Australia hijacks important Anzac victory

 

"It was Australia's greatest victory!" claimed some Aussie media outlets this week ahead of the Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba during the First World War.

The battle was indeed a victory, but New Zealand mounted soldiers had just as much to do with winning it as the Australian Light Horse – probably even more so.

The Australian Light Horse Association, a group of Aussies who dress up as Light Horse troopers and ride around on horses in a form of military cosplay, are in Beersheba for the Centenary, and will perform a mock charge over the same ground the real Light Horse undertook a century ago.

Is this dignified remembrance or simply a bunch of old dudes dressing up and playing war?

Kiwi historian Stephen Clarke tweeted on Monday: "IMHO not fan of re-enactments as at best they're pastiche. Best commemoration support personal contemplation not public circus." 

What really happened at Beersheba a century ago?

One hundred years ago, New Zealand, British and Australian forces engaged Ottoman Empire troops around the important garrison town of Beersheba, now located in modern-day Israel.

The town was a railway link, but also contained wells, and thousands of British infantry, Anzac mounted troops and their horses desperately needed water.

Australia hijacks important Anzac victory
Photo credit: Newshub

The most important feature of the battlefield was the dominant fortified hilltop of Tel el Saba that protected any cavalry charge into Beersheba itself.

The task of capturing Tel el Saba was given to the New Zealanders, who dismounted and attacked both flanks under heavy fire machine gun from entrenched positions. The Kiwis were battle hardened and tactically astute, many having survived the senseless slaughter at Gallipoli.

In short rushes, and covered by their own machine guns, the Kiwis eventually reached ground where they could engage the Turks, first with rifle fire, and then with their bayonets.

Half of the Turks cleared out but 132 were taken prisoner while 25 were killed. Captured machine guns were then used by the Kiwis to fire on the fleeing Turks.

Thirty-four New Zealanders became casualties in the six hour fight.

'Devils on Horses' - Troopers from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles during WWI.
'Devils on Horses' - Troopers from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles during WWI. Photo credit: NZ History

Thanks to the Kiwis capturing Tel el Saba, the way was now clear for an assault on Beersheba - and 500 Australian Light Horse troopers charged into the town on horseback using their bayonets as swords.

The Ottoman defences around Beersheba, units largely made up of poorly trained Arab conscripts, didn't put up much of a fight and most surrendered.

The speed of the Light Horse charge even saved most of Beersheba's wells and its precious water from demolition by the enemy.

So Beersheba wasn't simply an Australian-led victory, it was far more complicated than that, with New Zealand troopers and British infantry playing key roles in the battle's success.

The Kiwis could even claim they did most of the 'heavy lifting' while the Australians took most of the 'glory'.

Troopers from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles enjoy a break from the fighting.
Troopers from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles enjoy a break from the fighting. Photo credit: NZ History

How important was the Battle for Beersheba in terms of the war's outcome?

Beersheba was only a small part of the three year campaign by the British and Anzacs against Ottoman forces in Sinai and Palestine between 1916 - 18.

It wasn't, as many in Australia have claimed this week, the last great cavalry charge in history, nor was the battle central to the forming of the state of Israel some thirty years later.

These are myths that are now reported as fact in the Australian media, and even by that country's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other high-ranking politicians.

Myths and legends of heroic battles involving Anzac troops are easy for politicians to grasp, and we'll see plenty of this when commemorative services are held at Beersheba in a combined Australian/New Zealand service on October 31.

Historian Stephen Chambers has spent much of his career studying and writing about the campaign in the Middle East. Recent Australian media reports overstating the importance of Beersheba had him fuming on Twitter: "O dear SBSNews - you trotted out similar rubbish for the Gallipoli centenary, now this horseshit- It's time to report fact not myth"

Kiwi historian and veteran John Mcleod, who was a UN commander in the Angolan civil war, is in Beersheba helping plan the New Zealand commemoration. He too is incensed by the chest-beating and myth-building coming from the Australian media: "Really! One small iconic action with limited casualties against an enemy already thinning out and set up by NZers capturing Tel El Saba"

So as the Anzac legend prepares to ride into history once more - 100 years on from its supposed finest hour - spare a thought for the truth in all this.

Beersheba was as much a Kiwi and British victory as it was Australia's.

For more information on the New Zealand campaign in Sinai and Palestine, read Terry Kinloch's seminal book Devils on Horses, or go online to nzhistory.govt.nz.

Newshub.