In Israel's South, Australians Ride and Remember the Path of Their Ancestors

The last successful cavalry charge in history is reenacted in Be'er Sheva as diplomats, Israelis watch

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Australian Mounted Division and New Zealand Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Be'er Sheva in southern Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017.
Australian Mounted Division and New Zealand Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Be'er Sheva in southern Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

They traveled thousands of miles from Australia to the Israeli desert city of Be'er Sheva Tuesday to trace the footsteps of their ancestors – or, the hoof prints of the horses they rode – in a reenactment of what is known as the "last successful cavalry charge” in history. 

As late afternoon sun fell across a sandy open expanse that was once a battlefield, the horses of the Australian light cavalry brigade rode again, kicking up clouds of dust. Australian horsemen and horsewomen, some of them direct descendants of the original soldiers, rode in a reenactment of one of the most pivotal battles of World War I.

On the stands watching were the prime ministers of Israel and Australia, the governor general of New Zealand and hundreds of fellow Australians as well as Israelis.

But alas, the “charge” a century later, was not a charge at all, but instead “a walk on sacred ground” as the announcer described it from the stage. The reenactors on horseback had been told to walk their horses, not race across the sand in full gallop upon instruction by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security force. They feared a full-on charge with 100 horses might be dangerous, an Israeli organizer said.

Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, apparently unsatisfied with the walking horses, asked to see some real galloping. As the crowds thinned out, he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, turned their chairs on the stage once again to the sandy stretch before them to watch a smaller contingent of horsemen and women gallop towards them. 

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A ceremony to mark the centenary of the World War I battle for Be'er Sheva, October 31, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“It’s a way to remember our heritage and the sacrifices made by our forefathers,” said John Welsch, 53, one of the reenactors who spent the past three days riding through southern Israel along the trail the soldiers had ridden.

He was wearing the olive colored uniform of the light horsemen, a leather ammunition belt strapped across his chest and on his head, their trademark wide brimmed hat with a plume of feathers.

One hundred years ago to the day – and almost to the hour – the troops, as part of the British imperial forces, galloped full charge over this same piece of land in a bold surprise attack, dismounting only to overtake Turkish troops in their trenches in bloody, hand-to-hand combat.

The battle became the turning point for the British to conquer Palestine, breaking what had been 400 years of Ottoman rule. Just two days after the battle, the Balfour Declaration was issued, promising the burgeoning Zionist movement a “Jewish national homeland” and setting the stage for the creation of the state of Israel.

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On Tuesday Be'er Sheva was host to a day of events commemortating the Battle of Be'er Sheva, won by the British Army and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp, known as ANZAC.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony to mark the centenary of the World War I battle for Be'er Sheva, Israel, October 31, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The New Zealanders, earlier in the day on October 31, 1917, secured the hill of Tel el Saba, known today in Hebrew as Tel Be'er Sheva, with a cavalary charge and bayonets drawn. There were also official commemorations for their fallen soldiers Tuesday.

Among those who had made the pilgrimage to Be'er Sheva was Judith Estall, 78, who travelled here from Australia to pay homage to her father, who was among the light horsemen. She said he did not speak much about it to his family but did speak about the friends he lost there. She visited the graves of three of his friends Tuesday.

“My dad saw horrible things the four years he was away fighting,” Estall said.

David Wood was also at the reenactment. His great grandfather, Alfred Joseph March, was among the 800 soldiers in the battle. Wood, a musician in the Australian army, said that March appeared to have PTSD from his years fighting in World War I. He too did not say much about his wartime experiences, but when the war was brought up he would grow quiet.

Even reading his great-grandfather’s leather-bound war time diary, his descriptions were quite terse. He described overtaking the Turks in Be'er Sheva this way:  “We took Be'er Sheva after a bit of a scrap.” 

Israelis welcome members of the Australian Light Horse association as they ride their horses in Beer-Sheva on October 31, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In Australia and New Zealand there is great pride in the memory of the Battle of Be'er Sheva. It’s also a welcome story of military triumph after the devastating losses they suffered in Galilopli, Turkey earlier in the war.

Amid mortar shells and machine gun fire, 800 light horsemen charged some 20,000 feet over open ground towards the Turkish who were caught by surprise. They had been expecting British imperial troops to try to take the holding line from Gaza. They also did not expect that the light horsemen, who were infantrymen who traveled by horse, to charge the whole way on horseback. Usually they would dismount at a certain distance from the trenches at the enemy line.

The subterfuge worked. The battle that began at dusk left Be'er Sheva in British imperial hands, 31 Australians were killed and over a hundred Turkish were left dead. Beersheva was a strategic city to capture, for beyond it lay the prize of Jerusalem and other cities and towns of the Holy Land including Jericho, Nazareth and Bethlehem. Damascus and other Syrian cities also were also taken within the year.

An Australian wears a World War I uniform as he walks among the graves during a ceremonyto mark the centenary of the World War I battle for Be'er Sheva, Oct. 31, 2017. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But victory that day one hundred years ago in Be'er Sheva was also motivated by thirst. Thirst of the hundreds of horses who at that point had not drunk any water for as long as two days.

Once they broke through the line in Beersheva the horses – and the men – could drink from its wells.

“It’s a very important part of Australian identity,” Welsh, the reenactor, said.