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Monday, 13 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, 11th LHR, AIF, Unit History Account
Topic: AIF - 4B - 11 LHR

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

11th LHR, AIF, Unit History Account

 

Lieutenant Colonel John William Parsons, CO 11th LHR at Beersheba

[From: Hammond, History of the 11th Light Horse Regiment, plate facing p. 72.]

 

Ernest W. Hammond, in 1984, produced the unit history for the 11th LHR called the History of the 11th Light Horse Regiment, Fourth Light Horse Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces, war 1914-1919, which included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.

Hammond, EW, History of the 11th Light Horse Regiment, Fourth Light Horse Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces, war 1914-1919, (Singapore 1984), pp. 78 - 84:

BATTLE OF BEERSHEBA.

[78] Sir Edmund Allenby, the new Commander-in-Chief, began active control of his forces on the morning of the 30th June by moving Army Headquarters from its palatial surroundings at the Savoy Hotel, in Cairo, to the village, of Kalab, a few miles north of Rafa, which was a front-line area. This move had the advantage of bringing him and his staff of assistants within a short motor drive of his front-line positions, and ere long it was a common sight to see the new G.O.C. and his staff riding or driving through his soldiers' camps along the Wadi Guzze. His plan of attack, based on the comprehensive notes of Sir Philip Chetwode, was soon formulated, and preparations to carry it into effect were begun in earnest from end to end of the British line. It was soon evident to us that the plan of battle was to be different from the previous attacks on the Gaza-Beersheba line insomuch as the main force of it would be directed against Beersheba. The ultimate success of the venture, as in all such military coups, would depend largely upon the secrecy of our plans, and, with this object in view, elaborate preparations were made to disguise our intentions and deceive the enemy into believing that the fortresses of Gaza were to be our main objective again.

Many of the Australians opposing the Turks in Palestine had taken part in the evacuation of Gallipoli, that splendid hoax of the Turkish army, and were masters in the art of deception as it applied to warfare.

Dummy camps were erected in the territory opposite Gaza, and, at night; fires were kindled and hurricane lamps were left banning in the tents. Small squads of horsemen rode back- and forth on the banks of the Guzze, deliberately raising great clouds of dust the whole scheme indicating a concentration of troops in that area. ,Nor were these sham preparations confined to the land. Naval boats slipped into the mouth of the Wadi Hesi, a few miles north of Gaza, and took soundings as though a leading from the sea was intended.

Simultaneously with these "stunts" a masterpiece of bluff was carried - out as the island of Cyprus to prevent the enemy from sending reinforcements from Syria to the Palestine front. A large camp was marked out on the island: buoys were [79] set up apparently to direct transports in the harbour, and enquiries were made through local contractors for supplies for a large body of troops, and other arrangements were carried out all intended to promote gossip amongst the inhabitants of the island. gossip which would reach the enemy agent, on the mainland- On the right flank the mounted troops carried out daily patrols reaching far into the enemy territory in front of Beersheba, but the patrols were mere passive demonstrations designed to accustom the Turks to our presence in that vicinity. That these schemes succeeded in deceiving the enemy is evidenced by a Turkish despatch captured in Jerusalem some months later. The despatch was from the Turkish Commander at Gaza to the Turkish High Command in Jeruselem, and an extract reads:

"An enemy outflanking movement on Beersheba. With about one infantry and one cavalry division is indicated but the main attack, as before, must be expected on the Gaza front."

General Allenby's battle order was issued on October 22nd, the general plan being as follows:

General Chetwode. With XX Corps, was to attack Beersheba from the south-west, while General Chauvel, with two divisions of Desert Mounted Corps, would assault the town from the east and north-east, the combined attack being scheduled to take place on October 31st. On October 28th the 11th Light Horse Regiment, 470 strong, moved from Tel el Fara with the 4th Brigade, the first stage of its ride to encircle Beersheba. That night we camped at Esani, and the following day proceeded to Khalasa, a small village which stands on the of the ancient city of Eleusa. We rested here during afternoon, and, at nightfall, moved off on the final of our movement to take up a position within striking distance of Beersheba. The ride from Khalasa that will long be remembered by the 11th Regiment. The night was hot and oppressive, and great billows of heavy dust rolled through the ranks of plodding horses clung to the column in a dense cloud as it moved across the lowlands south of Beersheba.

We filled our water-bottles at Khalasa, but, in view of the conditions ahead of us, known and unknown, we were exhorted to conserve this meagre supply at all costs and by all means in our power. By midnight both men [80] and horses were showing the need of water, and, with Khalasa far behind us, the nearest wells now lay behind the defences of Beersheba, in the heart of the town.

