Beersheba, by Paul Daley

This was originally posted two years ago.

I thought it was worth reposting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event covered in the book.

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BeershebaOn 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse played a significant role in the capture of Beersheba from Turkish Ottoman control. Paul Daley looks at a variety of views of the Beersheba battle and the Light Horse charge in his book Beersheba. The book’s subtitle “A journey through Australia’s forgotten war”, reflects the general national ignorance of this part of Australian military history.

The final assault leading to the capture of the small town and its wells was an unorthodox horseback charge across open ground towards the Turkish defensive trenches. A charge of that type was not the usual Light Horse tactic. They generally acted as horse born infantry, riding to a battleground, where they dismounted, leaving their horses in the care of a designated handler, and then acted as infantry on foot.

In the charge at Beersheba they remained mounted, and relied on their horses to get them to the trenches where they would engage the enemy in brutal hand to hand combat.

The_Lighthorsemen_DVDThe 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, based on the charge at Beersheba, shows the Turkish troops being thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Light Horsemens’ action. Expecting them to dismount as usual, the Turks were taken by surprise, making it difficult to set the range of their artillery and rifle sights.

Daley is a journalist, not a historian, so he takes a much more personal approach to his subject, visiting the sites associated with the battle and combining his own experience of the place with his historical research as well as investigating how others today have been influenced by the events of almost a century ago.

Those other people include:
Joe Hockey, the treasurer in the current Australian government, whose Armenian grandfather had the task of rebuilding Beersheba after the war.

Businessman Richard Pratt who financed the Park of the Australian Soldier outside of modern Beersheba to commemorate the Anzac role in the battle.

And Kelvin Crombie who at the time of Daley’s book was an Australian long-time resident of Israel. Crombie has a strong belief that the battle of Beersheba and the subsequent Anzac involvement that removed Palestine from centuries of Ottoman rule was part of a Divine plan that led to the re-establishment of Israel as a nation 30 years later. He notes that the victory was won on the same day that the Balfour Declaration was announced, promising Jews a homeland in Palestine.

Apart from the Beersheba battle itself, Daley also uncovers a less glorious aspect of Anzac history, a post war revenge attack on an Arab village in which many of the male villagers were murdered as a reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by an Arab in the nearby military camp.

Beersheba was a turning point and was followed by a chain of victories that led on to the surrender of Jerusalem to British forces, then on to Damascus in Syria and the eventual, overall surrender of the Ottoman Turks at the end of October 1918. Less than two weeks later, four years of war ended with the armistice declared on 11 November.

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

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Illegitimate Bill

bill-the-bastardBill the Bastard by Roland Perry is the story of an almost legendary horse ridden in Australian Light Horse campaigns in WWI, who my wife and I politely refer to as “Illegitimate Bill”.

I first heard about Bill in a TV documentary about the horses used by The Australian Light Horse during World War I.

His name came up again a week or so later at a local trash and treasure market when I met a descendant of one of the very first ALH members who had fought in the Boer War. He told me where there was a statue celebrating Bill and his most famous exploit. I was able to visit that statue a week or two later.

Bill got his name because of his wild and stubborn nature. He refused to be ridden, although he could be used as a very strong and dependable packhorse. Those who tried to ride him always came off second best, and some were seriously hurt. Perry’s book records how one man, Major Michael Shanahan was able to win Bill over and was able to use him as his mount in battle. On several occasions Shanahan’s life was saved by Bill’s ability to sense approaching danger.

BTBBill’s “most famous exploit” commemorated in the statue happened at the Battle of Romani, where the Australian Light Horse were trying to repel a massive Turkish force. One section of Australian troops fell to the Turks and were wiped out. However four horseless survivors of that section were found as the Australians were trying to withdraw. Shanahan rode up to them and helped them onto Bill, two sitting behind the rider and the other two standing on a stirrup each. Bill carried the five away to safety despite being chased and fired upon by Turkish pursuers.

Later in that battle, Shanahan was seriously wounded in the thigh, but fought on as long as he could before losing consciousness. Bill clearly knew something was wrong, making his way back to camp with Shanahan slumped on his back. The weakened Shanahan came close to death, his wound became gangrenous, and his leg was amputated to save his life.

excerpt from military record

excerpt from military record

Perry’s book is written more like a novel than a history book. While its an easy and interesting read, it has one weakness. There are no source references, so I was left wondering at times how much of the detail is factual and to what extent things may have been imaginatively embellished.

I didn’t doubt the accounts of major events, but at times incidents and conversations were reported with a degree of detail that I thought was a little “suspicious” as if someone had been standing nearby with pen and pad recording it all.
As there are no reference details provided, the possible source of the detail is left a mystery. In other WWI books I’ve read, its been made clear that dialogue between participants has occasionally be constructed from information found in soldiers’ diaries and letters.

At the end of the book, Perry mentions the statue of Bill that I referred to above, however by describing it as “life-sized” he makes it clear that he hadn’t seen it himself; unless Bill and the Light Horse members he saved were the size of garden gnomes.

