Peter Craven, in The Australian, 31 October 2017, where the title is “The Light Horse at Beersheba was poetry in motion”
The Light Horse and the Battle of Beersheba. It’s a strange story, though an old one, of how we turn the slaughter of war into the stuff of legend. But there’s a truth, as well as a myth, in the idea that this country came of age with Gallipoli; and that World War I’s official historian, CEW Bean, was on to something, not just propaganda and making the best of a bad lot, when he said the courage of the Anzacs was a defining moment.
If Gallipoli speaks to the sorrow and pity of war, the Battle of Beersheba, that extraordinary charge by the Australian Light Horse, the centenary of which we celebrate today, evokes the other side: the exultation of how a nation of sport and sun, of good diet and bush prowess created some of the great warriors of modern times.
The Beersheba victory, which comes close enough to approximating the legend that it was the last great cavalry charge in history, shows the Anzacs at their most dashing and devil-may-care.
They are not wrong to say that it belongs with the great songs that have followed the epic old French war chanson of Roland, based on the Battle of Ronceveau Pass in 778; that it belongs in human memory with the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War that Tennyson celebrated.
Except this wasn’t a valley of death, a predestined doom into which they rode. This was a victory that sealed the Battle of Gaza and allowed British general Edmund Allenby to rout the Germans and Turks and take Jerusalem.
When I was a boy and we used to ride with joy on the memory of war stories in the wake of World War II, I used to thrill at the words of Field Marshal William Slim — he’d been governor-general of Australia and chief of the imperial staff of the British army, and had one of those war records where he might as well have fought with Alexander and Hercules — who said, “Never have I seen such men as these men of the ANZAC.”
At Beersheba the Australian Light Horse took their bayonets off their rifles and held them forward like swords to meet the enemy. Allenby said he wanted the battle won before night fell and the Australians, with feathers in their slouch hats, rode out into battle to meet the enemy like knights. Or perhaps like bushrangers, like so many outlaws who had found a common destiny under arms.
It was an extraordinary feat and followed the battles at Gaza, the place we associate with that strip but that to British and Australian ears 100 years ago would have suggested Samson. Remember Milton’s “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves”, after the great hero with the hair seems to have lost his strength with his mane. In Charles Chauvel’s war film Forty Thousand Horsemen, made in 1940 as a new hymn to patriotism in another war with the Germans that would again see Australians in the desert, Gaza is referred to simply by one of the ocker soldiers as the village of Samson and Delilah.
Forty Thousand Horsemen was produced and made by Chauvel, and the Desert Mounted Corps was led by his uncle, Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel. General William Grant, commander of the 4th Light Horse, said to his Aussies, “Men, you’re fighting for water. There’s no water between here and Esani. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you luck!”
Well, luck rode with them and so did shock, the power of surprise. You get some sense of the sheer spiritedness of it from some of the contemporary accounts.
Here’s a trooper called Edward Dengate: “We got mounted, cantered about a quarter of a mile up a bit of a rise, lined up along the brow of a hill, paused a moment, and then went at ’em. The ground was none too smooth which caused our line to get twisted a bit … Captain Davies let out a yell at the top of his voice … that started them all.
“We spurred our horses, the bullets got thicker, three or four horses came down, others with no riders on kept going, the saddles splashed with blood, here and there a man running towards a dead horse for cover. The Turk’s trenches were about 50 yards on my right. I could see the Turk’s heads at the edge of their trenches squinting along their rifles. A lot of fellows dismounted at this point thinking we were to take the trenches but most of us kept straight on. Where I was there was a clear track with trenches on the right and a redoubt on the left.
“Some of the chaps jumped clear of the trenches, some fell into them, although about 150 reached for the town. They went up the street yelling like madmen.”
