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Sunday, 19 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, "Chook" Fowler Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

"Chook" Fowler Account

 

John Ernest (Chook) Fowler

[From: Treasure, C., Perc Treasure Light Horseman, p. 110.]

 

In the mid 1970's, John Ernest (Chook) Fowler was urged to record his life story. His manuscript was completed but sadly he died in 1978, just before his story was published in Canberra, 1979. "Chook" Fowler's book was called: Looking backward,  in which included a section specifically related to his role in the battle of Beersheba and extracted below.

 

Fowler, JE "Chook", Looking backward, (Canberra 1979), pp. 21-7:

 

[21] The afternoon of October 29th, 1917, was a busy period for all mounted troops on the Palestine front. The 4th Light Horse Brigade, which comprised the 4th, 11th and 12th Regiments, moved off from their camp west of Beersheba on the Wadi Ghuzze, near Tel el Fara. We carried four days rations for ourselves and three days rations for our horses. We were armed with rifles and bayonets, and also with a Hodgekiss machine gun to each troop. We rode all night in a south easterly direction and at dawn arrived at Khalasa, where we found water for horses and men. The day was spent trying to sleep, and dodging the hot sun, which in this part of the world knows how to shine. Our ordinary method to provide a shelter was to fix bayonets on four rifles, and drive the bayonets into the ground, then fasten a blanket on the upturned butts of the rifles.

From Khalasa we travelled approximately north, again an all night [22] ride, with as always five minutes rest each hour, and we arrived at our destination, on the eastern side of Beersheba, after daylight.

We explored some stacks of tibbin (straw from the wheat harvest). Our horses were too thirsty to eat, and most of us filled our horses' nose bags, and tied some to the saddles.

For many hours during the day we could hear heavy artillery and machine gun fire on our right flank. We were told it was the Anzac Mounted Division in action at Tel-el-Saba.

We were beginning to think it would be our lucky day as the shadows were lengthening. I heard some remarks: "It's getting too late now to do anything" etc. and when we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on our good fortune for the day, the order was given: "B Squadron, all pack horses to the rear. Remainder prepare for action. See that all equipment is secured tightly on your saddles." We heard that order many times, and knew what it meant. A tingling feeling ran down my spine. "Wind up", I suppose but we were too busy getting things ready to worry much. Not long after came the order "B Squadron Mount" and we were on the way to WHAT?

We joined the other Troops of the Squadron and Regiment and on the way our Troop leader told us: "We expect to water our horses in Beersheba tonight, and take as many prisoners as possible in the process." The date was October 31st, 1917.

It seemed that time was now the big factor in all our movements. Soon we came to the top of the ridge, and from there we looked down on Beersheba, about two miles away, with the sun behind the spire of the Mosque. I will always remember the sight of that spire, with the sun behind it.

Each Squadron advanced in line and at the "trot". "A" Squadron followed by "B" and then "C" Squadrons, each about 50 yards apart with about four yards between each horseman and the 4th Regiment on our right. The Regiment, still moving at the trot. I passed quite close to Colonel Cameron (C.O. of the 12th Regiment) a well-liked leader, and his staff surveying the land in front through binoculars. The Colonel said, "Pass the word to Featherstonehaugh to look out for the little hill on the left." The man acknowledged the message when he received it, but we kept the same pace all the time.

Soon the first artillery shells came over, and they landed in front of "A" Squadron. Some riders yelled, and coo-eed, and then broke into a gallop, and the wild ride had started.

We could see the country we were riding into was broken by dry gullies that had been torn out by the winter rains. The first gully we came to was about four feet deep, and straight sides. My horse was hesitating, not knowing what to do, when I hit him over the butt of the tail with the rifle, he partly fell, and jumped to the bottom. We found a way out a little distance down the gully and away we galloped again. This cut out all idea of a [23] straight line for the Squadron but the troop kept together fairly well. We had five or six gullies to cross, but all were as bad as the first one.

The level country near the trenches was deep in dust. This was one of the worst features of the Palestine Front, for six months each year without rain. The horses in front stirred up the dust and we could see only a few yards, our eyes almost filled with dust, and filling the mouth.

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 some of the Turks must have incorrectly ranged the sights on their rifles, as many bullets went overhead. “B” Squadron was drawing closer to "A" Squadron. Looking down I saw a hole with Turks lying on the ground, and firing their rifles; my horse had to jump to one side to miss them. The Turks were big men, too big for me to tangle with. Glancing around I saw the nose bag tied to George Cook's saddle was dragging along the ground. Someone yelled, "Cut it and let it go Cookie". The machine gun fire was now very heavy. I felt something hit my haversack and trousers and later, on inspection, I found a hole through my haversack and two holes in my trousers. One bullet left a black mark along my thigh. Some horses and riders were now falling near me. All my five senses were working overtime, and a "sixth sense" came into action; call it the "sense of survival" or common sense. This said, "If you want to survive, keep moving, keep moving," etc. So I urged my horse along, and it wasn't hard to do so as he was as anxious as I was to get past those trenches. I am certain my horse knew what those bullets meant, judging by his reaction to them, at Beersheba, and many times before and after Beersheba. No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did. Suddenly through the dust, I saw the trenches, very wide with sand bags in front; I doubt if my horse could have jumped them with the load he was carrying, and after galloping two miles. The trench was full of Turks with rifle and fixed bayonets, and hand grenades. I heard many grenades crash and ping-g-g-g-g over the noise of rifle and machine gun fire. About 20 yards to my left, I could just see as a blur through the dust some horses and men of the 12th Regiment passing through a narrow opening in the trenches. I turned my horse and raced along that trench. I had a bird's eye view of the Turks below me throwing hand grenades etc. but in a flash we were through with nothing between us and Beersheba, and the sound of machine guns and grenades behind.

I counted five horsemen from the 12th Regiment galloping in front and urged my horse on, and crouched low, for a few hundred yards as some one may have wanted to try his skill as a marksman.

We passed two guns with six horses attached to each gun, and riders mounted, ready to move off. The guns were on the bed of a wide, sandy, dry gully. They could not escape, and so we rode on, and into the main street of Beersheba.

There were no other troops from our Brigade in sight and with no dust [24] we could see a considerable distance across the flat open country. I felt certain those five horsemen in front were the first of our troops to enter Beersheba. The official history of the war implied that the 4th Regiment were the first of our troops to enter Beersheba and the whole of the 4th Regiment had dismounted at the trenches.

I heard galloping horses behind, it was Captain Davies who was swinging his sword. I had eased my horse to a slower gallop and said to him as I stroked his neck, "Steady old boy, you have done a great job, no sense in killing yourself now." So Captain Davies passed on ahead. Half way up the main Street, a terrific sustained roar broke out from more than one building. I thought it was machine guns firing at us, so down went the head again, along the horse's neck, and we were full gallop again. It turned out to be the Turkish ammunition dumps going up in smoke.

At the top end of the street the six horsemen in front (including Captain Davies) went straight ahead. To the right I could see some Turks walking away; some of these were unarmed and I galloped after them. I stopped a few, and ahead I saw an armed, and well dressed officer riding a small pony. We had been told a few Turkish words, but this officer wouldn't stop, and I knocked him off his pony with a hit from the bayonet to the side of the neck, and told him to stop where he was with the other Turks.

I could see one rider from the 12th Regiment coming my way, so I went after more Turks. I was surprised when I came across a 12 foot square hole dug in the ground. Tents were erected over similar dug outs by both Australian and Turkish troops to lessen the dust nuisance. There were twelve Turks in this dug out, and when they saw me they jumped up, and pulled back the bolts of their rifles. Many thoughts flashed through my mind: "This is the finish", "No good running away", etc. I jumped off my horse and said, "I'll do as much damage as I can before they get me." No one ever heaved a bigger sigh of relief when they threw their rifles away. I took these and a few more back to the other prisoners and found one of my troop mates, Sel Ziems of Albion Park. New South Wales, had arrived and had relieved the officer of his gold coins, binoculars, revolver etc.

