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Thursday, November 01, 2007

A proud day for Australia

Yesterday was a magical day in Beer Sheva.  Ghosts of the city's distant past returned to walk the dusty streets... and across the desert landscape outside of town.

No, this isn't a Halloween post.  I'm talking about yesterday's observance of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Beer Sheva and the famous charge of the Australian Light Horse which was key in turning the tide... and ultimately defeating the Turks.

The day began with the Australian Light Horse Association, a group of dedicated volunteers (many of whom are descendants of the original Beer Sheva chargers) parading to the old Commonwealth War Cemetery in authentic WWI uniforms.  My journalist friend and fellow blogger, Sarah, came down from Jerusalem  to cover the story for an Australian wire service and I picked her up and brought her to the cemetery.  Once there I also had the privilege of making the acquaintance of a lovely, long-time repents reader, Naomi, who had come to see the goings on.

Once there, the light horsemen entered the cemetery and took up places among the gathered crowd of diplomats, dignitaries, senior military representatives and guests. 


An honour guard of Aussies marched towards the front and took up places at the four corners of the memorial... facing outwards with heads bowed.


There were speeches by the Ambassadors of Australia and New Zealand, as well as a few other dignitaries.  Sadly the Kiwi Ambassador took the opportunity to point out that in addition to the way the battle of Beer Sheva had changed the face of the middle east, "there was still an embryonic [Palestinian] state yet to be born".  [~sigh~]  Completely out of place and in the poorest of taste, IMHO.

After the ceremony many of the Light Horse Association members wandered over to the block of graves where the chargers were buried to locate their fallen relatives and those whose stories they knew from old veterans.


This gentleman was telling us that while his great uncle had survived, he had scribbled a note on the back of one of his old war photographs saying, this is _____ who fell in the charge.  He was visibly moved to have been able to visit the final resting place of this young man who had stared so casually from that yellowed photograph... blissfully unaware of what lay in store for him.


Next came a memorial ceremony at the nearby Turkish War Monument that stands by the old Turkish Railway Station.

I was invited to a small reception at a nearby museum which afforded me the opportunity to chat with many of the diplomats, dignitaries and soldiers (both real and reenacters) in a very relaxed setting.  I was even introduced to a charming woman who turned out to be the granddaughter of General Chauvel (who had been in charge of the ANZAC forces during the battle).


I could have gone to the dedication of a park in Beer Sheva where an equestrian statue of a light horseman leaping over some sandbags is to be erected next year... but I figured I'd rather go when there is actually something there.  Instead I went out to the area beyond the old Turkish railroad bridge just this side of Emek Sarah in order to stake out a good spot from which to watch the scheduled reenactment of the charge of the light horse towards Beer Sheva.

This small (maybe two kilometer) section of open ground is all that remains of the rolling plain across which the original light horsemen rode.  I have often wandered the area in search of geographic clues and wondered what it must have been like to see those brave men riding across 5 miles of open ground directly into the machine guns and artillery of the Turkish Army... as well as the blinding, setting sun.

I picked a spot away from the crowds where I noticed many of the professional photographers and videographers setting up their tripods.  I looked pretty silly with my little point-and-shoot camera next to these pros whose cameras sported lenses as long and wide as my thigh, but what the heck... anything to get a good shot for you guys.

After a long wait the riders of the Light Horse Association emerged from a distant stand of trees and began cantering towards us.  I had been told in advance by one of the riders that they would have liked to spread out in a long battle line as was done in the original charge, but the limited terrain (and the constraints placed on them by the people from whom they borrowed the horses) made that impossible.


As they started across the plain they broke into a gallop and really began to kick up dust.  I could only imagine what it must have looked and sounded like to the Turks when 800 of the real Light Horsemen charged directly towards them in a thundering wave!


As the horsemen (and women) approached the gathered crowd they slowed to a stately trot in formation towards a reviewing stand.



There was a brief closing ceremony while the light horsemen stood proudly in formation, at the end of which the officer in charge marched his horse forward and saluted the crowd.


With one or two exceptions, none of the riders had ever been to Israel before... and yet, had faithfully spent decades keeping alive the proud memory of this distant battlefield.  To be able to actually ride even a short way in the hoof prints of the brave soldiers who had been her 90 years ago must have been the culmination of a lifetime of dreams. 


The only thing missing yesterday was the presence of my friend Joel, an Australian Army Captain (now back home... married and settled nicely into a civilian life) who is, if possible, a bigger buff than I am when it comes to the history of this famous battle.  Joel, you would have been in heaven if you'd been here.

Posted by David Bogner on November 1, 2007 | Permalink


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» Australia's WWI Mideast role, part III: A proud day for Australia from discarded lies - hyperlinkopotamus
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Tracked on Nov 13, 2007 8:26:52 AM


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Sadly the Kiwi Ambassador took the opportunity to point out that in addition to the way the battle of Beer Sheva had changed the face of the middle east, "there was still an embryonic [Palestinian] state yet to be born". [~sigh~] Completely out of place and in the poorest of taste

Let's give her/him the benefit of the doubt and assume that s/he meant the state of Israel (2nd November is Balfour Day) as this was while the Jewish Legion (38th 39th and 40th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, the offspring of the Zion Mule Corps) was fighting, first time in 1800 years (since BarKochba) that Jews had borne arms in a Jewish military setting.

Posted by: asher | Nov 1, 2007 2:49:39 PM

Asher... He went on two sentences later to specifically clarify that he was talking about the Palestinian state that had not yet been born. Not trusting subtlety he opted to bludgeon.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 1, 2007 2:57:17 PM

Today's print edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette front page features a picture of the light horsemen and a nice caption explaining the history.

Posted by: Lee | Nov 1, 2007 3:21:32 PM


Great photos, nice blog entry...

I can assume you've seen or have Simon Wincer's 1987 flick "The Lighthorsemen"?

Mike S

Posted by: Michael Spengler | Nov 1, 2007 5:38:02 PM

Great pictures, Trep.
Can't knock the ambassador too much, unfortunately. What do you expect him to say when that drivel is also coming from the highest places in the Israeli government?

Posted by: psachya | Nov 1, 2007 7:13:10 PM

That guy in the last picture..Wouldn't want to mess with him.

Great post!

Posted by: jacob | Nov 1, 2007 10:21:21 PM

Ah, more good work. Love the photos of the reenactors.

Posted by: Dick Stanley | Nov 2, 2007 12:46:07 AM

Great post and pictures. It must be an experience for the ancestors of the ANZAC's to go to the place that is a part of their personal history.

(I read about this event in the paper recently.)

Posted by: Sarah | Nov 2, 2007 1:00:14 AM

Beautiful post. Especially loved the last picture.

Posted by: Baila | Nov 2, 2007 6:56:28 AM

Sorry about trying to give the Kiwi the benefit of the doubt, and even sorrier that personal constraints prevented me from beong there...
Still, a wonderful article, and I'm sending the link to lots of people.
Happy Balfour Day!!!

Posted by: asher | Nov 2, 2007 8:27:14 AM

a great shot from this Beautiful experience. (in the url)

Posted by: a.t | Nov 25, 2007 6:33:17 PM

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