Soon after midnight, our O.C., Colonel Parsons, D.S.O., drew out from his position at the head of the column, exchanging a word here and there with the tired troopers as they rode along. One section of men of "C" Squadron were discussing the "shortage of water" in terms that left nothing to the imagination, when the Colonel interrupted them.

"You fellows should copy my example," he said. "For the past ten miles, I have carried a small pebble in my mouth, and I haven't felt the need of a drink of water."

For a moment, this well-meant advice from the C.O. was met by a "stony" silence, but, as he rode off into the darkness, a wag in the troop called out in a hoarse and croaky voice, "If the Colonel can travel ten miles without a drink on one small pebble, how far will he go on half a brick?" and Colonel Parsons, not yet out of earshot, joined in the general laughter that followed.

Just before daybreak, the attack developed on our left flank, and the roar of the guns reverberating through the hills and wadis was a heartening sound to our ears. During the day, we relieved the 8th Regiment on an outpost line with the 12th Regiment on our right, and the 7th Mounted Brigade on our left. We came under heavy machine gun fire on the left, and our right flank was subjected to heavy rifle fire from a Turkish redoubt cunningly placed at the convergence of two low ridges. As the afternoon wore on, the position became serious. The outer defences of Beersheba had not fallen to our attacks and the mounted troops could not endure another night without water. Occasionally, as we worked onto the high ground, we could see the town of Beersheba lying in a saucer-shaped dip at the foot of the Judean hills. A barren, treeless plain sloped easily down to the town four miles away. It was too far off to permit an organised dismounted attack before darkness set in, and with every moment that passed the position became more critical. Earlier in the day, General Chauvel had established his headquarters on a slight rise some distance in our rear, in the vicinity of Khashm Zanna, and here, as the afternoon waned, a tense military drama of tremendous importance was being enacted. General Chauvel had just made up his mind that a galloping charge was his only hope of [81] saving the day. With him were General Hodgson, Brigadier-General Grant, of the 4th Australian Brigade and Brigadier-General Fitzgerald, of the 5th Imperial Mounted Yeomanry Brigade. Generals Grant and Fitzgerald both pleaded with their leader for the honour of the charge. Those few brief moments, made tense by a desperate situation, must rightly occupy a place amongst the "memorable moments in history."

General Chauvel always tried to remain impartial in his treatment of the Australian and Imperial horsemen under his charge, and for an instant he remained silent, showing no outward sign of the conflict taking place within him. Turning quietly to General Hodgson, he settled the matter in one swift, crisp sentence, "Put Grant straight at it," he exclaimed. [See
end note, ed.]

General Grant wasted no time in formalities, but running to his horse he mounted and galloped away to assemble his Brigade. The 11th Regiment was spread over a long line of outposts, and considerable time must elapse before they could be assembled, but the 4th and 12th Regiments were already assembled near at hand and were soon drawn up in a battle formation behind the crest of a ridge looking down upon the plain of Beersheba. At 4.30, the first line of Australian horsemen went over the ridge at a trot which soon developed into a hand gallop, as the troopers, with bayonets flashing in their hands, warmed to the occasion and spurred their mounts onward. A second and third line followed at intervals of 300 yards, and, ere long, the great plain echoed to the beat of a thousand horses.

A handful of picked horsemen, acting as ground scouts, raced ahead of the main body, eyes alert for the first signs of barbed wire, but, fortunately, the Turks had thrown up no wire entanglements around the trenches in that area.

The enemy opened fire with shrapnel, which burst in white puffs over the galloping lines. As the horsemen neared the first line of trenches, they came under the fire of machine guns and rifles, but, without checking their speed, they swept across the Turkish defences. Some of the men dismounted and went to work with rifle and bayonet, while others raced on to the town, chasing the Turks into the hills beyond. In one brief, glorious hour, the Turkish left flank was shattered, and Beersheba was ours. The spectacle of Light Horsemen, with bayonets in [82] their hands, charging infantrymen in strongly entrenched positions, was something quite unique in the history of warfare in any period, and the boldness of the charge and its unparalleled success, fired the imagination of the British peoples. The newspapers in England, Australia and America flashed the news around the world in bold headlines.

For many nights "Grant's Brigade" was the toast of honour in every officers' mess along Allenby's front. Its counterpart in the troopers'. lines was an equally spontaneous cheer for "Grant's mob," wherever the 4th Brigade colours were seen.

The Commonwealth official historian relates that an intercepted wireless message sent by the Turkish Commander as he fled in the night from Beersheba, stated in effect that his troops had broken because they were "terrified of the Australian Cavalry."

The historian states further that a German Staff Officer captured in Beersheba said that, when the 4th Brigade was seen to move, its advance had been taken for a mere demonstration. "We did not believe," he said, "that the charge would be pushed home. That seemed an impossible intention. I have heard a great deal of the fighting quality of Australian soldiers. They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen."

