Battle of Beersheba (1917): Wikis

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Battle of Beersheba
Part of First World War
Charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade
A photograph of a re-enactment of the Charge on Beersheba taken in early February 1918.
Date 31 October 1917
Location Beersheba, southern Palestine
Result British victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom British Empire
Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire

German Empire German Empire

Commanders
United Kingdom Philip Chetwode
Australia Henry Chauvel
Ottoman Empire Ismet Bey

German Empire Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein

Strength
2 infantry divisions
2 mounted divisions
1 infantry corps
1 mounted division
Casualties and losses
1,200 About 500 killed
1,400 prisoners

The Battle of Beersheba took place on 31 October 1917, as part of the Sinai and Palestine campaign during World War I. The highlight of the battle was the now famous charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, which covered some six kilometres to overrun and capture the last remaining Turkish trenches, and secure the surviving wells at Beersheba.

Contents

Prelude

The battle of Beersheba was one critical element of a wider British offensive, known as the Third Battle of Gaza, aimed at breaking the Turkish defensive line that stretched from Gaza on the Mediterranean shore to Beersheba, an important regional centre some 50 kilometres inland.

Earlier in 1917, two previous attempts to breach this line had failed. After the Second Battle of Gaza ended in complete failure, General Archibald Murray, the commander in chief of the British forces in Egypt and Palestine, was replaced by the distinguished cavalry commander, General Edmund Allenby, formerly the commander of the British Third Army on the Western Front.

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The Allied Forces

Allenby's demanded and received large reinforcements before renewing the offensive. The "Eastern Force" headquarters was replaced by two infantry corps headquarters; the XX Corps, commanded by General Philip Chetwode, and the XXI Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Edward Bulfin. More significantly, with the formation of the British Yeomanry Mounted Division, Allenby possessed three mounted divisions. The two Australian-based divisions were combined to create the new Desert Mounted Corps, commanded by the newly promoted Lieutenant General Henry Chauvel, the first Australian general to command an army corps.

The Turkish Forces

According to Major General Hüseyin Hüsnü Emir (Erkilet)[1] the Turkish forces at Beersheba under the command of Ismet Bey consisted of:

  • The western front: 900 rifles mainly from the 81st Infantry Regiment;
  • The southwest front: 1400 rifles mainly from the 67th Infantry Regiment;
  • The southern front: 900 rifles mainly from the 48th Infantry Regiment;
  • The General Reserve which included 1200 rifles from the 3rd Cavalry Division.

In total, 4400 Rifles, 60 Machine Guns, and 28 field guns were available for the defence of Beersheba.

The defences were strong to the south and west (towards Gaza) but to the east depended heavily on a recently fortified redoubt at Tel el Saba, 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) east of Beersheba.

The plan

Beersheba, 1917

The British plan to break the Gaza-Beersheba line had been formulated by General Chetwode following the failure of the two frontal assaults against Gaza. The Turkish defences were formidable in the vicinity of Gaza, but to the east there was a wide gap between the last redoubt and the Beersheba fortifications. The Turks trusted that the lack of reliable water in this region, other than at the wells in Beersheba, would limit British operations to mounted raids.

Chetwode believed that the lack of water would be easier to overcome than the Gaza fortifications. A mammoth engineering and supply effort was undertaken to establish a forward base in the vicinity of Beersheba, from which infantry and mounted troops could stage an assault. The plan depended on the town and water supply being captured swiftly. If the attack was repulsed on the first day, the British would be forced to retire in search of water.

When Allenby took command, he set about implementing Chetwode's plan. The attack was to be made by two infantry divisions of the XX Corps (60th (London) Division and the 74th (Yeomanry) Division) and two mounted divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps (the Anzac Mounted Division, consisting of the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade and 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and the Australian Mounted Division, composed of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade and 4th Light Horse Brigade and the British 5th Mounted Brigade. Directly under the Desert Mounted Corps HQ were the British 7th Mounted Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps.

The infantry, supported by heavy artillery, would attack from the southwest against the strongest Beersheba defences, while the mounted brigades would circle to the south and east. Once the outlying defences were overcome, it was intended to make a dismounted attack against Beersheba itself.

The Turks had ascertained where the likely attacks were to come from. In a telegram despatched on 16 August 1917 to the commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army, the intentions of the Allied forces had been clearly detailed by the intelligence analysts. The only thing they were missing was the actual date. They soon gained a reasonable idea of the timetable when the rail line terminated at Karm, a settlement between Gaza and Beersheba, on 25 October 1917.

The opening battle – Battle of El Buggar Ridge

The occupation of Karm was vital for two aspects of the upcoming battle. The long term purpose was to create a major point of supply and water for the Allied troops in the immediate area. The placement of the station at Karm gave a clear, although at the time, misleading signal to the Turks that their bases at Abu Hareira and Tel el Sheria were under threat of immediate attack. Between these two bases was a massive layer of trenches and redoubts known as the Rushdie System which formed a powerful bulwark against any Allied action. Karm Station pointed right to the heart of this system.