The sun had now set and we were pushing our 25 to 30 prisoners along. We caught up with a lad from the 4th Regiment (the only one I saw that day) and we invited him to put his one prisoner in with our lot. He was quite insulted, and said, "You're not taking my prisoner, this is mine, etc." Sel, who stuttered a little, said, "Get to hell while your luck's in", and so he vanished. It was dark before we joined the others from the 12th Regiment and they had many prisoners. We found the water troughs after scouting in the dark and had started to give our horses a drink, when a stream of machine gun bullets whistled overhead. A 12th Regiment Officer said, "Every man for himself, but our Regimental Sergeant Major said, "Steady boys, I think it is only our guns." He sent someone around and the firing stopped in a few minutes. [24] A place was selected between a built up triangle, about 8 ft. deep in the railway line, where the prisoners and horses were put for the night, and we prepared to fight off any attack, as we could hear foreign voices from all sides. About 10 p.m. we were told to "off saddle" We couldn't believe it at first, but found the order was genuine. The original order was good this time, as other Regiments had followed the retreating Turks. We had to find guards for the prisoners, our horses and our defence but we had some sleep. Everyone considered we were mighty lucky as we passed those trenches, and all agreed that success was due mainly to the pace we travelled, and to the dust.

Next morning parties were arranged to search every home m Beersheba. Dan Moon from Wagga New South Wales, and I were allotted an area to search. Dan was a big front row forward, and I a half back m our Rugby League team. Dan and I collected two sick Turks. The first capture amused Dan. As we entered the room, I saw the Turk on my side of the room. I don't know how it happened, but I found myself with the bayonet only a few inches from him before I realised he was a sick man. Dan burst out laughing. I said, "What's there to laugh at?" Dan replied, "That's the fastest I have ever seen anyone move." I remarked, "Well, I had the 'wind up' ". The Troop mates all had a "go" at me for a day or so over this. When they knew I could hear, they would say to each other, "Would you bayonet a poor sick Turk?" Another mate would say, "Yes, I'd bayonet the bastard." Others would say, "No, no, not a poor sick Turk."

We went out to the trenches. Parties were digging graves and collecting the dead. Our mates were lying as they fell, their faces hardly recognisable for the dust. Some had lingered and had dug holes in the ground in their last agony. Great mates all of them — Sergeant Bill Flood, Tibby Cotter (the famous Australian test cricketer and fast bowler) George Cook, and many others — I have forgotten some of their names. George Cook had dismounted to fix his horse's nosebag, and his horse had been killed. He fixed his bayonet, and had been shot through the stomach whilst charging the trenches. Others had their horses killed and, firing their rifles from where they fell, had kept the Turks' heads down, and bad gradually crawled closer, and the Turks had surrendered.

We cursed the Turks, but, as someone said, we would have treated them the same way, so we cursed those who started the war. When will the human race be sensible, and ban all wars?

No one spoke as we looked down on those silent and dusty forms in their common graves, but everyone thought as I did, "They were great soldiers and the best of mates."

Casualties at Beersheba as taken from "The Official History of Sinai and Palestine" — 4th Regiment had 11 killed and 17 wounded. Total of 28. The 12th Regiment had 20 killed and 19 wounded. Total 39.

It was common knowledge amongst our troops what the Turkish [26] command thought of the Light Horsemen. An intercepted wireless message sent by the Turkish commander, as he hurried from Beersheba, said the Turkish troops had broken because "they were terrified of the Australian cavalry." A captured German Staff Officer said that the move by the mounted troops was thought by the Staff to be only a demonstration at first. "We thought the idea of charging right through to Beersheba was impossible. I have heard a great deal of the fighting qualities of Australian soldiers. They are not soldiers; they are madmen."

Next day, as we waited our turn for the very scarce drinking water, a big crowd from many Regiments had assembled. We could see quite clearly the country we had galloped over the previous day. A sergeant from the Yeomanry Division said to his mates: "Did you see the 'Dinkums' gallop over that country yesterday?" They replied, "No." The sergeant said, "Well, I did, and it's a sight I’ll never forget. Just fancy galloping over that ground. They were mad. Absolutely mad." We did not feel quiet so tired after hearing that remark. It was widely known that owing to the stalemate in France, the strategy was to come in at the back door of Germany, through Turkey.

After the costly mistakes at the Dardanelles a way was planned through Palestine, but a formidable Line (helped by German might) was built between Gaza and Beersheba, a distance of 30 miles.

Many big Allied offensives were defeated, both at Gaza and frontal attacks on Beersheba, with the loss of MANY thousands of good men.

After General Allenby had taken command of the whole front, I'm not sure who thought of the idea of sending the Light Horse through the waterless desert country, and into the back door of Beersheba, but the result is now history; and it was exactly one year from the "break-through" at Beersheba, to the end of the war with Turkey, and the road was open to Germany.

Some of the Beersheba wells had been destroyed by the enemy and water was very scarce, as thousands of horses and men depended on it. After dark, as hundreds of horses and men were crowded around one of these wells, that the Engineers had restored, some enemy planes came over and dropped some bombs a short distance away, and then flew at tree top level over our heads. I'm sure no one breathed for a long time, as those planes flew over. What a disaster if those horses had stampeded!

The capture of Beersheba on the first day (as Allenby's General Staff had planned) was a big blow to the enemy; not only on their morale, but it prevented many troops and supplies from evading capture. This "forlorn hope" charge may have meant the difference between success and failure of the whole campaign.

The second day after the ride into Beersheba, our Troop started out with more than 500 prisoners to Karm, on the Wadi Ghuzze. My advice to anyone droving prisoners is, "Don't ride at the rear of the column". All the [27] sick, sore and sorry found their way to the rear, they drank all water, and we finished up walking and two or three Turks rode on our horses. The Turks just won't help one another.

 

Further Reading:

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, "Chook" Fowler Account

Posted by Project Leader at 9:56 AM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 8 October 2009 8:31 AM EADT
Saturday, 18 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Kearsey Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Kearsey Account

 

Situation at the End of October 1917

[From: Kearsey, A summary of the strategy and tactics of the Egypt and Palestine campaign, Map 3, p. 107.]

[Click on map for larger version.]

 

In 1931 Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Horace Cyril Kearsey at Aldershot was commissioned to produce a monograph illustrating the military principles described by the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. The finished work was printed by the Imperial Army in 1931 at Aldershot called: A summary of the strategy and tactics of the Egypt and Palestine campaign, with details of the 1917-18 operations illustrating the principles of war, in which included a major section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and extracted below.

Kearsey, A., A summary of the strategy and tactics of the Egypt and Palestine campaign, with details of the 1917-18 operations illustrating the principles of war, (London 1931), pp.  20-23, & p. 67:

 

[20] Zero day was fixed for October 31st, by which time the Desert Mounted Corps and the XX Corps were to be as near as possible to Beersheba, while everything was done to contain the enemy in Gaza and to make them think that the main attack was to be against their right flank. Vacated camps were left standing, the navy was active with soundings near the coast, while wells were developed in the Wadi Ghuzze, and railway and pipe-line were pushed out in an easterly direction, and the Desert Mounted Corps and XXth Corps gradually advanced in a south-easterly direction down the Wadi Ghuzze towards Beersheba.

During this period the Turks made a reconnaissance in force. On October 27th two regiments of cavalry and 3,000 Turkish infantry with guns attacked two advanced posts of our outposts, held by the London Yeomanry of the 8th Mounted Brigade on Hills 630 and 720 near Girheir. The post on Hill 720 was overwhelmed but the post on Hill 630 held out till relieved by the advance of the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade and the 158th Brigade.

The Turks appear to have gained no information from this operation. Our preparations continued without further interruption. By the night of October 30th/31st our troops were located as follows: The Anzac Mounted Division was at Asluj; the Australian Mounted Division was at Khalasa; the 7th Mounted Brigade was at Esani. The Yeomanry Division, acting as a covering force in the centre, was at Abasan el Kebir. The XXI Corps was opposite Gaza. The XX Corps, forming part of the striking force, was disposed as follows The 10th Division and Camel Corps Brigade were at Shellal, the 53rd Division was at Goz el Goleib, the both Division l was at Esani, the 74th Division was at Khasif. The details of the attack on Beersheba were for the 74th and both Divisions to attack Hill 1070 and the enemy's works between the Wadi Saba and the Khalasa Road on a front of 5,000 yards. Part [21] of the 53rd Division covered the left of this attack. The 7th Mounted Brigade covered the right of the 60th Division.

The infantry were to be in a position about 2,500 yards from the Turks' trenches, from which they could assault their works by 0400 hours on October 31st. The mounted divisions were to be east of Beersheba early enough to attack it before the enemy realized the attack of the XX Corps. The main attack of this corps, it was anticipated, would be delivered between 1000 and 1100 hours on zero day. The G.O.C. Desert Mounted Corps was told to keep his men and horses as fresh as possible for the principal operations, in which they were to pass round the Turks' left flank and gain a position in the vicinity of the Tel Nejile-Wadi Hesi.

