The ‘Berserk Gallop’ in Beersheba which opened the way to Jerusalem
AP Photo/Oded Balilty
At around 4.30 p.m. on October 31, 1917, Lieutenant-Colonel Murray Bourchier pumped his arm twice into the air, and the 800 thirsty, tired, Australian horsemen ranged up behind him galloped hell-for-leather in the gathering dusk across three miles of open ground to capture Beersheba from the Ottoman Turks.
No one knew it then, but the charge by the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments was one of the last great cavalry actions in history, certainly one of the most surprising and dramatic. It is not as well remembered as other events of the war, but even so, enthusiasts and descendants of the original horsemen often travel the long distance to Beersheba to reenact it on its anniversary.
The charge by the was the culmination of the day-long battle for Beersheba, a battle the Allies had to win in order to begin evicting the Ottoman Turks from Palestine. Beersheba’s capture marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land. The route to Jerusalem – that grand, symbolic prize – was now open.
It also played a key role in the forging of a unique Australian identity. Australia was already a state by the time of World War I, but the experiences of the men who went off to fight for Britain helped turn it into a nation.
Previous attempts to force the Ottomans out of Palestine had concentrated on Gaza, but the town’s heavy defenses had proven too strong, resulting in heavy losses. The failed second attempt led to the removal of the front commander, General Sir Archibald Murray.
His replacement, General Sir Edmund Allenby, tried a different strategy. Aided by the brilliant and unconventional – and in later life, discredited - intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen, he decided on an elaborate deception plan designed to lull the Turks into thinking another attack on Gaza was in the offing. But the real target was Beersheba, the ancient biblical city, which, crucially for a desert campaign, had functioning water wells.
It also had 4,400 Turkish soldiers defending it, together with 28 artillery pieces, nine machine guns, and two aircraft.
Toward the end of October, the Desert Mounted Corps marched and rode 50 miles to the east, to skirt Beersheba. The battle for the town was launched in the early hours of October 31, but by late afternoon, Beersheba was still in Turkish hands.
The Australian light horsemen, led by Brigadier-General William Grant, had spent the day unused, hidden behind a ridge. As the assault faltered, the DMC commander, General Harry Chauvel, tried a last throw of the dice. He ordered Grant’s men to charge the town.
Grant’s troops were light horsemen - mounted infantry. Now they were to charge as cavalry.
They came in from the east, into the setting sun, gathering momentum, shouting and yelling, some of them even laughing. Many of them, as Grant had ordered, had their arms outstretched, holding their bayonets as swords. The last half mile, one rider remembered, was “a berserk gallop.”
The Turkish defenders at first held their fire, believing – for some of them fatally - that the Australians, being light horsemen and not cavalry, would dismount before they came to the town’s defenses and fight on foot.
By the time they realized their mistake and opened fire, it was too late. The horses galloped over the Turkish trenches. Some troopers kept on going, others dismounted to take on the Turks in intense, desperate, brutal, hand-to-hand fighting. One trooper later found a bullet hole in his haversack, and two more in his trousers.
An hour after the order to charge was given, the battle was all but over. The Turks had tried to destroy the town’s wells, but the horsemen managed to save all but two.
By the end of the day, 500 Turks had been killed, and 1500 taken prisoners, for the loss of 31 Australians, with 36 wounded. Seventy horses were also killed.
The Battle for Beersheba was a famous victory. Mounted infantry, riding as cavalry, had captured a heavily-defended town.
But even so, in that unique way that sometimes sees defeats celebrated more than victories, Beersheba is far overshadowed in the Antipodean consciousness by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, which saw tremendous Australian and New Zealand casualties.
Gallipoli is the subject of several films and television series. Only one film deals with the Beersheba battle – 1987’s The Lighthorsemen, which – perhaps surprisingly for a historical movie – manages to get the most of the main facts right, right down to the casualty figures.
“We only lost about 30 blokes,” the movie has an officer telling Bourchier after the charge. “It’s almost miraculous.”
Bourchier turns away. “Not if you’re one of them it isn’t,” he mutters.
Jeff Abramowitz is a Senior Producer at i24NEWS.
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Nice that Australia is a real friend to Israel. Pity there doesn't seem to be any of those in europe