“Sharpen all bayonets at once.”
This order to the armourers of the Australian Mounted Division on the 26th of October 1917 was the signal for what was to be one of the last great engagements of horse and man in battle in history.
Eight hundred Australian mounted riflemen of the 4th Light Horse Brigade took those sharpened bayonets and charged across four miles of open ground to sweep away the Turkish defenders of Beersheba and capture the town.
Supported by British artillery batteries destroying machine gun nests that could have butchered the horsemen, the Victorian and NSW horsemen moved so quickly the defenders could not find a range to fire upon them effectively.
The campaigns of the Sinai and Palestine toward the end of the First World War have not been as extensively examined as the killing grounds of the Western Front, but they had a decisive impact on history, leading to the negotiations and manoeuvring which gave birth to the state of Israel, the partitioning of Arab lands between the victors, and the modern states of Turkey and Iraq.
From 1916 until the war’s end, The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) pursued a hit-and-run campaign against German and Ottoman forces in the Middle East. It comprised not only British and Australian troops, but New Zealand, French, Indian, Italian, South African, Egyptian and Arab forces as well.
The force contained infantry, yeomanry and mounted rifle brigades, cavalry and lancer regiments, the Imperial Camel Brigade and artillery units, mounted and motorised machine gunners, light car units, tanks and a flying squadron.
Much of the campaign was remarkable for the relative low number of Allied deaths and casualties, in dire comparison to the Western Front. This was due not only to the skirmishing nature of the fighting, but the drier weather conditions and advances in medical treatment and attitudes taken during the campaign.
By the beginning of 1917, the EEF had defeated the Turkish forces at the battles of Romani, Magdhaba and Rafa. They were being pushed east rapidly, until they garrisoned at Gaza. In two battles taking place between March and April, the campaign came to a stalemate. The Turkish forces had reinforced their positions with heavy artillery, and despite having pressed them heavily, the Allied forces had failed to press home any advantage.
A campaign of attrition began, with the new EEF commander General Allenby trying to cut supplies to the garrisoned Turkish forces in Gaza while forming his plan to take Jerusalem.
Desperately short of water, it was decided to take Beersheba, a small town to the south-east of Gaza known to have wells. Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, issued his brief and direct order:
(a) Attack Beersheba from the east so as to envelop the enemy’s left rear and (b) seize as much water supply as possible in order to form a base for future operations northwards.
Acting Brigadier-General William Grant, commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade set himself on his charger at the head of the two regiments, leading the attack from the front, the 12th Regiment on the right, the 4th on the left.
In three wide ranks, each 300 yards apart, he gave the order to move forward and the Light Horse advanced at the walk towards the enemy lines. Each man kept five yards between himself and the next mount. Known as artillery formation, it was designed to reduce casualties from shell fire.
Almost immediately the horsemen moved to a trot, then to the gallop, throwing themselves towards the Turkish rifles. Hurtling across the desert, the Turks opened fire as a cloud of dust rose from the flying hooves.
Trooper John Fowler of the 4th ALH:
The artillery fire had been heavy for a while. Many shells passed over our heads, and then the machine gun and rifle fire became fierce as we came in closer to the trenches… No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did.
Grant allowed himself to fall back to the reserve, but the regimental commanders, Lieutenant Colonels Donald Cameron of the 12th and Murray Bourchier of the 4th stayed in the vanguard.
The pace of the charge was so great that the range of their rifles was incorrect, and supporting artillery fire from the British batteries suppressed Turkish shell and machine gun fire.
The two regiments thundered across the trenches, over the heads of the fleeing occupants. Troopers of the 4th Regiment dismounted and fought on the ground, while some of the 12th pushed on into the town, cheering madly and routing the defenders there.
Thirty five troopers were killed, and 39 wounded. 70 horses were killed. The Turkish defenders lost 500 men killed and 700 men wounded. Over 2000 were captured.
Beersheba had fallen to the Light Horse.
The Ballarat General Cemeteries Trust will host a special commemorative service in the lead up to the centenary of the famous light horse charge at Beersheba. Sebastopol man Joseph Mannion, a trooper with the 4th Light Horse Regiment, took part in the charge but has lain anonymously in an unmarked grave in Ballarat’s New Cemetery for the last 66 years.
On learning of this the Sebastopol RSL Sub-Branch launched an appeal to provide him with a properly formed grave and a headstone to restore his identity and acknowledge his service to his country.
“Once alerted to this situation we felt a compulsion to rectify it and the Sebastopol community responded very generously. Any man who has served as Joseph Mannion did, deserves better than a bare dirt grave,” Sebastopol RSL president Bryan Nicholls said.
The unveiling and dedication ceremony will take place at the New Cemetery at 11.00 am on Sunday October 29. Those attending are asked to assemble in the Crematorium carpark off Doveton Street north by 10.50 am in order to follow a piper and uniformed members of the Creswick Light Horse Troop to the grave site, a walk of 200 metres.