The Allied forces converted a line of observation outposts into fortified redoubts to protect this major supply depot from attack. The one thing that worried Chauvel was the possibility that Ottoman artillery could be moved from the Turkish base at Abu Hareira in the hills and down to el Imara on the plains from where they could pour devastating fire with high explosive shells upon the rail line and stations. On 27 October 1917, the Turkish 3rd Cavalry Division, supported by the 16th Infantry Division, mounted a reconnaissance in force at a line encompassing El Buggar, Hill 720 and Hill 630, to test the resolve of the Allies.[2] The resulting battle was notable for the heroic resistance of the London Yeomanry at Hill 720, where two troops from the 1/1st County of London Yeomanry under the command of Major Alexander Malins Lafone fought to the last man. Lafone won a posthumous Victoria Cross for this action. Later that day, the Australian 9th Light Horse Regiment, supported by elements of the British 74th (Yeomanry) Division on the right and 53rd Division on the left, slowly won back any ground that was lost. This convinced the Turks that an attack on Beersheba would come very soon.

Nevertheless, Allenby based his plan on surprise far more than on mere superiority in numbers to gain success and the action at El Buqqar was sufficient to keep the Turks guessing as to the true intentions. Allenby despatched some 40,000 men to tackle Beersheba held by 4,400 men giving a superiority ratio of almost 10:1 which were good odds upon which to secure a comfortable victory.

The infantry attack

The attack on Beersheba by Chetwode's XX Corps commenced at 5.55am on 31 October when the artillery, more than 100 field guns and howitzers, commenced bombarding the Turkish trenches. Twenty of the heavy guns were engaged in counter-battery work against the enemy artillery, which was operated by Austrian gunners.

The first infantry went in at 8.30am to capture some Turkish outposts. The main attack of four infantry brigades began at 12.15pm. They quickly reached all their initial objectives and so were in position for the main assault on the township to coincide with the light horse and New Zealanders. It was at this point that the infantry commanders saw that the way to Beersheba was clear and asked for permission to carry the attack through to the town. Allenby refused permission and ordered the infantry to remain in their current positions, as the task had been specifically assigned to the Desert Mounted Corps. The first opportunity to take Beersheba within the next hour was lost.

When the Turks realised that the British infantry had halted, they began to regroup and strengthen their defensive line within a smaller perimeter. Prior to the fall of the southern trenches, the trench system supporting Tel el Saba to the south east of Beersheba was empty. Now it was filled with about 300 veterans, exactly in the line of the projected charge.

The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade

The problem for Chauvel was acute. The attack on Tel el Saba had stalled, as 300 Turkish infantry dug in at the summit held up the attack. The German commander Kress von Kressenstein summarised the situation as:

The understrength Turkish battalion entrusted with its defence doggedly held out with great courage and in so doing fulfilled its obligation. They held up two English (sic) cavalry divisions for six hours and had prevented them from expanding their outflanking manoeuvres around the Beersheba-Hebron road.[3]

Chauvel had planned to use the British Yeomanry for a charge with swords at Beersheba. After Tel el Saba had finally been secured, Chauvel dithered for about half an hour, contemplating a retreat with the intention of finishing the battle the following day. He sent his thoughts to Allenby, who about half an hour later responded with a furious order that Chauvel was to take Beersheba that very day.

In the meantime, reports began filtering in that the Turks were abandoning Beersheba in accordance with the Turkish plan of defence. The Turkish withdrawal began in an orderly manner with the cavalry and artillery withdrawing to the safety of the hills to cover the infantry withdrawal. Chauvel realised that he was in danger of capturing Beersheba without the considerable Turkish defensive forces stationed in the town. He decided to take action. The Yeomanry could not be used immediately as they were too dispersed, and with time running out, he famously stated: "Put Grant straight at it."[4]

The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, commanded by Brigadier William Grant, contained the 4th (Victorian), 11th (Queensland and South Australia) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. The 11th was dispersed but the 4th and 12th were quickly ready to make the charge. Although Grant commanded the Brigade, the charge on Beersheba was led by Lieutenant Colonel Murray William James Bourchier. The plan for the attack was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron who later described the circumstances in a letter to Dr C.E.W. Bean in 1928:

It was clear to me that the job had to be done before dark, so I advised galloping the place as our only chance. I had some experience of successful mounted surprise attacks on the Boer camps in the South African war.[5]

The men lined up in three consecutive squadrons, the first two, "A" then "B" Squadrons assembling in line of troop while the last squadrons, "C" Squadron assembled in line of column. A hand drawn map was made created by Lieutenant F.R. Massie, Adjutant of the 12th Light Horse Regiment which illustrated the lines prior to the famous charge.[6]

Battle of Beersheba map

The regiments commenced the charge at 4.30 pm, the 12th on the left and the 4th on the right. They advanced by squadrons (i.e., three waves) with about 500 yards between squadrons. They were armed with bayonets in hand; their rifles were slung over their shoulders. The Australian 11th Light Horse Regiment and the British 5th Mounted Brigade followed more slowly to the rear, and the British 7th Mounted Brigade, which was attached to the Desert Mounted Corps headquarters, also approached from the south.

