Jerusalem and indeed all Palestine had been under Moslem domination since 637 AD. In 1077 the Seljuk Turks had become masters of Palestine. At this time the condition of the Christians became unbearable. The Turks forbade Christian services, devastated churches, murdered pilgrims. In 1095 Pope Urban 11 delivered an address that started the Crusades. He declared "Jerusalem is Umbilicus Mundi" the navel of the world. "This royal city...is in subjection to those who do not know God, to worship of the heathen. Therefore, she seeks and desires to be liberated and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid."
Early Crusaders. In 1099 Godfrey of Bouillon and his knights conquered Jerusalem, following a five week siege. There followed wholesale slaughter of the city's inhabitants, including all of its Jewish citizens, many burned alive in their synagogues. A terrible indictment on Christendom. In 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders, re-entered Jerusalem, stripped the cross from the Dome of the Rock, plundered churches and convents, restored all the buildings that had been mosques (notably the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque), while turning other churches into stables or granaries. Thousands of following Crusaders paid the ultimate price with their bones bleaching the barren rocky hills but Jerusalem was to remain firmly in the hands of the Turks right up until this century when 800 Aussie Light Horsemen rode into history and opened the gateway to Jerusalem.
Beersheba - Well Of The Oath. The key to the battle were the Gaza-Beersheba fortifications. Beersheba, meaning "well of the oath", so named by Abraham in the book of Genesis. The well had provided water not only to Abraham, but to Moses and David. Any army approaching its life-giving wells has to march for days through the waterless Sinai desert. All the Turks had to do was hold off an attack for one day and the merciless desert sun would do the rest. Despite constant assaults by the combined forces of the British and Australian armies, the place could not be taken. Then came the fateful day of October 31 1917. The generals were desperate, 50,000 British infantry with tank support had been driven back into the desert. With the sun about to set and with no water for many miles, disaster stared them squarely in the face. The Australian Light Horse Commander Chauvel's orders were to storm Beersheba, it had to be won before nightfall at all costs. The situation was becoming grave as they were in urgent need of 400,000 gallons of water for men and horses.
Australian Light Horse Brigade departs for the Middle East, WWI.
Chauvel concocted a crazy plan. Why not let his 800 horsemen charge the Turkish artillery? A cavalry charge across 6000 yards of open terrain straight into the face of the massed Turkish guns. It sounded like a recipe for disaster. No wonder the German Officer commanding the Turkish defences described the Aussie Light Horsemen as "madmen!" For a start the Light Horse were not cavalry, they were mounted infantry. They had no swords or lancers but were equipped with rifles and bayonets designed for infantry warfare. But left with virtually no alternative the desperate General gave the order for the last great cavalry charge in history! The 800 young men mounted their magnificent Walers (horses) and lined up to face the Turkish guns, their young faces bronzed and tanned from the desert sun, their emu plumes swaying in the breeze from their famous slouch hats, rifles swung across their backs and bayonets in hand. History was about to be written. These 800 young men were about to open the doorway to the liberation of Jerusalem!
Uniform of the Australian Light Horse Brigade
Slouch hat with emu plume
The Light Horsemen charged magnificently across the dusty plains, so fast that the Turkish artillery could not keep pace with them and the "mad" horsemen were able to slip under their guns. As they leapt the trenches laced with machine gun bullets, a magnificent cheer went up from the British ranks, even some of the Turks stood and applauded, such was the magnificence of the feat. Although hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned they charged on. Beersheba - the gateway to Jerusalem, fell that day, not to the Crusaders, not to the British, German or US Armies - but to the Australian Light Horsemen!
Australian Light Horse in the Middle East during WWI
Australian Light Horse "at Beersheba" in October 1917
Let me quote from the book "True Australian War Tales" by Alec Hepburn. "...the British swept towards Gaza. They stormed the city on 26 March but were thrown back by determined enemy resistance. A second attempt on 17 April also ended in failure. The Turks, with German and Austrians of the crack Asia Corps, stood firm along a fortified line from Gaza on the coast, to Beersheba, near the Judean Hills. The key to victory was Beersheba. Many nations claim to have mounted the last cavalry charge in history, but most of these actions were minor skirmishes of no real significance towards the outcome of the war in which they fought. The Australian Light Horse attack on Beersheba was the last important cavalry charge in history and the last to win a resounding victory that altered the course of a war." (And the course of a nation - Israel).