On October 31st the Turks were surprised by the direction of the attack of our mounted troops from the east of Beersheba after their night marches of twenty-five and thirty miles respectively. They reached their first objectives east of Beersheba, in the vicinity of Khashm Zanna by 0800 hours. By 0830 hours Hill 1070 had been captured by the 181st Brigade. Our guns were then moved forward to wire-cutting range of the enemy's main position between the Khalasa Road and the Wadi Saba. This position was bombarded from 1030 hours until midday, and then the 74th Division successfully assaulted it. By 1930 hours the Turkish defences north of the Khalasa Road were captured by the reserve brigade of the 74th Division. During these operations by the infantry, 50o Turks and six field guns had been captured.

On arrival at their first objective the mounted divisions hard to cross an open plain commanded on the north-east and south-east and flanked by Tel Saba and Tel es Sakaty. It was not till 1300 hours that Sakaty was captured by the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade. Saba did not fall until 1500 hours. The 4th A.L.H. Brigade was ordered to make a mounted attack against the trenches covering Beersheba. They were supported by "A" Battery H.A.C., and the Notts Battery, firing at a range of 2,500 yards. By 1830 hours the 4th A.L.H. Brigade had captured the Turks' trenches. Their forward squadrons galloped over the two front lines of trenches, then dismounted and attacked the occupants with the bayonet. The remainder of the Brigade galloped into the town and captured 1,100 prisoners and ten guns of the Turkish 27th Division. Also they prevented the Turks from destroying more than two of the seventeen wells in the town. The 4th A.L.H. Brigade lost 31 killed and 33 wounded.

This preliminary operation was thus completely successful owing to the fact that the Turks were surprised, and that the [22] final assault was carried through with great determination and rapidity.

Now that the Turkish left flank at Hareira and Sheria was exposed, and the XX Corps was within striking distance of it, it was essential to deliver the main attack as early as possible.

It was also necessary to contain the Turkish 3rd and 53rd Divisions in Gaza to draw their reserves in this direction, and also to hold off the troops north of Beersheba while the XX Corps had time to reconnoitre the enemy's main position and to assemble for the attack. Accordingly, the XXI Corps was to capture the line Umbrella Hill-Shaikh Hasan, on a front of 6,000 yards to a depth of 3,000 yards. The 53rd Division, Camel Corps Brigade, and Anzac Mounted Division occupied a line Bir Marrineh-Abu Jowal on November 1st. At 2300 hours on this day the 156th Brigade captured Umbrella Hill. By 0300 hours on November 2nd the 161st and 162nd Brigades attacked on a front of 6,000 yards, and by 0630 hours had reached Shaikh Hasan.

The Turks had lost heavily during our preliminary bombardment of Gaza and its vicinity since October 26th, and in consequence these attacks on November 1st and 2nd were carried out with little loss. During these days, however, the Turks were preparing for a counter-stroke north of Beersheba.

On November 3rd the 53rd Division moved towards Khuweilfeh Hill. Here strong opposition was encountered from three cavalry regiments and eight battalions. The Turks continued their attacks throughout November 4th and 5th in their attempt to drive back our covering force on Beersheba, and to induce the Commander-in-Chief to alter his plans and to make his main attack against them in the Hebron Hills. The Commander-in-Chief, however, continued with the plans and preparations for his main objective, which was to attack the enemy in the Sheria-Hareira position on November 6th. In this connection the Commander-in-Chief writes in his despatches: "Had the enemy succeeded in drawing considerable forces against him in that area the result might easily have been an indecisive fight, and my own striking force would probably have been made too weak effectively to break the enemy's centre in the neighbourhood of Sheria and Hareira. However, the enemy's action was not allowed to make any essential modification to the original plan."

General Barrow was given command of the right flank guard during the main attack. His force consisted of the 53rd Division with the Camel Corps Brigade, the Yeomanry Division, the New Zealand and 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigades. This force maintained its position, and when the both Division successfully attacked the Turks' entrenched [23] position at Sheria the enemy had no reserves left to re-establish the situation, and, in consequence on November 7th their whole defence collapsed. By nightfall on this day only their troops in the Atawineh works still held out. It had, however, been hoped that Sheria and the water in the Wadi would have been captured on November 6th. But the both Division was unable to do this. One brigade of the 10th Division was able to advance to within a mile of Hareira. The remainder of the division remained east of the Sheria-Beersheba railway. The 74th Division was a mile north-east of the 10th Division by the evening of November 6th. On that night the 75th Division captured Outpost and Middlesex Hills at 2330 hours and Turtle Hill at 0500 hours on the next day. Only the troops in the Atawineh works still held out. Also, early on November 7th, the 10th Division captured Hareira and the both Division, after capturing Tel el Sheria, advanced two miles beyond the Wadi Sharia. The cavalry now passed through the infantry to join up with the XXI Corps and to prevent the Turks at Atawineh from escaping north. Owing, however, to the difficulties of water supply the mounted troops became widely distributed when the opportunity for pursuit arrived and so the bulk of the Turkish 26th and 54th Divisions gained a position north of the Wadi Hesi before the Desert Mounted Corps was able to join up with the XXI Corps.

The Turkish retreat, however, was energetically followed up by the both Division as far as Huj. The 54th Division advanced through Gaza, and north-west of it through Sheikh Redwan to the sea, the imperial Service Cavalry Brigade advanced up to Beit Hanun, and the 52nd Division advanced up the sea coast past the 54th Division to the Wadi Hesi.

The Turks had thus been successfully driven from their naturally strong position which they had been fortifying since the first battle of Gaza.

The Commander-in-Chief gives full credit to the preparations which had made this feat possible. In his despatch of June 28th, 1919, he wrote: "I desire to express my indebtedness to my predecessor, who, by his bridging of the desert between Egypt and Palestine, laid the foundations for the subsequent advances of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The organization he created, both in Sinai and in Egypt stood all tests and formed the corner-stone of my successes.”

 

[67]

(9) The Turks were completely surprised by our attack on Beersheba. It was necessary to gain this position by a surprise before the enemy could reinforce. It was necessary to have it in our possession, so that we could gain ground for manoeuvre for our main attack, and also to obtain the water in Beersheba. This surprise was gained by preparations designed to mislead the enemy.

By the active trench warfare in front of Gaza the Turks believed that our main attack would be against this position. Four days before the attack on Beersheba there was a continuous day and night bombardment on Gaza.

All movements of the XX Corps and D.M.C. to areas of concentration east of Shellal took place at night. Vacated camps were left standing, and the usual routine was continued in them by small parties left behind. Misleading wireless messages were sent to the Turkish stations.

Finally, when two divisions of the D.M.C., after night marches from Khalasa and Asluj of twenty-five and thirty miles respectively, reached their allotted positions east of Beersheba by 0800 hours on the morning of October 31st, the Turks were completely surprised.

Most of their troops in the observation trenches were facing south-west. The Turks had then no time to reinforce their detached post at Beersheba or to demolish the water-plant and the seventeen wells.

The Turks were still kept in uncertainty as to where our main blow was to be. The bombardment in conjunction with the Navy was continued at Gaza; and while the XX Corps was preparing for the main attack against the Sheria-Hareira defences, the XXI Corps on November 1st captured the Umbrella Hill-Sheikh Hassan line.

This confirmed the Turks in their belief that the main objective for our attack was to be Gaza. They did not reinforce the Kauwukah defences. They were surprised at dawn on November 6th, when the 60th, both, and 74th Divisions successfully attacked their Hareira positions.

 

Further Reading:

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, Kearsey Account

Posted by Project Leader at 1:01 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 8 October 2009 8:51 AM EADT
Friday, 17 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Foster Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Foster Account

 

Beersheba at 4.30pm, 31 October 1917

[From: Foster, Operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine from 28th October 1917 to 31st December 1917, facing p. 62.]

[Click on map for larger version.]

 

Five years after the conclusion of the Great War, the Australian Army commissioned Brevet Colonel WJ Foster to produce an account of the Third Battle of Gaza for military training purposes. The resulting book was published in Melbourne, 1924 called: Operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine from 28th October 1917 to 31st December 1917: together with a precis of events prior to the 3rd Battle of Gaza, which included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.  

 

Foster, WJ, Operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine from 28th October 1917 to 31st December 1917, (Melbourne 1924) pp. 56 - 72:

 

CHAPTER VII - THE BATTLE OF BEERSHEBA

[56] In the assault on Beersheba the XX Corps was to strike north-east between the Khalasa-Beersheba road on their right and the railway on their left. The Wadi Saba, after clearing the town on its way east to the Ghuzze, ran through this sector on the railway side. The attack was intended to draw the main strength of the Turks to oppose the infantry and so let the cavalry enter the town practically unopposed from the east. The Turk held Beersheba with his 27th Division, reinforced by a few battalions from the 16th and 24th Divisions. His defences extended from Tel el Saba through a series of detached groups of trenches round the south and south-west. These earthworks were placed on commanding positions with good zones of fire, but on the east and south-east they were not protected by wire and, as trenches, they were inferior to those farther west.

