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Madness on Horseback: The Charge at Beersheba

“The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It is part of Australia.” (Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Oct 31, 2017).

Exaggerated truths have been flowering in the rhetoric following the visit of Australian politicians to ceremonies commemorating the light horse charge at Beersheba. Not a single wisp of objectivity has manifested itself in covering the proceedings, the re-enactment, and the flowing guff. Even the national broadcaster has decided to play along.

Reporting on this event has often been prefaced with the sense that a regretful amnesia has set in. The Allies should be grateful to those of the Australian horsemen who rode their cause into history. “From a solemn ceremony to a dusty desert re-enactment,” went an ABC account, “it was a day of commemoration in southern Israel to mark 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba.”

That battle had been but a subset of other skirmishes and engagements between the Allied forces under the command of British General Sir Edmund Allenby and the forces of the Ottoman Empire. The aim of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was simple and ruthless: capture Gaza, enter Palestine and knock out Imperial Germany’s ally.

The Australian angle on this, aided by New Zealand enthusiasts, is equally simple. Allied efforts had stalled in the Middle Eastern campaign. An assault on October 31, 1917 as part of third Battle of Gaza had failed to make an impression. Furthermore, water was needed – desperately.

Then came the assault by the 4th Light Horse Brigade at dusk. Turkish defences at Beersheba, manned by some thousand or so riflemen, nine machine guns and two aircraft, eventually capitulated. But what florid, alloyed Australian accounts often fail to note is the role of softening played by three British divisions the morning of October 31.

Shelling from 100 guns had alarmed the Turkish forces sufficiently to force them west and south west of Beersheba. The wells, however, were still in their control. As Brigadier General William Grant put it, “men you’re fighting for water. There’s no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani.” The fall of Beersheba emboldened the British forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on November 7, leaving the way open into Palestine.

There is nothing like a military re-enactment to thrill the jingo lurking under the flesh, readying the chests to be given a true thumping. “The leaders of our three nations are here assembled,” intoned Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “because we are honouring an extraordinary battle, an extraordinary campaign, which made history, which fulfilled history.”

The Israeli Prime Minister saw this as a lesson of worthy history and true character building, a fine example of Australasian prowess in the Negev Desert. “We learned about the ethos of courage of Australian and New Zealand’s soldiers.” It was, continued Benjamin Netanyahu, the sort of “spirit of fortitude and courage and willingness in the defence of our land and our values.” The observation is so anachronistic as to beggar belief, but such is the power of the union between patriotism and real estate, between rushed blood and disturbed soil.

Australian and New Zealand forces had tasted a number of decent, murderous defeats, with these countries’ youth butchered at Gallipoli in a Winston Churchill-inspired effort to inflict defeat on the Ottoman empire. They suffered even more in the lethal trench battles of the Western front.

The charge of the 4th Light Horse at Beersheba a century ago, for that reason, seems a moment of ecstasy, one freed from the lethal constipation of the Western front, the inability of forces to make headway and forge victory. It was also a murderous stalemate held together by industrial slaughter, the machinery of modern war.

The cavalry charge was a form of retro-warfare, an example of nostalgia on horseback and daring risk. It could well have gone so wrong, and it was drawn from the old British fantasy of previous charges, not least of all that of Lord Cardigan’s efforts in the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854 against Russian forces. Despite the slaughter inflicted upon them then, hasty glorification followed. “All in the valley of Death,” went poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Rode the six hundred”.

There is, of course, a law of consequence operating here. Beersheba, for one, is now in Israeli territory. If we were advocates of Pascal’s Cleopatra nose theory of history, we could say that even a victory of this small magnitude altered the political geography of the region. The point is again made by the ABC. “The victorious campaign redrew the map of the Middle East.”

Prime Minister Turnbull was even blunter, almost to the point of boasting. These men “spurred their horses through that fire, those mad Australians […] and took the town of Beersheba, secured victory that did not create the State of Israel, but enabled its creation.”

Since that painful redrawing, nation states have warred, bickered and slaughtered. New states emerged, the offspring of part treachery, part opportunity, and colonial fantasy. Undertakings were ignored as the Ottoman Empire sundered. Irritable tribes were artificially captioned by fictional boundaries. Fitting, then, that the Beersheba commemorations should take place on Israeli soil.


12 comments

  1. Bruce

    The irony of the lack of recognition of the Aboriginal horseman involvement in the destruction of Palestine State. Alas an unrecognized minority being involved to create another disadvantaged people.

    Colonial Britten at its worst. Maybe ex Senator Parry could lobby for the Lebanese…I think I am dreaming.