Turkish troops dug in to trenches at Beer-Sheva, WWI
"The late afternoon sunlight flashing from their bayonets, Australian troopers of the 4th Light Horse Brigade made a proud sight as they spread in a khaki flood over the stony Palestine plain. The thundering hoof beats of their mounts rolled over the arid land ahead like some macabre overture . ... Wearing their distinctive feather-plumed slouch hats at a variety of jaunty angles the troopers seemed nonchalant in the face of death.... Topping the last rise Beersheba suddenly came into sight, the graceful minaret on its Mosque pointing the way to glory, in what was to be the last important cavalry charge in history. Almost as one the big, brown warhorses surged forward in a mad gallop, their hoofs striking thunder from the hard sun-baked earth."
Remnant of Turkish trenches in Beer-Sheva today (Source)
"Then from somewhere within the barbed-wire-encircled town, heavy artillery began firing. The first shells roared overhead, exploding in fiery geysers amid the charging ranks. Yelling men and bellowing horses went down in tangled heaps, their screams filling the choking smoke clouds that swirled everywhere, But not even shrapnel could halt their fierce onslaught. Leaping their mounts over fallen comrades, the horsemen swept towards the Turkish line. Soon the shells were falling harmlessly behind the advancing ranks. With the first gauntlet behind them the Australian horsemen raced into the next. From the flanks Turkish machine-guns took over the defence. Many more men and horses went down, but still they came on. The tough Turkish infantry had been unnerved by the seemingly invincible horde bearing down on them. Wild with fear, for they knew their foe by reputation, the Turks put up a formidable rifle barrage in a frantic effort to stop the mounted madmen. Troopers pitched from the saddle; others had their mounts shot from under them: and yet the suicidal charge swept on. As the Light Horse galloped nearer the excited Turks forgot to lower their sights and found themselves firing high. With bullets now buzzing harmlessly overhead the leading squadrons thundered in line across the last kilometre then jumped their mighty Walers over the trenches."
Charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade at Beer-Sheva, October 31, 1917
The rest is history. "Beersheba - well of the oath, was in Australian hands by the time the last rays of fading daylight had gone from the desert sky. This deed would live on as the proudest achievement in the colourful story of the legendary Light Horse, the force that was probably the most uniquely Australian fighting unit ever raised. The Light Horseman was the best mounted soldier in history, finer even than the Cossack or the American Plains Indian."
In fact the British General Allenby rated the Cavalry charge as one of, if not the most magnificent in history. Eight hundred Aussie Light horsemen had achieved what 50,000 British troops with tanks could not do, what even the Crusaders or Napoleon could not do! They had opened the doorway to Jerusalem against seemingly insurmountable odds. Imagine how I felt when I discovered recently that my forefathers were part of that great battle that changed history forever. They were magnificent Light Horsemen! My Grandfather Fred was a horsebreaker for the Light Horse while his three brothers were part of the famous 3rd Light Horse Regiment that took part that day in the great battle for the liberation of Beersheba.
Park of the Australian Soldier, Beer-Sheva, Israel
I am in no way attempting to glorify war, it is terrible. But I believe we need "to give honour where honour is due." Many of the Light Horsemen were visibly moved when they realised they had opened the gateway to the Holy Land, a doorway which had been firmly shut for centuries. One writer put it this way "Without the ANZAC involvement the modern state of Israel would not have come into existence!" On December 11th 1917 the Australian Light Horsemen rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, so far from their homes, their emu feathers proudly fluttering in the breeze, to be greeted with a hysterical welcome by Jews and Christians. A far cry from the scenario when Godfrey of Bouillon and his bloodthirsty Crusaders had entered the city in 1099. Centuries of Moslem rule was over. As the triumphant British General Allenby entered the city through the Jaffa gate, his honour guard was made up of slouch hatted Aussies. Opposite him as he stood on the steps of the Citadel of David he was encircled by another honour guard of proud ANZAC Light Horsemen! Their magnificent effort was being honoured by the world!
General Allenby enters Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 1917 at the Jaffa Gate, on foot out of respect for the Holy City. (Source: Wikipedia)
History has not been kind to these magnificent mounted Aussies. Not only is this magnificent and historical feat not known by the world but even most Australians are unfamiliar with what their forefathers achieved. Even the capture of Damascus was accredited to Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab army, but the truth is the Aussie Light Horsemen had taken the city one week earlier but had to hide out of sight while Lawrence's ego was appeased, allowing him to parade into the city!--"How 800 Australian and New Zeland (ANZAC) Light Horse Infantry won the Battle of Beer-Sheva and began the modern State of Israel", account by Col. Stringer, possibly plagiarized from Peter Hogan
See also, http://lifeinmitzperamon.blogspot.com/2010/05/in-hearts-at-peace-under-english-heaven.html