Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Battle of Be'er Sheva, October 31, 1917
Buy Your Aussie Cobber* a Beer

Australian light horsemen riding in north Jerusalem in this badly
damaged photo from the Library of Congress collection
The American Colony Photographers' collection (1880-1946] in the U.S. Library of Congress contains hundreds of pictures of World War I battles in Palestine. The photographers had access to both of the warring sides. To put the capture of Be'er Sheva on October 31, 1917 into context, we also present photo essays on Be'er Sheva before the war and the war in Gaza.

The third British attack against the Turkish defense lines in Gaza would be unleashed in the Fall of 1917, the German and Turkish military leadership strongly believed.  Already in March and April 1917 the British had smashed up against the Turkish army in Gaza, the western edge of a 40-mile front, with heavy losses.  And the British forces, now under the command of General Edmund Allenby, gave their enemy ample signs that Gaza was again the target.

Turkish mounted lancers, Be'er Sheva
An attack on Be'er Sheva was impossible, the Turks believed.  The British forces consisted largely of light-horse soldiers, mobile on their horses to move to the front where they would normally dismount and fight as infantrymen.  Horses require massive amounts of water, grain and forage, and there was none within two days of the Be'er Sheva oasis.  No cavalry could go so long without water.

Click on the photos to enlarge.
Click on the captions to see the originals.

Turkish defenders at Be'er Sheva awaiting the British attack 1917
But Allenby secretly moved some 40,000 troops and their horses to confront the Turkish army at the eastern edge of the front, in Be'er Sheva.  Small amounts of water were pre-positioned along the route, but after a 48-hour march, the horses would have to be watered at the wells inside Be'er Sheva, Allenby planned.  That required capturing the garrison village in less than a day and before the Turks could destroy the wells.

Funeral of Turkish army officer
killed in action, Be'er Sheva, 1917

The battle began in the morning of October 31 with artillery barrages and infantry attacks against Turkish artillery, machine guns, and extentive trench defenses.  Only in the afternoon did New Zealand troops capture a strategic hill, Tel Saba, that had provided the Turks a clear field of fire against troops crossing the plain on the approach to Be'er Sheva. 

The British commanders realized that with the sun setting they had to act quickly.  They dispatched 800 Australian light-horsemen across the plain against the Turkish lines.  The Turkish artillery and riflemen waited for the Australians to dismount, but instead they rode on and charged, in many cases jumping their horses over the trenches.  With bayonets and rifles, the Australian soldiers were able to overrun the Turks and secure most of the wells within an hour of the command to saddle up. 

Australian Light Horsemen guarding 600 prisoners of war -German officers and Turkish soldiers 
captured in the battle  of Jericho, 1918
The commander of the Turkish forces in Be'er Sheva was German General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein.  In his account of the battle, he described his troops' surprise at the cavalry charge and added, "Unfortunately the destruction of the wells at Be'er Sheva arranged by [Turkish officer] Ismed was only partially accomplished."

From Be'er Sheva, Allenby's troops were able to roll up the Turkish forces to their west and to move north up the Hebron road.  Within two months, Allenby marched into the Old City of Jerusalem.

View an account of the Battle for Be'er Sheva in the Australian movie "The Lighthorsemen."

*CobberAustral., Slang a close companion; comrade.  Origin: prob.  Heb. chaver, comrade

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