The 100th Anniversary of the Charge of Beersheba
The Ride: October 28th to 30th, 2017
The ride still took the route of the Light Horse troops involved in and supporting the Beersheba Charge (shown right). However, we were not able to ride for approx. 20 km per day as we did on the 2007 trip, due to ongoing development of the area.
On Oct 28th, we rode from Eshkol Park (near Shellal) to Esani, but could not continue to Asluj as in 2007 as that part of the wadi was now closed off. Hence, we were bussed (horses trucked) to Asluj, where I was disappointed to learn that the wonderful thermal springs pool complex that had been there 10 years before was closed! Happily, Barry Rodgers had organized for us to do camel rides instead, which were fun. After that we visited the remnants of a train line support structure that had been blown up south of Asluj by the grandfather/great grandfather of 3 women on the trip. They were wearing wombat fur hat bands which is where I learned that the 6th Light Horse Regiment was unique in wearing these, rather than sporting emu feathers in their slouch hats! As in 2007, we had a good dinner with the Bedouin tribe at Asluj (no belly dancer this time), and slept in their large Bedouin tent.
On Oct 29th, there was an unexpected salutation of a Guidon party during the middle of the day. Sadly I did not learn of the significance of this event, ie that a Guidon is a regimental flag that never normally leaves its country of origin without its troops, not to mention that it was highly unusual to have two together - here for the 4th and 12th regiments. Furthermore, they were carried by “top brass” from Australia who would be present at the Commonwealth Graves Memorial Ceremony on Oct 31. On top of this, I did not really “see” the Guidons or their carriers that day as protocol meant I had to look straight ahead as we rode past them, due to my position in our section of 4 riders. The other 3 faced the Guidon party. Now I know more about the Guidons, I will need to visit the war memorial to see them one day. We did a full 20 km ride on this day, but I was shocked to see on arrival that there was now a busy freeway running past the area where we had set up and christened the “wadi bar” 10 years before! During the dinner, a few of us decided to “guard” the camp site given the horse owners were guarding their horses. There was a Bedouin camp on the other side of the freeway and shortly after dark fell, a few Bedouins were spotted ‘sneaking around’ by the horse owners. The police arrived before dinner was over and everyone subsequently made sure any precious belongings were moved into their tents rather than leaving them hanging in the trees where they had been left before dinner! The evening finished with further wonderful poems being recited by Geoffrey Graham.
On Oct 30th, we had to be bussed to the start of our ride as the wadi we had previously ridden along had now become a creek of sewerage and effluent from a new town. Our route also changed. Interestingly we rode to and partly up the hill – Tel el Saba - overlooking the plain where the famous Charge took place. This gave us a real understanding of the difficulty and sacrifice of the Kiwis (New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade) that took that hill during the day of Oct 31, 1917. Overall we only covered approx. 10 km which meant it was an easy ride …..except for a moment when we were cantering up a small rise out of a creek bed and my bandolier got caught in the pommel of the Western saddle! My horse started pigrooting as I tried to get untangled, much to Bazza’s amusement behind, but happily I did not fall and disgrace (or hurt) myself! We finished up at Beit Eschel Park, but did not sleep there as we did 10 years before. The park is now transformed as a lovely recreation area: No need to spend the afternoon clearing up trash, metal and glass from the “hallowed” ground as in 2007! Instead we practiced the charge at a trot, which demonstrated we could not stay in line, and so practiced twice again at the walk. Then we retired to our hotels to polish our leather and prepare for a 3 am start.
Photo from Day 1 of ride on Oct 28, showing Bruce on my left, and Rob Unicomb on my right.
100th Anniversary: October 31st, 2017
For the day of the anniversary of the Charge, Oct 31st, we started out on the horses at 5.30 am to ride approx. 3 km into Beersheba before peak hour traffic (which is significant considering the population is now over 200,000). We then tied the horses up in a park near the Commonwealth Graves Cemetery and waited. As for everything done with the military, it was the classic case of “hurry up and wait”.
When we walked to the cemetery at around 7.30 am, we discovered that a major security check was required for all the 1000 or so people coming to the 9 am service. Given anything with metal had to be removed, we ended up taking off hats, bandoliers, jackets, suspenders, belts, leather leggings and boots and one of our crew decided why not strip down to his underwear since he had to basically get the whole kit back on again on the other side! While we were redressing on the other side, we saw Bryan Brown pass by, so we were clearly in good company!
The reason for the security soon became apparent. The commemoration service was being led by the President of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, and the Governor General of New Zealand. The Guidon party was there too. No “Dad’s army” version of the Catafalque party drawn from the Light Horse troops this time, as in 2007! No fainting episodes either! This time there was a large stage with overhead cover, as well as covered stands built along one side of the cemetery for us and the “crowd” to sit on.
President Netanyahu spoke eloquently about how the Charge of Beersheba paved the way for the modern state of Israel. Prime Minister Turnbull acknowledged the importance of having troops on horseback and related stories about Bill the Bastard, as well as of the sadness of the troops that the horses could not return to Australia with them when the war was over. After several more speeches and the wreath laying, we went back to the horses, waited for some time, and then quickly set off for the start of the parade down the main street of Beersheba. Then we endured another long wait, with horses standing on a slippery asphalt road and us in 35 C heat in full uniform from about 12.30 until the parade started around 1.30.
There were at least 3000 locals of all ages lining the 1 km parade route, all waving Israeli, Australian and NZ flags and cheering. It seemed to us that no-one was at work or school in that area of Beersheba that afternoon. Then we rode back to the Beit Eshel Park with sharp shooters visible all along the outside of the area reserved for the Charge. A grandstand that could hold 1000 had been built at the end of an approx. 800 metre stretch of dirt over which we would “Charge”.