My Dad was a great story teller. My brother and I grew up listening to his fiction and nonfiction stories. We especially loved hearing about the story of his many encounters with poisonous snakes. The snakes seemed to fare the worst and usually ended up lying dead on top of the nearest bull ant nest. The ants seemed quite excited by the arrival of ‘the snake on your plate while you wait’.
It was my Dad who first told me the amazing tale of the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. This true account of the bravery of these forgotten Australian heroes and their exploits was incredibly stirring and lodged in my heart and mind. I say ‘forgotten’ because I have not heard much about their astonishing achievement before my Dad told me or since. Although Col Stringers 1998 book, ‘800 Horsemen’ really brought the story back into the limelight, the majority of Australians have yet to hear about their bravery.
But this is all about to change because this Tuesday, 31 October 2017 marks the hundred year anniversary of this amazing cavalry charge. Even Australia’s Prime Minister will be visiting Israel to mark this auspicious occasion.
Watch The Light Horsemen – Charge at Beersheba
800 Australian Light Horsemen did what no army had been able to do for almost a thousand years, defeat the might of the Ottoman Empire and help liberate Jerusalem from their clutches.
General Allenby admitted that he used the Australians time and time again to spearhead the attacks to win back Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine from the control of the Turks.
One of the Generals marvelled the next day that Aussie soldiers, riding on horses across a five kilometre open area, could survive the withering fire from crack Turkish riflemen, machine guns and heavy artillery. Miraculously only 31 Australians lost their lives that day.
Ion Idriess, author of The Desert Colum, a book my Dad gave me to read as a young boy, tells the story well.
All day, the attempts to take Beersheba by infantry had been repulsed by the entrenched defenders. 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 distinct 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 … 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, saw balls of flame amongst those 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 excitement and fear, had forgotten to lower their rifle-sites 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 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 town.
The captured Turkish officers later said that they didn’t believe unprotected horsemen would be mad enough to charge the entrenched Turkish positions front on. Yet it was the nature of this audacious charge that surprised the Turks so much they forgot to adjust the sights on their rifles and their machine guns. In the end, they shot at the horses, but the horses could smell the water in the wells of Beersheba and, and as one ANZAC said, ‘There was no stopping them once they did’!
Australians have a unique quality of self depreciation and such comments don’t tell the full story of the amazing bravery of these true Australian heroes.
It is important for you to tell your children about the exploits of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, we have a lot of Australian heroes embedded in our history and our job as dads it to find the stories, dig them out and tell them to the next generation. If we don’t, who will?
We live in the day of the anti-hero. It is a sign of our cultural sickness and not our health. Our job as dads is to give our children hope and we have hundreds of stories from the heroic pioneers and early explorers, to the many men who served in conflicts since WW1. Their stories of bravery and sacrifice are truly awe inspiring and a welcome relief to the endless negativity coming from our TV screens, commentators and media elites. In the next few days you will hear a lot more about these Australian heroes. Make sure your children do too!
Yours for more heroes