Cavalry’s Last Great Charge by Brad Crouch, Canberra (1st Nov 1992)
The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba (31st October 1917) commemorates an epic feat of daring and courage which resulted in the capture of the Middle East stronghold by the Australian Light Horse Brigade in 1917. The men of the Light Horse were remembered in ceremonies around Australia and at Beersbeba itself.
A lifetime ago, the 800 young men of the 4th and 12th Light Horse faced 4km of open plain guarded by artillery, machine guns and trenches filled with the 4,400 Turks defending Beersheba. They had marched 50km overnight through the desert from the nearest water and faced the “thirsty choice” of turning back or taking the town immediately.
At 4.30pm. the order was given to charge - a stunningly audacious move against all odds which has gone down in history as the last great cavalry charge. An hour later, after the heroic all-or-nothing assault, the Light Horsemen had captured Beersheba at the cost of 31 men killed and 36 wounded.
War historian C. E. W. Bean recounts the battle in Anzac to Amiens: “As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down at the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba - somewhere in front of whose buildings the Turkish trenches and the garrison lay - The Turkish gunners saw them and opened with shrapnel.
“But Australians had never ridden a race like this, and the pace was too fast for the gunners.
“After two miles, Turkish machine guns opened hotly from the flank, but the watchful British batteries at once detected and silenced them.
“Next came rifle fire from the Turkish trenches - dangerous at ﬁrst, but wild and high as the Light Horse, who could now see the trenches, approached.
“Then the foremost troops were over the front trenches and jumping the main one, dismounting and turning upon the Turks from the rear with rifle and bayonet... the bewildered garrison quickly surrendered.
“Other Light Horsemen galloped ahead to the rear trenches, where parties of 50 Turks surrendered to single men. Other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba.”
The charge was conspicuous for its individual heroism and valour, as H. S. Gullett’s official history, Sinai and Palestine, records:
“From the time when the 4th and 12th Regiments received orders to saddle to that of the entry into Beersheba. less than an hour had passed.
“It had been a glorious hour, filled not only with military achievement of a very rare kind but with memorable deeds by individual officers and men which serve vividly to demonstrate the spirit which alone made success possible.
“Two ground scouts, Trooper T. O’Leary and Trooper A. E. Healey, galloped some 70 or 80 yards in advance of the squadron, but both rode through untouched.
“O’Leary jumped all the trenches and charged alone right into Beersheba.
“An hour and a half afterwards, he was found by one of the officers of the regiment in a side street, seated on a gun which he had galloped down, with six Turkish gunners and drivers holding his horse by turn.
“He explained that after taking the gun, he had made the Turks drive it down the side street so it could not be claimed as a trophy by any other regiment.
“Healey, his mate, dismounted on reaching the trenches and was the first man among the Turks with the bayonet.
“While the fighting was proceeding at the trenches, Armourer Staff-Sergeant. A. J. Cox saw a machine gun being hurriedly dismounted from a mule by its crew — in a minute it would have been in action at close range.
“He dashed at the party alone, bluffed them into surrender and took 40 prisoners.”
The day was full of stories of courage and daring, such as Trooper S. Bolton, armed will only a broken revolver, capturing a heavy gun from a party of seven, and Trooper W. Scott refusing to leave the battle despite a broken thigh.
Victory at Beersheba broke the Turkish defensive line in Gaza which had already claimed the lives of more than 22.000 Allied troops.
Lest We Forget.