The Battle for Be'er Sheva: 100 Years Later, Australian Pride Is Making Israel's Negev Blossom

To commemorate major WWI battle against the Ottomans, Australians are partnering with Israelis in museum, tourism project; 'They feel this is their story'

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The reenactment marking 95 years in 2012.
The reenactment marking 95 years in 2012.Credit: Amnon Gutman
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two military vehicles were parked this week near the ANZAC Memorial very close to the border of the Gaza Strip. On October 29, 1917, 10,000 cavalrymen from the British Army’s Australian and New Zealand Army Corps set out from here in a race for Be’er Sheva. They rode stealthily for three nights to surprise the Ottoman army in a major battle that many view as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in Israel during World War I. The British conquered Jerusalem 40 days later.

After two failed attempts to conquer Gaza, Gen. Edmund Allenby, who had just assumed command, decided to surprise the Turks with a flanking attack on distant Be’er Sheva instead. The ANZAC cavalrymen had to gallop 100 kilometers undiscovered, arriving on the morning of October 31.

The Turks were indeed surprised, and Be’er Sheva fell quickly, before they even had time to destroy the wells. That had been the ANZAC forces’ biggest concern, since it would have left them with no way to water their horses.

Even today, the operation is a huge source of pride in Australia. And for years, the Jewish National Fund has been developing the ANZAC Trail, which retraces the cavalry’s route, with funding from JNF Australia.

Work has been accelerated recently ahead of the 100th anniversary of the conquest of Be’er Sheva at the end of this month. The ANZAC Museum, sponsored by the Be’er Sheva municipality, is also supposed to open then. It is located in the city’s British military cemetery, where some of the cavalrymen who fell in the battle are buried.

Aside from the museum’s dedication, the gala anniversary events will include a reenactment of the journey to Be’er Sheva by 100 Australian horsemen (mounted on Israeli horses) and a reception attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English, as well as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ANZAC fighters.

Zohar Zafon, the director of planning for JNF in the country's south, said the trail won’t actually start at the ANZAC Memorial near Gaza since bringing tourists to within a few hundred meters of the Gaza border currently seems like a bad idea. Instead, it will start three kilometers to the east, near Kibbutz Be’eri.

The idea for the trail was conceived more than a decade ago by members of the Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel, but JFN has completed the work. It has marked 25 spots along the route which bear some connection to the story. Six of the sites are under construction and the remaining ones have signs explaining their historic significance. About 12 million shekels ($3.4 million) has been spent on the project.

JFN believes the project has great tourist potential. Every year, Zafon said, some 300,000 Australian tourists travel to Gallipoli in Turkey to commemorate ANZAC’s role in that bloody and unsuccessful battle of 1915, and he hopes some will now continue to Be’er Sheva.

A very slow trip down the ANZAC Trail takes only three hours. At one stop, Eshkol Park, the signs explain how the British built a dam there.

At the same location, ANZAC cavalrymen also found a beautiful mosaic that once served as the floor of a Byzantine church. They took it back to Australia, where it’s displayed at a memorial in Canberra. JNF plans to display a replica of the mosaic.

Archaeologist Dan Gazit, who has published several articles about ANZAC’s battles in Israel and contributed several artifacts from his own collection to the new museum, said that each cavalryman brought his own horse with him from Australia. Men often fought with the same horse for years. But at the end of the war, the British refused to ship the horses back to Australia, planning to sell them to Arab farmers. Many cavalrymen chose to shoot their horses instead.

Since then, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. Forests have been planted and many new communities have sprung up.

I asked Rami Haruvi of Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the founders of the World War I heritage society, whether the ANZAC Trail represents the fulfillment of his decade-old dream. He sighed.

“There’s something terribly frustrating about the fact that the system works so slowly,” he said. Moreover, he charged, many of the sites are poorly maintained.

He’s also upset that one of the trail’s major stops is Nahal Assaf, “even though this place has no historical connection to the cavalrymen’s ride. They didn’t fight there and the horses didn’t pass there, but JNF wanted to set up a site there.”

Another problem, he said, is that nobody “invests anything in guiding, which in my view is the be-all and end-all.” And finally, he complained, “there are no agencies today that deal with tourism in the Negev in an orderly fashion.”

But after a few moments of silence, he added that nevertheless, progress is happening, and for that, one must be grateful.

Haruvi said his group had originally wanted to commemorate the broader history of World War I, but the project ended up focusing on ANZAC because “the Australians are simply fantastic partners.”

“They visit here often, are involved in the plans and donate a lot of money,” he explained. “They feel this is their story. In many respects, they’re the ones most interested in this commemoration, and therefore it’s happening with them.”

The museum in Be’er Sheva, located on the corner of Ha’atzmaut and Rothschild streets, is now nearing completion. The exhibits aren’t installed yet, but from the balcony you can see 1,239 identical white gravestones, each inscribed with the name of a soldier who died a century ago, thousands of miles from home, in a battle between empires that have long since fallen. And beyond the graveyard, you can see shiny new homes.

But the graveyard remains Australian territory, with lush green grass just like in Britain. Only the date palms remind you that this is in fact the Negev, in Israel, in the Middle East.

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