    The way I see it, Turnbull has validated the destruction of the Lebanese people under the guise of the Australian Military getting their collective rocks off. Wait for the announcement that we will build yet another pointless and over priced memorial. http://www.honesthistory.net.au/

  2. helvityni

    I would like to see Mal on a horseback, maybe he can ride to the Snowy Mountains, ( instead of flying), next time he visits the place to promote his hydro scheme…

    Just to show us what he means when he says : “The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It is part of Australia.”

  3. Harquebus

    A war between cousins, England and Germany who, ultimately, were the inbred result from an ancestral bunch of bloody thirsty cutthroats with all generations willing to sacrifice the many to protect the few under the guise of patriotism.

    The propaganda surrounding the celebration and glorification of this event makes me wonder for what purpose is this conditioning. Will our best be called on once more to defend the privileges of those calling the ‘shots’? Nothing was said about the madness of war nor who ultimately benefited which, was the bankers.

    Personally, due to worsening economic constraints, I think we will continue to see many minor conflicts rather than the biggy that everyone fears. That said, there’s no guarantee.

  4. Max Gross

    “Even the national broadcaster has decided to play along”, you say. As if it has a choice!

  5. Vikingduk

    Oh yes, courage displayed 100 years ago, all well and good, but what are we now? A nation of hate filled, fearful and ignorant hypocrites, quite content to watch on, to permit, to reduce funding for abused women, for refugees indefinitely detained, to ignore our Aborigines, to shit on each other, to ignore climate change.

    Advance in our delusional state, advance orstraya fair, lets us fucking well rejoice, girt by sea and populated by heartless arseholes.

  6. helvityni

    …the tomato-faced, mad hatter from NZ is doing his bit to make this place into a cowboy country, with water-thieving and all that unsavoury stuff…

  7. Warwick O'Neill

    Or alternatively a worthwhile commemoration of a group of ordinary people (yes soldiers are just ordinary people) who were given an order, followed said order despite the obvious risks to their own personal safety, in the belief of facilitating a greater good. Of course there were British soldiers who took the majority of the load, not just at that battle, but the entire campaign, I don’t think anyone has ever denied that. The commemoration is about the charge, the men and horses who were involved and the fact that without its success the whole operation was in a lot of trouble. But ya know, should never miss an opportunity for a bit of self-righteous outrage about current events which had no bearing whatsoever on the actions and beliefs of people in 1917. Who really cares what Mal or Ben waffle on about? Pollies of all persuasions use commemorative events to sprout inane sentiments written by professional speech writers. Ignore them, ignore the politics and focus on those whose actions are worthy of praise, even if their action only comprised a small part of a much bigger picture. Lest we forget indeed.

  8. Graham Houghton

    I think this country wears way too much heart on its sleeve. As an ex-serviceman myself I think these commemorations border on the pathetic. Yes, let’s remember, but it was toe-curling stuff listening to the descendants of those men going on and on about something they have no memory of as if they were there. Grow up, Australia and just quietly remember the past instead of making it all theatre and meaningless theatre at that.

  9. wam

    Soldiers and horses do what they are told. In my town, we had an army base honouring the walers. Some canberra dickhead rule changed it to robertson. Shame.
    Warwick ordinary people are not trained to kill! Ordinary people are no longer the racist sexist gangs that were prevalent in Australia and in the light horse.

  10. Harry

    I found the hoopla about it quite nauseating.

    One of the participants in the re-enactment carried an Israeli flag. Israel did not exist in 1917, it was Palestine.

  11. Andrew J Smith

    Part of the political PR in encouraging, if not society, the electorate to look backwards at sepia tinted nostalgia for military authority, while most other focus is upon the moment, and a dystopian future.

    More importance should be placed upon the history from that time aka end of the Ottoman Empire, Sykes-Picot and creation of national socialist states; many now sub-optimal democracies sitting on significant fossil fuel reserves.

    ‘The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process—and other deals, declarations, and treaties—that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.’

    https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-the-curse-of-sykes-picot-still-haunts-the-middle-east

  12. Warwick O'Neill

    Wam – I’m an ordinary person. So was everyone I joined up with. Maybe before spraying your shit at something you obviously know nothing about, try doing a bit of historical research and coming to a rational, objective point of view. Most soldiers join up with the intention of doing something worthwhile, to protect those who are unable to protect themselves, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. Sometimes this involves killing people who would do them harm. What have you ever done to defend the defenceless? You have the right to voice your opinion, but never lose sight of how people, who are much better than you or I, sacrificed themselves to allow you that right.

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