SYDNEY, Australia – A little-known slice of Middle East history that many believe triggered a chain of events resulting in the creation of modern Israel will be commemorated this week.
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The Battle of Be'er Sheva was an against-the-odds victory by a gallant group of Australian soldiers who took on the might of the Ottoman Empire exactly 95 years ago this week.
On Wednesday afternoon, on the sandy outskirts of Be'er Sheva, about 40 members of the Australian Light Horse Association – some of them descendants of World War I veterans – will mount horses and re-enact what has been dubbed “the last great cavalry charge in history.”
For it was there, in 1917, that the bond between these two far-flung nations was forged. Some 800 Australians of the 4th Light Brigade staged a death-defying three-kilometer charge on about 4,000 entrenched Ottoman troops armed with guns, rifles and artillery in Be'er Sheva, the Israeli city now known as the "Capital of the Negev."
The surprise victory, after the Brits had tried unsuccessfully to out-gun the Turks for two days, opened the road to Jerusalem and Damascus, which ultimately spelled the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
A ceremony will also be held on Wednesday at Be'er Sheva’s War Cemetery, where the town’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, Australia’s Ambassador Andrea Faulkner, Israeli officials and hundreds of ordinary citizens will gather to pay tribute to the Australians. And they’ll also converge on the Park of the Australian Soldier, a project funded by the Pratt Foundation to commemorate Australians who fought and died in the Middle East.
Opened in 2008 by President Shimon Peres and then Governor-General Michael Jeffery, the $3 million park features a roughly 1.5-ton life-size sculpture of a light horseman in full flight with his bayonet drawn. A wreath will be laid there in memory of the 31 Australian soldiers who died in the Battle of Be'er Sheva.
Sam Lipski, chief executive of the philanthropic Pratt Foundation, noted this week that the victory in Be'er Sheva fell on the same day that Britain’s war cabinet signed off on the Balfour Declaration, which was made public three days later.
Although there was “no causal connection" between the two events, Lipski said that the history of Zionism and the Middle East could have been very different had the Australians not defeated the Turks at Be'er Sheva.
And yet, very few Israelis even know about the battle, Lipski said. Even among Australians who know about the victory at Be'er Sheva, he added, “only a few would understand its important strategic contribution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Allenby's conquest of Jerusalem some six weeks later, and the British mandate in Palestine that followed.”
Last year, however, the name of the Light Horse Brigade was tarred by allegations in a 2009 book that Australian and New Zealander soldiers massacred dozens of Bedouin in the village of Surafend in 1918.
No one was charged but in 1921 Australia paid compensation to the British for the destruction of the village, according to the book.
For many young Australians, the annual pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey, the site of a tragic military defeat that cost some 8,000 Australian lives, has become a rite of passage whereas Be'er Sheva, a stunning military victory, remains relatively unknown.
But Lipski said the city park has helped raise awareness in the last five years and he predicted the centenary of the battle in 2017 would spur further interest.
“Should more Israelis know this story? Yes,” Lipski said. “Should more Jews everywhere know this story? Yes. Should more Australian Jews know this story? Definitely.”
Joe Hockey, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, is the grandson of the deputy district commissioner of Be'er Sheva. His grandfather was charged with rebuilding the town after the Turks had been routed, and in his first speech to Parliament in 1996, Hockey spoke of the "Australian spirit" of the soldiers who charged against the Turks.
“Be'er Sheva defines what it is like to be an Australian,” the federal Liberal Party MP said. “To believe in yourself, to believe in the seemingly insurmountable and to challenge the future.”