On this day: Ottomans defeated at the WWI Battle of Beersheba

October 31, 2021 marks 104 years since the Battle of Beersheba, a decisive victory in World War I for the British Army, consisting mainly of Australian and New Zealand troops, marking the end of centuries of Ottoman rule in the country. .

The battle saw British forces emerge from multiple defeats against the Ottomans, specifically the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Kut in present-day Iraq, and then two defeats in Gaza.

The general in command of what had been called the “Egyptian Expeditionary Force”, General Sir Archibald Murray, was replaced by General Edmund Allenby, who had been instructed to recapture Jerusalem before Christmas.

Rather than launch another attack on Gaza, Allenby decided to attack Beersheba.

The attack certainly had risks. The city was heavily fortified, although not as heavily defended as Gaza. However, it sat close to the highly fortified Ottoman front line, dominating the south with trenches, redoubts, and strong fortifications.

90th anniversary of the WWI Battle of Beersheba: re-enactment of the Australian light horse charge (credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / EMAN)

Beersheba also had natural geography on its side, with a severe lack of trees and water along with hills and tales enhanced by Ottoman fortifications.

But despite an apparent lack of water, Allenby was convinced otherwise. This was done with the help of Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist from Zichron Ya’akov and a member of the Nili spy ring, who discovered that large reservoirs of water were hidden in the area.

The Jewish underground movement headed by Aaron Aaronsohn, seen on the back of this family photo, played a BIG ROLE in pursuing the Balfour Declaration.  (credit: BEIT AARONSOHN ZICHRON YA'ACOV)The Jewish underground movement headed by Aaron Aaronsohn, seen on the back of this family photo, played a BIG ROLE in pursuing the Balfour Declaration. (credit: BEIT AARONSOHN ZICHRON YA’ACOV)

This was essential for Allenby, as water would be needed for men, horses, camels, and vehicles to win the campaign.

Using spy work, Allenby and a British Zionist intelligence officer, Richard Meinertzhagen, managed to uncover Turkish lines and strategy, and tricked them into thinking that another attack on Gaza was imminent. The Ottomans began to shore up their defenses near Gaza.

On October 31, at 5:55 a.m., the Egyptian Expeditionary Force launched its attack, bombarding fortifications and other targets for several hours and slowly advancing forward, capturing territory as they advanced towards the trenches and other Ottoman positions. However, it was slow progress, and British forces still expected a possible defeat by mid-afternoon.

But the most famous part of the battle is the cavalry.

The Mounted Divisions of Anzac and Australia had received important jobs for the battle, such as cutting the city’s roads to Jerusalem and Hebron. They had also been told to act as screens and stop reinforcements and saw fighting in other areas, such as Tel el Saba, a highly fortified defensive position that would have destroyed any attempted mounted charge against Beersheba.

Tel el Saba in particular was a great offensive effort, seeing various regiments charging into the area against fire, artillery, and even Ottoman aircraft. But the target was captured and, unbeknownst to the attackers, the Ottoman forces had planned to retreat as they could not hold Beersheba.

Soon, it was time to launch an attack on Beersheba herself. The Australian and New Zealand cavalry continued to charge towards the city and soon began to block the exits of the city.

The Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse Brigades had been ordered to front charge into the trenches. And they did exactly that, several hundred soldiers with bayonets charging over several miles of open field, riding amid artillery and gunfire.

In the end, this charge was successful, with some soldiers dismounting into the trenches to fight the Turks in hand-to-hand combat and with the others charging into Beersheba and taking the city.

“This was the last great cavalry charge in military history,” said writer Barry Shaw in a 2017 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post. “The enormous courage of the ANZAC soldiers won the day, Beersheba was taken and this battle paved the way for the liberation of Palestine and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.”

The British victory in this battle had enormous ramifications. In the short term, the battle was important to the overall campaign, pushing the Turks back and allowing the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to advance. Gaza was taken a week later and Jerusalem was successfully captured in six weeks.

But in the long run, the battle had two other major impacts.

The first concerned the future of the region itself. A few days later, on November 2, then-British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour approached Baron Rothschild and sent the Balfour Declaration, noting that the British government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. “. “

It was no coincidence that this followed victory in the Battle of Beersheba, as it had effectively broken the stalemate in the region. This declaration was instrumental in advancing the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.

The second was on promoting Australian and New Zealand identity.

The battle was heralded as a major event in Australian history and has been hailed by Australian historian Jonathan King as “Australia’s first great achievement on the world stage.”

The battle was commemorated in the city in 2017, with the presence of Australian and New Zealand officials who marked the occasion with a solidarity ceremony, the dedication of an army memorial museum and a cavalry parade.
Around 100 Australian horsemen also made a small-scale recreation of the famous cavalry charge, the BBC reported at the time.
In 2019, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard honored the soldiers who fought in that battle.

The battle remains important to Australia to this day.

“The battle has become part of our history, part of our psyche,” then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in 2017, according to the BBC. “They spurred their horses through that fire, those crazy Australians, through that fire, and they took the city of Beersheba, they ensured the victory that did not create the State of Israel but allowed its creation.

“If the Ottoman government in Palestine and Syria had not been overthrown by the Australians and New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words,” he added. “But this was a step for the creation of Israel.”

Barry Shaw contributed to this report.


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