Battle of Bersheeba painting from Australian War Memorial

Battle of Bersheeba painting from Australian War Memorial

The Battle of Beersheba: History and myth

1 November 2017

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Senior Lecturer

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The day was getting on when Harry Chauvel, commander of the Light Horse, ordered a cavalry charge to take the town of Beersheba in Palestine on October 31, 1917.

The charge took the Turkish and German troops by surprise, sweeping past their defences in time to secure the town’s precious water wells – wired to blow.

“And you beaut, they’ve got Beersheba,” Dr Jean Bou from the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre said of the charge successfully achieving its mission.

“It’s set up an example of Australian daring do in the face of all odds. The reality of course is much more prosaic than that.”

Dr Bou’s research background in Australian military history has seen him called into service for the 100th anniversary of the battle.

He will speak in Melbourne, hold a special seminar at ANU and speak again at a memorial in Canberra, with a few publications to go to print – all in order to commemorate the event.

But he is more than ready to debunk a few myths along the way.

For instance, the focus on the charge of the Light Horse often ignores the contributions of other troops.

It was actually British infantry who made the first move on Beersheba.

“It’s completely forgotten in Australia for the Brits to do that, they take about 1100 casualties,” Dr Bou said.

Indian troops, New Zealand Mounted Rifles and British Yeomanry also charged alongside the Australian Light Horse.

Perhaps most famously, the battle is often said to symbolise the last great cavalry charge in history.

“It’s certainly not the last cavalry charge in history. Whether it’s the last great one – that’s neither here nor there,” Dr Bou said.

Not least, the battle has been immortalised in films like Forty Thousand Horsemen and The Lighthorsemen.

“In the way that only a movie could, it cements it in the public mind,” Dr Bou said.

“In Australia, the battle takes on this mythical status.”

Modern Beersheba even hosts an Australian Soldier Park.

“It gets used as a vehicle for modern day political aspirations or certain interpretations of the past,” Dr Bou said of the battle.

He is not out to burst anyone’s bubble, and thinks Beersheba is an interesting event in itself – without any embellishments.

“History is more useful than myths,” Dr Bou said. “History as a field of study, as a way to examine things is useful to us. Mythmaking is mostly self-congratulation.”

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