ANZAC 100 Years Later: Beersheba Reconquered by the Australians and New Zealanders

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Thousands of Australians converge on Beersheba to take part in many events and ceremonies.

October 31, the 100th anniversary of the British conquest of Beersheva, was the highlight of JNF Australia’s 10-day ANZAC Centenary Mission in Israel. The delegation participated in the official ceremony at the Beersheba War Cemetery in the presence of the Prime Ministers of Israel and Australia and the New Zealand Governor General. They also dedicated the ANZAC Memorial Center in Beersheva, and saw the light horse cavalry parade through the city as they reenacted the historic ANZAC charge to conquer Beersheva.

Beersheba War Cemetery: World Leaders Commemorate Courage

The day began with an official ceremony at the Beersheba War Cemetery, in the presence of the heads of state of Israel, Australia and New Zealand. Thousands of people from these countries and representatives of other countries came to pay homage to the ANZAC fighters.
“At that time, Beersheva was a village with a few huts, and today it is a city with 250,000 inhabitants. Thank you, courageous ANZAC warriors,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “The ANZAC fighters opened the gates of history for the Jewish people. These brave soldiers played a central part in the liberation of the Holy Land and bringing 400 years of Ottoman occupation to an end. After the conquest of Beersheva, the ANZAC fighters went on to capture Jerusalem, Megiddo, Tiberius and further north. On their way, they walked in the footsteps of the heroes of the bible.”
On the importance of this battle for the development of good ties between the countries, Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “This was a milestone for the friendship between our countries. When I enlisted for military duty, I received a wide-brimmed hat that we called an Australian hat. We sat in the shade of eucalyptus trees that were brought here from Australia, and we learned about the heroism of the Australian warriors.”
Returning to the present, the Prime Minister said: “We want peace with our enemies, but we will not stand for any attack on our land and our people – whether it be by air, sea, land or underground. I would strongly recommend that no one test the strength of the Israeli people and the Israeli Army.”
Netanyahu concluded: “We all stand here today on the same side of history, for the sake of progress, peace and democracy, and against tyranny and terror. Israel salutes the courage of the ANZAC fighters and will never forget them.”
“The leaders of three countries have assembled to pay honor to an exceptional battle. This is a story of unbelievable courage of both people and horses,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “The ANZAC warriors knew that they were marching through a land rich in history, and they were courageous people who made history. The battle became a chapter in our military heritage, an extraordinary episode in our national story.”
In relation the ANZAC fighters, Prime Minister Turnbull said: “Imagine these people, far away from home, in a foreign land, where the names of the different sites are familiar to them from the bible. They led the last cavalry charge in history, which made the creation of a Jewish state possible.”
“We have assembled here to remember the Battle of Beersheva and the military campaign for Sinai and the land of Israel,” said New Zealand Governor General Dame Patricia Reddy. “This victory changed the region forever, and ended hundreds of years of Ottoman rule over the Middle East. During the long campaign, the soldiers demonstrated courage, dedication and self-sacrifice. They were motivated by the knowledge that they were fighting for the future and for all of humanity.”
The ceremony was emceed by Major General Dave Chalmers, who represented Australia’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Prayers in memory of the fallen were offered by military religious personnel. The representatives of the different organizations laid wreaths, and the event concluded with the singing of the national anthems.
One of the ANZAC soldiers who fell at the Battle of Beersheba was a Jewish fighter by the name of S.J.H. Van Den Bergh. Martin Van Den Bergh, a relative, was at the ceremony in order to pay his respects to him and his comrades. At the end of the event, he read the kaddish prayer at his relative’s grave as part of a ceremony led by the Australian delegation’s rabbi, Yossi Freedman. “It is very moving to stand here next to his grave,” Martin said. “If not for him and his friends, it’s very possible that none of us would be here today.”

The ANZAC Memorial Centre: The Personal Story of the Fighters

After the ceremony, the participants dedicated the ANZAC Memorial Centre, which is located next to the cemetery. The museum, which was built with the support of JNF Australia, includes an exhibition of photographs, video clips, documents, personal objects and letters of soldiers that tell the personal stories of the fighters, who were dealing with moments of great difficulty and also tremendous bravery during battle.
“This museum is a milestone in the ties between Israel and Australia,” said KKL-JNF Chief of Protocol Andy Michelson, who emceed the event.
KKL-JNF was represented at the event by Deputy Chairman Mike Nitzan, who said: “Anyone who has experienced war knows that there’s nothing glamorous about it, and you fight first and foremost for your fellow soldiers.”
The main contribution for the memorial center came from the estate of Ilse Wronker. “His love for Israel continues to live here,” said Peter Smaller, the President of JNF Australia.
After the ribbon cutting ceremony, the members of the delegation went for a tour of the museum led by museum director Nitzan Dayan, where they experienced a small taste of what it must have felt like to be an ANZAC soldier. While watching the movie, a large elevator slowly climbed upwards with the visitors inside it. The doors opened to an observation balcony, from which they could see the cemetery. Many of the guests shed a tear after the emotional movie and the unforgettable moment.
Buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery are 174 Australian soldiers, 31 soldiers from New Zealand and more than 1,000 British soldiers. The ANZAC Memorial Centre pays homage to these fighters and commemorates them. The museum is one of a number of museums in the old city of Beersheba that tell the city’s story from the time of Abraham until today.

The Historic Charge: How Beersheba was conquered

At the end of the day, the members of the delegation watched a re-enactment of the charge of the Light Horse Riders on Beersheva. Watching the ceremony together with them were Prime Minister Netanyahu, Prime Minister Turnbull, Governor General Reddy and an audience of thousands. The horse riders included about 100 Australians and Israelis who are members of the World War One Association. Dressed in uniforms similar to the ones worn at the time, they rode for six days from the area around the Gaza Strip to Beersheva, along the route taken by the original soldiers one hundred years earlier.
After a sustained march through the desert with little water, the ANZAC fighters and their horses arrived exhausted and thirsty, but they lost not one iota of their determination. The Cavalry Division of the British Army attacked the Turkish Army frontlines west of the city. The ANZAC Light Horse Riders outflanked Beersheva and charged it from the east. The riders took the Turkish soldiers, who were dug into their trenches, entirely by surprise when they leaped over them as they galloped and then attacked them in a face-to-face battle.
At the end of the day, the city was in their hands. The water sources had fortunately not been damaged. Thirty-five Australian ANZAC fighters fell in this battle, and thirty-one soldiers from New Zealand were killed conquering the strategic Tel Beersheva outpost nearby. Several hundred Turkish soldiers were also killed.
The historian Kelvin Crombie described the battle in this way: “The Battle of Beersheba was a turning point in World War I and in world history. The conquest of Beersheba opened the way for conquering all of the land of Israel, so this battle was much more than just another military event.”