The village of Beersheba in itself offered no facilities for a prolonged defence. It lies in a shallow saucer at the foot of the Judean Hills, which rise abruptly from its outskirts to the north, with high ground also to the east and south-east.

The Turks had clearly reckoned on the safety which the absence of water on the British side apparently gave to the town; they were prepared for a raid by one cavalry and one infantry division, but they certainly had not prepared for such a force as was speeding forward on the night of October 30th/31st.

The conditions governing that night march were extremely difficult. A brilliant moon lit up the whole country. The day had been extremely 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 discomfort of heat and dust. 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. Men's faces became caked with the yellow dust, their nostrils were hot and burning, and parched [57] throats could not be relieved because of the necessity of conserving the water allowance, and, as yet, the uncertainty of water on the morrow.

ACTION OF THE XX CORPS.

The infantry were ordered to be on their line of deployment by 0400 hours on October 31st, 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; guns and ammunition columns were taken by routes which had been carefully selected and marked. In places the banks of the wadis had been cut into and ramps made to enable the rough stony water-courses 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 the enemy and wandering Bedouins, there was no incident to check the progress of the infantry or guns. Occasional rifle-fire and some shelling occurred during the early hours, but a little after 0300 hours on October 31st the XX Corps advanced headquarters were able to report that all its columns had reached their allotted positions.

The XX 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 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 from the Sheria area.

The first objective was the Hill 1070, an advanced enemy post about 6,000 yards south-west of Beersheba, and held in some strength by the Turks. It was a prominent feature. 500 yards from a portion of the enemy's main line. The height was of importance, as it gave good observation of the enemy's main line of works, and it had to be gained in order to allow of the advance of the field artillery within wire-cutting range of an elaborate system of works protecting Beersheba from an advance from the west.

At 0555 hours on the morning of October 31st the artillery of the 60th and 74th Divisions commenced to bombard the enemy's positions on a front of some 4, 500 yards. In all there [58] were in action seventy-six 18-pdrs., twenty 4.5 -inch howitzers, while eight 60-pdrs., eight 6-inch howitzers, and four 4.5-inch howitzers were employed in counter-battery work. The concern of the garrison was quickly evident. The quiet township started suddenly into activity, and troops and transport were rushed to the threatened points. The absence of wind placed the gunners at a heavy disadvantage. The high-explosive shells bursting about the crest of Hill 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 re-opened, and at 0830 hours the wire-cutting was reported completed. Immediately an intense bombardment opened up, and under cover of which, and with the assistance of machine-gun fire from aeroplanes, the 181st Infantry Brigade went forward to the assault. The brigade captured the hill in ten minutes, only sustaining about one hundred casualties, and taking nearly as many prisoners. It was found that every enemy machine-gun had been knocked out by the artillery. The first phase of the operations having thus ended successfully quite early in the day, the second stage was entered upon. The guns were rushed forward over the broken ground to bring them within range of the Turkish main defences. Although the teams were exposed to heavy shrapnel fire during the advance, the guns were swung into action at pre-arranged 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 had likewise a brigade in reserve. As a rule the enemy works were cut into rocky rising ground, and the trenches were well enclosed with wire. They were strongly made, and there were possibilities of prolonged opposition, but at 1215 hours, when the main assault was launched, the Desert Mounted Corps was attacking from the east and south-east, the enemy command must have become anxious about a line of retreat. The attacking troops from right to left were the 179th, 181st, 231st, and 230th Brigades. By 1330 hours all [59] objectives had been gained, and about 5,000 yards of works south of the Wadi Saba were in the hands of the XX Corps. The enemy had 3,000 yards of trenches north of the wadi, where he was still holding out. While a brigade of the 53rd Division threatened these from the west, the 230th Brigade, 74th Division, under cover of a bombardment, attacked from the south. The brigade found no difficulty in occupying the works by 1900 hours, as the enemy had evacuated them during the preliminary bombardment. The work of the infantry had been brilliantly and successfully carried out.

ACTION OF THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS.

The orders to the Corps were twofold. It had first to straddle the Beersheba road-which leads up through Judaea to Hebron and Jerusalem - at Sakati, some six miles northeast of the town, and so prevent reinforcements from coming in from that direction, and also cut off escape from the town. That road closed, the corps was to storm Beersheba. The safety of Beersheba against attack from the east and south-east hinged mainly on a strong redoubt on Tel el Saba. The tel lies on the northern bank of the Wadi Saba, three miles due east of the town, and is made up of a, great mound, with a cliff-face abutting on the rough wide water-course. A few acres in extent, it rises steeply to a height of a few hundred feet from the bare surrounding country. Its top is fairly flat, but is covered with large stones, which, with very little digging, gave sound cover to infantry and provided perfect pockets for machine-guns. Two lines of trenches commanded the plain across the wadi to the south and swept the floor of the waterway to the east. The steep sides of the mound were inaccessible to men on horses, and the naked plain held out unpromising prospects to a dismounted advance. Across the wadi south of the town the enemy had barred the way with a chain of redoubts, and on the north up to Sakati their extreme left flank was safe in the rugged intricacies of the rising hills of Judea.

The approach march of the corps lay over barren, strong hills. The tracks off the main road between Asluj and Beersheba were but faintly marked and troublesome to follow. The leading of the troops, never an easy matter at night, was rendered more troublesome lay the fact that the country beyond [60] Asluj was quite unknown, and was of a most difficult and intricate nature. Maps, though accurate in the main, were lacking in detail, and the employment of native guides was too risky an experiment to be contemplated.

The plan of the corps was as follows:

The Anzac Mounted Division, in the lead, was to send one brigade via Bir el Arara against Tel el Sakati, the remainder of the division marching via the Wadi el Shreikiye, Gebel el Shegeib, and Iswaiwin to attack Bir el Hamman and Bir Salem Abu Irgeig as its first objectives, then Tel el Saba, and finally to a position astride and cross the Hebron road facing north-west, with left flank on north side of Beersheba. The Australian Mounted Division, following the Anzac Mounted Division along the Wadi el Shreikiye, was to halt at a point a little north of Iswaiwin, and be prepared to act either northwards, in support of the Anzac Mounted Division, or westwards towards Beersheba, as might be required. The 7th Mounted brigade was ordered to march at 2130 hours on October 30th from Esani via Itweil el Semin against Ras Ghannam, and also to act as a connecting link between the two corps.

The 7th Light Horse Regiment as advanced guard to the corps cleared Asluj at 1800 hours on October 30th, and led the long column north-east along the track to Bir Arara, which was reached at 0200 hours on October 31st. The Australian Mounted Division moved from Khalasa, and marching by Asluj had some miles farther to march than the Anzac Mounted Division.

At Thaffha the track split. The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade, which was aiming for Sakati, pressed on to Bir Arara, and the main column with the Wellington .Mounted Rifles (New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade) leading, turned along the road to the north by El Shegeib and Iswaiwin towards Bir Salem Abu Irgeig immediately to the South of the Wadi Saba. Some opposition was met with on the road leading over Gebel el Shegeib, but this was quickly brushed aside by the Wellington Mounted Rifles, and by 0800 hours on October 31st the Anzac Mounted. Division was disposed as follows:

2nd A.L.H. Brigade - Bir el Hammam.
N.Z.M.R. Brigade - Bir Salem Abu Irgeig.

[61] The 1st Australian Light Morse Brigade was in reserve behind the New Zealanders.

Meanwhile the Australian Mounted Division swung towards Beersheba, and after marching a few miles halted at 1000 hours and remained in reserve near Khashim Zanna.

Corps Headquarters was established on a commanding hill about four miles to the south-east of Beersheba.

By 0900 hours the two leading brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division were ready for the second phase of the advance, which aimed at seizing the Beersheba-Hebron road at Sakati and capturing Tel el Saba. About this time enemy mounted troops were seen moving forward to reinforce the garrison of the Tel el Saba redoubt; meanwhile enemy cavalry, guns, and transport were moving out of Beersheba by the Hebron road either to escape capture or to guard against a raid on that line of communications.

