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Australia and World War I
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The last successful cavalry charge in history

The Battle of Beersheba may not be as well known to Australians as other battles of World War One, but it is one of the Australian’s most glorious victories.

The battle took place on 31 October 1917 between the British and Australian forces on one side and the Ottoman Empire (Turks) and Germans on the other. It was part of the wider British offensive collectively known as the third Battle of Gaza. The final phase of this all day battle was the famous mounted charge of the Australian 4th Lighthorse Brigade. Commencing at dusk, members of the brigade stormed through the Turkish defences and seized the strategic town of Beersheba. The capture of Beersheba enabled British Empire forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on 7 November and advance into Palestine.

The Plan

The plan was to attack Beersheba by using mounted troops from the east whilst the infantry attacked Beersheba from the south west. The preparation also involved a deception to persuade the Turkish forces to believe that another major offensive was planned against Gaza.

As part of the deception a red herring tactic was used where a British officer "lost" some faked papers which made the Turks believe that a new assault on Gaza would be covered by a mock attack on Beersheba.

Light horse large.pngThe infantry and lighthorse undertook series of secret night marches in which the British infantry prepared to attack Beersheba from the west and south while the Desert Mounted Corps under Lieutenant General Chauvel would sweep out to the waterless east and attack from the desert.

If Beersheba's famous 17 wells could not be taken in one day, nearly 60,000 men and tens of thousands of animals would be desperately short of water and at risk of death.

The Charge at Beersheba

The attack on Beersheba was launched at dawn on 31 October 1917, and lasted throughout the day.
The British infantry captured most of their objectives. But the Australians and New Zealanders had to make dismounted advances across open ground against two strongly defended hill-forts.

By late afternoon, the two strong points had fallen, but there were still heavily manned trenches protecting the town. Time had almost run out. Brigadier General Grant of the 4th Lighthorse Brigade suggested to Chauvel that two of his regiments, the 4th and 12th, make a mounted charge against these remaining defences.

Such a thing had never been heard of - a mounted charge across three kilometres of open ground against entrenched infantry supported by artillery and machine guns. But the sun was almost setting and many of the horses had already been without water for nearly 48 hours. Chauvel agreed.

The two regiments formed up behind a ridge and moved off into a classic, three-line charge formation, going from walk-march, to trot, then canter.The Turks recognised the advancing horsemen as mounted infantry and the order was given, "Wait until they dismount, then open fire". This was the usual tactic. Field guns were sighted on the cantering lines, ready to fire. Then suddenly, about two kilometres from the trenches, the lighthorsemen spurred to a gallop with wild yells, drawing their bayonets and waving them in the dying sunlight. The Turkish artillery opened fire and shrapnel exploded above the plummeting lines of horsemen. Some were hit, but the Turks couldn't wind down their guns fast enough and soon the shells were bursting behind the charge.

Lieutenant General Chauvel
Two German planes firing machine-guns swooped over the horsemen and dropped bombs. But they exploded between the widely spaced lines. About 1600 metres from the trenches, rifles and machine guns opened fire. Again, some men and horses fell. But the Turkish soldiers were unnerved by the huge mass of lighthorsemen thundering closer and they forgot to adjust their sights. Their bullets began to whistle harmlessly over the heads of the charging troopers.

The lighthorsemen jumped the trenches and some leapt to the ground for a hand-to-hand fight with the Turks. Others galloped through the defences into the town as the Germans began blowing up the precious wells and key buildings. Within minutes, the German officer in charge of the demolition had been captured by the lighthorsemen. The wells were saved. By nightfall, Beersheba was under British control.

Of the 800 men who rode in the charge, only 31 were killed and 36 wounded. Mounted infantrymen and their superb walers had carried out one of the most successful cavalry charges in history - against what seemed impossible odds. The fall of Beersheba swung the battle tide against the Turks in Palestine; and changed the history of the Middle East.

"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..."
An eye witness account by Trooper Ion Idriess

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The Turkish in their trenches were not expecting a mounted charge

The Lighthorsemen (Movie) 1987 - The Charge on Beersheba