General Sir Harry Chauvel’s Beersheba

Continued...

Nothing is ever stable during warfare; politics, politicians and society change and so it was during the First World War, firstly with the plan to open a front on the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula in December 1915 freed up Ottoman troops to attack the Suez Canal, the shipping lifeline between the Empire and the mother country.  So early 1916 saw Chauvel and his Desert Mounted Division defending the Canal Zone and then moving north to clear the Ottomans out of the Sinai Peninsula.  In August 1916 the Australian Light Horse had distinguished itself with success at Romani and later in December at Magdhaba.  But there was a long hard battle ahead with setbacks in the two battles for Gaza in March and April 1917.

 

Sir Archibald Murray the Commander in Chief of the Egypt Expeditionary Force was found to be flawed, not just in his battle plans but he portrayed the Gaza setbacks as successes.  He was recalled and replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby at the end of June 1917.  Meanwhile, in the UK, the December 1916 election saw the fall of British Prime Minister Asquith and the appointment of David Lloyd George.  Lloyd George had inherited a nation that was thoroughly fed up with hearing of casualties and of war.  Because of the German attacks on British shipping, food was running short and prices were rising.   Similarly, here at home in Australia people were war-weary as shown by the results of the October 1916 and December 1917 referenda when the nation twice voted against conscription.  To gain ascendancy to bring the war to a more satisfactory conclusion, success was needed.  Lloyd George wanted Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the British people and success at Beersheba was one of the vital keys.  General Sir Archibald Wavell (1883–1950), General Allenby’s biographer explained:

‘Mr Lloyd George had always believed that the shortest road to victory lay not in the main western theatre, but by eliminating Germany’s lesser allies in the subsidiary theatres—the policy of ‘knocking out the props'.  

 

General Sir Edmund Allenby who took over command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the end of June 1917. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In Australia people were war-weary as shown by the results of the 1916 and 1917 referenda when the nation twice voted against conscription (Image: Archives of NSW on Twitter).

After the two failures at Gaza a new plan was needed and it was decided to outflank Gaza by attacking Beersheba.   Any delay would have run the risk of operations becoming bogged down in autumnal rains and mud.  The pressure was on and Allenby wanted Beersheba captured on the first day of operations. The Palestine Campaign was now no longer a sideshow.

 

So what was Chauvel doing one hundred years ago on 27th October 1917?  On 26th October he wrote to his wife Sibyl,  ‘I sent you two days ago, some aeroplane photographs of my headquarters near Abasan-el-Kebir.’ ‘The camp is on a fig-tree orchard, & the hedges are of prickly pear.  When we came here first, all the countryside was green, but now it is all sand.  This has been a very comfortable camp, except for the dust.  My new ADCs, Cox and Lyons are doing very well.  Frank Newton is a great boon to me.’ [6] For security and censorship reasons, there is no hint of the forthcoming battle.

It was not until February 1922 when my grandmother was transcribing his letters, that he described for her the build-up to the Battle of Beersheba:

‘The biggest problem of all for the Cavalry was to find sufficient water, east or south-east of Beersheba’  …  ‘A study of the Journal of the Palestine Exploration Fund which was procured for me from Cairo by General Russell showed that considerable cities had existed in days gone by where Kasla and Asluj are now, so that there must at that time have been water in both these places.  We took advantage of the raid on the Asluj - Auja railway to make a thorough reconnaissance of the water possibilities at Asluj & Kalasa.  The old wells were found, & it was estimated by Russell that a fortnight’s work by his engineers would put them into working order, & provide all the water we required.  This made the attack on Beersheba a feasible operation.  In the meantime in order to deceive the enemy as to our intentions, our infantry strength was kept until the last minute opposite Gaza, & a sort of weekly routine of reconnaissance in force of mounted troops was instituted towards Beersheba, so as to accustom the enemy to seeing them there, & also to give infantry commanders & staff, who used to accompany them, a chance of reconnoitring the country they were to operate over.  Various simple devices were adopted to further delude the Turk.  For instance, on one occasion a haversack was allowed to be dropped by a Light Horseman during reconnaissance.  It contained amongst the usual paraphernalia what purported to be an unfinished letter to his girlfriend in Australia, describing what a bad time they were having, doing these long reconnaissances on the hot summer days, without any other object than to deceive the enemy into thinking we were going to attack Beersheba, whereas the real attack was to be on Gaza, where the Light Horse would not have a show! It was afterwards discovered from enemy documents, that the letter was found by them, & served its purpose in helping to deceive the Turkish High Command.  

 

‘Towards the end of October, all the arrangements were completed, & the engineers, assisted by mounted troops, in less than a fortnight had, under cover of ordinary reconnaissance, developed sufficient water at both Kasala and Asluj for two cavalry divisions.  The plans of the operations were roughly as follows.  While the 21st Corps & the Navy created a diversion by heavily bombarding Gaza, the Desert Mounted Corps, less the Yeomanry Division & plus the 7th Mounted Brigade, was to attack Beersheba from the east & northeast, & the 20th Corps under General Chetwode, striking from Bir El Esani, was to attack Beersheba from the south-west.  The Yeomanry Division & the Imperial Camel Corps were to hold the ground between the 20th & 21st Corps.  The object was to turn the enemy’s left flank at Beersheba, roll up his line from the East with the 20th Corps & press the attack on Gaza with the 21st Corps, the Desert Mounted Corps being by then available to cut off the enemy’s retreat from Gaza.’[7]

 

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[6] Chauvel War Books (Volume II, p.33)

[7] Chauvel War Books (Volume II, p.33-36)