This week Be’er Sheva is marking the centennial of the historic battle in which the British took the city in 1917. Among all the battles in the Middle East during World War I, the Battle of Be’er Sheva is probably the most heavily researched, but there was still a question that remained unanswered: How did the Turks know that the British were planning to attack Be’er Sheva from the east?
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The answer to this riddle was revealed by Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar, who found two faded aerial photographs in a German archive that shed light on what occurred before the battle took place on October 31, 1917.
The Battle of Be’er Sheva was a turning point in the history of the Middle East as it paved the way for the British capture Jerusalem six weeks later. It is also considered important in terms of combat doctrine because it was the last offensive in history to use cavalry.
Before the battle, the Turks fortified Be’er Sheva to the south and west because the British forces were in the area of Rafah. The British came up with two plans to deal with these fortifications. They established dummy camps and planted a file of false documents for the Turks to find that indicated the British were planning an assault on Gaza rather than Be’er Sheva. But they also carried out a long nighttime maneuver, sending cavalrymen from Australia and New Zealand (the ANZAC forces) to circumvent Be’er Sheva in preparation for an early-morning attack on the city from the east, where they would ostensibly not be expected.
But the ANZAC troops got a surprise the next morning: Fortified Turkish forces were awaiting them on the hill of Tel Be’er Sheva, to the east of the city.
The mystery of how the Turks and their German allies knew to fortify the eastern hill when it was unreasonable to expect the British to attack from that direction persisted over the years. The most common theory was that local Bedouin noticed the British night maneuvers and informed the Turkish commander.
But one of the forgotten testimonies about the battle suggests a different possibility. German Gen. Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, who fought in the battle, wrote in his memoirs in 1938 – 21 years afterward – that in addition to information from Bedouin in the area, a German air patrol had detected the British troop movements. According to Kedar, researchers overlooked this detail because the official British version of events was that they controlled the Negev skies and didn’t allow German air patrols to overfly its troops. “You also have to remember that this was written in 1938, by which time no one paid attention to it,” says Kedar, a retired history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Kedar decided to try to dig further; he found the smoking gun in the Gustaf Dalman Archive at the University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany. Dalman was a researcher of Palestine who collected World War I aerial photographs of the region. In his collection, most of which was never published, Kedar found two copies of aerial photographs taken by German Air Squadron 301, which was based in Ramle. The two photos were shot at 7 A.M. on the morning of October 31 and show areas south of Be’er Sheva.
The photos were taken at high altitude and show areas south of Be’er Sheva. “It’s hard to make out details, but the photos prove that German patrol flights were indeed made on the morning of October 31 over the territories on which the British were advancing,” Kedar says. He believes that the pilots managed to update the Be’er Sheva commanders, allowing time for the Turks to quickly fortify Tel Be’er Sheva and spoil the British plans to surprise them. Kedar also found other photos shot by German pilots that show lines of cavalry advancing toward the city.
Although the surprise attack failed, the British nonetheless defeated the Turkish troops at Tel Be’er Sheva, but only at 3 P.M., after many crucial hours had been lost. At that point the British commanders faced a serious dilemma: There were less than two hours until sunset, and their horses were thirsty. The commanders had to decide whether to withdraw to find water, which would allow the Turks to refortify Tel Be’er Sheva, or to advance and try to conquer the city before dark.
The most senior Australian officer, Gen. Henry Chauvel, decided to attack. The ANZAC forces, armed with only bayonets, charged into the city, where they faced machine-gun, artillery and rifle fire. But the charging cavalry had some luck. The Turks didn’t have time to erect barbed-wire barriers or reset their rifle sites for shooting at close range. Thus the assault ended successfully and Be’er Sheva, with its vital wells, fell to the Australians.