WHILE enjoying the Melbourne Cup today, we should spare a thought for another great race that took place 88 years ago — on October 31, 1917 — at Beersheba in Palestine. The attack by British and Dominion forces against a very well defended Turkish line from Gaza to Beersheba had stalled, and they would have had to retreat several days’ march back to adequate water supplies if Beersheba’s copious water supplies were not captured without the ancient wells being destroyed.
Australian general Sir Henry Chauvel sized up the situation at 3.30pm and decided that a mounted charge on the Turkish entrenchments and machine gun posts was the only possible solution.
The 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments, some 800 men in total, were sheltering in the hills closest to the town and were ordered into what appeared to be a somewhat suicidal action, because they normally rode their horses close to the front then dismounted to attack. They had neither the swords nor the lances of traditional cavalry, just their hand-held short bayonets.
Their course was over broken ground covering some four to five miles (about 6400 metres) — much longer than a normal race; their handicap was about 20 stone (127 kilograms) as against a racehorse’s 45-55 kilograms. The hazards included bursting artillery shells, machine-gun and rifle fire, then stick grenades thrown at them and bayonets attached to rifles slashing at them as they jumped the trenches, which, in many cases, were a metre or more wide and 2.5 metres deep.
Their preparation was hardly ideal, marching through the previous three particularly dark nights over an unknown and uninviting countryside with precious little to eat or drink. At 4.30pm, with dusk due at 5pm, the 800 began their charge in three waves 105 metres apart and their heroic horses, perhaps with the scent of the town’s water in their nostrils, perhaps at the behest of their shouting riders, carried our soldiers up to and over the trenches.
A few small groups rushed into the town to successfully secure the wells. Thousands of prisoners were taken and much military equipment was captured and this became a turning point in the war in the Middle East. It was an Australian general’s innovative approach to a near impossible situation, carried out by resolute volunteer soldiers mounted on great-hearted Australian horses.
Of 169,000 horses sent from Australia in World War I, only one — Sandy, belonging to our General W. T. Bridges — was allowed to return. His remains are interred at the former Army Remount Depot, Maribyrnong, where, it is hoped, a memorial to all Australian war horses may be erected one day.
A. G. Ross, Maribyrnong