Fifty Australian horsemen crossed the barren plains of the Negev late Sunday afternoon. They wore green cavalry uniforms, high boots and Australian bush hats adorned with a feather. A cloud of dust rose in their wake.
The riders were kicking off a reenactment of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) cavalry campaign that led to the capture of the city of Be'er Sheva in 1917. The reenactment of the World War I battle, which took place 90 years ago, is a joint project of "World War I Heritage in the Land of Israel," a nonprofit organization, and an organization of Australian equestrians dedicated to preserving the memory of the ANZAC cavalry divisions.
"Our organization began with a handful of people who were obsessed with this subject," said Rami Harouvi, chair of the Israeli group and a member of Kibbutz Be'eri. "For years, we went around talking about it and collecting World War I memorabilia, like old buttons and shoes abandoned in the field. When we started talking to the Australians, they were interested in staging a trek along the entire route of the battles. We suggested that they reenact every stage of the events in an orderly fashion, and they agreed."
Harouvi said the "campaign" will continue for four days. Australian riders will pass through Eshkol National Park (called Mashlal during World War I) and Golda Park (then Bir Aslouj) before finally "attacking" the city of Be'er Sheva.
As World War I raged between the Allied and Central Powers, Britain decided to capture the Land of Israel and Syria to threaten the Turkish rear. British forces arrived in the Gaza Strip by way of Egypt, but suffered two resounding defeats in Gaza. General Edmund Allenby then suggested deceiving the Turks by mounting an attack from east of Be'er Sheva. He called for assistance from the Australia and New Zealand troops, who were familiar with riding in desert terrain.
The ANZAC riders led the charge. They rode for four days, hidden from view, until they arrived at the outskirts of Be'er Sheva. Thrown off guard, the Turks attempted to thwart the riders by firing cannons, but despite heavy losses, ANZAC forces continued to thrust toward the center of Be'er Sheva, finally capturing the city on October 31.
The occupation of Be'er Sheva changed the political map in the region. Two days later, Lord Arthur Balfour presented the Balfour Declaration, which declared that Britain would support the establishment of a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel.
For Australians, the battle of Be'er Sheva is a familiar chapter of their national history. Barry Rogers, a 60-year-old educator, is one of the riders who arrived in Israel this week.
"The ANZAC heritage is very important in Australia," Rogers noted. "Our army suffered the heaviest losses and contributed a great deal to the war against the German enemy. We lost an entire generation in those battles, and that is why the battle of Be'er Sheva has tremendous significance for us. It was a historically significant battle that ended in the declaration that led to the founding of the state of Israel."
Over the next two days, the Australian riders will continue the four-day campaign they began on Sunday. The campaign is slated to end tomorrow, when the riders enter Be'er Sheva, where memorial services for fallen Australian soldiers will take place. Once in the city, the riders will also reenact the ANZAC charge from Beit Eshel to the Turkish Bridge.
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