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Sunday, 12 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Massey Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Massey Account

 

William Thomas Massey describes the fall of Beersheba

William Thomas Massey was the embedded London Times journalist with the British and Allied forces during the Palestine campaign. After the war, in 1919, he wrote How Jerusalem Was Won - Being the Record of Allenby's Campaign in Palestine from personal experience and reference to the reports he filed during the Great War. It is publicly available on Project Gutenberg Release #10098 for download.

 

Massey, WT, How Jerusalem was won: being the record of Allenby's campaign in Palestine, (London 1919).

 

CHAPTER VII

THE BEERSHEBA VICTORY

The XXth Corps began its movement on the night of 20-21st October. The whole Corps was not on the march, but a sufficient force was sent forward to form supply dumps and to store water at Esani for troops covering Desert Mounted Corps engineers engaged on the development of water at Khalasa and Asluj. Some of the Australian and New Zealand troops engaged on this work had previously been at these places.

In the early summer it was thought desirable to destroy the Turkish railway which ran from Beersheba to Asluj and on to Kossaima, in order to prevent an enemy raid on our communications between El Arish and Rafa, and the mounted troops with the Imperial Camel Corps had had a most successful day in destroying many miles of line and several bridges. The Turks were badly in need of rails for the line they were then constructing down to Deir Sineid, and they had lifted some of the rails between Asluj and Kossaima, but during our raid we broke every rail over some fifteen miles of track. Khalasa and Asluj being water centres became the points of concentration for two mounted divisions, and the splendid Colonials in the engineer sections worked at the wells as if the success of the whole enterprise depended upon their efforts, as, indeed, to a very large extent it did. Theirs was not an eight hours day. They worked under many difficulties, often thigh deep in water and mud, cleaning out and deepening wells and installing power pumps, putting up large canvas tanks for storage, and making water troughs. The results exceeded anticipations, and the Commander-in-Chief, on a day when the calls on his time were many and urgent, made a long journey to thank the officers and men for the work they had done and to express his high appreciation of their skill and energy.

The principal work carried out by the XXth Corps during the period of concentration consisted in laying the standard gauge line to Imara and opening the station at that place on October 28; prolonging the railway line to a point three-quarters of a mile north-north-east of Karm, where the station was opened on November 3; completing by October 30 the light railway from the east bank of the wadi Ghuzze at Gamli _via_ Karm to Khasif; and developing water at Esani, Malaga, and Abu Ghalyun for the use first by cavalry detachments and then by the 60th Division. Cisterns in the Khasif and Imsiri area were stocked with 60,000 gallons of water to be used by the 53rd and 74th Divisions, and this supply was to be supplemented by camel convoys. Apparently the enemy knew very little about the concentration until about October 26, and even then he could have had only slight knowledge of the extent of our movements, and probably knew nothing at all of where the first blow was to fall. In the early hours of October 27 he did make an attempt to interfere with our concentration, and there was a spirited little action on our outpost line which had been pushed out beyond the plain to a line of low hills near the wadi Hanafish. The Turks in overwhelming force met a most stubborn defence by the Middlesex Yeomanry, and if the enemy took these London yeomen as an average sample of General Allenby's troops, this engagement must have given them a foretaste of what was in store for them.

The Middlesex Yeomanry (the 1st County of London Yeomanry, to give the regiment the name by which it is officially known, though the men almost invariably use the much older Territorial title) and the 21st Machine Gun Squadron, held the long ridge from El Buggar to hill 630. There was a squadron dismounted on hill 630, three troops on hill 720, the next and highest point on the ridge, and a post at El Buggar. At four o'clock in the morning the latter post was fired on by a Turkish cavalry patrol, and an hour later it was evident that the enemy intended to try to drive us off the ridge, his occupation of which would have given him the power to harass railway construction parties by shell-fire, even if it did not entirely stop the work. Some 3000 Turkish infantry, 1200 cavalry, and twelve guns had advanced from the Kauwukah system of defences to attack our outpost line on the ridge. They heavily engaged hill 630, working round both flanks, and brought heavy machine-gun and artillery fire to bear on the squadron holding it. The Royal Flying Corps estimated that a force of 2000 men attacked the garrison, which was completely cut off.