But every witness account is going to be full of this excited impressionism. It was one of the good moments of a war so bad it killed an epoch. The old half-benign empires died, and the new totalitarianisms, Nazi and Soviet, set about their times of killing, in peace as well as war. But there’s an innocence — something congruent with the fact a cavalry charge seems an old-fashioned, chivalrous thing — in the boyish accounts. It could almost be a stint of mere frolicsome horse riding.
Well, plenty of Turks died and maybe 1000 were captured. But 31 Light Horsemen died too. Every battle, every headlong victory on horseback, is a tragic day for somebody. And Allenby, that shrewd, suave, character Jack Hawkins played in Lawrence of Arabia, didn’t bother to thank the Australians; they were just so many colonials in service to Empire.
So how do we set about memorialising this day of glory, such a contrast to the killing fields of the Western Front or the heartbreaking horror of Gallipoli?
There’s a poem, The Wells of Old Beersheba, whose rhythms are familiar from Rudyard Kipling and beyond him from the easygoing ballads of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson:
They lined the ridge at sunset and in the waning light
The far-flung line of squadrons came on in headlong flight,
The desert land behind them — in front the fearful fight,
The Wells of old Beersheba must fall before the night …
With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood
They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood,
Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar
The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before …
They stormed across the trenches and, so the stories say,
They drove the Moslem gunners as wild winds scatter spray.
No force or fire could turn them on that long maddening run,
The Wells of old Beersheba had fallen with the sun.
It’s written by Edwin Gerard and it’s not a fancy poem. It’s a mini-narrative in the popular style of poetry that ruled the roost before World War I. And it does the trick. There is even, right at the end, the touch of elegy for those who fell in battle.
And those who came not homeward, their memory is grand —
The Wells of old Beersheba will guard their graves of sand.
That’s more eloquent than most poets could muster for an ode to victory that must also remember what is grave. It’s not Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, which is a grand piece of rhetoric in its way, even if Anzac Day has turned it into a matchless secular requiescat. Nor is it The Charge of the Light Brigade, but it has more emotional range than it seems to at first.
And that’s true of George Lambert’s painting The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, which is not rudimentary at all, though again we’re dealing with an old-style celebration of an old-style battle. Lambert is a grand academician; he knows everything about what art could do before it became modern and made people question its own status.
Picasso’s Guernica is the image of the horror of war in an age of barbarity and predation. The odd thing about Lambert’s painting is that World War I ushered in the world that would be torn apart by fascism, yet its compositional grace (consonant with the dashing nature of the battle) looks to the memory of a chivalry that was being lost.
Remember poet Wilfred Owen talking of men “who die like cattle”? Well, they always had, but the Battle of Beersheba is the brief shining moment of the old order surging into life through the horsemanship of the warriors of the new world.
And Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen has an element of this, for all the Dad ’n’ Dave-ism of the humour and the rudimentary plot. The actual war sequences of the film with all the horsemen in the saddle make a pretty magnificent demonstration of black-and-white cinematography and its ability to create a sense of line and shadow and ensemble. We believe — as history encourages us to — in the horsemen as a military unit, mighty in their grace and athleticism; it’s just one of those jokes of history that it was filmed at Bondi and Cronulla.
The plot is a bit ordinary, in the football sense of the word, but it’s interesting perhaps that Waltzing Matilda, with its surging evocation of the roughness of life and nature’s fragility, should be such an anthem throughout the film.
The one person everyone remembers in it is that dinkum Aussie Chips Rafferty, but it says something for the collective memory of the losses of the Great War that he and his mates should end up dead, one with a cigarette in his mouth, for all the buoyancy of the victory. It’s also striking how deep the egalitarian ethos runs in Forty Thousand Horsemen. Rafferty says at one point the horsemen are fighting for a world where someone may start out as a rouseabout and end up as prime minister.
Yes, there’s the horseman who survives and gets the French-accented girl, but there’s a very Australian casualness and an implicit understated pathos in the way the film creates a sense of collective easygoing banter that it is willing to shoot significant holes in. This probably reflects the way Chauvel was touched with horror at the prospect of another world war; but it is a complicating thing in a film that comes across as a lost example of a primitivism Australia rushed to outgrow. There are glowering, sadistic Germans and wise old Arabs loyal to the British and French cause, as well as the girl to dream of.
