Today (31st October) the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles were engaged in a battle that was the ANZACs' greatest charge ever. The Auckland Mounted Rifles captured Tel el Saba from the Turks, a key to taking the outpost township of Beersheba. And today was the last great mounted charge by the 12th Light Horse Regiment of the Australian Imperial Force. Capturing Beersheba in 1917 was the turning point in the British campaign to expel the remnants of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
The Light Horse troopers horses were the famous Walers, mostly bred in the Hunter Valley. And most of the men were farming lads from the country, including from the Boorowa area of NSW.
Now for the centenary celebrations in Beersheba, let us add a smaller, but significant element to this history. Caroline Overington has written in detail about Albert Tibby Cotter (1883-1917) , the youngest of six sporting sons born to Scottish immigrant parents. His was not a poor family: they lived in a two-storey, solid brick mansion with its own stables, in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. The Cotter boys played cricket, rugby and boxing, and all attended Forrest Lodge public school. Then Tibby went to Sydney Grammar, where he played schoolboy cricket.
Tibby made his cricketing debut for NSW in 1901 at 18, and his Test debut against England at the end of the 1903-04 series. In his second Test, at the MCG, he starred. Cotter’s bowling style was fast and powerful; often he shattered the stumps, which teammates would then hold aloft, symbols of his power. During his first match in England in 1905, after he struck the legendary WG Grace a painful blow with his first full toss, England demanded that he stop bowling at the body, and Cotter’s fame was assured. His face was soon on the cover of newspapers throughout the British Empire.
Cotter loved the limelight! A week before the 1907 Ashes began, he was arrested in Brisbane for being drunk in public, but bailed in time to open the Australian bowling. At the SCG in Dec 1907, his match-winning performance had the crowd stomping the boards in appreciation. In a nine-year international career, Cotter played 21 Tests, taking 89 wickets at an average of 28.6 runs.
When WWI broke out in 1914 Cotter was already 31 years old and working as a clerk. He rushed to enlist, joining the AIF in April 1915. Despite having no great riding ability, Cotter was accepted into the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment, serving as a stretcher bearer alongside fellow soldiers with vastly more skill (some were former stockmen, many of them Aboriginal; some were horse-breakers from NSW pastoral stations). He served at Gallipoli during the final stages of the campaign and upon his regiment’s return to Cairo, he was disciplined for being two weeks absent without leave.
Later he transferred to the 12th Light Horse, where he was commended for his fine work under heavy fire during the second battle of Gaza. Cotter was promoted to lance corporal, but at his own request reverted to the rank of trooper. He was part of the now famous Australian cricket team that played in slouch hats against an English side in the Palestinian desert in 1917. At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there is a photo of Australian soldiers taking part in a cricket match on an improvised pitch in the Sinai.
Australian National Cricket Team, 1909
Tibby Cotter, leading wicket-taker in the series. was at right end of the second row
Cotter was among a handful of Australians that did not survive the battle. The story commonly told was that Cotter was shot by a sniper as he peeked up over a trench. But the Australians were not in the trenches. Or as a stretcher bearer, was he killed by a Turk who had not been disarmed? Or did he jump straight into the battle with the charging soldiers, and got hit?
The death of this interesting character sent the nation into mourning and while he was the only Australian Test cricketer to die in WW1, many other international sports stars did. The names of the dead had filled column after column in the newspapers, for years. But Cotter's name stood out - he was hugely admired across the British Empire and was mourned by millions.
Cotter was 34 when he died and his family was informed. They also had to grieve for Cotter’s older brother, Private John Cotter, who had been killed serving in the infantry in Belgium (weeks earlier in Oct 1917). Cotter’s remains were buried near where he fell, in Beersheba.
Recently his life has barely been celebrated, something that may change with today’s centenary of that great charge. The prime ministers of Israel, Australia and New Zealand and other dignitaries are participating in the Beersheba Centenary.
You might like the book Tibby Cotter: Fast Bowler, Larrikin, Anzac, written by Max Bonnell and Andrew Sproul (Walla Walla Press, 2012). And Beersheba: Travels Through a Forgotten Australian Victory by Paul Daley (Melbourne University Press, 2011).