Topic: Gen - Legends
What did Idriess actually see at Beersheba?
Arguably, one of Australia's best known novelists in the 20's and 30's, Ion Llewellyn Idriess produced a book call The Desert Column. Published in 1932, it claimed to be an account of the ordinary trooper with the Light Horse during the Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine campaigns. His many vignettes are well written and have become oft quoted to add colour to dry history. The particular book was based upon his copious diaries which he kept despite his circumstances. Even today, one can still feel the grit of the desert upon the pages. It is most transforming and immediate while reading each new entry.
One of the best known and well used quotes deals with his description about the fall of Beersheba. Here is his vignette:
"Then someone shouted, pointing through the sunset towards invisible headquarters. There, at the steady trot was regiment after regiment, squadron after squadron, coming, coming, coming! It was just half-light, they were distict yet indistinct. The Turkish guns blazed at those hazy horsemen but they came steadily on. At two miles distant they emerged from clouds of dust, squadrons of men and horses taking shape. All the Turkish guns around Beersheba must have been directed at the menace then. Captured Turkish and German officers have told us that even then they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by machine-guns and artillery. At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points. Machine gun and rifle fire just roared but the 4th Brigade galloped on. We heard shouts among the thundering hooves - horse after horse crashed, but the massed squadrons thundered on. We laughed in delight when the shells began bursting behind them telling that the gunners could not keep their range, then suddenly the men ceased to fall and we knew instinctively that the Turkish infantry, wild with excitment and fear, had forgotten to lower their rifle sights and the bullets were flying overhead. The Turks did the same to us at El Quatia. The last half mile was a berserk gallop with the squadrons in magnificent line, a heart-throbbing sight as they plunged up the slope, the horses leaping the redoubt trenches - my glasses showed me the Turkish bayonets thrusting up for the bellies of the horses - one regiment flung themselves from the saddle - we heard the mad shouts as the men jumped down into the trenches, a following regiment thundered over another redoubt, and to a triumphant roar of voices and hooves was galloping down the half mile slope right into the town. Then came a whirlwind of movement from all over the field, galloping batteries - dense dust from mounting regiments - a rush as troops poured for the opening in the gathering dark - mad, mad excitement - terrific explosions from down in the town.
"Beersheba had fallen."
The exerpt is fast, exciting and thrilling. One can feel the motion of the horses, the sound of the guns and the fall of Beersheba. It has everything the reader could ever ask for in a description.
Since the claim is that the "Desert Column is more than my diary. It is myself.", there is an implied invitation to read those particular diaries. They are well preserved at the Australian War Memorial and located at AWM 1DRL/0373. Here is a copy of the specific page dealing with the end of the day, 31 October 1917 from the diary of Idriess.
Below is a transcription of the appropriate pages from the diary.
Diary entry 2 November 1917 by Ion Idriess
About 2nd Nov A few nights ago we left the camp, and rode away along the really well metalled road to Beersheba. It was full moon, the road ran between a valley of hills all the way. Or artillery, ambulance and ammunition transport rode along the road, and the noise on the hard road must have sounded a long way off. Sometime after twelve O'Clock, the road branched. Up one road went the Seventh Regt, to tackle a Turkish outpost at Bir Arara. A New Zealand regiment went up the other road to tackle another outpost. The rest of the Brigades followed on behind. Both roads Junctioned again near Beersheba and the whole force was to Join up at the Junction.
The outpost the Seventh were to tackle cleared out, but Just as daylight was breaking we heard rifle fire and machine gun fire away to our left and knew that the New Zealanders had found their outpost at home. Soon the old sun was up, and dammed glad we were. Away went that longing for sleep, and we were allowed to smoke up, which is paradise after an all night cold ride. The valley grew wider and wider, Bedouin cultivation made its appearance all around and finally five miles away in the hills we caught sight of the white mosque and houses of Beersheba. So far as we troopers knew our objective was to get behind Beersheba and stop the Turks from escaping, while the other Brigades on our left, with the infantry on their left mad a frontal attack on Beersheba itself.
Over the redoubts around Beersheba were the shrapnel clouds from our shells and black clouds of smoke and thick dust marked the bursting of high explosive shells. Machine gun and rifle fire sounded much closer. All our troops got in artillery formation as we were crossing a big flat in full vision of the Turkish guns. We went two miles before directly from the hills in front of us, came Bang then Whizz zzzz, zzzz, Bang and a shrapnel shell burst over the heads of the troop just in front of us. It was a steady hand gallop then across the flat, straight for the hills in front of us. Jacko shelled us all the way. Some of the led horses got excited, and the packs not being strapped on properly, they rolled under the horses bellies, with the result that the unfortunate beggars who were leading them had to dismount and fix the packs again as best they could. Presently we got into a deep wadi, quite close to cover and waited a while. The Seventh LH were already in action. The regiment was on the foot hills, firing up the hills at the Turks. We could see the Turkish machine gun bullets splattering the dirt up merrily all up around the chaps in the seventh. Then it came our turn to give the Seventh a hand. We had a gallop across half a mile of flat country to where the Seventh had their horses in a deep wadi. The Turks turned their machine guns and rifles on us, but their aim was bad, We got into the Wadi under cover and dismounted for action. But for some reason or other we didn't come into action. After about an hour we mounted again and took up a position on the Turkish flank where we waited until dark, alternately watching the Turks in the hills above us and watching the Turkish shells bursting amongst our men in the flat behind. In the meanwhile our little battery, with a few shots, put a Turkish gun out of action which had been troubling us all morning. When darkness fell we rode about four miles back to a big wadi, watered our horses, rode back towards the Turks again, and went on outpost duty for the rest of the night, all terribly sleepy and tired.
Coomparing the two versions indicates that they have no similarity whatsoever. The result is to question if indeed Idriess could have actually seen the charge he wrote about in The Desert Column although failed to record in his diary. To ascertain this, we need to examine a map detailing the location of Idriess, the terrain and his range of vision. Below is one such map.
From his position around Tel Sakati, there is a projected view that was obtainable from that position west towards Beersheba and south towards the position where the 4th Light Horse Brigade formed for the charge. The red lines describe the maximum possible vision given optimum conditions. Bisection the south and west view is the mound known as Tel el Saba, a place where the Turks built a redoubt and held it till about 3.15 pm on 31 October 1917. It was only after this redoubt fell that the charge could actually occur.
Now to view the scene from the assembly area of the 4th Light Horse Brigade prior to the charge. The picture is contemporary with the light adjusted to illustrate the map vision from the above map at that time of day, 4.30 pm 31 October 1917. The salient features have been hightlighted.
It takes little to come to the conclusion that it was almost physically impossible for Idriess to view the charge that he described.
The conclusion here is that while there is no problems with the description, which is stirring, it is not an account viewed by Idriess. It is no better and no worse than any other fictional or reconstructed account. The only thing it misses is authenticity. It is not an authentic or authoritative historical statement. Just because Idriess was in the vicinity does not lend any additional authority to the statement. It just means that he was nearby but missed the show. It was only many years afterwards when a mystique was attached to the charge that Idriess penned this description.
The mystique has meant that many people made claims to participate in the charge. Tales of Welsh infantrymen charging, Australian infantry at Ypres charging, light horsemen who were still in Australia charging, indeed, over the years, many wild claims have been made as part of family legends. All of them inspired by a desire to be associated with something that quickly turned from a small action to a legend. Idriess was not to be left out of this story. Reading The Desert Column, one finds many invented glosses where stories have been imported to add to the flavour of the book. This is just one example of the many imported tales.
Citation: Ion Idriess and the Beersheba Charge description