A squadron of the City of London Yeomanry sent to reinforce was held up by a machine-gun barrage and had to withdraw. The garrison held out magnificently all day in a support trench close behind the crest against odds of twenty to one, and repeatedly beat off rushes, although the bodies of dead Turks showed that they got as close as forty yards from the defenders. Two officers were wounded, and four other ranks killed and twelve wounded.

The attack on hill 720 was made by 1200 cavalry supported by a heavy volume of shell and machine-gun fire. During the early morning two desperate charges were beaten off, but in a third charge the enemy gained possession of the hill after the detachment had held out for six hours. All our officers were killed or wounded and all the men were casualties except three. At six o'clock in the evening the Turks were holding this position in strength against the 3rd Australian Light Horse, but two infantry brigades of the 53rd Division were moving towards the ridge, and during the evening the enemy retired and we held the ridge from this time on quite securely. The strong defence of the Middlesex Yeomanry undoubtedly prevented the Turks establishing themselves on the ridge, and saved the infantry from having to make a night attack which might have been costly. Thereafter the enemy made no attempt to interfere with the concentration. The yeomanry losses in this encounter were 1 officer and 23 other ranks killed, 5 officers and 48 other ranks wounded, 2 officers and 8 other ranks missing.

On the night of October 30-31 a brilliant moon lit up the whole country. The day had been very hot, and at sunset an entire absence of wind promised that the night march of nearly 40,000 troops of all arms would be attended by all the discomforts of dust and heat. The thermometer fell, but there was not a breath of wind to shift the pall of dust which hung above the long columns of horse, foot, and guns. Where the tracks were sandy some brigades often appeared to be advancing through one of London's own particular fogs. Men's faces became caked with yellow dust, their nostrils were hot and burning, and parched throats could not be relieved because of the necessity of conserving the water allowance. A hot day was in prospect on the morrow, and the fear of having to fight on an empty water-bottle prevented many a gallant fellow broaching his supply before daybreak. Most of the men had had a long acquaintance with heat in the Middle East, and the high temperature would have caused them scarcely any trouble if there had been wind to carry away the dust clouds. The cavalry marched over harder and more stony ground than the infantry. They advanced from Khalasa and Asluj a long way south of Beersheba to the east of the town. It was a big night march of some thirty miles, but it was well within the powers of the veterans of the Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division, whose men and horses were in admirable condition.

The infantry were ordered to be on their line of deployment by four o'clock on the morning of October 31, and in every case they were before time. There had been many reconnaissances by officers who were to act as guides to columns, and they were quite familiar with the ground; and the guns and ammunition columns were taken by routes which had been carefully selected and marked. In places the banks of wadis had been cut into and ramps made to enable the rough stony watercourses to be practicable for wheels, and, broken as the country was, and though all previous preparations had to be made without arousing the suspicions of Turks and wandering Bedouins, there was no incident to check the progress of infantry or guns. Occasional rifle fire and some shelling occurred during the early hours, but at a little after three A.M. the XXth Corps advanced headquarters had the news that all columns had reached their allotted positions.

