WASHINGTON, June 28, 2012 – Every year on October 31, there is a commemoration ceremony in Israel’s Beersheba War Cemetery. Ruvik Danilovich, Beersheba’s Mayor, the Australian Ambassador, various Israeli officials, and hundreds of ordinary citizens attend. They remember those who fell, in a battle that was the defining moment in General Sir Edmund Allenby’s campaign to expel the German-led Turks from Ottoman controlled Palestine.
Beersheba hardly resembles the sun-scorched, dusty frontier town of 1917, when it was the scene of that history-defining battle. In the middle of the northern Negev desert, high-rise apartment buildings adorn the skyline; restaurants, office buildings, and gas stations are ubiquitous; and with a population of about 200,000—nearly one hundred times that of 1917—Beersheba is one of Israel’s largest cities.
Visitors can find the remnants of the frontier town within today’s thriving metropolis by walking along Herzl Street to Old Town. At the intersection of Herzl and Ha’atzma’ut (Independence) Streets, visitors will find the Negev Museum. Across the street from the museum are Allenby Park and Gan Allenby—Allenby Garden.
A bust of Allenby sits atop a high stone monument in the center of the park. A historic marker, titled “Lest We Forget-Beersheba 1917,” at the park’s entrance indicates that sites relevant to the battle of Beersheba — the remnants of the Turkish trenches, the remaining water wells, the Beersheba War Cemetery, the Turkish hospitals, the Turkish train station, Ataturk Plaza, and the Turkish Aerodrome — are located roughly on a straight line, along the length of Ha’atzma’ut Street. High-rise apartments line the north side of the street, while large sections of the south side commemorate 1917.
A construction site blocks access to the Turkish trench area, where in October 1917, Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) light horsemen engaged Turkish infantry in hand-to-hand combat. As visitors walk westward along Ha’atzma’ut Street, they will notice the few remaining water wells, with wooden paddlewheels drawing up buckets of water. Further along is an aptly named traffic circle, the Circle of the Commanders. Then comes another construction site, where the Turkish hospitals once stood.
Three blocks further up the street is the Beersheba War Cemetery (British War Cemetery), with row upon row of graves, meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many of the graves are dated November 6, 1917, the date of the battle of Tel-El Khuwelfeh, an intense two-day engagement six days after the battle of Beersheba. The grave of a Jewish soldier, infantry Captain S.J.H. Van Den Bergh, age 27, of the Middlesex Yeomanry Division, is one among 1241 graves.
Beersheba was a key point on General Otto Liman von Sanders’ defensive line, not least because the town contained 19 water wells, absolutely vital to Allenby’s advance on Jerusalem, and points further north and east. Thus the struggle for Beersheba began when Allenby took command of the EEF-Egyptian Expeditionary Force-on June 28, 1917.
Because his predecessor, General Sir Archibald Murray, had been badly defeated in the first two battles of Gaza, Allenby adopted General Sir Philip Chetwode’s plan of feinting at Gaza, then attacking the left end of the Turkish/German defensive line at Beersheba. For the plan to work, the Turks had to be convinced that Allenby would do the opposite—attack Gaza in force. Accordingly, Lt. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Allenby’s Chief of Intelligence, “dropped” a saddlebag between the lines containing notes stating that an attack on Beersheba would be impossible because of water and transport problems.
General Kress von Kressenstein, German commander in Beersheba, swallowed the bait, sending away a division of reinforcements. Because of the water wells, the town’s capture was necessary to keep Allenby’s campaign on track. However, the town had to be secured by nightfall. Otherwise the troops and their animals would have to retreat to their water sources, making Beersheba’s capture much more difficult.
The fighting began at 5:30 a.m. on October 31 with a British artillery barrage on the town. After several hours of fierce fighting, the infantry captured a hill to the west, overlooking Beersheba, at a cost of 1151 casualties.
Aaron Eime, Director of Christ Church’s Heritage Center, in Jerusalem’s Old City, commented: “The 4th and 12th regiments of the 4th Light Horse brigade got most of the glory of the British victory at Beersheba, but suffered very few casualties. There are over 1000 British dead in the cemetery at Beersheba; these are infantrymen.” British infantry paved the way for the mounted infantry charge that won the day, and the 4th Light Horse brigade counted 31 dead and 36 wounded, after their charge against the Turkish troops, a remarkably low 8.5% of the attacking force.
At 4:30 that afternoon, as the sun began to set behind the heat-baked town, Lt. General Harry Chauvel, commander of the ANZAC troops east of town, gave the order, “Tell Grant straight at ‘em!” With this command, Brigadier General William Grant, leader of the 4th Light Horse brigade, took his 800 mounted infantry on a charge against the 4000 entrenched Turkish troops defending the town’s eastern approaches. With their excess equipment left behind, Grant’s saber and bayonet wielding troops set off across the arid plain, at a canter, in three columns. As the eager Australians and New Zealanders charged towards the entrenched Turks, three kilometers distant, they ran into a hail of machine gun and exploding shell fire, causing horses to shy away and showering them with deadly shrapnel.
Yet something was odd about this particular charge. As Eime commented, “A big question about the battle is, ‘Why didn’t the Turks shoot straight?’ The Turks had tremendous firepower concentrated against the charging horsemen. They could have stopped the charge in its’ tracks; yet they didn’t.” Why not?
The Turks failed to lower their gun sights; that might have been the result of recognizing the charging ANZAC horsemen as mounted infantry and waiting for them to dismount. However, the Light horsemen were ordered not to dismount, and two waves of the 4th Light horse brigade rode over and past the Turkish defenders. The third wave dismounted and engaged the Turks in hand-to-hand combat. However, by that time large numbers of exhausted and demoralized Turks had begun to surrender. A number of horsemen rode past the trenches, all the way into town, where they found explosive charges next to the wells. Fortunately, the German engineer who was supposed to destroy the wells was on leave in Jerusalem. The Light horsemen prevented his assistant from detonating the charges from a central switchboard. Their vigilance saved 17 wells from destruction, and by 7 p.m., Beersheba was securely in ANZAC hands.
What if the Turks had stopped the charge? Eime commented, “Allenby would have had to retreat back to Rafa (in the northern Sinai peninsula) had the charge failed. It would have been a terrible disaster. Allenby probably would have lost several thousand men, and the Turks would have retained control of Palestine.” The British War Cabinet was meeting on Cyprus on October 31, 1917. Without the victory at Beersheba, they wouldn’t have been able to issue the Balfour Declaration, as they did two days later. Then the creation of the State of Israel might have been indefinitely postponed.
Noga Raved, director of Beersheba’s Negev Museum, has a different perspective. “The Turks don’t have a cemetery,” she commented, “but six years ago they built the Turkish War Memorial; it was a joint effort of the Municipality of Beersheba and the Turkish government.” The Turkish War Memorial is in Ataturk Plaza, opposite the Beersheba War Cemetery, on the other side of the high-rise apartments that tower over the monuments to a bygone era.
Steven Bernstein has worked as a database developer, archivist, and educator. He is also the author of a book, The Confederacy’s Last North Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington (McFarland 2011).
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