BEERSHEBA — One hundred years after Australian and New Zealand soldiers captured the city of Beersheba from Ottoman forces, a group of their descendants reenacted the cavalry charge on the Negev city that has been credited with changing the tide of World War I.
Culminating a three-week tour of the region visiting key ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) sites, the children and grandchildren of the commonwealth soldiers on Tuesday retraced the audacious, six-kilometer charge on Beersheba in full period dress.
At a series of commemorative events held throughout the city, Israeli, Australian and New Zealand leader hailed the battle for Beersheba as helping pave the way for a Jewish state in Palestine.
But for most of the participants, the weeks-long trip visiting key battle sites across the deserts of Egypt, Jordan and Israel has been a personal and emotional journey.
Darwin native Cate Steadman said she made the journey to honor her grandfather Trooper Ernest Pauls, a soldier in the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, who fought in the 1917 offensive.
“It means a lot to me, because 100 years ago today, my grandfather was bravely facing those bullets on his horse and now here I am.”
Jan Gall, the great-niece of Lt. Gen. Harry Chauvel, who led the Anzac forces to victory over the Ottoman army, said she was overcome by emotion several times on the memorial tour.
“It’s been very very personal. I’ve had a lump in my throat a lot,” Gall said.
Though the ANZAC cavalry had never trained for such an assault, Chauvel ordered his forces to charge the Ottoman forces fortified in trenches. They galloped so fast that the Ottoman marksmen couldn’t adjust their range quickly enough to effectively aim at the advancing cavalry. After crossing the plain, the soldiers dismounted and fought the Ottomans hand to hand in the trenches.
By nightfall of October 31, 1917, Beersheba was under British control.
“I could actually see Chauvel’s hill in the distance [when the Light Horse reenacted the charge] while I was sitting in the grandstand,” Gall said. “That brought a lump to my throat again.”
Another highlight of the trip for Gall and her seven relatives on the trip was the Israeli hospitality. “I cannot believe the welcome the Israeli people have given us,” she added.
“To be standing on this ground where it all happened is almost indescribable,” a participant named Tom Childes said. “It was just brilliant.”
The trip also held special meaning to the descendants of Australia’s Aboriginal soldiers.
Historians estimate that as many as 1,000 of the approximately 4,500 Australian soldiers who fought here in WWI were Aboriginal, though the exact number is difficult to determine. The cavalry units were especially popular for Aboriginal soldiers since many had experience handling horses at home.
When they returned home after the war, Aboriginal veterans were forced to live on segregated “mission stations,” similar to Indian reservations in the United States.
For their descendants, coming on the memorial trip is a way to raise awareness of the sacrifice of Aboriginal soldiers, including the racial discrimination they continued to face upon their return.
Raymond Finn said his grandfather enlisted to fight in the war while working on a horse ranch in Western Australia.
“It’s a part of our history, with these horses, but also for me it’s been a very memorable trip,” he said. “It was a great honor to ride through the streets for him, and remember him,” he said. “And for all of the other indigenous soldiers and their families as well.”
WWI historian and author Kelvin Crombie says the key cavalry charge not only helped in clearing the way to Jerusalem during World War I, it boosted the morale of the Allied forces.
“The battle of Beersheba was very significant, it was a turning point in the Middle Eastern campaign,” Crombie told The Times of Israel. “Some might even say a turning point in the conflict overall, not only because it was a major victory but it gave encouragement to all of the other allied soldiers who were suffering terrible defeats in France.”
“So not only was this an incredibly important military victory, but psychologically as well,” he said. “This was an incredibly important morale boost for the allied forces.”
AFP and Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.