The XXth Corps plan was to attack the enemy's works between the Khalasa road and the wadi Saba with the 60th and 74th Divisions, while the defences north of the wadi Saba were to be masked by the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and two battalions of the 53rd Division, the remainder of the latter division protecting the left flank of the Corps from any attack by enemy troops who might move south from the Sheria area. The first objective was a hill marked on the map as '1070,' about 6000 yards south-west of Beersheba. It was a prominent feature, 500 yards or perhaps a little more from a portion of the enemy's main line, and the Turks held it strongly and were supported by a section of German machine-gunners. We had to win this height in order to get good observation of the enemy's main line of works, and to allow of the advance of field artillery within wire-cutting range of an elaborate system of works protecting Beersheba from an advance from the west. At six the guns began to bombard 1070, and the volume of fire concentrated on that spot must have given the Turks a big surprise. On a front of 4500 yards we had in action seventy-six 18-pounders, twenty 4.5-inch howitzers, and four 3.7-inch howitzers, while eight 60-pounders, eight 6-inch howitzers, and four 4.5-inch howitzers were employed in counter battery work. The absence of wind placed us at a heavy disadvantage. The high explosive shells bursting about the crest of 1070 raised enormous clouds of dust which obscured everything, and after a short while even the flames of exploding shells were entirely hidden from view. The gunners had to stop firing for three-quarters of an hour to allow the dust to settle. They then reopened, and by half-past eight, the wire-cutting being reported completed, an intense bombardment was ordered, under cover of which, and with the assistance of machine-gun fire from aeroplanes, the 181st Infantry Brigade of the 60th Division went forward to the assault. They captured the hill in ten minutes, only sustaining about one hundred casualties, and taking nearly as many prisoners. A German machine-gunner who fell into our hands bemoaned the fact that he had not a weapon left--every one of the machine guns had been knocked out by the artillery, and a number were buried by our fire.

The first phase of the operations having thus ended successfully quite early in the day, the second stage was entered upon. Field guns were rushed forward at the gallop over ground broken by shallow wadis and up and down a very uneven stony surface. The gun teams were generally exposed during the advance and were treated to heavy shrapnel fire, but they swung into action at prearranged points and set about wire-cutting with excellent effect. The first part of the second phase consisted in reducing the enemy's main line from the Khalasa road to the wadi Saba, though the artillery bombarded the whole line. The 60th Division on the right had two brigades attacking and one in divisional reserve, and the 74th Division attacking on the left of the 60th likewise had a brigade in reserve. The 74th, while waiting to advance, came under considerable shell-fire from batteries on the north of the wadi, and it was some time before their fire could be silenced. As a rule the enemy works were cut into rocky, rising ground and the trenches were well enclosed in wire fixed to iron stanchions. They were strongly made and there were possibilities of prolonged opposition, but by the time the big assault was launched the Turks knew they were being attacked on both sides of Beersheba and they must have become anxious about a line of retreat. General Shea reported that the wire in front of him was cut before noon, but General Girdwood was not certain that the wire was sufficiently broken on the 74th Division's front, though he intimated to the Corps Commander that he was ready to attack at the same time as the 60th. It still continued a windless day, and the dust clouds prevented any observation of the wire entanglements. General Girdwood turned this disadvantage to account, and ordering his artillery to raise their fire slightly so that it should fall just in front of and about the trenches, put up what was in effect a dust barrage, and under cover of it selected detachments of his infantry advanced almost into the bursting shell to cut passages through the wire with wire-cutters. The dismounted yeomanry of the 231st and 230th Infantry Brigades rushed through, and by half-past one the 74th Division had secured their objectives. The 179th and 181st Brigades of the 60th Division had won their trenches almost an hour earlier, and about 5000 yards of works were in our hands south of the wadi Saba. The enemy had 3000 yards of trenches north of the wadi, and though these were threatened from the south and west, it was not until five o'clock that the 230th Brigade occupied them, the Turks clearing out during the bombardment. During the day, on the left of the 74th Division, the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and two battalions of the 53rd Division held the ground to the north of the wadi Saba to a point where the remainder of the 53rd Division watched for the approach of any enemy force from the north, while the 10th Division about Shellal protected the line of communications east of the wadi Ghuzze, and the Yeomanry Mounted Division was on the west side of the wadi Ghuzze in G.H.Q. reserve. The XXth Corps' losses were 7 officers killed and 42 wounded, 129 other ranks killed, 988 wounded and 5 missing, a light total considering the nature of the works carried during the day. It was obvious that the enemy was taken completely by surprise by the direction of the attack, and the rapidity with which we carried his strongest points was overwhelming. The Turk did not attempt anything in the nature of a counter-attack by the Beersheba garrison, nor did he make any move from Hareira against the 53rd Division. Had he done so the 10th Division and the Yeomanry Mounted Division would have seized the opportunity of falling on him from Shellal, and the Turk chose the safer course of allowing the Beersheba garrison to stand unaided in its own defences. The XXth Corps' captures included 25 officers, 394 other ranks, 6 guns, and numerous machine guns.