The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade, moving rapidly, soon came under a heavy artillery fire from the hills north of the Hebron road, and the advance slowed down. The plains were found also to be much cut up by narrow and deep wadi beds which made rapid movement impossible. Resistance was now stiffening considerably along the whole front, but after sharp fighting Tel el Sakati was captured by 1300 hours, and by 1350 hours this brigade was astride the Hebron road.

The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade began the attack on Tel el Saba at 0910 hours. The brigade moved against the position partly along the Wadi Saba and partly north of it. There was no cover except in the wadi, and the place was defended by well-concealed machine-guns, both on the Tel el Saba and to the north of it. The enemy artillery was now bringing a heavy fire against the attacking troops. The brigade was reinforced on its left by the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, and later by the 2nd Light Horse Regiment. Finally the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, with two 13-pdr batteries from the Australian Mounted Division, was sent to reinforce the right of the Anzac line. The attack on Tel el Saba was making way slowly, the machine-guns north of the hill giving most trouble. A section of guns (13-pdrs.) was pushed to within 800 yards of the hill, and opened up on the machine-gulls at a range of 1,900 yards, and a battery was also brought forward [62] to 2,300 yards from the hill. By 1440 hours the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade had got within assaulting distance, and at 1500 hours rushed the position, taking some 132 prisoners, while the remainder of the garrison fled towards Beersheba and the north-west.

With the capture of Tel el Saba the second phase had been completed. At 1530 hours orders were issued for the final phase - the capture of the line Point 1020 (two miles north-west of Tel el Saba) - Point 970 (immediately north of Beersheba.) - Mosque.

The 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was to strike for a line between the Hills 970 and 1020 north of the town, while the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade, moving on the left of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, was to take as its objective a line from the mosque in the town to Hill 970, both inclusive. But nevertheless the situation was becoming grave. The enemy, although driven off Tel el Saba, was strong south of the town and still stronger in the hills immediately north of it. The Desert Mounted Corps had been fighting for nine hours, and while its operations had undoubtedly weakened the enemy's hold on his defences, and although the defences to the west and south-west of Beersheba were in the hands of the XX Corps, yet the main objective, Beersheba and the wells, was still in the hands of the enemy. The country ahead of the 1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades was rough and difficult, and progress must be slow. Only a few hours of daylight remained. The divisions of the XX Corps could not be moved against the town because of the absence of water supplies, and because a farther advance would disorganise the next stage in the operations, when they were to march north-west on Sheria and Hareira. The Australian Mounted Division in reserve had two brigades (4th Australian Light Horse Brigade and 5th Mounted Brigade) available.

The moment had arrived for the employment of the Australian Mounted Division and the 7th Mounted Brigade. Had Tel el Saba fallen earlier, no doubt a dismounted attack would have taken place. Only two hours remained before dusk, and whatever could be done must be done quickly. With the day on the wane, it was now neck or nothing. The plan of the Corps Commander had been to keep the Australian Mounted [63] Division in reserve until the Anzac Mounted Division had taken Tel el Saba, and then to launch it in a main assault on the town; but the reduction of Tel el Saba lead taken longer than it was anticipated, and time did not permit of staging a deliberate dismounted attack. The G.O.C. Australian Mounted Division at about 1515 hours was ordered to take Beersheba before dark. The G.O.C. 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, who at the time was at the Corps Headquarters with the Divisional Commander, was ordered to move on Beersheba at once, whilst the 7th Mounted Brigade was ordered to turn the defences of Ras Ghannam and co-operate with the attack of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, and the 5th Mounted Brigade was ordered to assemble and move in support. The G.O.C. 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade immediately galloped off to assemble his brigade. At 1615 hours, when the confirming order was received at the Brigade Headquarters, the brigade was six miles south-east of Beersheba, and it would be dusk in one hour. The open plain stretched before the brigade, magnificent galloping ground; the enemy had been attacked from front and rear, and was weakening; success must come now, and quickly or never. All the conditions suitable for a mounted attack were present, and no other kind of attack could promise equal results. The 11th Light Horse Regiment was spread over a line of outposts extending towards the 7th Mounted Brigade, but the 4th and 12th. Light Horse Regiments were available.

It was a purely cavalry adventure, but the regiments bore neither sword nor lance, and in order to give the charge as much effect as possible the men rode with their bayonets in hand.

The action forms a notable land-mark in the history of cavalry, in that it initiated that spirit of dash which thereafter dominated the whole campaign. The action taken by the G.O.C. 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade is described below in his official report:-

“At 1600 hours on 31st October, 1917, Anzac, Division was operating to the east and north-east of Beersheba, and was pushing back the enemy clown the Wadi el Saba. This division was operating dismounted, but, owing to the stiff opposition, the progress was slow, and it appeared as if the town would not be taken from that direction before dark. It was essential that the place, be taken quickly as the, horses had not been [64] watered since the previous day and had made a night march of over thirty miles.

"At 1615 hours orders were received from the Australian Mounted Division, and also direct instructions from the Corps Commander, for the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade to attack direct on Beersheba, moving on the left of the Anzac Mounted Division, and to take the place before dark.

“The brigade way then in reserve in a valley about six miles east of Beersheba, and the horses were being fed. It was realised by the Brigadier that he would have to act quickly, as only a little over an hour of daylight remained in which to carry out the operation.
“The brigade was assembled in a valley near Hill 1280, with the exception of the 11th Light Horse Regiment, which was on detached duty about two miles south-west of that position.

"Orders were sent to the 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment to concentrate and follow the brigade, and the brigade was ordered to saddle up and move when ready, under the seconds in command of regiments, the senior to command. The Brigadier and Brigade Major, accompanied by the CO’s 4th and 12th Regiments, galloped forward to reconnoitre a covered way of approach for the brigade to the point of deployment, and for the direction of the attack. This was necessary, as the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade had just previously been heavily shelled in attempting to cross exposed ground.

"The brigade started about 1630 hours, and moved at the trot. Shortly afterwards two enemy planes passed over and dropped bombs, and, on return, one flew low and machine-gunned Brigade Headquarters' personnel and Signal Troop, which were moving in rear of the brigade. No material damage was done beyond one horse wounded, but it somewhat delayed the establishment of communications.

"The route taken was along the wadi about a quarter of a mile south of “W” road, and the brigade deployed where the road crossed the 1100 contour.

"The 4th Light Horse Regiment was ordered to advance on the sector from the left of A. and N.Z. Mounted Division to “W” road. The 12th Australian Light Horse Regiment was [65] ordered to advance on the left of the 4th Light Horse Regiment; these two regiments were ordered to attack mounted, each in three successive lines, of a squadron each line. The files were at about four yards interval and 300 yards distance between squadrons. They were ordered to charge with drawn bayonets held in the hand, as no swords were issued to these troops.

“The 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment was ordered to follow on in rear and act as a reserve.
.
"One, sub-section of the 4th A.M.G. Squadron was sent with each of the 4th and 12th Australian Light horse Regiment, and the machine-gun squadron, less one section, was ordered to move down the wadi and co-operate with the reserve squadron .of the 12th Australian Light Horse Regiment in protecting the left rear of the line from attack by the enemy, who were seen in trenches on hill 1180.

"Both the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments went forward at a gallop, and took successive lines of trenches until reaching the wadi at Beersheba. The left flank of the 12th Regiment came under heavy machine-gun fire from trenches on Hill 1180. The machine-gun squadron immediately opened fire on this redoubt, and the Brigadier ordered Major Harrison, OC Notts Battery, R.H.A., which had then come up to the point of deployment, to open fire on these trenches. It was then practically dark, and impossible to take distances with the range-finder, but Major Harrison opened fire and found the range with his second shot, and quickly drove the Turks off the ridge.

“On it being reported that the trenches in front of the town had been taken, the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments were ordered to push right through the town and capture as many prisoners as possible.

"This movement was carried out in a very able manner and resulted in the capture of 9 field-guns, 7 ammunition limbers, 4 machine-guns, and about 700 prisoners.

"The 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment, which had arrived at the point of deployment after the battery had come into action, was moved forward together with the Notts Battery and battery to Beersheba. On reaching that place the CO's 4th and 12th Regiments reported that they had captured the place. The 11th Regiment was accordingly [66] ordered to push through the town and hold it against any counter-attack from the north-west and south-west. This was carried out, and the 11th Regiment captured about 400 prisoners who were retreating from the south-west.

"The 4th and 12th Regiments were ordered to withdraw front their line and re-organise. When this was done, the 4th Light Horse Regiment took up an outpost line from the Wadi el Saba to the mosque, and the 11th Regiment from the mosque to the Khalasa road, the 12th Regiment being held in reserve near the railway viaduct.

