BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
BEERSHEBA: A Journey Through Australia's Forgotten War, by Paul Daley
, October 31, 2009
Glorious cavalry charge of the Australian Light Horse
A Journey Through Australia's Forgotten War
by Paul Daley
(Melbourne University Press)
Paperback: 368 pages
Rec. price: $39.95
Reviewed by Bill James
Caution! Long sentence ahead!
Ready? Take a deep breath, and here we go ...
"On All Hallow's Eve, October 31, 1917, the Fourth (Victorian) Regiment, led by Colonel Bouchier, and the Twelfth (New South Wales) Regiment, led by Colonel Cameron, both part of the Fourth Australian Light Horse Brigade (led by Brigadier Grant, and part of General Harry Chauvel's Desert Mounted Corps, under the ultimate authority of the British General Allenby), charged as mounted infantry wielding bayonets, across 6.5 kilometres of open ground toward enemy trenches, and captured Beersheba at the cost of thirty-one killed out of 800, thus turning the eastern flank of the Turkish defensive line which rested on coastal Gaza, and opening the way to the liberation of Jerusalem in December, 1917, and the fall of Damascus, and the Turkish armistice in October, 1918."
The first third of journalist Paul Daley's book provides the historical lead-up to the famous charge, and culminates in a description of the event itself.
The second section discusses his research in Australia and Israel, and examines attitudes toward the charge - including awareness and ignorance of it - in both countries.
Finally, Daley deals with the Surafend incident of December, 1918, when some Light Horsemen, along with New Zealand and British soldiers, were involved in the murder of a number of Arab civilians, and the destruction of their village.
Gallant though the feat undoubtedly was, Beersheba was not, as is sometimes suggested, history's last great charge by mounted troops.
The British 7th Dragoons charged on 11 November, 1918, the last day of World War I, and even during World War II, cavalry charges were carried out by American, British, Indian, Italian and Polish cavalry.
It is not true, either, that the role of the Australian Light Horse in the Palestine theatre generally, and the charge at Beersheba in particular, are forgotten and unknown in Australia.
Two Australian films have dealt with the campaign, Forty Thousand Horsemen in 1940, and The Light Horsemen in 1987, and the Australian Light Horseman is an iconic (as we say these days) figure in our national consciousness.
Daley shows how he has even become venerated by dispensationalists, a subgroup among evangelical Christians, who believe that God's cosmic purpose is not only to offer humanity salvation through Jesus, but also to restore biblical Israel.
Dispensationalists make much of the fact that the charge took place on the same day as the Balfour Declaration, in which the British promised the Jews a national home (while elsewhere, unfortunately, handing a hostage to fortune by promising the same thing to the Arabs!).
One of the reasons for the desperate decision to launch the charge late in the day was the troops' and horses' lack of water, and the popular myth claims that the ancient Abrahamic wells within the town slaked the thirst of conquering man and beast alike, once the town was captured.
However, as Daley points out, it "remains one of the great misconceptions of Beersheba ... that the water found there was plentiful enough for all the men and animals", because in fact "there was not ... nearly enough water".
It is not even beyond debate that the capture of Beersheba ensured the success of the broader campaign, as there are military experts who argue that the Turks were preparing to evacuate it anyway.
Finally, on the subject of controversies and misconceptions surrounding Beersheba, it is not true that the two regiments in the charge captured the city by themselves.
Other Australian Light Horse regiments, as well as the NZ Mounted Rifles Brigade and the British infantry, all made their contributions.
Here is Daley's summing-up: "After the battle, Allenby rightly emphasised the part played by the British infantry; there would have been no light horse charge had the foot soldiers not taken these hills early in the day. It's a fact too often forgotten by those who would argue that the charge of the 4th Brigade was the only act that mattered that day. The great charge of the light horse at Beersheba was undeniably the signature movement of the battle. But as the square metreage held in Be'er Sheva cemetery by infantry units from across the British Isles testifies, the PBI ('poor bloody infantry') did it harder than the light horsemen that day."
Daley does not drool over and wallow in the Surafend massacre, as is the custom for Western journalists today when faced with any alleged wrongdoing on the part of a Western nation.
He points out that there is an explanation for the Allied soldiers' atrocious actions in their hatred of the Bedouin Arab "jackals" because of their habitual thievery and grave-robbery, culminating in the murder of a NZ sergeant, but adds that there is no excuse for what they did.
He is emphatic that Surafend on the one hand cannot be overlooked, or swept under the carpet (and I have to admit that I had never heard of it before I read his book), but also on the other hand that it negates neither the immense achievements of the Australian Light Horse, nor those of the other units involved, New Zealand and British.
The difference between atrocities carried out by the renegade soldiers of civilised nations, and by savages, is that in the former case they are unauthorised, condemned (and Allenby made himself very unpopular by damning his soldiers' behaviour in the strongest possible terms) and punished, whereas in the latter case they are official policy.
That is the difference between the two 1968 massacres in Vietnam, at My Lai and Hue, half a century later.
Daley writes with immediacy and current relevance (for example, there are interesting references to shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, and the late Richard Pratt), and he spins a very engaging but soundly researched yarn.
In view of his book's overall quality, his otherwise unforgivable substitution of mitigate against for militate against (O tempora, O mores!) can - but only just - be overlooked.
Decades ago I stood before the simple graves of young Australian soldiers under the eucalypts in the immaculately maintained Beersheba War Cemetery, and was moved in a way that none of the Holy Land's over-decorated, questionably loca-ted, scandalously disputed and super-stitiously regarded Christian sites had moved me.
Daley keeps returning to this cemetery, which he describes as an "oasis" in the midst of contemporary Beersheba's ugliness and disorder, and I am not a bit surprised that he does.
It is situated at the heart of his narrative.