From Beersheba to Jerusalem: 100 years after a historic battle

Monument in Beersheba to Australian Light Horse Brigade who fought in the Battle of Beersheba (WWI) (Photo: Avishai Teicher/PikiWiki)

This year, on Oct. 31, is the 100th anniversary of the heroic Battle of Beersheba. Until recent years, the battle was regarded as a footnote in World War I history. Today, it is recognized as the turning point in the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, the division of the modern Middle-East, and within 30 years of its aftermath, it set in motion the path of events towards the establishment of fie independent countries – Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The following story is a prelude – an insight, to grasp the depth of the drama that unfolded in Beersheba on that historic day.

“Graeme, I have a special request for you,” my employer rung me one day.

George, an Australian farmer in his mid-80’s from outback northwest Queensland, had just arrived in Beersheba after a tour of Gallipoli in Turkey, and wanted a guide to show him around town for the next three days.

My jaw dropped. A tour driving around Beersheba for three days with an advanced octogenarian would be a challenge. My employer was firm and directive, and I needed the work, so I agreed.

Clearly, George was interested in World War I history. Gallipoli had weathered the infamous and fatal disaster that had befallen Australian troops when they had tried to establish a beach landing along the Turkish coast. A year later, Beersheba had witnessed their redemption when a force of Australian horsemen had secured the tide of a battle, a turning point in history, which would redefine the boundaries of the modern Middle East, and eventually lead to the creation of the State of Israel.

There is only one hotel in Beersheba and it used to be called The Paradise, supposedly for obvious reasons. It was comfortable but not exactly paradise. George wanted to get an early start so I had slept there the night before.

“Gooday,” said George, stooped and lanky, with a firm friendly handshake and a hobbled gait. “Let’s go out to Tel Sheva and view the battlefield.”

A man on a mission. Clutched under his free arm, George held a copy of Chauvel and the Light Horse. The chapter that would highlight his visit would be Beersheba to Jerusalem.

Tel Sheva is located beside Beersheba and is an artificial mound, belying an ancient settlement, prominently placed above the confluence of the Hebron and Beersheba streams. South of the site is a desert plain encompassed by low hills. Over the centuries, the sparse rainfall upon the landscape has determined and separated local social organization based upon cultivated agriculture and nomadic grazing.

The Book of Genesis recalls the journeys of the patriarchs wandering through Beersheba with their families and herds, their mediated agreements with villagers through digging wells (be’er, meaning well and she’va, an oath) and covenants made between God and man, promising that God will redeem Israel as a great nation.

George and I sat on a bench at the top of the Tel. I had brought along with me a map and a compass, and a detailed record from the Australian War Archives – Palestine Campaign. The document graphically described the British artillery assault on the town of Beersheba and the capture of the strategic Tel by brave New Zealand forces followed by the valiant charge of the Australian Light-Horse across the plain as the late afternoon sun wavered on Oct. 31, 1917.

The Palestine Campaign had been proposed against the stagnant, failing theater of trench warfare and carnage in Western Europe during World War I. By default, it encouraged the British Command to initiate an alternative front by attacking the German-Turkish Alliance through the Middle East. However, the disastrous and tragic battle of Gallipoli led to a further change of strategy, resulting in the redeployment of forces in Egypt, with the intention of advancing through Palestine.

George pointed to a hill in the distance – that is marked today by a water tank and an antenna tower.

“I reckon that is where Commander Chauvel stood and watched the battle with his binoculars,” he said. “Let’s go there! He would have had a theatrical view over the whole battlefield.”

Somewhat taken aback, I stammered, “I have a slight technical problem George. My rental car does not qualify as an all-terrain vehicle and I do not have insurance to cover damage for under the chassis.” What George wanted to do was tear up the ravine, cross the plain over rough ground and climb one of those hills to find General Headquarters.

George was forlorn and disappointed.

“Alright George, if you agree to the financing, I will take you next door to the Bedouin village of Tel Sheva, and we will drive through the streets, and the first jeep driving down the street I will stop and commission him to take us to that hill.”

“You’re on!” George exclaimed with a gleam in his eye.

We entered the Bedouin village, a fringe settlement with a blatant sense of disorder, unfinished houses walled and fenced in like stockades, no sidewalks, carcasses of vehicles dumped on the side of the road and mounds of unclaimed refuse. Home to the urban nomad who prized his independence.

Within 10 minutes of entering the township, we spotted a jeep heading toward us down the dusty deserted road. I blocked his passageway. We caught him by surprise with our apparent casual recklessness. I explained to him our interest and negotiated the fee.

“You can’t leave your car here,” said Ali, after introducing himself. “Follow me and you can park inside my walled property.”

George gulped and gave me a puzzled look that matched my own perturbed surprise.

We jumped into the vehicle of my new assistant and, after slamming the doors shut, we headed out across the plain with a cloud of dust behind us.

Ali had two wives, five children and a herd of sheep and goats. He worked as a security guard at a nearby chemical plant. We conversed in Hebrew with myself translating for George who was sitting perched up across the back seat like a dignified sheikh.

We traversed along the dry riverbed, bounced across the plain and ascended the side of  a hill called Khashim Zanna. The name of the hill had entered local Bedouin folklore as the site of the commander’s GHQ.

George and I stared down from the top of the hill while our host, Ali, prepared a pot of tea.

From behind this hill, the Australian force had entered the critical phase of the battle. It had been a last-minute decision to include them. They were not cavalry, rather were a force comprised of volunteer farmers from rural Australia chosen because they were good horsemen.

Later, their virtues would be immortalized in a poem by Banjo Patterson. As infantry, they would normally ride into battle, dismount and charge with rifle and bayonet. The horsemen were desperate to succeed before darkness and capture Beersheba, or face forced retreat and defeat with the grim prospect of returning through two days of blistering, waterless desert to their nearest supply source.

With their bayonets waving and spread out in three long lines, they raced their steeds driving them to a crescendo until they overran the stunned German-Turkish trenches amid volleys of enemy artillery and rifle fire. They secured the wells of Beersheba and victory was theirs! This breakthrough opened the way to Jerusalem, and six weeks later, General Allenby entered Jerusalem and received the surrender of the city.

We parted company from Ali, recovered our vehicle and headed into Beersheba to visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery. There are 1,200 graves in the center of the city surrounded by modern expanding neighborhoods. Until recently, few people were aware of the contribution and sacrifice these men had made as part of the British, Australian and New Zealand forces that had secured Palestine in World War I and had brought closer an end to the war.

George thoughtfully ambled between the neatly manicured lines of graves, reading the inscriptions of the tombstones of the young men who had fallen in battle.

I had been searching for the connection between George and this dramatic tale. He stopped in front of one of the small mounds. His finger traced the letters on the tombstone: His uncle had fallen in the battle.

George stood before the grave in silent contemplation and an abstract hand movement wiped the corner of his eye.

George had no memory of his uncle, but it was this symbolic edifice and the action it represented that had reunited them again from far across the seas and time.

“Well, I think we can call it a day,” George said, feeling satisfied.