THE BATTLE OF BEERSHEBA
Summary: The British Invasion of the Turkish Empire looked like it was going to come to an unpleasant end, it was up to 800 Anzac horsemen to save the day.
Date: October 31, 1917
Combatants: The British/ANZAC Invasion Force (led by Field Marshal Edmund Allenby) versus soldiers of the Turkish Empire.
Location: The town of Beersheba in Southern Israel.
Allied - Although there were some 47,000 Allied Infantrymen, 15,000 Cavalrymen and several Tanks, these troops actually were not involved in the attack, the charge was completely accomplished by those 800 Anzac horsemen!
Turkish - 4,500 Riflemen, 60 Machine Guns and 28 Artillery
Allied Casualties - 135 Infantrymen and 36 Cavalrymen.
Turkish Casualties - 1,000~ killed, 1,947 captured.
- Introduction -
The First World War was in full swing. British, Russian and French forces (known as the Allies) were on one side and the Central Powers (made up of German, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian armies) were on the other.
Great Britain had created an immense empire stretching all across the world including Egypt, Israel and other parts of the Middle East. The Turks also had their own empire, known as the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was not as large as that of the British, but it still had a huge number of highly dedicated soldiers.
On the 26th of January 1915 German-led Turkish forces attempted to seize the British controlled Suez Canal. After two failed Turkish attacks the offensive turned in favour of the British who sustained only thirty fatalities while the Turks acquired some 1,500 casualties.
After these two decisive British victories, the Allies decided to invade the Middle East itself.
- The Plan -
Although the Turks did have a massive army, their army was not as strong as that of Britain and their soldiers were poorly armed. The Royal (British) Army on the other hand, was quite well armed and trained very well indeed. The British also had an advantage in that as a general rule their colonies and many of their former colonies were loyal to them, as a result the invading Royal Army had been joined by a strong body of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Australia and New Zealand were two of Britain's former colonies and were still willing to pledge their troops to the Empire's service.
This invading force was named the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, a wise man who also happened to be a devout Christian, had been placed in supreme command of the EEF (Egyptian Expeditionary Force). He, alongside an Australian named Lt-General Sir Henry Chauvel, was in charge of the invasion.
The obvious point to attack was Israel. This would allow the EEF to secure a vital position in Palestine, before sweeping through the rest of the Turkish Empire.
- The Invasion -
It was a steaming hot day in the Negev desert, Israel. The year was 1917 and the First World War was still raging. The British General Edmund Allenby had encountered a serious problem.
After two losses, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force had succeeded in invading Turkish occupied Israel. They had then advanced through the Negev desert in January that year. The going was very slow but eventually the troops had reached the small town of Beersheba.
The Allied soldiers and horses needed plenty of water in the hot environment, however they desperately needed to stock up their supply soon. Beersheba contained numerous wells that were full of clear, cool water but the town was guarded heavily by a large number of Turkish soldiers.
Several brave attacks by many Allied soldiers had already been made from the West of Beersheba, but each time the attacking troops were mown down and driven back by the Turks and their machine guns.
Beersheba was being guarded by almost 4,500 entrenched Turkish riflemen, it contained 60 machine gun* positions and 28 massive artillery guns! On the other hand, the EEF was made up of a little over 47,000 infantrymen and around 15,000 cavalrymen positioned on the western side of the town, most of whom were armed with rifles.
While the Allied commanders were discussing how to take Beersheba, the Australian commander of the Light Horse, Brigadier-General Grant, approached General Chauvel, the commander of the Allied cavalry and asserted confidently "I believe we can take the town!"
General Chauvel replied, "And how are you going to do that?"
"A cavalry charge!" Grant returned simply.
The Allied officers agreed to put their dangerous plan into action.
As the horses had had no water for about 36 days, Grant exclaimed to his men, "You are fighting for water!"
- The Charge -
The plan was for two regiments of the Australian Light Horse to circle the town and strike from the eastern side of the town.
Three Light Horse regiments were stationed around Beersheba at the time, the 1st, 4th and 12th, and each regiment contained about 400 troopers.**
A steady diversionary bombardment began west of the town from the British guns, meanwhile the 800 horses*** were quietly saddled and after circling the town were readied for battle. Then, at 4:00pm on the 31st of October, each Light Horse officer gave the order, "Charge!"
