The Australian Light Horse charge at Beersheba
31 October 1917)

The famous charge by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba (Beer Sheva) marked a turning point in the Sinai-Palestine campaign.

In mid 1917 the campaign had stalled after two unsuccessful assaults on Turkish defences around the town of Gaza. British Commander-in-Chief General Sir Edmund Allenby initiated a new offensive. The capture of Beersheba, 45 kilometres inland from Gaza, was the cornerstone of his plan.

A force of three British infantry divisions and the Desert Mounted Corps attacked Beersheba on the morning of 31 October 1917. Although infantry assaults achieved success, by mid afternoon it was clear that decisive action was needed for the town to be taken that day: Beersheba contained numerous wells, and the attacking force, especially the horses, desperately needed water if the attack was not to falter.

With daylight fading, Lieutenant-General Chauvel, the Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade to attack the Turkish positions. Two regiments, numbering up to 800 Light Horsemen, formed up by squadrons in three lines, 300 to 500 metres apart and moved forward.

The assault soon became a reckless headlong gallop into the setting sun down the long gentle slope to Beersheba. Their ranks held close as the horses galloped some five metres apart. For almost three kilometres they charged over exposed ground against small arms and artillery fire before reaching the Turkish trenches.

Some Australians leapt from their horses and engaged Turkish soldiers in hand-to-hand fighting, while most rode into Beersheba to secure the town and the wells. Although 31 Australians and at least 70 horses were killed in the charge, over 1,000 Turkish soldiers were captured along with large quantities of supplies and ammunition.

News of the charge captured the imagination of the world. Popularly recalled as ‘one of the last cavalry charges in history’, the capture of Beersheba turned the flank of the Turkish defensive line and opened the way for the start of the Palestine campaign which resulted in allied victory in the Middle East in 1918.

The Australian Light Horse

Australian Light Horsemen gained a legendary reputation in the Middle East during the First World War (1914-1918). Five Australian Light Horse Brigades played a prominent role in the long and arduous Sinai-Palestine campaign which led to the defeat of the Turkish armies in Palestine and Syria.

An Australian Light Horse brigade comprised three regiments, each numbering almost 600 men and 580 horses. The regiments were raised territorially and retained strong associations with their districts and towns of origin. The Light Horsemen were trained to ride into battle and then fight on foot; they also carried out reconnaissance and screening for larger formations. Their horses were mostly ‘Walers’, smaller and stockier than English thoroughbreds, but fast and sure of foot, hardy in dry terrain, able to carry heavy loads, travel long distances and withstand harsh desert conditions.

The 1st Light Horse Brigade left Australia in late 1914 with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). It was joined by two more brigades while training in Egypt in early 1915. All three brigades went to Gallipoli in May 1915 and served there as infantry. They experienced heavy losses, most notably in August 1915 when the three regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade suffered 234 killed and 138 wounded in futile bayonet charges against Turkish positions at the Nek.

In early 1916 the Light Horse units were reformed in Egypt. While two regiments were sent to France, five brigades fought in the British-led Sinai-Palestine campaign against Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire. Australian Light Horse brigades joined British and New Zealand brigades to form the Desert Mounted Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel.

In contrast with the trench warfare stalemate on the Western Front in France and Flanders, the open terrain and mobile character of warfare in the Sinai-Palestine campaign allowed mounted troops to play an effective part in the fighting.

The Australian Light Horsemen helped win significant victories against the Turks at Romani and Magdhaba in 1916, at Beersheba and Jerusalem in 1917, and Megiddo and Damascus in 1918. Approximately 17,000 Australian soldiers served in the Middle East: they suffered almost 5,000 casualties, including 1,400 soldiers who died.

The Sinai-Palestine Campaign (1915-1918)

The Sinai-Palestine campaign of the First World War was an important stage in the formation of the modern Middle East.

At the outbreak of the war, the Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East, extending from Egypt through Palestine and Syria to Mesopotamia. The Ottoman Turks entered the war on the side of the Germans in October 1914, threatening British interests in Egypt, especially the Suez Canal.

In early 1915 a Turkish assault on the Canal was beaten off by British Empire forces. For the rest of that year the military efforts of both empires were focussed on the Gallipoli campaign. In early 1916, both sides prepared for a resumption of fighting in Sinai. The British-led allied forces in the area included Australian Light Horse formations.

A second Turkish push towards the Suez Canal was halted at Romani in northern Sinai in August 1916. The Turks were then slowly driven back towards Palestine with allied victories at Magdhaba in December and Rafa in January 1917. The Turks withdrew to a fortified defensive line running inland from Gaza and blocking an allied advance into central Palestine.

Under a new Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, allied forces forced the Turks out of Gaza in November 1917, in the wake of the victory at Beersheba.

The allied army continued to press the enemy northwards into present day Israel. Allenby chose not to attack Turkish-occupied Jerusalem directly, but to circle around it, compelling the enemy to withdraw. Respectfully choosing to walk rather than to ride on horseback, Allenby entered the Holy City on 11 December 1917. Forcing the Turks out of Jerusalem raised allied morale at a time when the war on the Western Front was going badly.

Allenby’s forces advanced north in mid 1918 before turning inland. After victories at Megiddo and Amman in September, Australian Light Horsemen entered Damascus on 1 October 1918. Later that month an armistice was signed, bringing the campaign to a close and marking the end of Turkish control in the region.