The 100th Anniversary of the Charge of Beersheba

 

Continued....

 

We had a break for lunch, then mounted at 3.30 pm. Finally we were set for the charge, waiting in 3 lines for 4.30 pm: The colour party of approx. 10 in front, then two rows of approx. 45 horses. It gave me a strange feeling when the lead of the whole operation came past to check our dressing and announced that it would be exactly 100 years to the time when we started the charge. The sun was setting behind us, so those in the stand would have realized the difficulties for the Turks to see what was happening back in 1917. We set off at the walk, the dust billowing (particularly uncomfortable for those of us in the 3rd row), and those watching must have seen quite a spectacle, especially as we came over a small rise midway through.

 

While it was disappointing to not do the Charge at the canter, like 10 years before when we had a smaller group of able horsemen (people), it was fantastic to experience the extremely drawn out slow motion version too.

 

After arriving at the grandstand, there were approx. 10 mins of speeches and awards. One went to a kiwi from troop 3. On our first night, this man had cut a length of unnecessary leather off my bandolier and helped me with my “pup” tent….so he was already a great man for me. We then moved off and lined up along the road that President Netanyahu and Prime Minister Turnbull were to be driven along on leaving. Sadly we did not see them because they kept their blackened car windows up, presumably for security reasons. Meanwhile the colour party did a real charge at the canter for those in the grandstand. This left a bad taste in the mouths of all those who could really ride and would have loved to do a “real charge”.

 

For me that division of hierarchy that resulted in some people having a “better” experience of the Charge than others felt very non-egalitarian and “un-Australian”. There was a group amongst us that were tempted to just break ranks and join the colour party as a second row, but we didn’t because we did not want to “spoil” the pageantry of the colour charge. I wonder what would have happened if we had. Why not be more like the Australians of 100 years before who did not especially behave in the orderly way the British commanders required? One part of the legend of the ANZACs is that they were irreverent in the face of authority, naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences and I was experiencing some of those same feelings! Their other qualities have been documented elsewhere [1], such as their fitness, endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, larrikinism, laconic style, stoicism and mateship. Regarding the latter, when I rode back from the “Charge” with the Aboriginal woman who called me “sister”, I felt good again.

 

Despite the difficulties with co-ordination throughout, the whole ride was an important experience! I got to know the stories of the ancestors of many of the riders, as well as their current day stories.

 

After the Charge

 

After the Charge we went back to a hotel I had booked in the centre of Beersheba.

 

  • That evening we met a couple there who had followed the ANZAC trail for several days on bikes. This looks like something worth doing for a future trip.

  • They had just returned from a party put on by the Australian Government for those who participated in all the commemorations during the day. It was frustrating to learn that we could have gone to this event after the fact, but I was somehow happy that my last memory of the trip was the slow motion dusty Charge, setting off as the sun was setting exactly 100 years after the original event.

 

In our subsequent time in Jordan and Israel, several things happened which added additional context for me to the whole experience:

 

  • At a convenience store in Eilat, a young man at the cash register was very excited when he learned my grandfather had been part of the force that pushed back the Ottoman Empire in WW1 and he shook my hand thanking me for everything my ancestor had done

  • We saw how difficult it must have been to stay in the Jordan Valley for a summer, where the troops suffered severely from the heat, the dust and the mosquitos, and many contracted malaria.

  • We met someone from Amman who said his grandfather was a Palestinian who lived in Jerusalem when the British Army took it over. He now considered himself a Jordanian. He considered his grandfather a Palestinian. His grandfather called himself an Ottoman. It was strange to meet a descendant of someone who had been in Jerusalem when my Grandfather had come through.

  • His Jordanian friends discussed how difficult their history is, believing reconciliation amongst all the groups in the Middle East being impossible due to how everyone has been affected. They are upset that Israeli is changing the name of the occupied Palestinian territories on the West Bank (of the Jordan River) to Judea and Sumaria, to remove any association with Jordan.

  • We met a German who showed us that on the German map that the area we call the “West Bank” is still depicted as “West Jordanland”. It was Jordan before the 1967 war.

  • These discussions and others made me realise that Jordan is the home of many displaced Palestinians

  • We visited Jesus’s baptismal site at a different part of the Jordan River to that where we had been in 2007 (!), making me realise it’s not exactly clear where Jesus was baptized.

  • We went to Es Salt, a city of beautiful Ottoman architecture, and walked up to the Turkish Memorial at 6.30 am, expecting to visit it on our own. We were nicely surprised to be welcomed by the person managing the cemetery and it turned out he had also helped organize the visit there by the whole pre-tour group 3 weeks before. He relayed that before their visit, there had not been any previous official visits to the Turkish memorial by Australians!

