I related a fair bit about the ANZACs—the Australia New Zealand Army Corps, which saw some of the worst of the action in World War I—in my March 23, 2007 post about ANZAC biscuits (delightful cookies that honor the brave warriors). Australia and New Zealand were both young countries when World War I began, and yet they rallied to England’s aid and headed for the Middle East and Europe. The ANZACs sustained incredible casualties—but they also scored some astonishing victories—including the almost legendary battle of Beersheba.
Beersheba— in the area known as Palestine, though in 1917 it was part of the great, sprawling Turkish Ottoman Empire—was the key to breaking through the Turkish lines. The Allies, but most especially the British, had fought for months, but the Turkish forces were strong and well armed. The decisive battle came on October 31, 1917, a seemingly doomed effort to take Beersheba before nightfall. The British turned to two regiments of Australian mounted soldiers: the 4th (Victoria) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. The plan—charge. Have a few hundred Australians, bayonets in hand, simply run their horses over open ground at the several thousand Turks, in trenches, behind rifles, cannons, and machine guns. But the Turks never imagined a charge. They assumed that, like the British cavalry, the horsemen would get off a few thousand meters away and then attack on foot, using their rifles.
But this wasn’t the British. The Aussies yelled bloody murder and ran straight at the guns. By the time the Turks figured out what was happening, their cannons were almost useless, as the Light Horsemen were too close. After a dangerous gallop of a few miles, the horses were vaulting over the Turkish trenches. Aussies dismounted, and fighting was now hand-to-hand. The Light Horsemen were still hugely outnumbered, but the charge had demoralized the Turkish troops, many of whom fled. By nightfall, Beersheba had been taken.
The movie “The Lighthorsemen” is not the best movie to ever come out of Australia—that would probably be “Breaker Morant,” though that’s about a different war. For movies about ANZACs in World War I, “Gallipoli” is probably more reflective of the grim reality and is better acted and constructed. But if you simply want to be amazed by an astonishing piece of history that is little celebrated outside of Australia, or if you just like heroes on horseback, I do recommend the film. And the battle, while the heart of the movie, is not all the movie contains—there is background, build-up, and even a bit of romance.
To give you a sense of the film, here is an excerpt–the attack on Beersheba, from “The Lighthorsemen.” It makes the statue mentioned above a bit more understandable.