Martin Balsarini and the Charge at Beersheba
By Howard C. Jones
MARTIN John Balsarini took part in the great charge at Beersheba as a member of the 4th Light Horse Regiment. He gave a vivid account of the battle for an article published in The Border Mail on 4 October 1986 and also made other remarks in 1987 after seeing the movie The Lighthorsemen.
Martin was born at Chiltern Valley on 9 September 1895 to Antoinette and Martin Innocent Balsarini. His father was from Benazone, Italy, and had arrived in Victoria from England in 1870. He was a woodcutter in the Chiltern Valley and was naturalised in 1901.
The son also worked in the Chiltern Forest as a teenager. In January 1915 he badly injured his hand when his axe slipped (The Federal Standard, 8 January 1915). This accident may have delayed his enlistment, which took place on 21 July 1915, when he was 19. He produced a handwritten note signed by both parents giving him permission to enlist This is part his war record in the National Archives of Australia). Martin told me in 1986: "My parents were Italian. In 1915 I volunteered for the Army when I heard about our casualties in Gallipoli - some were mates of mine. I first went into the infantry, but then volunteered for the Light Horse."
After a few weeks training he was posted to the 4th Light Horse Regiment on 18 October 1915 and allowed his final leave home. His Service number was 1682. The regiment's 12th reinforcements left Melbourne on 23 November, probably expecting to fight on Gallipoli, where the rest of the 4th were located. However, the evacuation took place while the reinforcements were still at sea. Very soon after arriving in Egypt, Martin went down with mumps.
It appears he spent most of 1916 riding on patrols in the Suez Canal Zone without seeing action. However, his parents received a letter in mid-1917 stating "he was in good health and that the hot weather was just about over... they were off the desert on April 18 and were in Palestine. The desert finished at Rafa and from there on there was some grass and a few crops of barley, so the horses were not so badly off" (Federal Standard, 7 July 1917). The regiment had, in fact, followed the main British advance across Sinai from April.
The historic charge on Beersheba by the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiment took place on 31 October.
Martin Balsarini pictured in Albury in 1987 when he viewed The Lighthorsemen (which didn't impress him). Picture: Border Mail
After interviewing Martin in 1986, I wrote: "The men faced direct Turkish rifle and machine gun fire in a crucial battle in a desert war also fought with camels, trains and wooden planes. His blood is up even when he talks of it today at his quiet home in Chiltern, and he remembers dead mates. One died beside him in a hail of Turkish bullets. And he remembers with pity the wretched Turkish prisoners he helped capture in Beersheeba and later in Damascus."
In Martin's own words: "We were part of the 4th Light Horse Brigade under General Chauvel and we left Melbourne for Egypt on the troop ship Ceramic, carrying 4000 of us for Suez. The Australians were returning from Gallipoli and the infantry and some Light Horse were being sent to France, but the 4th stayed in the Middle East."
Martin recalled seeing his British commander-in-chief, General Edmund Allenby, who was trying to drive out the Turks from Palestine, with Beersheba a first target.
"We had to ride our horses 100 miles from the Sinai border across the desert to Beersheba... we rode for two nights, resting by day," he said. "There was no water in the desert except at Beersheba and our horses went 72 hours without water.
"Infantry and other Light Horse regiments attacked Beersheba from the front, but they had not gained much ground. Our commanders could see Beersheba had to be captured that night, because the horses needed water.
"Towards sundown they decided to go in. Our commanders knew there were trenches but did not know if they had barbed wire. I was a corporal with four men under me and one leading an ammunition packhorse.