"The two batteries were placed in position on the bank of the wadi, south of the town, so as to co-operate in driving back any counter-attack by the Turks.

"The brigade remained disposed as above until relieved by the 5th Mounted and the infantry- the following morning.

"The rapidity of the mounted attack seemed to demoralise the enemy, as they mostly fired high, and it was afterwards found that the sights of their rifles were never lowered below 800 metres. The enemy artillery was also unable to estimate the pace, and the shells all went over the heads of the advancing troops.

"From the location of the enemy's trenches as shown on Map 1A it would appear that they were prepared for any advance down the Wadi Shaai, which would have offered a certain amount of cover while in the wadi bed, but they did not anticipate a mounted attack across the plain.

"If a dismounted attack had been made from the Wadi Shaai, it is certain that we would have suffered heavy casualties, as the trenches were very strong, and in the bends machine-guns were placed to enfilade the wadi bed.

"On 19th April, 1917, at the Second Battle of Gaza, this brigade made a long advance on foot, with two regiments (11th and 12th) and the machine-gun squadron, and had 187 casuals without any satisfactory result being obtained. Here the casualties were 32 killed and 32 wounded, total 64, which about one-third of the number sustained in the Second Gaza Battle, and resulted in the capture of 59 officers and 1,090 other ranks, besides 10 field-guns, 5 machine-guns, and a large number of vehicles, stores, and animals. In [67] addition, the enemy did not have time to destroy the water supply, which was the most important factor in the situation.

"The high percentage of killed to wounded was due to the hand-to-hand fighting against superior numbers at the trenches. The majority of the wounded fell before the trenches were reached."

Meanwhile the attack of the 1st and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was being vigorously pressed from the east, but as it approached the town in the dusk, opposition suddenly failed - consequent on the lightning stroke of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments.

Already Beersheba had the appearance of a deserted town; the native population had fled some hours earlier, and the few remaining Turks were quickly captured. The enemy still held a line in the hills close to the town, but after the outposts were established the night passed quietly.

The remainder of the Australian Mounted Division moved into Beersheba during the night, leaving the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade to assist the Anzac Mounted Division iii holding an outpost line north and north-east of the town. The 7th Mounted Brigade, which had had a day of desultory fighting, entered the town about 1830 hours.

CASUALTIES.

The XX Corps losses were 7 officers killed and 42 Wounded, 129 other ranks killed, 988 wounded and missing, a light total, considering the nature of the works carried during the day. The corps captures included 25 officers, 394 other ranks, 6 guns, and numerous machine-guns.

The total number of Turks captured by the Desert Mounted Corps during the day was 70 officers and 1,458 other ranks. About 500 Turkish dead were buried on the battlefield.

ADMINISTRATIVE ARRANGEMENTS FOR THE MARCH OF THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS FROM ASLUJ.

The only wheels taken with the brigades were the guns and first-line transport (ammunition limbers and limbered waggons containing watering gear and tools). "B" echelon (i.e., all other waggons), loaded with rations, was left at Asluj with the ammunition column, with orders to await directions. But the ammunition column was to follow on after the division at daylight on the 31st.

[68] Camel water convoys, with a small reserve of drinking water for the men, were, left also at Asluj, in readiness to be sent up.

No. 1 Light Car Patrol (Ford cars) and No. 11 Light Armoured Motor Battery (No. 11 L. A. M .B ) were attached to the Anzac Mounted Division, with. orders to follow on, leaving Asluj at 0500 hours on the morning of the 31st.

Supplies were organised as follows:-- Each man carried two days' himself and one day's forage for his horse. In addition he carried, in a sand-bag strapped across the pommel of the saddle, a small emergency ration of grain for his horse. "B" echelon (an improvised train of all baggage waggons) carried two days' emergency rations for the men and one day's forage for the horse.

The medical arrangements made provision for the mobile sections of the field ambulances to march from Asluj with their respective brigades, and for all cacolet camels to march together in rear of the Australian Mounted Division.

Divisional collecting stations were ordered to be formed of tent subdivisions of field ambulances, at points to be decided upon by the A.D.M.S., and evacuations were to be made by sand-carts and camels to the farthest point to which light motor ambulances could be brought; thence to the Australian Mounted Division receiving station at Asluj; thence to the Anzac Mounted Division receiving station at Rashid Bek by light motor ambulance; and thence to railhead near Shellal by heavy motor ambulance.

CLEARING THE TOWN.

In the interval between the capture of the trenches and the charge into the town, the enemy had begun to blow up the wells and ammunition depots. He had evidently intended, in the event of his having to abandon Beersheba, to leave nothing but ruins behind, for the whole place was a nest of explosive charges, “booby traps," and trip wires. By a fortunate chance the German engineer who was responsible for the destruction of the town was away on leave in Jerusalem at the time of its capture, and consequently most of these trip wires were not yet attached to their detonators. Throughout the night and next day the engineers laboured incessantly clearing the explosives and repairing the wells, five of which had been partially destroyed.

[69] GENERAL.

During the day the guns of the XXI Corps opposite Gaza kept pounding away at the enemy defences, aided by the Navy, whose fire was directed at the town of Gaza.

On the left of the 74th Division, the Imperial. Camel 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 force from the north, while the 10th Division about Shellal protected the lines of communication 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 Turk was completely surprised, and 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, but he chose the safer course of allowing the Beersheba garrison to stand unaided in its own defences.

The defences of Beersheba had been entrusted to the III Corps, whose commander was Ismet Bey. On the morning, of October 31st, it is reported that he was at his battle headquarters west of the town watching the attack of our infantry, which he still believed to consist of only one division. But at about 1100 hours he was surprised when he found that the plain east of the town was covered with cavalry. He appears to have lost his head completely, for he proceeded to fling all reserves, into the fight on the west before the battle was well begun. The following criticism by a German staff officer on the tactical handling of the corps is of interest:

"The battle control of the III Corps appeared deplorable; even before the commencement of the decisive infantry attack all reserves had been thrown in."

The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade was dramatic in its suddenness anal decisiveness. When this attack was launched, the enemy had been crushed by the XX Corps on the south-west, and had lost Tel el Saba on the east. But the infantry, having reached its appointed object, had stopped [70] according to orders. The garrison was still able to offer a stout resistance to the Anzac Mounted Division and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade on the east. If their redoubts to the south and south-east survived, they still had hopes of holding on until darkness fell, when possibly reinforcements might be sent - at most, they could make an orderly withdrawal after destroying their supplies and the wells. The effect of the charge was quickly appreciated by the enemy. Between the time when the trenches were taken and the appearance of the light horse on the outskirts of the town, the Turkish force, hitherto in a state of comparative order, had been thrown into chaos. The one thought was of escape anal personal safety. There was a wild rush towards the hills north and north-west. The pursuit was carried on through Beersheba and out on to the hills during the night, until the light horsemen were checked by fire from enemy troops in position.

It will be seen that one and a quarter hours had elapsed between the time the corps order had been issued and the time when the brigade moved to the attack. The delay is partly accounted for by the fact that the brigade had perforce to be spread over a large area owing to enemy bombing, and partly owing to the time taken in assembling the brigade and making the necessary reconnaissances. Further delay was caused owing to the brigade having off-saddled, an order which could hardly be justified, even though the brigade was part of the reserve.

In considering the order to the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade to take the town at the gallop, it should be remembered that the 5th Mounted Brigade was also available. This brigade was trained as cavalry, and armed with the sword, whereas the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade had no arme blanche weapons, but had had certain training in using the bayonet as such. Beyond question, it was a purely cavalry operation, and if all factors had been equal at the moment, the choice would probably have fallen on the yeomanry. In making his decision, the Corps Commander was probably influenced by the following factors:

(a) As far as it was humanly possible to ascertain from air photos and reconnaissance, there was no wire in front of the trenches.

[71] (b) The two brigades (4th Australian Light Horse Brigade and 5th Mounted Brigade) in reserve were spread over a considerable distance owing to the incessant bombing by the German airmen.

(c) The 4th Australian, Light Horse Brigade was closer to Beersheba, and could be more easily concentrated, and consequently set in motion more quickly.

(d) Time was the pressing factor - two hours of light only remained, and Beersheba had to be taken whatever the cost, otherwise, with the town still in the hands of the enemy, the effect on the campaign was fraught with the gravest consequences.


The capture of Beersheba had a far-reaching effect on the, whole campaign, the success of which rested on the capture of the town on the first day. Without that success, the vast and careful arrangements of the summer months might easily have ended in another stalemate engagement.