All 800 horses broke into a full gallop towards the town in a cloud of thick dust.
On hearing the attack alert, the Turkish soldiers garrisoned at the town quietly, calmly and efficiently scrambled to each of their positions in readiness. Everyone in the trenches held their breath, steadied their rifles, and took aim. The Australian Light Horsemen thundered closer. Then, when the approaching cavalry came into range, the awaited order was given, "Fire at will!" The Turkish gunmen opened fire with all they had at the rapidly oncoming horsemen.
Several of the Australian troopers fell dead from their saddles, but their comrades continued to charge onward.
The Turks soon discovered their mistake. Each man should have been adjusting the range on their sights, but had not been, and - as the ANZAC horsemen were approaching so quickly - most all of their shots were going over the heads of the oncoming troopers.
They did not end up hitting many more of the approaching horsemen. They had run out of time. Within seconds, both of the two ANZAC Light Horse regiments had reached the enemy trenches.
The men from the 12th Regiment simply jumped the Turkish trenches and continued towards Beersheba, hoping to capture the valuable wells. The 4th regiment, however, stopped and fiercely attacked the trenches. A fierce close combat hand-to-hand fight erupted.^
- The Aftermath -
The men of the 12th Regiment were able to gain control of the wells. More British regiments were called in to help guard the 1,000 Turkish soldiers who had surrendered and to secure the area.
Two Australian Light Horsemen regiments, numbering only 800 men, had successfully captured the key Palestinian town of Beersheba, but, more importantly, they had secured the valuable wells that the army needed to obtain drinking water from.
The Light Horsemen went on to distinguish themselves in the victories at Shemakh and Jerusalem. As an indirect result of the victory at Beersheba the Allies were able to, slowly but surely, take control of the rest of Israel, followed by the conquest of the entire Middle Eastern section of the Turkish Empire.
After Beersheba, those same soldiers saw combat in many theatres of war throughout Europe as well, helping to win World War One for the Allies.
Written and Researched By
Cody B. Mitchell
P.S. Please leave any suggestions, questions or general comments in the comments box below! Thanks for reading!
It's October the 31st, 1917 and the British invasion of the Turkish Empire has gone all wrong. What can 800 Anzac troopers do about it? Quite a lot it seems!
"I believe we can take the town!"
"If there was one lesson more than another I had learned at Magdhaba and Rafa, it was patience, and not to expect things to happen too quickly. At Beersheba, although progress was slow, there was never that deadly pause which is so disconcerting to a commander."
— Lieutenant General Chauvel, commanding Desert Mounted Corps
*The machine gun was a new and deadly weapon at the time, and compared to the rifles and muskets of earlier days, it was able to fire very rapidly and have devastating effects.
**The Light Horse were not, in fact, even cavalry; a more precise definition would be, infantry on horseback. They even carried rifles and bayonets instead of the usual British cavalry swords.
***Walers were the type of horse used by light horsemen in the campaign in the Middle East during the First World War. The light horse combined the mobility of cavalry with the fighting skills of infantry. They fought dismounted, with rifles and bayonets. However, sometimes they charged on horseback, notably at Magdhaba and Beersheba. The smallest unit of a light horse regiment was the four-man section: one holding the horses while the other three fought.
The horses were called Walers because, although they came from all parts of Australia, they were originally sold through New South Wales. They were sturdy, hardy horses, able to travel long distances in hot weather with little water.
Horses usually need to drink about 30 litres of water a day. However, during the campaign they often went for up to 60 hours without water, while carrying a load of almost 130 kilograms, comprising rider, saddle, equipment, food, and water.
At the end of the First World War Australians had 13,000 surplus horses which could not be returned home for quarantine reasons. Of these, 11,000 were sold, the majority as remounts for the British Army in India (as was the case with this horse) and two thousand were cast for age or infirmity.
^Reportedly at one stage during the hand-to-hand fighting, an Australian trooper fell from his horse into a trench containing quite a number of Turkish soldiers. He was stunned from the fall, but when he got up to fight to the death, he found himself surrounded by Turkish soldiers, all of whom were eager to surrender to him.