The 100th Anniversary of the Charge of Beersheba
Before the initial trip I learned that the 4th and the 12th Light Horse Regiments were the ones that did the actual Charge into Beersheba, but it seemed that most Regiments had a role to play. For various accounts, this web site is very illuminating: http://alh-research.tripod.com/Light_Horse/index.blog?topic_id=1105077. To read all this history I found I had to understand what is meant by a Regiment vs a Brigade, eg http://www.lighthorse.org.au/famous-battles/world-war-one/famous-battles-the-battle-at-beersheba. I have therefore taken the documentation below from Ruth’s biography of her great uncle to illustrate the structure of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) from 1914-1918. This shows that the 8th Light Horse Regiment was in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, in the 1st Division of the 1st AIF. My grandfather was in the “30th” reinforcement, 8th Light Horse Regiment.
Each Regiment is made up of 3 Squadrons of 160 troops each, and it turns out that Ruth’s Great Uncle served in both Squadron C (starting as a Private, fighting in Gallipoli, then moving up to Senior Quarter Master before my grandfather arrived) and Squadron A (becoming a 2nd Lieutenant by April 1919). I am not sure if he would have known my grandfather as he was in Squadron B (ultimately a Lance Corporal). From what I saw on the trip we did, my grandfather would have spent most of his time with his “section” of 4 horsemen, and working/sleeping with his Squadron. Still I wonder, especially given they sailed home on the same ship in July 1919 - the H.T. “Malta” - that left Kantara Egypt on Jul 3, 1919 and arrived in Melbourne on Aug 7, 1919. It is interesting to note that while the war ended in the Middle East on Oct 31, 1918 (11 days before the armistice on the Western Front), the Australian Light Horse was kept on for 9 months after that in what is now regarded as the first ever Australian peace-keeping force.
Setting off on the 2017 Ride – Organisational Challenges with 100 Riders
I flew in to Israel on Oct 26th and was expecting to find everyone who had already been touring together for 1-2 weeks at Eshkol Park at noon on Oct 27th. On the previous tour, everyone always arrived before time. That was when I learned that the military was all about “hurry up and wait”! The fact that the buses with the “troops” did not arrive until 3 pm was the first warning that things were not as organized as the first trip with 50 riders. Happily, an advance group of 3 leaders was there to meet the horse owners and all the horses had been tied up along a long fence from noon.
For the 2017 ride there were approx. 100 riders with another 150 or so family members/non-riders, rather than 50 riders and 30 family/non-riders, as per 2007. Instead of the riders already knowing each other, they had been travelling on 3 different buses. This appeared to have resulted in a lot of fragmented communication and augmented the level of logistical difficulty by more than 3-fold. There also seemed to be a lot of Chiefs. In addition to the colour party of about 10 (carrying flags), there were leads of each troop in charge of something like 20 riders. It was soon apparent that the colour party were more important than the rest of us as they placed their camp on top of the hill in the shade and overlooking the horses and campground, and instructed the troop leads to organise their troops to set up their tents on the hot, sunny open area below.
I was allocated into troop 3, which only had 13 people. I then learned there had been a lot of people very sick during the lead up trip and that somehow the attrition had been greatest for troop 3. When it came to being allocated horses, our troop was mostly allocated to horses from the same farm/stud as troops 1 and 2, but 4 of us were seconded by another horse owner to be given horses from their farm/stud. We took these horses to do drills with troop 3 later in the afternoon, but it quickly became apparent that they would not behave with the horses they did not know, and we were moved to Troop 5 who had horses from the same farm. We still remained with troop 3 for all ground activities, eg briefings and setting up camp. It was nice to meet one group of people during the day, and another in the evening. It also gave us the chance to get a bit more information about what was planned than each single troop seemed to receive.
As the first afternoon wore on it became ever more apparent that our troop leaders were not really in charge and we were really under the management of the horse owners. Things became more disjointed as the different horse owners seemingly had different ideas about where we were going and when. One thing in common was that we had to use their gear, so we had Western Saddles, local bridles with coloured tags identifying the horse they belonged to, and all of us wore a colour coded paper bangle to indicate what horse owner our horse and gear belonged to. Sadly this meant we did not look as polished or authentic as we did 10 years before, where we had brought replica WW1 saddles and bridles and polished them all with great care.
Something that bothered my partner trying to photograph the ride over the next days was that the horse owners did not ride out away from us as they did in 2007, but were now intermixed with the riders. Our formations were quite messy due to this, as well as due to there being many people who had no horse or pony club or ALHA background. None of our troop leaders seemed to know at what time we were riding, or where we were going, or for how long, and my partner ended up figuring out that the “horse owner with the gun” was the one who seemed to be the most knowledgeable. Even then it was difficult, as he could not read the English names on our maps! Our troop leaders seemed to know even less than my partner. They told us that they were not in charge and had to await directions from the horse owners or simply follow them.
When the horses were being allocated, I volunteered to take a difficult horse (subsequently referred to as an alpha mare) and ended up with a beautiful bay that I later learned was an ex Olympic showjumper! She was gorgeous to ride for the first 1.5 days, but at the first parade with a band playing, she would not stand in line and I was given a replacement that reminded me of the famous “Bill the Bastard”!
Troop 5 was led by a good natured American with a very loud voice, and I believe with some “cavalry” experience. However, his lack of knowledge of how to manage troop formations as per the Light Horse (or pony club which uses much of the same structure and movements) and his use of vocabulary that was foreign to Australians, left us in disarray on many occasions…including during the set-up of the charge! Those of us who knew what he was trying to achieve would try to help, but we were a mix of people ranging from some who had only just learnt to ride horses (including some Aborigines from central Australia whose ancestors fought in WW1), to some who had been involved with the Light Horse for many years and participated in the 2007 and 2012 Beersheba Charge reenactments as well.
For me it was nice to discover that a few from the 2007 trip were in troop 5 – Rob Unicomb, Bazza, and Bruce. Bruce was originally in the colour party, but somehow ended up with a horse from the same horse owner as those of us originally from Troop 3. He thus became the flag bearer for Troop 5.
The 4 of us from Troop 3 started out in Troop 5 as a “section”, but with the mixed instructions from our troop leader, the lack of interest in discipline or drill skills amongst others in troop 5, and some people simply wanting to talk with a variety of others, there was a lot of mixing around on the first full day of the ride. Finally, when I got my substitute horse – which was a grey, it worked out best that I joined up with 3 other greys. This meant a more stable section for the latter half of the ride - where I was with the son of Barry Rodgers (I see Barry as our equivalent of General Allenby), a woman from Geraldton WA and Rob Unicomb. Ultimately in the Charge, Barry’s son and Rob Unicomb were in the middle row and we girls in the back row.
Our first night at Eshkol Park was somehow similar to that 10 years prior in that Barry Rogers and the ALHA had organised a Dead Sea Dance group to give us a wonderful performance. In addition, we were also treated to a West Australian band playing and singing songs about the Light Horse, and poetry by Geoffrey Graham that was very moving (http://www.dinkumoz.com.au/html/the_performances.html). On top of that, a group of local artists unveiled a mosaic that they were recreating that faithfully replicates the original one found at Shellal by the Australian troops and which is now in the Australian War Memorial.