05 October 2013

Australian and New Zealand light horsemen in Beersheba, 1917

When I did my Gap Year in Israel in 1966, my elderly landlord had WW1 photos of triumphant Australian soldiers across his dining room walls. Since the landlord had been a young child in 1917 and couldn't speak a single word of English, I wondered why was he teary about Australian lads and their horses 50 years later.

The Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were mounted troops with characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. They served in the Boer War and WWI. One of the regiments that took part in the charge at Beer­sheba was the 12th Light Horse Regiment of the Australian Imperial Force, drawn largely from farming lads from outback NSW. On 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rif­les were engaged in the ANZACs' greatest charge ever.

ANZACs before the charge 
Beersheba, 1917

The Turks held a 60k line between Gaza on the coast and Beersheba to the east. Over the months, 2 attacks on Gaza had already failed. So Gen Sir Edmund Allenby, an experienced and successful cavalry leader, took over.

The Light Horse Brigade had circled into the desert to the East and arrived at a point north of Beersheba. For this operat­ion to succeed, Beersheba had to be taken in one day, otherwise this huge force would exhaust its water supply - the nearest adequate water supply for the Desert Mounted Corps was 12 hours ride away. At dusk most of the positions had been taken, but Beersheba (and its water) was still controlled by the Turks.

The German Officers in command of the Turks in Beersheba recognised the advancing formation of Mounted Horsemen as Mounted Infantry and ordered the Turkish defenders to wait until they had dismounted, then to open fire. The Turkish infantry set their rifle sights to 1,500 metres.

In my opinion, the ANZAC soldiers must have been insane to battle machine guns with nothing but swords and loud yells.

The Turkish artillery, who opened fire with shrapnel that exploded in front of the galloping horsemen, hit some. Then, after a brief zone of casualties, the lines galloped free. The Turkish soldiers were un­ner­ved by the mass of Light Horsemen thundering closer and they could not adjust their sights fast enough. Their bullets began to whistle harm­lessly over the heads of the charging troops. On reaching the tren­ches many horses were brought down and others were impaled on bayonets. They galloped straight for the enemy guns, capturing them intact, then rode on to Beersheba.

It had taken just one glorious/tragic hour. It saved an army and set it on the way to Jerusalem (see last paragraph).

Australia Post and Israel Post stamps

By night Beersheba was in the hands of Allenby's Army. Great disord­er prevailed in the enemy camp; armed and unarmed Turks waited to be captured. The two ANZAC Regiments took 738 prisoners, captured 9 field guns, 3 machine guns and many transport vehicles. By 10 pm 58,000 light horsemen and 100,000 thirsty animals had swarmed into Beer­sheba.

Under Australian Gen Sir Henry George Chauvel, the soldiers and horses carried out a suc­cessful charge, against impossible odds. But the casualties were bad. Of the 800 soldiers, 31 men were killed and 36 were seriously wounded. Others were less wounded and treated in Jerusalem.

The swift, thundering rush of successive waves of horsemen at dusk had confused the German and Turkish leaders, who afterwards confess­ed that the 800 Light Horsemen seemed to be at least a Division strong. German generals had long known of the fighting qualities of ANZAC sold­iers and stated, "They are not soldiers at all; they are mad­men". Jewish families across the Levant welcomed the lads into their homes, hearts and history.

The Battle of Jerusalem was after, and separate from, the Beersheba Charge. In Jerusalem the fighting started in mid November and continued until the end of Dec 1917, during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Before Jerusalem could be secured by the Australian Mounted Divisions and others, two battles occurred: the Battle of Nebi Samwill in Nov 1917 and the Defence of Jerusalem in Dec 1917. To this day, ANZAC Day commemorations are held every year at the Jerusalem War Cemetery and Memorial where Australian and New Zealand families can remember their grandfathers and Israelis can thank the British Commonwealth troops.


Peter Corlett (born 1944) is a Melbourne sculptor. In 1987 Corlett won a competition to create a memorial to com­mem­orate the courage of John Simpson Kirkpatrick; he was a humble stretcher bearer during the Gallipoli Campaign in WWI who is known to every, single Australian. The full size bronze sculpture was naturally entitled Simpson and his Donkey 1915, and was placed in the most logical place, outside Canberra’s Australian War Memorial.

