During World War I, the Ottoman (Turkish) military forces operated as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In January 1915, a force of 20,000 Turkish fighters set out from the Negev, crossed the Sinai Desert and tried to attack the Suez Canal, which was controlled by the British.
The attack failed. Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray, commander of the British forces in the Egyptian theater, learned his lesson. To protect the Suez Canal from another attack, in March 1915 he ordered the British positions redeployed to the east of the canal, on the Sinai side.
Several months passed. During the remainder of 1915, the Great War was focused on other fronts. But in December 1915, when the British forces failed in their attempts to wrest Gallipoli from the Turks, the British returned its forces to Egypt. This move freed up thousands of Turkish fighters for another attempt to attack in the Sinai.
In April 1916, the Turks, aided by German and Austrian forces, set out for another attack on the Suez Canal. In the decisive battle at Romani (August 1916) the Turks suffered a serious defeat. In the wake of this battle, the British decided to take a more offensive stance and prevent the Turks from getting anywhere near the canal.
This mission was assign to a special force, the Desert Column, in which the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division played an important role. These mounted troops were referred to as the ANZACs, an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
The Great Outflanking
At the beginning of 1917 the British forces set out to conquer the Gaza City. The Turkish forces , however, defended the city valiantly. Twice, on 26 March and 19 April, 1917, the British forces were repelled.
General Edmund Allenby, who had replaced Murray after the failure in the Second Battle of Gaza, decided to breach the Turkish front in Beersheba. For half a year the British forces secretly prepared for the attack. Allenby very much admired the ANZAC mounted troops. When the preparations were over, he assigned them the mission of conquering the city.
Some 11,000 ANZAC fighters rode over four nights from the Gaza district toward Beersheba, but took a wide pass around Beersheba, far from the eyes of the Turkish forces, so that on 31 October 1917 they were able to surprise the Turks from the east.
To progress on this front, the troops first had to overcome the Turks’ strong position at Tel Be’er Sheva. The Turks dug in, and that battle continued for most of the day. It was only as dusk was approaching that the order to charge on the city of Beersheba was given. Eight hundred Australian mounted soldiers stormed into the city and captured it.