ANZAC light regiment cavalry charge at Beersheba poised for reenactment

Beersheba: On the plains to the south-east of Be'er Sheba, a young boy's donkey stands stubbornly in a field, as its rider whacks at its flanks.

Behind him in a gully, a flock of camels wanders up the banks of a stream.

And in the distance, dust flies up in the wake of a horseman, galloping across the Negev desert, a tiny echo of a turning point in history.

One hundred years ago, this was the scene of an astonishing moment in the ANZAC story. It sits sandwiched between the coming-of-age tragedy of Gallipoli, and the grinding horror of the Western Front, and many only dimly remember the heroics of Beersheba, possibly the last great cavalry charge, probably Australia's first great military victory.

Hamish Gibbons, lieutenant colonel in the New Zealand army, looks down at the plains and tries to picture how it was.

"The actual charge was quite an audacious plan," he says. "It was not what the enemy would have thought anyone would have tried, not how the war had been fought.

"I can only imagine what would have been playing on the minds of the troops."

The 800 light horsemen, 6km south-east of Beersheba, had ridden their Australian 'Waler' horses through the desert night to get into position for the charge. They would have been tired and dehydrated, and then faced a long wait for their do-or-die moment.

Their Anzac allies cleared the way, taking a Turkish machine gun emplacement on a hill that could have picked them off as they charged (this vital New Zealand contribution to Australia's proud moment is often underplayed).

And then, mid-afternoon, they formed up and charged, first at a trot, then finally at a gallop as the Beersheba defenders woke too late to the threat, then melted away within hours in the face of the ferocious attack.

Through the machine gun fire and artillery to victory.

"It was very brave, very audacious, and ultimately successful," says Lt-Col Gibbons. "Unlike the Western Front, they could fight the sort of battle that they wanted to fight."

Historian Jonathan King is part of a recreation of that charge, a group of 100 men and women who wanted to honour the Anzacs by walking in their footsteps - or hoofprints.

"The whole point is to bring history to life," said King, whose great-grandfather was among the soldiers in the original assault on the town.

"This great cavalry charge at Beersheba 100 years ago turned the tide of the war in Palestine, but very few Australians know about it. This was one of the greatest moments in Australian history and it should be a celebrated cornerstone of our culture and national identity."

The victory also created the conditions for the foundation of the modern state of Israel - which the locals have not forgotten, King said.

King and his comrades have donned the full World War One uniform - "which I might say is really hot", right down to the slouch hats with the emu plumes, and found local horses to play the part of the old Australian ones. They have followed the whole three-day track of the original regiment, which patiently circled the town to attack from the less-defended south.

"It is different now - we are coming in from the desert, so there hasn't been a lot of development in a century," says King. "But there's the huge city of Be'er Sheva in the background.

"You've got to close your eyes, and in your mind just try and visualise what it would have been like."

"We ignore the buildings and think that we're doing what they would have loved us to do, the troopers, especially the 31 killed."

The re-creation hasn't been smooth sailing. The Israeli horses are frisky, and their riders not exactly battle-hardened. The 3-day journey through the desert has taken a toll.

On Tuesday afternoon, their moment will come, as part of a day of commemoration attended by the prime ministers of Australia and Israel.

"We are like the WW1 troopers thirsty, covered in dust, saddle sore and tired," says King.

"But the morale is very high, we are all conscious that we are bringing history to life and honouring the troopers who made history with that great charge

"To me personally it will be spine-chilling."

This story ANZAC light regiment cavalry charge at Beersheba poised for reenactment first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.