And while the rest of the world was agog at this fearless exploit of the casual Australian and his equally imperturbable horse, these fellows were swapping yarns around their camp fires, in the streets and roads of Beersheba, or lounging around the time-honoured wells of the town where Abraham, Isaac and Joseph and the sons of Samuel watered their flocks. Other parties of them were still "mopping" up the town, collecting prisoners and booty and piling the latter into hastily formed dumps.

The 11th Regiment captured four hundred prisoners and a great quantity of booty. Some of the Germans and Turks who were rooted out of dugouts and buildings resisted, and there were a few isolated "scraps," which invariably ended in our favour. We found loaves of coarse Turkish bread, tins of poor quality coffee, and dried apricots and dates and figs. There was an almost unlimited supply of Turkish paper money, which, alas, had no intrinsic value for the British troops, but it was rumoured that a troop of one Regiment found a quantity of Turkish gold. A sergeant of the 11th Regiment [83] discovered a canvas bag tilled with Turkish war medals, including many Gallipoli Stars (a nodal struck by the Turkish War Ministry to celebrate Gallipoli), which he shared amongst, his mates. In another part of the town a liberal stock of cognac and red and white wine was unearthed, but, before an officer who heard of the discovery could place a guard over it, the find had vanished. This officer afterwards said he never saw anything disappear so quickly or so completely. He admitted that he got a bottle of cognac out of it himself, but added, somewhat ruefully, "I had to buy it front a Digger who was in the early rush. It cost me five 'bob'."

There, was the usual crop of humorous incidents which invariably followed in the wake of the Australians.

About midnight a Digger staggered into our lines, a bottle of cognac in each hand, a rollicking song on his lips, and with the front of his tunic glittering with a score or more of 'Puckish war medals pinned closely together. In a loud, thick noire, punctuated with hiccoughs, he insisted that the Sergeant-Major should come out of his bed and salute him, but, to his everlasting disgust, an unsympathetic sergeant of the guard throw him in the guard tent to keep him out of further mischief.

Later still that night, another wag rolled into our lines and wakened his companions for the purpose, as he expressed it, of declaring himself "a Turkish millionaire," and, lest anyone should doubt his assertion, he emptied a feed-bag of Turkish bank notes by the side of the fire, and, throwing himself down on his mountain of money, fell fast asleep.

It was almost daybreak before the last of the independent foragers filtered into our lines. Next morning a small party of Headquarters men, led by Sergeant Flemming, captured two Turkish soldier; who were found hiding in a cave in the bank of a wadi. They were unceremoniously pulled out of their lair, and the Sergeant marched them to Headquarters at the point of his revolver. Soon after breakfast enemy 'planes bombed our lines, scoring a hit on our Army Medical tent, killing Sergeant Carney, of the A.M.C.

That night: the Regiment occupied fill outpost line running from the Mosque in 'Beersheba north-west to Gamli Road, and the patrol:; were despatched to a distance of four miles along all roads in that sector without sighting the enemy. [84] On 2nd November the Regiment was relieved from its outpost position and moved to a bivouac area at Karm to reorganise.

Reorganisation after an engagement always meant "kit inspection," which is the official method of discovering losses of gear due to that engagement. Each man spreads his blanket on the ground and piles all the gear he has upon it as neatly as possible. The Commanding Officer, the Adjutant and the Sergeant-Major then walk slowly through the lines, when shortages are listed and requisitions issued to "stores" to replace them.

During his inspection at Karm that morning, Colonel Parsons noticed that every man in one particular Troop of "C" Squadron had conspicuously placed a large round stone on the centre of his blanket. The effect produced by a matter of forty round stones in a long, straight row on the smooth line of blankets, was inescapable and extraordinary, and failing, quite naturally, to grasp the significance of it, the Colonel addressed the nearest trooper.

"What is the purpose of the round stones?" said he, pointing along the line.

"Those stones, sir," replied the trooper, very seriously, "represent the pebble you told us about at Khalasa, and which we now carry in the kits for quenching our thirst," and, for the second time, the Colonel joined in the laughter at his own expense. The boys were satisfied. They had carried their joke to its natural conclusion, and nothing further was heard of the Colonel's thirst-quenching pebble.

 

[Editor's note: This is quite a contentious comment which Chauvel and Grant have different stories. For copies of their letters to Bean, see: "Put Grant straight at it."]

 

Further Reading:

"Put Grant straight at it."

11th Australian Light Horse Regiment, AIF

11th Australian Light Horse Regiment, Roll of Honour

The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917

Australian and New Zealand Roll of Honour

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

 


Citation: The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, 11th LHR, AIF, Unit History Account

Posted by Project Leader at 8:35 PM EADT
Updated: Sunday, 4 October 2009 9:47 AM EADT

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