Cobbers is a full-size bronze sculpture created in 1998 for the Australian Mem­orial Park in northern France. It depicts a stretcher bearer with the 57th Battalion, rescuing a wounded compatriot from no man's land after the Battle of Fromelles in 1916. A replica of the sculpture is in the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Corlett's other memorial work for WW1 was The Bullecourt Digger.

Peter Corlett's sculpture of the lighthorseman
in the Park of the Australian Soldier, Beersheba

Corlett's Beersheba design includes a triangular-shaped pool overlaid by a triang­ular slab, to represent Israel’s three main religions. The main sculpture is of a rider and his horse, cast in bronze, that have just leapt a pile of sandbags. The height of the rider on the horse is life-sized (2m). The plinth provides space for the ceremonial placing of wreaths and for national flags to be attached.

The  Beersheba sculpture is in a new landscaped park for abled & disabled children: Park of the Australian Soldier. This project, init­iat­ed by Melbourne's Pratt Foundation and funded by the Beersheba Foundation, opened in April 2008 before Australia's Governor-General and Israel’s President. Together they unveiled the monument to the Light Horse, attended by old soldiers and young army personnel.

As part of The World Stamp Expo 2013, Australia Post and Israel Post marked the Battle of Beersheba through two commemorative stamps. One featured Corlett’s statue of an Australian Light Horseman in the Park of the Australian Soldier at Beersheba. The other featured contemporary images of Australian Light Horsemen.

Excellent photos of the 96th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba mark the fall of the Ottoman city to Australian, New Zealand and British troops in October 1917. The Park of the Australian Soldier and the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery look very respectful.

Thankyou Australian Department of Defence for the technical information and to Naftalitours for organising the Beersheba and Jerusalem tours. Read Beersheba: A Journey Through Australia's Forgotten War by Paul Daley (Melbourne UP, 2011).


Andrew said...

Great battle stories Hels and some interesting history. If anyone hasn't seen the War Memorial statue of Simpson and his donkey, see my blog post tomorrow.

We Travel said...

My grandfather was in the AIF. So after our course on WW1 memorials, husband and I travelled to the Somme, Gallipoli and Jerusalem, but not Beersheba. We saw Australians and New Zealanders everywhere.

Hels said...


perfect timing! Once the parents of WW1 soldiers died themselves, who was going to honour the memory in a personal way? It took communities a while to organise themselves, but eventually there were cemeteries overseas, and church plaques/fountains/arches of honour/bandstands etc at home.

But statues of individual people, like Simpson, are probably more emotional.

Hels said...

We Travel

I too have stood in Gallipoli and found it very emotional. And ANZAC Day in Jerusalem was very emotional too. The cemetery and chapel are serene, and the Charge in Beersheba and the Battle of Jerusalem are both well exhibited.

Joe said...

I have bought Paul Daley's book Beersheba. When Joe Hockey gave his maiden speech in parliament in 1996, he proudly described his grandfather's participation in the Charge in Beersheba.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, This is a dramatic recounting of the battle of Beersheba. It seems odd that less than 100 years ago, a battle of this intensity and valor was fought on horses.

Hels said...


thank you. I will add the reference to the post straight away.

Hels said...


the story was insanely dangerous. What were the commanders thinking????

"The Light Horse Brigade took part in what is now known as the 'last great cavalry charge'. Waving bayonets overhead, they charged across six kilometres of open ground, cheating bombs, shells and bullets before capturing, in a desperate hand-to-hand battle, the Turkish trenches that held the key to the strategic stronghold of Beersheba".

The charge was indeed a turning point in Britain's war against the Ottoman Empire, sending the Turks fleeing north to ultimate defeat. But it was an insanity, nonetheless.

Dina said...

I love the way you present this strange story. The figures are very interesting.
Just today the Australian Embassy emailed invitations to "the commemoration of the 96th anniversary of the Battle of Be’er Sheva, marking the fall of the Ottoman controlled city of Be’er Sheva to ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and British troops on 31 October 1917. The service will be held at the Park of the Australian Soldier."

See details at the Embassy website:

Hels said...


Thank you. Sending in young lads on horseback with swords, over 6 ks of open ground ....against gunners protected in trenches... was an act of military lunacy. How brave those soldiers were, 10,000 ks away from their loved ones at home, fighting against an enemy they knew nothing about.