The effect on the enemy had results beyond anticipation. The Turkish intelligence had made light of the flank attack even while it was developing, and had reported "six British infantry divisions deeply echeloned" before Gaza in the closing days of October.

After Beersheba, the failure on the part of the Turkish command to sense the British scheme became still more marked. On the night of October 31st, General von Kressenstein, undoubtedly mystified and misled, apparently concluded that the British intended to strike for Jerusalem up the Hebron road along the saddle of the Judaean Hills, and immediately swung three divisions of infantry from Gaza to the east. In committing this disastrous error he was probably influenced by the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade's seizure of the road at Sakati, but still more so by the activities of an Arab detachment under some British officers, which had marched some days previously from Asluj, and making a wide detour by Yutta had taken up a position on the high ground overlooking the road between Dhaheriye and Hebron. The force was small, and carried only three days' rations, but was stiffened by a few British machine and Lewis gunners, and was well supplied with ammunition.

[72] Its mission was merely to harass the Turks retiring from Beersheba; as the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade had already cut the road at Sakati it remained in idleness for some time. The enemy, however, took it for a strong advanced guard of the Desert Mounted Corps, and marched a force of six battalions against It - three from Hebron and three from Sheria. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers, the force, after suffering severe losses, was finally captured about three days after the fall of Beersheba.

 
 
Further Reading:

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, Foster Account

Posted by Project Leader at 11:13 PM EADT
Updated: Monday, 5 October 2009 8:35 AM EADT
Thursday, 16 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Auchterlonie Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

 The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Auchterlonie Account

 

Bedouin digging up hidden grain to feed the horses.

[Auchterlonie, Dad's war stuff: the diaries, p. 68.]

 

During the Great War,  George Auchterlonie (1887-1949), a member of the 8th LHR, maintained a diary of his day to day life during the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns. In 2001, his daughter, Gloria Auchterlonie edited the diaries and published them. Within the diary is included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.   

 

Auchterlonie, G. ed., Dad's war stuff: the diaries - Complete personal diary entries and selected phototographs of George Auchterlonie an Australian Lighthorseman, who served in the 8th Lighthorse Regiment in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine during World War 1, Morwell 2001, pp. 54-5:

 

29 October. Left camp yesterday at 3.30 but didnt go far till dark, then moved on as escort to a transport column, miles of it. Pulled up from ten till two, Then on another hour campg on the wadi near Esani All the donkeys were ridden & it was an odd sight. There is a great movement of troops from Fara up this way, & supplies are being brought out by dozens of caterpiller tractors. these are splendid for this country but are very slow. We are carrying 2 days emergency rations & horse feed so have heavy loads.

30 October. Left Esani at 5 last night & went to Khalasa Were to have camped there but an alteration was made, & we left here at 0130 & went 9 miles to Asluj, stopping the day near the railway bridge blown up some months ago Understand that our regt is temporarily attached m the Anzac Div. Couldn't get any sleep.

31 October. At five o'clock last night we were ready for the track again with a 27 mile ride ahead. Had operations explained re attack of Beersheba today, bit did not leave for some time owing to the number of troops moving. We rode all night with practically no sleep & at times very slow with many halts Went NE then NW till on the East side of Beersheba. After day break we advanced on to a ridge overlookmg the old town & I am writing this while on a post over looking & giving a splendid new. The infantry are operating from the other side & a heavy bombardment is going on. The Mtd Div have advanced on to a great flat & their batteries pouring it in to Tel el Sheba (Saba). Our horses we very tired & leg weary & short of feed, while we are on halfration & emergency stuff. A deserted Bedouin camp is near & we got a feed of barley for the rags & also water for ourselves. Beersheba appears to have a few buildings, a big one of three stories, the usual minaret & a lot of hovels.

1 November: Left the post I was on yesterday just as the Anzac Div were getting round Tel el Saba & went to the left by that time they had taken the hill. Believe their casualties were heavy & they lost a lot of horses with machine guns in the mud houses. Towards evening we were relieved by the 11th who were to take the small redoubt in front after dark. We then went back to Div HQrs & were going to water when a taube came over unobserved & emptied his load of bombs. Talk about confusion, horses galloping everywhere, we handed over & pumped thousands of shots into him, but he returned & dived, emptying his machine gun into us, then departed. Soon found that the regt. was extremely lucky, tho Col Maygar, who only rejoined us two day' ago, was badly hit in leg & arm, & we hear he will lose the latter. Capt Sproat & groom were also slightly hit. Jack Gallagher was hit earlier in the day. Just behind us there were three killed & several wounded. A great number of horses had to be shot, while motor cars & water carts were bloom up. In our troop several horses were grazed. We then went down & watered at pools in Wadi Saba & camped the night near there at 10. Had to go on outpost so had another broken night. Stood to at 4.30 this morning d moved off at 8. Only went down the Wadi a mile or two & camped the day. Everything was quiet last night & today & we find the 9th & 10th are in the town, while the inf. have taken some positions & 1900 prisoners, one redoubt still undertaken but practically surrounded. Also 16 guns taken. Aust's have 250 prisoners & may have more. We got plenty of barley & tibbin from Bedouins, stored in holes in the ground & covered over with straw & dirt. Their fowls also suffered. Four Commissions came out by wire when at Asluj, Sgts Paterson, Williams, Jenner & L/Cpl Moore.

 

Further Reading:

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, Auchterlonie Account

Posted by Project Leader at 6:37 PM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 6 October 2009 11:30 AM EADT
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Lock Account
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Lock Account

 

Suffolk Yeomanry bivouac on the Gaza-Beersheba defence line.

[From: AWM H10590]

 

At the conclusion of the Great War, at the end of 1918, Major Henry Osmond Lock, an officer with the Dorsetshire Regiment, produced a book about the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. The subsequent book was published in London, 1919, called With the British Army in The Holy Land, which included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.  

 

Lock, HO, With the British Army in The Holy Land, (London 1919), p.  51-7:

 

CHAPTER VII

GAZA AND BEERSHEBA

[51] The plan by which General Allenby defeated the Turks and captured their Gaza-Beersheba line, involved three distinct operations. It will be remembered that the enemy defences consisted of a substantially continuous line from the sea at Gaza to Arab el Teeaha, where the left flank was bent back or "refused" at or about Sheria. Some 4½ miles farther on were the detached works covering Beersheba, which thus constituted a strong outwork protecting the left flank of the main position. The decisive blow was to be struck against the left flank of the main Turkish position at Hareira and Sheria. Before this blow could be struck, it was necessary to clear away the obstacle presented by Beersheba. It was also necessary to keep the enemy in doubt as to where the decisive blow was to fall; so another operation, on as large a scale as the available force would permit, and calculated both to mystify the enemy and to draw off a portion of his reserves, was undertaken on the immediate sea front at Gaza. Thus we get, firstly, the capture of Beersheba; secondly, the attack on the Gaza coastal defences; and, thirdly, the main attack delivered against Sheria.

"This plan of operations was chosen for the following reasons. The enemy's works in the Hareira-Sheria sector were less formidable than elsewhere, and they were easier of approach than other parts of the enemy's defences. The capture of Beersheba was a necessary preliminary to the main operation, in order to secure the water supply at that place, [52] and to give room for the deployment of the attacking force on the high ground to the north and north-west of Beersheba, from which direction the main attack was to be developed. When Beersheba was in our hands, we should have an open flank against which to operate, and full use could be made of our superiority in mounted troops. Moreover, a success here offered prospects of pursuing our advantage, and forcing the enemy to abandon the rest of his fortified positions, which no other line of attack would afford."

The difficulties to be overcome in the operations against Beersheba and the Hareira-Sheria line were considerable. Foremost among them were our old friend, the shortage of water, and, scarcely less formidable, the difficulty of transport.

With regard to water, no supply existed in the area over which operations were to take place. "An ample supply of water was known to exist at Beersheba, but it was uncertain how quickly it could be developed or to what extent the enemy would have damaged the wells before we succeeded in occupying the town. Except at Beersheba, no large supply of water would be found till Sheria and Hareira had been captured. Arrangements had therefore to be made to ensure that the troops could be kept supplied with water, while operating at considerable distances from their original water base, for a period which might amount to a week or more." This was to some extent met by developing the water supplies at Ecani, Khalassa and Asluj, all places in No Man's Land some miles beyond our right flank.

