names were Williams, Willsallen and Knight-Gregson.

Although the 7th was not in the Charge itself, the 2nd Brigade was vital in capturing Turkish held towns and the Hebron Road so the enemy could not send re-enforcements to Beersheba or escape.

Mounted troops are known as elite men of arms and the Australian Light Horse is part of this legendary tradition.

They were in fact mounted infantry and the horses were to take them swiftly to the fight and aid in rapid withdrawal.

Once engaged, one man in four was responsible for leading and holding the horses out of harms way.

They were recognised by emu feathers in their slouch hats, except for the 6th Regiment who wore wallaby fur skin hat bands.

They carried rifles and bayonets (no cavalry swords) and were described by the Official War Historian H.S. Gullett, “as in body and spirit, the true product of the Australian countryside”.

They were men of the land and sons of rural pioneers who could ride, shoot, stalk, hunt, keen observers of their surroundings and able to withstand the tough conditions of unbearably hot days, freezing nights, wind and sand storms, driving rain, flies and sandflies and the lack of food and water in the desert.

There was very little shelter except for tents and blankets and of course, they were totally responsible for their horses in these trying conditions day after day.  

The Light Horse troopers horses were the famous “Walers” so named by the British cavalry.

They had developed from all types of breeds brought to the Australian Colonies in the 19th century and were mostly thoroughbreds, arabians, draught, coach, pony and riding horses.

They had a thick body, wide chest, could adapt to arduous work over long distances, were fast and courageous and a capacity to need little water.

They were mostly bred in the Hunter Valley.

Some troopers took their own cherished horses and the Australian government purchased the rest from owners and breeders.

They had to be 15-16 hands, grey and broken colours were not acceptable to the army. 

Following the Gallipoli campaign (in which they served without their horses) most of the ALH commanded by Major General Harry Chauvel remained in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal.

The Turks were able to send reinforcements after Gallipoli and Germany supported them.

So began the long three year campaign through Egypt, Palestine, the Sinai Desert and Syria to defeat the Ottoman Empire.

After thwarting the Turkish attack at Romani in August 1916 the Light Horse brigades advanced with victories at Magdhaba and Rafa, but were twice beaten at Gaza.

There followed plans to capture Beersheba which would allow for another attempt at Gaza.

Various deceptions were employed to keep the enemy thinking the next attack would be at Gaza.  

At this point it was vital to capture the 17 wells at Beersheba as the troops were running out of water for their horses and themselves.

Some had had little water for 48 hours.  

The night before the attack troops and horses had a dusty ride of 48 miles to arrive at a striking point.

This was when the second Brigade was sent to systematically capture strategic Turkish positions around Beersheba.

There had been bitter fighting all day on October 31 and in the afternoon time was running out to attack before dark.

Major General Chauvel asked Brigadier William Grant of the 4th Brigade to mount a charge of the 4th Regiment (Victoria) and the 12th Regiment (NSW) with the 11th on outpost duty.

His words were “Men, you are fighting for water. There is no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani.  Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck”. 

He ordered them to charge cavalry style.  

Approximately 600 men and horses assembled behind some rising ground, and began the advance around 4.30pm.

Surprise and speed were essential to cover the four miles of open ground in three successive lines, riding three yards apart, each man with drawn bayonet.

They moved off at a trot, their pace quickened to a gallop through the red dusty haze towards the Turkish trenches guarded by machine guns and artillery.

The thundering of hooves with the dying sun shining on the bayonet points must have been a frightening sight.

The momentum of the surprise attack caused the Turks not to have time to lower their sights and the shells burst behind the Australians.

Turkish bayonets thrust up into the bellies of the horses as they jumped across the trenches and some troopers dismounted for hand to hand fighting, others managed to sweep down the slope to the town and ride through the streets.

The battle was over in less than an hour, the wells were cleared and there was water for men and horses.  

Thirty one men killed, thirty six wounded, seventy horses killed and an unknown number wounded, and 738 prisoners taken.  

Gaza fell the next week and the ALH continued north to engage in many hard won victories across the Holy Land, until the capture of Damascus and the Turks surrender at Allepo and the Armistice signed on October 30, 1918 and enacted on October 31, 1918.

Tribute must be paid to the men and their faithful horses who carried them until the victorious end.