Major Michael Shanahan

Major Michael Shanahan with nurses after his leg was amputated

Beersheba, by Paul Daley

BeershebaOn 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse played a significant role in the capture of Beersheba from Turkish Ottoman control. Paul Daley looks at a variety of views of the Beersheba battle and the Light Horse charge in his book Beersheba. The book’s subtitle “A journey through Australia’s forgotten war”, reflects the general national ignorance of this part of Australian military history.

The final assault leading to the capture of the small town and its wells was an unorthodox horseback charge across open ground towards the Turkish defensive trenches. A charge of that type was not the usual Light Horse tactic. They generally acted as horse born infantry, riding to a battleground, where they dismounted, leaving their horses in the care of a designated handler, and then acted as infantry on foot.

In the charge at Beersheba they remained mounted, and relied on their horses to get them to the trenches where they would engage the enemy in brutal hand to hand combat.

The_Lighthorsemen_DVDThe 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, based on the charge at Beersheba, shows the Turkish troops being thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Light Horsemens’ action. Expecting them to dismount as usual, the Turks were taken by surprise, making it difficult to set the range of their artillery and rifle sights.

Daley is a journalist, not a historian, so he takes a much more personal approach to his subject, visiting the sites associated with the battle and combining his own experience of the place with his historical research as well as investigating how others today have been influenced by the events of almost a century ago.

Those other people include:
Joe Hockey, the treasurer in the current Australian government, whose Armenian grandfather had the task of rebuilding Beersheba after the war.

Businessman Richard Pratt who financed the Park of the Australian Soldier outside of modern Beersheba to commemorate the Anzac role in the battle.

And Kelvin Crombie who at the time of Daley’s book was an Australian long-time resident of Israel. Crombie has a strong belief that the battle of Beersheba and the subsequent Anzac involvement that removed Palestine from centuries of Ottoman rule was part of a Divine plan that led to the re-establishment of Israel as a nation 30 years later. He notes that the victory was won on the same day that the Balfour Declaration was announced, promising Jews a homeland in Palestine.

Apart from the Beersheba battle itself, Daley also uncovers a less glorious aspect of Anzac history, a post war revenge attack on an Arab village in which many of the male villagers were murdered as a reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by an Arab in the nearby military camp.

Beersheba was a turning point and was followed by a chain of victories that led on to the surrender of Jerusalem to British forces, then on to Damascus in Syria and the eventual, overall surrender of the Ottoman Turks at the end of October 1918. Less than two weeks later, four years of war ended with the armistice declared on 11 November.

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Goodbye Cobber God Bless You, by John Hamilton

goodbye“Goodbye Cobber, God bless you”, are the last recorded words of Trooper Harold Rush prior to him being sent to an inevitable death in the battle of the Nek.

That battle occurred 100 years (and a few days) ago and was one of the most futile events within the greater Gallipoli campaign of World War I.

Australian troops were ordered to leave their own trenches at a site named “The Nek”, armed with bayonets fixed on rifles*, and capture Turkish positions only 30 or so metres in front of them. To do this they had to cross a narrow patch of land about the size of 2-3 tennis courts. Either side of this area, the land fell away steeply.

Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent later described the event as being like “trying to attack an inverted frying pan from the direction of its handle.”**
The attack at the Nek would be familiar to many people without them realising it. It formed the climax of Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli, in which its futility was highlighted.

Four waves of troops were ordered to charge one after the other, even though the massacre of the first wave made the tragic outcome clear. Attempts to have the charge of subsequent waves halted were rejected and line after line of troops were mown down by Turkish machine gun and rifle fire almost as soon as they raised themselves above the parapet of their own trenches.

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Harold Rush of the 10th Light Horse died in the third wave, after his commanding officer had tried to put an end to the attack that he knew would see his men slaughtered. That officer’s plea was rejected by the senior officer at the site.

John Hamilton’s book Goodbye Cobber God Bless You follows the men involved in the battle from the time of recruitment through to the tragedy that took the lives of most of them. It’s a subject that he briefly touched upon in his more recent book The Price of Valour about Hugo Throssell. Throssel was one of the few survivors of the attack whose involvement in another battle soon afterwards earned him a Victoria Cross.

I found the book on Throssell was a much easier read than Goodbye Cobber Following the life of one man was easier than keeping track of many men whose names were mostly unfamiliar. The book would probably benefit from a second reading, which may give clarity to the earlier references to men whose names grow more recognisable as the book progresses.

The difficulty I had reading Goodbye Cobber wasn’t really the fault of the book or its author. By the time I started I’d already ready many books about the Gallipoli campaign and maybe a kind of battle fatigue had started to set in. My reading time was also limited so I didn’t have large blocks of time available to devote to the book. The short reading periods available didn’t really give me the chance to settle into it, and each time I picked it up was like starting over again.
grave stone

* Some reports claim they were sent with unloaded rifles, but accounts given in Hamilton’s book speak of Australian survivors returning fire occasionally while stranded in “no-man’s land”.

** Goodbye Cobber God Bless You, John Hamilton page 243

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Also see my short article here: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/anzacs-and-wwi-100-years-on-7th-august/