The transport problem was no less difficult. Beersheba, itself some thousand feet above the sea level, lies in a recess on the western slopes of the Judæan Hills. In the bed of this recess runs the Wadi Es Saba. Towards the north-east a good metalled road leads gradually to the summit of the hills and on through Hebron to Jerusalem. North-west a good road led along the enemy's front to Gaza. The railway line, avoiding the heights, for the first ten or twelve [53] miles follows approximately the direction of the Gaza road, and then turns northwards along the Plain or Foothills. But south of the Gaza-Beersheba line there were no good roads, "and no reliance could therefore be placed on the use of motor transport." Owing to the steep banks of many of the wadis which intersected the area of operations, the routes passable by wheeled transport were limited, and, in many places, the going was heavy and difficult.

Practically the whole of the transport available in the force, including 30,000 pack camels, had to be allotted to one portion of the eastern force, to enable it to be kept supplied with food, water and ammunition, at a distance of 15 to 20 miles in advance of railhead.

There already existed a branch from the Kantara military railway; which branch, leaving the main line at Rafa, ran to Shellal and Gamli, supplying the right of our line. Arrangements were made for this railhead to be pushed forward as rapidly as possible from Shellal towards Karm (some 7 miles to the east-south-east of Shellal), and for a line to be laid from Gamli towards Beersheba for the transport of ammunition. No Man's Land being some 10 or 12 miles wide in this sector, railway construction was carried on in front of our front line under cover of yeomanry outposts.

This line of outposts was attacked on the morning of the 27th October by a strong reconnoitring party that the Turks sent out from the direction of Kauwukah to make a reconnaissance towards Karm. On a Division of our infantry coming up, the Turks withdrew.

By the end of October all our preparations were ready. The bombardment of the Gaza defences commenced on the 27th and continued nightly. On the 30th, warships of the Royal Navy, assisted by a French battleship, began co-operating in this bombardment. The actual infantry attack on Gaza was not intended to take place, however, until after the capture of Beersheba, and was delayed accordingly. [54]

The date fixed for the attack on Beersheba was the 31st October. The plan was to attack with two divisions the hostile works between the Khalassa Road and the Wadi Saba, that is, the sector to the south-west of the town. The works north of the Wadi Saba were to be masked with the Imperial Camel Corps and some infantry, while a portion of the 53rd Division further north covered the left of the Corps. The right of the attack was covered by a cavalry regiment. Further east, mounted troops took up a line opposite the southern defences of Beersheba. A mounted force, starting from Khalassa and Asluj, beyond our original right flank, were detailed to make a wide flanking movement and attack Beersheba from the east and north-east.

The units detailed for the attack moved by a night march, and were in their appointed positions by dawn of the 31st. As a preliminary to the main attack, in order to enable field guns to be brought within effective range for wire-cutting, an attack was made upon the enemy's advanced works on the high ground about a couple of miles south-west of the town, at Hill 1070. This had been successfully accomplished by 8.45 a.m., and the cutting of the wire proceeded satisfactorily, though pauses had to be made to allow the dust to clear. The assault was ordered for 12.15 p.m., and proved successful. By about 10 p.m., the whole of the works between the Khalassa Road and the Wadi Saba were in our hands.

"Meanwhile the mounted troops, after a night march of, for a portion of the force, some 35 miles, arrived early on this same morning, the 31st, at about Khasim Zanna, in the hills, some 5 miles east of Beersheba. From the hills, the advance into Beersheba from the east and north-east lies over an open and almost flat plain, commanded by the rising ground north of the town and flanked by an underfeature in the Wadi Saba, called Tel el Saba.

"A force was sent north to secure Bir es Sakaly, on the Hebron Road, and protect the right flank. This force [55] met with some opposition, and was engaged with hostile cavalry at Bir es Sakaly and to the north during the day. Tel el Saba was found strongly held by the enemy, and was not captured till late in the afternoon.

"Meanwhile, attempts to advance in small parties across the plain towards the town made slow progress. In the evening, however, a mounted attack by Australian Light Horse, who rode straight at the town from the East, proved completely successful. They galloped over two deep trenches held by the enemy just outside the town, and entered the town at about 7 p.m., capturing numerous prisoners.

"A very strong position was thus taken with slight loss, and the Turkish detachment at Beersheba almost completely put out of action. This success laid open the left flank of the main Turkish position for a decisive blow."

The actual date of the attack at Gaza had been left open till the result of the attack at Beersheba was known, as it was intended that the attack on Gaza, which was designed to draw hostile reserves towards that sector, should take place a day or two before the attack on the Sheria position. After the complete success of the Beersheba operations, it was decided that the attack on Gaza should take place on the morning of the 2nd November.

"The objectives of this attack were the hostile works from Umbrella Hill (2,000 yards south-west of the town) to Sheikh Hasan, on the sea (about 2,500 yards north-west of the town). The front of the attack was about 6,000 yards, and Sheikh Hasan, the farthest objective, was over 3,000 yards from our front line. The ground over which the attack took place consisted of sand dunes, rising in places up to 150 feet in height. This sand is very deep and heavy going. The enemy's defences consisted of several lines of strongly built trenches and redoubts.

"As Umbrella Hill flanked the advance against the Turkish works farther west, it was decided to capture it by a preliminary [56] operation, to take place four hours previous to the main attack. It was accordingly attacked and captured at 11.0 p.m. on the 1st November by a portion of the 52nd Division. This attack drew a heavy bombardment of Umbrella Hill itself and our front lines, which lasted for two hours, but ceased in time to allow the main attack, which was timed for 3.0 a.m., to form up without interference."

This attack partook of the nature of a modern trench to trench advance, as seen on the battlefields of France, with the co-operation of tanks and the accompaniment of other products of modern science. It was successful in reaching most of its objectives. The enemy losses were heavy, especially from the preliminary bombardment.

"Subsequent reports from prisoners stated that one of the Divisions holding the Gaza Sector was withdrawn on account of casualties, a Division from the general reserve being drawn into this Sector to replace it. The attack thus succeeded in its primary object, which was to prevent any units being withdrawn from the Gaza defences to meet the threat to the Turkish left flank and to draw into Gaza as large a proportion as possible of the available Turkish reserves. Further, the capture of Sheikh Hasan and the south-western defences constituted a very direct threat to the whole of the Gaza position, which could be developed on any sign of a withdrawal on the part of the enemy."

Here the force attacking Gaza stayed its hand, merely holding on to the positions already captured, while the main attack was being developed on the right.

Having captured Beersheba on the 31st October, a force was pushed out early on the following day, the 1st November, into the hills north of Beersheba, with the object of securing the flank of the attack on Sheria, while mounted troops were sent north along the Hebron road. Accordingly, the 53rd Division took up a position from Towal Abu Jerwal (6 miles north of Beersheba) to Muweileh (3½ miles farther west) and [57] the 10th Division occupied Abu Irgeig, on the railway, 6 miles from Beersheba.

Next day, the 2nd, our mounted troops found and engaged considerable enemy forces to the north of Towal Abu Jerwal. Accordingly, on the 3rd, we advanced in that direction towards Ain Kohleh and Khuweilfeh, where the enemy were found to be holding a strong position with considerable and increasing forces. It will be borne in mind that this was only the right flank-guard; our main attack, which was to be delivered against Sheria, was not timed to commence until two or three days later. However, the enemy elected to employ the whole of his available reserves in an immediate counter-attack. During the 4th and 5th he made several determined attacks on the mounted troops in this locality. These attacks were repulsed; and the enemy's action was not allowed to make any essential modification to the original plan, which it had been decided to carry out at dawn on November 6th. It was this exhausting of the Turkish reserves, so early in the operations and so far away to the East as Khuweilfeh, that paved the way for the success of our attack on Sheria.

 

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, Lock Account

Posted by Project Leader at 5:20 PM EADT
Updated: Monday, 5 October 2009 8:46 AM EADT

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A note on copyright

The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre is a not for profit and non profit group whose sole aim is to write the early history of the Australian Light Horse from 1900 - 1920. It is privately funded and the information is provided by the individuals within the group and while permission for the use of the material has been given for this site for these items by various donors, the residual and actual copyright for these items, should there be any, resides exclusively with the donors. The information on this site is freely available for private research use only and if used as such, should be appropriately acknowledged. To assist in this process, each item has a citation attached at the bottom for referencing purposes.

Please Note: No express or implied permission is given for commercial use of the information contained within this site.

A note to copyright holders

The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre has made every endeavour to contact copyright holders of material digitised for this blog and website and where appropriate, permission is still being sought for these items. Where replies were not received, or where the copyright owner has not been able to be traced, or where the permission is still being sought, the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre has decided, in good faith, to proceed with digitisation and publication. Australian Light Horse Studies Centre would be happy to hear from copyright owners at any time to discuss usage of this item.

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