The Turkish artillery opened fire with shrapnel from long range but it was ineffective against the widely spaced horsemen. Turkish machine guns that opened fire from the left (which might have inflicted heavy casualties) were quickly silenced by a battery of horse artillery. When the line of horsemen got within range of the Turkish riflemen in the trenches, they started to take casualties but the defenders failed to allow for the speed of their approach so once they were within half a mile of the trenches, the defenders' bullets started passing overhead as they found it difficult to alter the sights on rifles quickly enough when confronted with rapidly moving horsemen. This kept the numbers of casualties low for the charging Light Horsemen.

The light horsemen jumped the front trenches and dismounted behind the line where they turned and engaged the Turks with bayonets. The Turks were in many cases so demoralised that they quickly surrendered. One Australian, who was dazed after having his horse shot from under him, recovered to find his five attackers with their hands up, waiting to be taken prisoner.

The later waves of horsemen continued through the town which the Turks were abandoning in a panic. The charge was finally halted on the far (northwest) side of Beersheba where the light horsemen encountered more Turkish defences. Isolated resistance in the town continued for a little while but by nightfall, the remainder of the garrison had been captured. The Turks had attempted to set fire to some buildings and blow up the railway, but the majority of the wells (15 out of 17) were captured intact. Also, a heavy rainfall left temporary pools of water on the ground, allowing the horses to drink.

The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade re-enacted on its 90th anniversary

In a later report, Bourchier summed up the effect of the attack:

In commenting on the attack I consider that the success was due to the rapidity with which the movement was carried out. Owing to the volume of fire brought to bear from the enemy's position by Machine Guns and rifles, a dismounted attack would have resulted in a much greater number of casualties. It was noticed also that the morale of the enemy was greatly shaken through our troops galloping over his positions thereby causing his riflemen and machine gunners to lose all control of fire discipline. When the troops came within short range of the trenches the enemy seemed to direct almost all his fire at the horses.[7]

He also noted that "this method of attack would not have been practicable were it not for the absence of barbed wire and entanglements."[7]

After the capture of Beersheba, Allenby's order directing Chauvel to take the town by night fall arrived. The action of the 4th Light Horse Brigade had saved the opening offensive of the Third Battle of Gaza and with it, Chauvel's reputation.

Aftermath

The Beersheba British Graveyard

In the capture of Beersheba, the 4th Light Horse Brigade took 38 officers and 700 other ranks prisoner, and captured four field guns. In the two regiments, only 31 men were killed (including two officers) and only 36 men wounded (including eight officers). The total losses incurred by the Desert Mounted Corps was 53 men killed and 144 wounded. The heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry of XX Corps, which lost lost 116 killed in action,[8] although the total number of men killed during the battle from the British force was far greater, totalling 171 men.[9]

Endnotes

Endnote #1

The composition of the Turkish forces facing the Allies at Beersheba.

Major General Hüseyin Hüsnü Emir (Erkilet) gives the breakdown of forces as per individual units as:

  • 2 batteries from the 2nd Battalion, 43rd Artillery Regiment with eight guns positioned on the west front between Beersheba-Tel esh Sheria railway and Wadi Saba.
  • 2 Battalions of 81st Infantry Regiment at the front, 2nd Infantry Company at reserve on the back of right wing, while an Infantry Company was ordered to protect Ebu Rakik Station and Bridge and cover the region between Ebu Rakik and Beersheba.
  • 2 Batteries of the 1st Battalion, 13th Artillery Regiment was positioned with 2 batteries on its left side creating a common defence position with eight guns at south west front between Wadi Saba and Damascus and Pelune Hills.
  • 67th Infantry Regiment with two battalions of infantry, 4th Battalion of the 79th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion of the 81st Infantry Regiment with three battalions positioned at the front and a reserve battalion at the rear.
  • A Battery of 2nd Battalion of the 39th Artillery Regiment was positioned on the north of Izmir Hill on southern front along from Şam(Damascus) Hill to the road to Sebi-Hafir to the beginning of Valley Vadiü'ş-Şuayb with 4 guns
  • 2 battalions of the 48th Infantry Regiment was positioned at both sides of the road with a reserve battalion at the rear in the west.
  • A field battery from the 2nd Battalion of 39th Artillery Regiment positioned as general reserve with 8 guns.
  • The 3rd Cavalry Division provided a mounted battery used as anti aircraft cannon at the redoubt west of Beersheba.
  • The 2nd Infantry Regiment was deployed with its 3 battalions but they had no machine guns.

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See also

Notes

References

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