  • The Es Salt Turkish Memorial has a small yet beautiful museum showing their side of the story, including a short film. Through that we learned how difficult it had been for the Turks to defend Es Salt, especially to convince the Germans that they needed more forces to hold the city.

  • In our East Jerusalem hotel at the end of the trip, I read a book which was a compilation of diaries of Palestinian children aged 8-14 who were living in the occupied territories during the second Intifida, mostly from Bethlehem and Ramallah. They felt it unfair that they did not have the right to go to school during the random curfews, or travel freely to see family and friends, and questioned why they were treated as second class citizens. Their teachers had proposed the diaries because writing things down can help children understand their issues, plus avoid severe depression through facilitating self-reflection as well as group discussion on how others are dealing with similar issues. Again I felt very fortunate to have grown up in an environment free of war and oppression.

  • I learned from a youtube video by a Palestinian woman living in the US, that the word “Intifida” really refers to the feeling you have when you are being constantly bothered, eg by a mosquito buzzing around you at night while you are trying to sleep and preventing you from sleeping in peace. The Palestinian Intifidas occur when the Israeli’s keep bothering the Palestinians so much that they cannot live in peace and feel they have to respond.

  • The wall that we had seen being built in Jerusalem 10 years ago, to prevent people in the occupied territories bringing bombs into Israel, is now visible for much of the drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It does not exactly follow the 1949 Jordanian - Israeli Armistice line. Notably East Jerusalem is now west of it, perhaps reflecting its capture by Israel in the 1967 war.

  • The Palestinians in Gaza routinely send rockets into Israel, but their direction control is poor. In contrast, Israeli tracking systems are very good. The Israeli’s don’t intercept if the Palestinian rockets are not going to hit a populated place, as the cost of an interception, which is highly accurate, is 50,000 USD.

  • According to one Israeli, the Palestinians recently fired 800 rockets at Israel before Israel retaliated with one rocket, but the newspapers in the West only reported on the Israeli “attack” and not the continuous Palestinian bombardment that had eventually elicited their response.

 

 

Final Reflections

 

I am grateful to Barry Rodgers for his highly appreciated leadership in organizing these tours for both riders and non-riders. Not only has he been the inspiration behind them, he worked untiringly in providing additional relevance to them by employing historians to travel with us, varying the pre-ride tours so as to visit many different places our ancestors went, driving funding support and partnerships with the Jewish National Fund to rehabilitate key places of historical significance, and orchestrating the co-ordination of these amazing re-enactment activities through the ALHA, diplomats in multiple embassies and through convincing several horse farm/stud owners to work with us. On tour he was there for everyone and cared about everyone. Personally I appreciated how, during the 2007 trip, he would organize for times of reflection that brought out incredible stories from different people that would never otherwise have been shared across the whole group. For the 2017 trip I was happy to see so many of his own family travelling with him and glad that he seemed to have handed over a good deal of the management to others so he could spend time with his family during the ride. He probably has many legacies, but organizing these Beersheba trips in 2007, 2012 and 2017 led to many people better understanding their history and ways of being, as well as better appreciating the hardship and sacrifice of the young men whose lives were robbed or changed forever, on both sides of the battle.

I now ponder less about what my grandfather experienced. Much of it one should never even try to imagine. I gather that he chose to work on an outback station (the Overflow station made famous by a Banjo Patterson poem) for some time after the war to help himself get past what he experienced. Personally I believe the world would be a far better place if we could resolve to not fight about resources on this planet and work together to protect them. Still, while money, power, and religious righteousness make humankind unable to focus on fairness, justice, inclusion and solutions, I fear we are doomed to continue with wars and unfairness, and potentially even destroy the earth as we know it.

I especially admire my grandfather for the work he did to help with the repatriation of many soldiers over the years following the war, as well as for his contributions to building Australia through politics. See: https://www.chauvelfoundation.com/rupert-curnow-p1 . My father carried a similar commitment to the communities he has lived in and won an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to the community. These are big legacies to follow.

Left and below: Information displayed at the Beechworth Heritage Museum.

Footnote

 

[1]  For a contemporary account, see Gullet's (1923). The Official History of the War of 1914-1918 (Volume VII, Sinai and Palestine),  pp. 29-36.  More recently, other, newer sources like Wikipedia have included accounts of the characteristics of the Light Horsemen in their body of work.