But the true soul of the film is in the swish and chiaroscuro of those horsemen, some of whom are doomed even in the midst of glory. Their ghosts may be heard as we pass by the billabong that we carried with us into desert sands for all our cavalry charges.
Nick Miller: ÄNZAC light horse regiment cavalry charge at Beersheba poised for reenactment,” Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2017
Beersheba: On the plains to the south-east of Be’er Sheba, a young boy’s donkey stands stubbornly in a field, as its rider whacks at its flanks. Behind him in a gully, a flock of camels wanders up the banks of a stream.
And in the distance, dust flies up in the wake of a horseman, galloping across the Negev desert, a tiny echo of a turning point in history. One hundred years ago, this was the scene of an astonishing moment in the ANZAC story. It sits sandwiched between the coming-of-age tragedy of Gallipoli, and the grinding horror of the Western Front, and many only dimly remember the heroics of Beersheba, possibly the last great cavalry charge, probably Australia’s first great military victory.
Hamish Gibbons, lieutenant colonel in the New Zealand army, looks down at the plains and tries to picture how it was.
“The actual charge was quite an audacious plan,” he says. “It was not what the enemy would have thought anyone would have tried, not how the war had been fought. I can only imagine what would have been playing on the minds of the troops.”
The 800 light horsemen, 6km south-east of Beersheba, had ridden their Australian ‘Waler’ horses through the desert night to get into position for the charge. They would have been tired and dehydrated, and then faced a long wait for their do-or-die moment.
Their Anzac allies cleared the way, taking a Turkish machine gun emplacement on a hill that could have picked them off as they charged (this vital New Zealand contribution to Australia’s proud moment is often underplayed).
And then, mid-afternoon, they formed up and charged, first at a trot, then finally at a gallop as the Beersheba defenders woke too late to the threat, then melted away within hours in the face of the ferocious attack
Through the machine gun fire and artillery to victory. “It was very brave, very audacious, and ultimately successful,” says Lt-Col Gibbons. “Unlike the Western Front, they could fight the sort of battle that they wanted to fight.”
Historian Jonathan King is part of a recreation of that charge, a group of 100 men and women who wanted to honour the Anzacs by walking in their footsteps – or hoofprints. “The whole point is to bring history to life,” said King, whose great-grandfather was among the soldiers in the original assault on the town.
“This great cavalry charge at Beersheba 100 years ago turned the tide of the war in Palestine, but very few Australians know about it. This was one of the greatest moments in Australian history and it should be a celebrated cornerstone of our culture and national identity.”
The victory also created the conditions for the foundation of the modern state of Israel – which the locals have not forgotten, King said.
King and his comrades have donned the full World War One uniform – “which I might say is really hot”, right down to the slouch hats with the emu plumes, and found local horses to play the part of the old Australian ones. They have followed the whole three-day track of the original regiment, which patiently circled the town to attack from the less-defended south.
“It is different now – we are coming in from the desert, so there hasn’t been a lot of development in a century,” says King. “But there’s the huge city of Be’er Sheva in the background.
“You’ve got to close your eyes, and in your mind just try and visualise what it would have been like.”
“We ignore the buildings and think that we’re doing what they would have loved us to do, the troopers, especially the 31 killed.”
The re-creation hasn’t been smooth sailing. The Israeli horses are frisky, and their riders not exactly battle-hardened. The 3-day journey through the desert has taken a toll.
On Tuesday afternoon, their moment will come, as part of a day of commemoration attended by the prime ministers of Australia and Israel.
“We are like the WW1 troopers thirsty, covered in dust, saddle sore and tired,” says King.
“But the morale is very high, we are all conscious that we are bringing history to life and honouring the troopers who made history with that great charge
“To me personally it will be spine-chilling.”