Less famous than the Balfour Declaration but no less important in Zionist history is the Battle for Beersheba, which also marks its 100th anniversary.
Recent events and publications celebrating and marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration are certainly noteworthy and significant as a milestone in realizing the modern dream to restore Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. It’s undeniable that the Balfour Declaration was pivotal in the realization of this dream, but it should not be noted that it is neither Lord Balfour or “His Majesty’s Government” that confers the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel: that was a declaration from God to Abraham and his descendants, in a publication that’s somewhat older, and much better known.
Notwithstanding that, celebrations marking the 100th anniversary on November 2 are with good cause. However, in the same week as that 100th anniversary, another lesser known but no less important 100th anniversary on the road to restoring Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel also took place; the Battle of Beersheba. It’s arguably the case that were it not for the latter, the significance of the Balfour Declaration may never have been realized. Both are milestones of prophetic significance and show God’s hand.
Treaties Immortalized in the City’s Name
The Biblical significance is not just about God’s promise that’s been fulfilled, but about the desert geography and topography that made the Battle of Beersheba so significant. Beersheba is the ancient site of wells that were critical in Abraham making that his home. Abraham and Isaac made pacts with others over the water there. Those treaties were immortalized in the name Be’er Sheva (“Well of the Oath”).
In late 1917’ the world was engaged in the “Great War,” with many of the same allies together who would take arm against many of the same adversaries two decades later. Notably, because the Turkish Ottoman Empire controlled large parts of the Middle East including Israel, when the British issued the Balfour Declaration, they had no real authority over the Land to make such a promise.
That’s what makes the 100 year old battle on October 31, days before Balfour, historic in many ways, and undoubtedly turned the tide on British and their allies’ eventually defeating the Turks and gaining control of Israel and other areas once part of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.
That October 31, as part of the British campaign, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade routed the Turkish military in a heroic battle, and captured Beersheba which was key to eventually pushing the Turks back, breaking the Ottoman military near Gaza, and paving the way for the pivotal advance deep into historic Israel.
Under General Allenby the British deceived the Ottomans into thinking that they would attack from Gaza. Surprising the Turkish defenses was a strategic and operational success, capturing Beersheba in one day. This provided the British and Australian troops with much needed supplies and most importantly water from the Beersheba’s ancient wells.
Breaking the Back of the Turkish-German Resistance
According to a proposal for a museum by the Light Horse Association, the battle itself is considered “one of the most strategic and decisive Allied victories of the First World War. In one dramatic hour the Australian Light Horsemen, backed up by the New Zealanders, captured Beersheba.”
“The battle’s significance in the context of the war was that it broke the back of the Turkish-German resistance in the Middle East. In more far reaching geopolitical terms, it proved to be one of those pivotal historically changing moments.”
Some 800 Australian mounted infantry of the 4th Light Horse Brigade sat on a ridge nearly four miles away from the Turkish troops. There was no cover between them and the Turks. The 4th Light Horse Brigade was not concerned that their horses might not be able to charge across the hot, dusty desert, but were concerned about the enemy guns on the opposite side. The order to attack must have struck many of the Australian troops as ill-advised, if not suicidal. But time was of the essence, heroism abundant, and it was the only strategy that stood a chance of success.
Capture of Beersheba was strategically critical militarily, but no less critical was control of its water; 50,000 to 60,000 Allied troops were marching across the desert toward Beersheba. The need for water became critical for men and their horses. Beersheba was the oasis they needed. Beersheba veteran Horse Trooper John “Chook” Fowler recalled the late afternoon attack.
“At the order the two regiments—the 4th on the right and 12th on the left—walked off the ridge and down onto the plain. They rode in three successive lines, 300 yards apart. Each man was ordered to ride with drawn bayonet—with its gleaming 18-inch blade it closely resembled a short sword. The men deployed into artillery formation, keeping a distance of five yards between each man to minimize the potential carnage from cannon fire or aerial bombardment. Almost immediately they spurred their mounts into a trot, then a canter and finally a gallop, shouting at the top of their lungs and waving their bayonets overhead.”
Water from Abraham’s Ancient Wells
Neither the Turks nor their German advisors anticipated such an attack. Yet soon, artillery shells began raining down on the charging troops, killing horses and throwing warriors out of their saddles. Eventually, the light horsemen reached inside the Turkish gun range, and the threatening shells exploded behind them. But within 800 yards of their trenches, Turkish guns opened up and took a toll. Once behind the Turkish lines, the light horsemen dismounted and intense hand-to-hand fighting ensued.
By the next day, tens of thousands of men and animals refreshed and quenched their thirst with the water from Abraham’s ancient wells.
Of of the 800 light horsemen only 31 were killed and 36 wounded, much of which due to the hand-to-hand fighting.
Beersheba was one of the most astonishing and inspiring victories in a seemingly endless war with more than its share of bloody debacles. The fact that mounted infantrymen participated from half a world away, brandishing only bayonets against entrenched rifle, machine gun and artillery positions bore this out. In the process they gained immortality and the turning point on the end of what would later be known as World War I.
Scores of communities in Israel, the UK and the rest of the world are marking the 100th anniversary of Balfour. Yet at the same time, more than four times the number of light horsemen who fought in battle have descended upon Jerusalem from Australia and New Zealand again, this time not to fight but to celebrate their bravery, and the outcome.