November 18th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Full audit can end dual-citizenship fiasco

CANBERRA OBSERVED High Court high handed to 'foreigners' in Parliament

MANUFACTURING Auto industry loss result of government policy failure

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Financing infrastructure for development and jobs

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the indictments of ex-Trump campaigners

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

ECONOMICS China intends to party like it's 1949 ... again

ENVIRONMENT Core of climate science is in the real-world data

U.S. HISTORY Why Americans stick to their guns

MUSIC New styles: Dipping into the melting pot

CINEMA Loving Vincent: A mystery in oils

BOOK REVIEW Just what is the conservative idea?


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Beersheba charge enabled a pivotal victory

by Anthony Staunton

News Weekly, November 18, 2017

The key to Jersulemn was Gaza, where the Turks had twice halted the British advance in early 1917. Under new leadership, the British formulated a daring and audacious plan to attack the Gaza-Beersheba defence line from the Beersheba flank. While two British divisions assaulted the outer defence line to divert Turkish attention, the Australian and Anzac Mounted Divisions under cover of darkness would ride into position. The risk was that if Beersheba was not captured in time, their horses could die of thirst.

With time running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark, Lieutenant General Henry George “Harry” Chauvel commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, Australia’s first corps commander, ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, Australian Mounted Division, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew, from aerial photographs, that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire.

The military situation

In early 1916, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) achieved several victories at the expense of the British Empire, first with the final British evacuation of Gallipoli in January, and at the end of April with the surrender of the besieged British garrison of 8000 men (including a small number of Australian Flying Corps ground staff) at Kut Al Amara in Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

The Turkish troops freed up by these victories were sent from Gallipoli to the Balkans and from Mesopotamia to Persia to support the main Turkish effort against Russia. Just three British infantry divisions remained in Egypt by August 1916 when the Turks launched a new offensive across the Sinai Desert towards the Suez Canal. This was to be their undoing.

On the night of August 4–5, 1916, Romani, 40 kilometres east of the Suez Canal, was attacked. The attack was anticipated and more than 5000 of the 12000 Turkish troops were killed or wounded and nearly 4000 were captured. The British suffered 1100 casualties, the majority Australian. The Suez Canal was now safe. The British forces advanced along the Sinai coast as fast as the railhead and water pipeline could be constructed. Australians entered El Arish, on December 21. The next objective was Gaza, in Palestine.

In 1917, the British forces in Palestine comprised three British infantry divisions, eight mounted brigades (four Australian) and the Imperial Camel Brigade. Offensives at Gaza on March 26 and April 19 failed. General Edmund Henry Allenby from the Western Front took command and his forces were reinforced and reorganised. Mounted troops were organised into the Desert Mounted Corps of three divisions, the Yeomanry, Anzac and Australian Mounted Division.

The charge

At 4.50pm on October 31, 1917, 800 Australian horsemen assembled behind rising ground six kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse raised in Victoria on the right, the 12th Light Horse raised in Queensland on the left. They were equipped with long bayonets. The Turks who faced them did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba, the Turkish gunners saw them and opened fire with shrapnel.

Albert "Tibby" Cotter, left;
and Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Maygar, right.

The pace was too fast for the gunners. After three kilometres Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but were silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the light horse approached. They jumped the front trench, then the main trench. Some men dismounted and attacked the Turks with rifles and bayonets from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba. Nearly all the wells of Beersheba were intact.

The 4th and 12th Light Horse casualties were 31 killed and 36 wounded; they captured over 700 men. Tibby Cotter, who toured England in 1905 and 1909 and represented Australia in 21 Test Matches, was a mounted stretcher-bearer with the 12th Light Horse. Shortly after reaching the Turkish trenches, he was shot dead.

Among other Australian casualties that day was Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Maygar, Commander of the 8th Light Horse Regiment, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in South Africa in 1901. He was wounded by an attacking German aircraft and died the next day. Both are buried at Beersheba War Cemetery along with 172 other Australians. Nearly 25,000 allied soldiers lost their lives in the Palestine campaign between 1916 and 1918, including about 1400 Australians.

The capture of Beersheba turned the whole Turkish line. Gaza was evacuated on 8 November and Jerusalem was entered on 9 December. A year later, on 30 October 1918, Turkey signed an armistice by which time British troops had reached Aleppo.

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