The Desert Mounted Corps met with stubborn opposition in their operations south-east and east of Beersheba, but they were carried through no less successfully than those of the XXth Corps. The mounted men had had a busy time. General Ryrie's 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade had moved southwards on October 2, and on them and on the 1st and 2nd Field Squadrons Australian Engineers the bulk of the work fell of developing water and making and marking tracks which, in the sandy soil, became badly cut up. On the evening of October 30 the Anzac Mounted Division was at Asluj, the Australian Mounted Division at Khalasa, the 7th Mounted Brigade at Esani, Imperial Camel Brigade at Hiseia, and the Yeomanry Mounted Division in reserve at Shellal. The Anzac Division commanded by General Chaytor left Asluj during the night, and in a march of twenty-four miles round the south of Beersheba met with only slight opposition on the way to Bir el Hamam and Bir Salim abu Irgeig, between five and seven miles east of the town. The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade during the morning advanced north to take the high hill Tel el Sakaty, a little east of the Beersheba-Hebron road, which was captured at one o'clock, and the brigade then swept across the metalled road which was in quite fair condition, and which subsequently was of great service to us during the advance of one infantry division on Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade commanded by General Cox, and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade under General Meldrum, moved against Tel el Saba, a 1000-feet hill which rises very precipitously on the northern bank of the wadi Saba, 4000 yards due east of Beersheba. Tel el Saba is believed to be the original site of Beersheba. It had been made into a strong redoubt and was well held by a substantial garrison adequately dug in and supported by nests of machine-gunners. The right bank of the wadi Khalil was also strongly held, and between the Hebron road and Tel el Saba some German machine-gunners in three houses offered determined opposition. The New Zealanders and a number of General Cox's men crept up the wadi Saba, taking full advantage of the cover offered by the high banks, and formed up under the hill of Saba. They then dashed up the steep sides while the horse artillery lashed the crest with their fire, and driving the Turks from their trenches had captured the hill by three o'clock. At about the same time the 1st Light Horse Brigade suitably dealt with the machine-gunners in the houses. Much ground east of Beersheba had thus been made good, and the Hebron road was denied to the garrison of the town as a line of retreat. The Anzac Mounted Division was then reinforced by General Wilson's 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, and by six P.M. the Division held a long crescent of hills from Point 970, a mile north of Beersheba, through Tel el Sakaty, round south-eastwards to Bir el Hamam.

General Hodgson's Australian Mounted Division had a night march of thirty-four miles from Khalasa to Iswawin, south-east of Beersheba, and after the 3rd Light Horse Brigade had been detached to assist the Anzac Division, orders were given to General Grant's 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade to attack and take the town of Beersheba from the east. The orders were received at four o'clock, and until we had got an absolute hold on Tel el Saba an attack on the town from this direction would have been suicidal, as an attacking force would have been between two fires. The shelling of the cavalry during the day had been rather hot, and enemy airmen had occasionally bombed them. It was getting late, and as it was of the greatest importance that the town's available water should be secured that night, General Grant was directed to attack with the utmost vigour. His brigade worthily carried out its orders. The ground was very uneven and was covered with a mass of large stones and shingle. The trenches were well manned and strongly held, but General Grant ordered them to be taken at the gallop. The Australians carried them with an irresistible charge; dismounted, cleared the first line of all the enemy in it, ran on and captured the second and third system of trenches, and then, their horses having been brought up, galloped into the town to prevent any destruction of the wells. The first-line eastern trenches of Beersheba were eight feet deep and four feet wide, and as there were many of the enemy in them they were a serious obstacle to be taken in one rush. This charge was a sterling feat, and unless the town had been occupied that night most, if not all, of the cavalry would have had to withdraw many miles to water, and subsequent operations might have been imperilled. Until we had got Beersheba there appeared small prospect of watering more than two brigades in this area.

