Commemorating the Battle of Beersheba

The 100th anniversary commemoration of the legendary Australian Light Horse charge to take Beersheba in October 1917 was in itself a remarkable event, one that will continue to resonate throughout 2018 as we approach the centenary of the Armistice to end WW1.

To pay due respect to those extraordinary horsemen a hundred years ago required something truly special. To conceive and execute an event with a hundred horses, riders, period uniform and to retrace the route of the original charge, was an exercise requiring almost military-style organisation and resourcing.

Elbit Systems of Australia (ELSA) is proud of its significant contribution to that solemn but inspiring event. ELSA sponsored the participation by two present day light horsemen, LT Ryan Abil, 2/14 Light Horse Regiment, and CPL Rob Conway, 4/19 Prince of Wales Light Horse, who were selected by Army to represent their contemporaries. It was the culmination of an idea that had been hatched some years earlier.

Senior ELSA staff began thinking about how to contribute to the Beersheba commemoration around 2014. Director Civil and Defence Services, Simon Hardy, a former Commanding Officer of an Australian Light Horse Regiment was central to the idea. Ultimately a proposal was put to Army and it was enthusiastically accepted.

The task of turning the proposal into reality was tackled by ELSA’s Manager Training Products, John Welsh, who dealt with all the daunting logistics of the ELSA involvement, right down to ensuring that LT Abil and CPL Conway had sufficient training in horsemanship.

John was also an enthusiastic participant in the commemoration ride.  The following is his account of this remarkable exercise honouring a truly extraordinary chapter of ANZAC history.

Back From Beersheba

By John Welsh

31 October 2017.  A low-lying cloud of dust lingers around four hundred agitated hooves.  As the sun sets the air of anticipation and expectation is palpable.  A horse whinnies.  Another tosses its head and snorts.  Horses and riders extended in a long, deep line across dry, rugged ground check their positions.  Amongst them, dressed in woollen jackets, thick breeches, plumed slouch hats, ammunition cross belts and astride their horses sit LT Ryan Abil, 2/14 Light Horse Regiment, and CPL Rob Conway, 4/19 Prince of Wales Light Horse.  Before them is open space.  And beyond that.  Beersheba. 

The scene is an echo of the events of a hundred years ago.  31 October 2017 marked the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba, a pivotal battle fought in the Palestinian Campaign of World War I.  Against an entrenched enemy with artillery, and with the sun setting on a force desperate for water after three days riding across the desert, Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel gave the famous command: “Put Grant straight at it”.  With that, Brigadier General William Grant led the 4th Light Horse Brigade into the face of the enemy, and into history.

In recognition of this event and through the close ties between Israel, Australia and the Australian Army, Elbit Systems of Australia sponsored LT Ryan Abil and CPL Rob Conway to travel to Israel and participate in a planned program of activities.   The commemoration program, which was coordinated through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in collaboration with the Australian Light Horse Association, included a 3-day re-enactment ride along the Anzac Trail, concluding with a ride through the devastating assault on enemy machine-gun positions at Tal Saber, and the hundred horse “charge” into Beersheba.

A unique experience, the three days riding through the Negev desert followed the exact route, allowing riders to connect with their forebears and providing some insight into how the scene must have looked with thousands of horsemen travelling the 45kms to Beersheba.  The Day of Commemoration was a very significant event with the Israeli and Australian Prime Ministers, the Governor General of New Zealand and the Chief of Army amongst the dignitaries in attendance.      

Anecdotally the biggest challenge of the ride was not the heat, nor the dust, nor the blisters from hours in the saddle; not even three cold nights on hard ground.  The biggest challenge was trying to bring together a column of a hundred riders plus supporting crew; the Army’s photographic team; a colour party comprising the CO and RSM of the 4/19th as well as diggers from 4/19th and 2/14th dressed in full ceremonial kit; and the original guidons from the charge into Beersheba, together, to a single point in the desert at the same time.  The intent was to conduct an interview for Army media and secure photographs of historical significance, the opportunity for which will never be repeated!  Providing location and progress updates from the back of a horse is no easy accomplishment.  Managing such a large group of horses and riders all eager to get moving is no easy task.  Orchestrating the right backdrop and correct lighting is almost impossible.  Yet somehow it all came together with some dramatic and effective results that ensured that, for the sake of history, we got it right. 

The most humbling event was the parade through the city on horseback with the streets lined and filled with Israelis, Australians and New Zealanders, young and old, all cheering, waving flags and expressing their immense gratitude to the riders for what the event represented: a powerful example of ANZAC heroism and a pivotal event in the outcome of WW1.