WWI battle to be re-enacted in Israel on centennial of Anzac defeat of Turks
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WWI battle to be re-enacted in Israel on centennial of Anzac defeat of Turks

Australian and New Zealand troops turned the tide of the war in 1917's Battle of Beersheba, and shaped the modern Middle East

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during rehearsal of the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during rehearsal of the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during rehearsal of the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as part of the 100 year anniversary, near Beersheba, southern Israel, October 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during rehearsal of the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as part of the 100 year anniversary, near Beersheba, southern Israel, October 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers rest after the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers rest after the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during the World War I, as part of the 100 years anniversary in near Beersheba, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

AP — A century to the day after Australian and New Zealand horsemen broke through Ottoman defenses in a daring First World War victory, nearly two hundred re-enactors, including descendants of the soldiers who fought that day, were participating on Tuesday in a memorial to those killed in a battle that helped turn the tide of the war and shape the modern Middle East.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand Governor-General Patsy Reddy accompanied 175 members of the Australian Light Horse Association marking the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, paying tribute to the 171 British troops killed.

The battle was a crucial, if largely forgotten, victory in the Mideast campaign that enabled the Allies to break the Turkish line and capture Jerusalem weeks later. The victorious campaign redrew the map of the Middle East.

History enthusiasts and descendants of Australian Mounted Division and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) Mounted Division soldiers ride their horses during the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba when British and ANZAC forces captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as part of the 100 year anniversary, near Beersheba, southern Israel, October 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

In the fall of 1917, Allied forces with General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force advanced on Gaza as part of a campaign to knock the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, out of the war. To outflank the Turkish troops entrenched around Gaza, a parched detachment made a desperate maneuver through the Negev Desert to capture the strategic biblical town of Beersheba, known both in antiquity and in modern times for its wells.

On October 31, 1917, Allied troops launched their assault, but by late in the day, the critical water sources remained in Turkish hands. In a desperate gambit, mounted infantrymen with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps drew their bayonets, charged the Turkish trenches cavalry-style, and stormed into the town.

Had they been turned back, the entire campaign might have been lost.

For the Australians, the Battle of Beersheba is iconic of “the spirit of the Australian people,” said Kelvin Crombie, a historian and one of the organizers of the 100th anniversary commemorations, “Daring, bold and courageous.” It’s remembered as the young nation’s first real victory, after it had suffered crushing defeats at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Light Horse charge also proved decisive for the Zionist dream of a future Jewish state. Two days later, after word of the victory reached London, Britain’s foreign minister Lord Arthur Balfour issued a declaration calling for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“More and more Australians are beginning to understand it wasn’t just a daring military charge, it really was something that had an effect on world history,” Crombie said.

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