I am a peacenik, but I would certainly go to the service being held at the Park of the Australian Soldier.

Hels said...

Here is what Reuven said at the reunion party of our year in Israel. He wrote the speech in Spanish, spoke in Hebrew and then typed it up into English for me.

"Over any other place or person or event in 1966, I remember Hotel Josef. It was small, it was not painted, Josef had no hot water, Josef gave bad food, the hotel was located behind shops like a garage. If anyone wanted a bath, he had to boil pots of water and pour them into the tub. Do you remember Josef's stories from the First World War? He got candies from the soldiers.

I do not think our mothers would have given permission for us to live there."

Mandy said...

Another fantastic post Hels. I loved your account of the battle and the bullets zooming over the soldiers' heads. It always seems so easy in films but I enjoyed learning about the technical limitations in adjusting sights over great distances. It reminds me of the scene in The Hurt Locker where it is a two-man job to aim at the insurgents hiding in the hut.

Unknown said...

The historical parts are represented by the post. Thanks for sharing and giving us an idea about.

Hels said...


Fictional films help our understanding, nod. So do photos, museums, sculpture and memoriial parks.

I hope modern people remember that generation of young men, whatever country we live in. Probably mine is the last generation that remembers WW1 from a direct family link (grandpa was born in the late 1890s).

Hels said...

Attache Pr

Thank you :) Do you read historical references from that era?

Dina said...

Thanks Hels. I added this link to my post now. Should have thought of that yesterday but it was so late at night ...
Wish I could have found and met your son at the commemoration.

Australian Jewish News said...

Peter Allen said it is important to appreciate that the Australian Light Horse were not true cavalry - they were mounted infantry. That is why the Turks were caught out at the Beersheva charge; they expected the Australians to dismount and then attack on foot, as was the Light Horsemen's role. At Beersheva, the Australians continued to ride, beneath the range of the Turkish artillery, an incredible almost reckless action.

Hels said...

ahhh that makes sense, thank you. The Turkish soldiers were committed to their cause, intelligent and well trained. To say they "were un­ner­ved by the mass of Light Horsemen thundering closer and they could not adjust their sights fast enough. Their bullets began to whistle harm­lessly over the heads of the charging troops" didn't make sense, by itself.

Be’er Sheva Commemoration Annual Memorial Service said...

Friday 31st October 2014
The Australian Embassy and the Municipality of Be’er Sheva invite you to the commemoration of the 97th anniversary of the Battle of Be’er Sheva which marks the fall of the Ottoman controlled city of Be’er Sheva to British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops on 31st October 1917. The historic charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade of the Australian Mounted Division played a critical part in this major battle.

The Embassy service is as follows:
1. Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
09:00 Commemoration service
2. Turkish Memorial Monument
10:00 Commemoration service
3. Park of the Australian Soldier
10:00 morning tea
10:45 Tribute to the Australian Light Horse Brigade

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Hels said...


You are so right...but what a tragedy. For both sides, actually. Young mounted horsemen with nothing but swords, about to be massacred they assumed. On the other side, young lads with machine guns who will never sleep normally, marry or hold down a proper job for the rest of their lives. I would not have wanted my sons to have been there.

ClubsNSW said...

Six young people from across NSW will have the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to historic battlefields in Greece and Israel as part of the 2017 Premier’s Anzac Ambassadors Program. Minister for Veterans Affairs David Elliott said it is important for young people and students to understand and commemorate the great sacrifices the Anzacs made over 100 years ago in foreign wars and on foreign battlefields. The six successful applicants will travel to Lemnos in Greece and to Israel for the centenary of the Charge of the Fourth Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba as part of a two-week tour that is sponsored by ClubsNSW.

Interested students have been asked to submit a 1000-word essay on “Why is the Centenary of Anzac important for modern Australia and what lessons are learned from the Battle of Beersheba in 1917?” For more information about how to enter please visit www.clubsnsw.com.au/anzacambassadors

Hels said...

Thanks ClubsNSW

Let me bring a film to your attention.

Gen Sir Henry George Chauvel was famous in his day. But his nephew, Charles Chauvel, became an excellent film director who was even better known in his generation. Charles' films included Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), about the Battle of Beersheba.