Luckily there had been two thunderstorms a few days before the attack, and we found a few pools of sweet water which enabled the whole of the Corps' horses to be watered during the night. These pools soon dried up and the water problem again became serious. The Commander-in-Chief rewarded General Grant with the D.S.O. as an appreciation of his work, and the brigade was gratified at a well-earned honour. The 7th Mounted Brigade was held up for some time in the afternoon by a flanking fire from Ras Ghannam, south of Beersheba, but this was silenced in time to enable the brigade to assist in the occupation of Beersheba at nightfall. The 4th Light Horse Brigade's captures in the charge were 58 officers, 1090 other ranks, and 10 field guns, and the total 'bag' of the Desert Mounted Corps was 70 officers and 1458 other ranks.

The loss of Beersheba was a heavy blow to the Turk. Yet he did not even then realise to the full the significance of our capture of the town. He certainly failed to appreciate that we were to use it as a jumping-off place to attack his main line from Gaza to Sheria by rolling it up from left to right. In this plan there is no doubt that General Allenby entirely deceived his enemy, for in the next few days there was the best of evidence to show that General Kress von Kressenstein believed we were going to advance from Beersheba to Jerusalem up the Hebron road, and he made his dispositions to oppose us here. It was not merely the moral effect of the loss of Beersheba that disturbed the Turks; they had been driven out of a not unimportant stronghold.

All through the many centuries since Abraham and his people led a pastoral life near the wells, Beersheba had been a meanly appointed place. There were no signs as far as I could see of any elaborate ruins to indicate anything larger than a native settlement. Elsewhere we saw crumbling walls of ancient castles and fortresses to tell of conquerors and glories long since faded away, of relics of an age when great captains led martial men into new worlds to conquer, of the time when the Crusading spirit was abroad and the flower of Western chivalry came East to hold the land for Christians. Here the native quarter suggested that trade in Beersheba was purely local and not ambitious, that it provided nothing for the world's commerce save a few skins and hides, and that the inhabitants were content to live the rude, simple lives of their forefathers. But the enterprising German arrived, and you could tell by his work how he intended to compel a change in the unchanging character of the people. He built a handsome Mosque--but before he was driven out he wired and mined it for destruction. He built a seat of government, a hospital, and a barracks, all of them pretentious buildings for such a town, well designed, constructed of stone with red-tiled roofs, and the gardens were nicely laid out. There were a railway station and storehouses on a scale which would not yield a return on capital expenditure for many years, and the water tower and engine sheds were built to last longer than merely military necessities demanded. They were fashioned by European craftsmen, and the solidity of the structures offered strange contrast to the rough-and-ready native houses. The primary object of the Hun scheme was, doubtless, to make Beersheba a suitable base for an attack on the Suez Canal, and the manner of improving the Hebron road, of setting road engineers to construct zigzags up hills so that lorries could move over the road, was part of the plan of men whose vision was centred on cutting the Suez Canal artery of the British Empire's body. The best laid schemes....

When I entered Beersheba our troops held a line of outposts sufficiently far north of the town to prevent the Turks shelling it, and the place was secure except from aircraft bombs, of which a number fell into the town without damaging anything of much consequence. Some of the troops fell victims to booby traps. Apparently harmless whisky bottles exploded when attempts were made to draw the corks, and several small mines went up. Besides the mines in the Mosque there was a good deal of wiring about the railway station, and some rolling stock was made ready for destruction the instant a door was opened. The ruse was expected; some Australian engineers drew the charges, and the coaches were afterwards of considerable service to the supply branch.

 

Further Reading:

The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917

British Forces Roll of Honour  

Australian and New Zealand Roll of Honour

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920


Citation: The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Massey Account

Posted by Project Leader at 9:07 AM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 8 October 2009 4:43 PM EADT

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