Beersheba charge all over again – but a year later, at Kaukab!
by John Boyce
The 4th Light Horse Brigade shook out into assault formation in the low ground behind the ridge. Horsemen looked around, tightened their chinstraps and shifted in the stirrups, as they readied themselves for the charge. Ahead lay an enemy position, defended by 2,500 Turks with their German advisers. The 4th LH Regiment was on the left of the road, the 12th LH Regiment was on the right, with other Allied troops close by, but not within reach, of the enemy positions.
Does this sound familiar? But this wasn’t 31 October 1917 and this wasn’t the charge at Beersheba. It was almost a year later (on 30 September 1918) and hundreds of miles away, just south of Damascus. Yes, “Grant’s mob”, the 4th Light Horse Brigade, was about to take part in another mounted charge, this time near the Syrian village of Kaukab. This was all part of the relentless pursuit of the retreating Turkish Army by Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps in what has been labelled as “the sleepless fortnight” on “the Great Ride to Damascus”.
A panorama of Kaukab based on images from the Australian War Memorial https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/ C987994 and 3 more
What thoughts must have been going through the minds of those Light Horse veterans……… “Here we go again!”…..”Will I be as lucky this time?” ….”Come on, let’s have you!”
Actually, things were a bit different this time: the Turks were on the run now. This was a pursuit, with rapid actions against enemy rearguards. We were equipped differently too: the Australian Mounted Division now had swords just like the English Yeomanry – no need for waving bayonets as you charged. Their rifle was in a ‘bucket’ behind the saddle these days too, rather than slung over the shoulder.
So here on a sunny morning near Damascus, the 4th LH Bde charged again. Spaced out in artillery formation, they rose to the gallop, swords glinting, waiting for the enemy machine guns to start their deadly fire. It was hard on the nerves waiting for the blizzard of bullets, and one officer said he remembers hearing a hard-riding trooper yell “Why don’t you fire, you bastards!” (Note 1).
Instead, the Turks broke and ran without firing a shot. They had seen Allied cavalry outflanking them to the west, they had no artillery of their own, and perhaps they knew the story of what happened when Lighthorsemen charged…..
Afterwards, LTCOL Bourchier said with delight (and perhaps relief) that it was “like a drill manoeuvre”.
4th Light Horse Regiment at Kaukab (AWM B02923)
Notts Battery in action at Kaukab (Australian War Memorial B02922)
In fact, this was one of many charges after that success at Beersheba the previous year. A year later, during the first day of the Megiddo breakout, units of the 5th LH Brigade undertook numerous charges. The 3rd LH Brigade also charged at Jenin, then made more charges in operations around Damascus. British and Indian regiments made at least six notable charges during the same period, only one of which failed (owing to inadequate reconnaissance and inadequate fire support) ( Note 2).
(1) I moved them off with drawn swords in line and broke into a trot and then gallop ... I never looked around but when I came down to top speed and sword at the 'charge', I could hear the noise behind me ... We expected to go through heavy machine–gunfire. I heard someone yell as we galloped along, 'Why don't you fire, you bastards?' It was hard on the nerves, waiting for the blizzard of bullets, until the men realised that the 2,500 Turks were breaking and running."
— Major Norman Rae, leading "A" Squadron, 4th Light Horse Regiment
(2) “A mounted attack against delaying positions was frequently the best and fastest course open” 3rd LH Brigade developed a standard response whereby “a mounted flanking attack with swords drawn was launched in conjunction with a dismounted attack in front”. Jean Bou, ‘Light Horse, a history of Australia’s Mounted Arm’ Cambridge Univ Press 2010, pp 198-99.
Falls Sketch map of Kaukab