ANZAC Day 2009 - A Happier ANZAC Story; Beersheba

Based on an address to Lodge Devotion on its

ANZAC Eve meeting 2009

by VW Bro Don PGIW

There are some who seen to relish the feeling of gloom and the futility of war when we honour the sacrifices made by so many on ANZAC Day every year. There seem to be a variety of possible reasons for this, some of them unflattering to the mourners. I like to look at the optimistic side of life, the Easter Sunday after Good Friday, “The Rouse” which is always played by the bugler after “The Last Post” on ANZAC Day.

“The Last Post” is a solemn token of our mourning and the sadness of the past, “The Rouse” is the reveille of hope and the future, a future that has been given to us by those that paid the supreme sacrifice and many more that fought but survived the conflict.

It was the successes that have ensured out future, not the failures. So let’s be optimistic and look at another ANZAC story that was being fought at the same time as the Gallipoli Campaign. It was the Sinai and Palestine Campaign January 1915 to October 1918 against Turkish and German forces during World War 1.

The Suez Canal was of great strategic significance during World War 1. It provided a shorter sea route to support the war in Europe from South East Asia and Australia and for Great Britain. The once great Muslim Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, a German ally, advanced on the British and Egyptian forces to close the Canal. At this time the Sinai was an almost empty desert and an obstacle to military maneuver having no roads, railways and virtually no water.

The Ottoman Forces reached the Canal on 15th February, fighting lasted two days and the attack failed with heavy Turkish losses but British causalities were minimal. This was the First Suez Offensive.

More than a year later on 3rd August 1915 the Ottoman Forces attacked the British troops in defence of the Canal again, this time at Romani. The fighting lasted two days. This was the Battle of Romani. It was after this battle that Britain and her Allies decided to go on the offensive, advance across the Sinai and into what was then called Palestine thus removing the threat to the Canal.

It was slow, a railway line and a water pipe line had first to be built across the Sinai for supplies. The first battle was the capture of Magdhaba on 23rd December 1916. On 8th January 1917 the Anzac Mounted Division captured Rafa and the majority of the Turkish garrison was captured.

It was then planned to capture Gaza. A request for more troops was denied. The first Battle of Gaza on 26th March 1917 failed. The Second Battle of Gaza was launched one month later on 17th April 1917, this time supported by naval gunfire, a few early tanks, chlorine gas was used, but it too failed. It was essentially frontal assaults which are always hazardous and the defences at Gaza had been substantially improved. The British suffered some 6,000 causalities. The British commander was replaced.

Allenby, the new commander, after personally reviewing the Ottoman defensive positions asked for more forces: three more infantry divisions, aircraft, and artillery. This request was granted and by October, 1917, the British were ready for their next attack.

The Ottoman army had three active fronts at this time: Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Gaza front. They also had substantial forces deployed around Constantinople and in the then now quiet Caucasus front. Given all these demands, the army in Gaza was only about 35,000 strong, lead by the Ottoman General Mustafa and concentrated in three main defensive locations: Gaza, Tell Esh Sheria, and Beersheba. Allenby's army was now much larger, some 88,000 troops in good condition and well equipped. Many of the British forces were Anzacs from Australia and New Zealand. The occupation of Karm by the Allies on 22nd October 1917 created a major point for supply and water for the troops in the immediate area.

A key pre-requisite for the Battle of Beersheba was to convince the Turks and their German leaders that once again, Gaza was to be attacked. Beersheba protected the eastern flank of the Gaza line and was the only source of water in the area. Without holding Beersheba the defence of Gaza could not be sustained. This deception campaign was extremely thorough and convincing. The Battle of El Buggar Ridge following a reconnaissance in force from Beersheba was launched by the Turks on the morning of 31st October, 1917, completed the deception.

When the Allies launched their attack on Beersheba, the Turks were taken by surprise. In one of the most remarkable feats of planning and execution, the Allies were able to move some 40,000 men and a similar number of horses over hostile and inhospitable terrain without being detected by the Turks. This said something about the inadequacy of enemy defensive position, the use of mobile screen positions, active domination of the no-man’s-land by patrols, observed artillery fire and so on*. The climax of the battle was the last successful cavalry charge over six kilometers, (cavalry fight from horseback so they were really mounted infantrymen), of modern warfare when two Australian Light Horse regiments (4th and 12th) charged across open ground just before dusk and captured the town. The well was captured intact which ensured supply of water.

The Turkish defeat at Beersheba on 31st October was not a complete rout. The Turks retreated into the hills and pre-prepared defensive positions to the north of Beersheba. For the Allies, the following days were spent fighting a difficult and bloody battle at Tel el Khuweilifeh, to the north east of Beersheba. When these positions were dealt with the Turks were in fear of being outflanked at Gaza when the Third Battle of Gaza took place on 7th November. The Turkish defences were shattered and they withdrew in disarray to occupy a new defensive line. But the Allied advance had momentum and rolled on to the final phase with The Battle of Mediggo in September 1918.

For the British the capture of Gaza was a major political event and success in three long bloody years of warfare but it would not have been achieved without the capture of Beesheeba by the Anzac forces. The role of the Australians cannot be overestimated.

The whole campaign the British forces lost a total of 550,000 casualties: more than 90% of these were not due to battle but instead due to disease, heat and other secondary causes. Total Turkish losses are unknown but almost certainly larger. They lost an entire army in the fighting and the Turks poured a vast number of troops into the front over the three years of combat. In the Battle of Beersheba the casualties were relatively light with 32 dead and 32 wounded, most occurring in the hand fighting on the position after the infantrymen dismounted as was their role. This is remarkable given the risks and audacity in the maneuver but it shows what good leadership, speed of movement and surprise can achieve. The horsemanship must have been magnificent.

The historical consequences of this campaign are hard to overestimate. The British conquest of Palestine led directly to the British mandate over Palestine and Trans-Jordan which, in turn, paved the way for the creation of the states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. These are still major trouble spots in the world today and likely to remain so many generations. The Muslim and Arab peoples still do not like the way the maps were redrawn by the Westerners in the lands that they have claimed as theirs since time immoral. Many will have seen the campaign as yet another Crusade but one that they have lost for the time being.

Audacity, horsemanship and bravery won the day at Beersheba and allowed the Campaign to be successful.

Lest we forget.

*An aside. I cringed when it was announced on the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam in the early 1970s that a policy of Continental defence would be adopted: our front line would become the low watermark around Australia. I do not know whether it occurred to the defence “experts” then in power that this by definition meant that we would have to accept incursions into mainland Australia. There would be no depth to our defensive posture. Well intended, but idiots! Defence is not about digging a hole, getting in it and waiting for somebody to attack you.

I shuddered again last night on 29th April 2009 when on the ABC it was announced that Australian patrolling would be increased in Afghanistan and one civilian defence “expert” in Canberra said that this would result in more Australian casualties. What nonsense! Patrolling is conducted not only to gain essential information about the enemy but also to conduct raids, capture prisoners, destroy targets, and so on. It requires the enemy to devote more resources to his defence and therefore not be available to attack you. It restricts his movement. But you need soldiers of high quality to undertake this work. Australian infantry soldiers have always excelled. It takes the initiative and prevents the sort of thing that happened to the Turks at Beersheba. Patrolling saves lives. I hope that our government today is not relying on this sort of advice but it might be.