Great deeds are born of desperate times. In the baking heat of the Sinai desert at the end of October 1917, a disaster was rapidly unfolding.
Allied forces during World War 1 had crossed the Middle Eastern desert with the crucial aim of taking the town of Beersheba.
The town, located in present-day Israel, was then part of the greater Turkish empire, Imperial Germany’s eastern ally. It was heavily fortified and protected by well-disciplined Turkish soldiers.
The prize was not so much the town, but its wells. The attacking army was running desperately low on water. Its command had an immediate need for nearly two million litres to quench the thirst of the men and the thousands of horses under its control.
The strategy to take Beersheba was part of a two-day battle-plan. Over the two days New Zealand, Australian and British forces had attacked various Turkish targets, but the prized catch – Beersheba – remained in Turkish control as the sun began to creep low on the second day. The Turks knew that all they had to do was wait … the desert would do the rest.
If Beersheba could not be taken, the Middle Eastern campaign would be hopelessly stalled. The thousands of horses, already thirsty from covering many kilometres in the desert, would perish, probably within a day.
A remarkable decision was made. The men of the Australian Light Horse would charge the town. It had to be taken at all cost.
The decision was remarkable because the Australian Light Horse are not cavalry units. They are foot soldiers. They would normally advance in groups of four. Three would dismount and, armed with rifles and bayonets, would proceed into battle on foot, while the fourth would retire with the horses. They did not carry swords or lances for fighting on horseback.
The only thing that was in their favour was the element of surprise. The charge did not take place in isolation. New Zealanders were already fighting on the right flank, with the 9th and 10th Light Horse Regiments trotting in pursuit and taking heavy shrapnel fire. The Australian 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Regiments had also been pressing forward on a flank, with support from the Royal Horse Artillery, but it was clear the town would not be taken.
By 4.30pm, men of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments had lined up beyond a ridge, out of sight of Beersheba. Once over the ridge, about 4km of open, stony desert lay between the 800 mounted soldiers and the town. The men held their bayonets as swords.
They moved off at a trot but, once over the hill, quickly moved to a gallop.
The Turks saw them and opened fire with shrapnel and machine guns. The Royal Horse Artillery returned fire and helped silence some of the guns. Turkish riflemen opened fire and began inflicting casualties, but the bayonet-wielding horsemen could not be stopped.
The men no doubt braced themselves for the heaviest casualties as they closed in on the town, but the Turks, perhaps surprised by the charge, forgot to lower the sights on their guns. Before long, the fire was mostly going over their heads. Casualties were, remarkably, getting fewer.
The more the Turks threw at the regiments, the faster the charge seemed to go.
The 4th Regiment swarmed into the trenches, where the Turks quickly surrendered. The 12th leapt them and stormed through a gap into the town, where a desperate fight unfolded to take control of Beersheba. Some Turks fought, some surrendered. Other fled into the Judean hills. Within an hour, the battle was over.
The battle for Beersheba has been called the last great cavalry charge. Some dispute this. The days of fighting cavalry were, by this time, rapidly on the wane, with mechanisation quickly taking over warfare. There were other cavalry skirmishes after the charge at Beersheba, but there is little doubt that October 31, 1917, marked the last significant and successful cavalry charge in wartime.
Horses and men lost their lives that day, but the horses that died securing the wells of Beersheba saved many hundreds more from certain death from a lack of water.