31 October, 1917: That late afternoon saw the last great cavalry charge in history.
The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade staged a ridiculously audacious and brilliant wheeze that routed the opposing forces of the (once truly great) Ottoman Empire. This bit of derring-do cleared the way for the taking of Gaza, and allowed British forces under General Allenby to enter Jerusalem, the first Christian occupier since the Crusades.
Allenby had worked out that Beersheba (in Ottoman Palestine) was critical to overcome, in order to advance on, inter alia, Damascus. But there were fortifications and well-manned, 9 feet-deep trenches, held by Turkish soldiers who were no lettuce leaves. So when the British forces started their assault, the Turkish line held stoutly, and as the day slid-into a late afternoon of lengthening shadows, the campaign was shaping up as a fiasco.
Cue the Australians. The 4th Light Horse Regiment had left Tel el Fara a few days before. Their instructions were to hang on to what food and water they had, because their next meal they’d have to take from the Turks.
They gathered at a situation of stalemate, and in the spirit of Agincourt, set to charge, at about 5 o’clock – first at a walk, then a canter, over the brow of a hill and into a gallop. The Turkish lines, already weary from the day’s battle, were taken by surprise and mounted a disorganised defence (firing high and wide) that was overwhelmed by the audacious, old-fashioned attack.
As Tennyson wrote (of an earlier, disastrous cavalry charge):
Sergeant Arthur Pickford, in the second line, said afterwards that “We won the position by a big bluff.” Churchill only briefly noted the inspirational storming of Beersheba, writing: “No praise is too high for these brilliant and frugal operations, which will long serve as a model in theatres of war in which manoeuvre is possible.”**
Here’s a romanticised version of the charge in the film 40,000 Horsemen:
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