By KELVIN CROMBIE
Today, Israelis and descendants of the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps from the British Empire’s army during World War I), celebrated the 100th anniversary of Britain’s crucial victory at Beersheba which began the end of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land and helped birth the Balfour Declaration. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and New Zealand Governor-General Patsy Reddy were present at today’s ceremony. The event was marked with a 100-horse parade in Beersheba by volunteer Australian riders in period uniform, a reenactment of the charge, and a memorial ceremony at the city’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. "Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown, the [Balfour] declaration would have been empty words. But this was a step for the creation of Israel.”—Malcolm Turnbull, Australian Prime Minister, Oct 31, 2017
This article is excerpted from Kelvin’s book, Anzacs and Israel: A Significant Connection (2010). Kelvin, an ANZAC historian and author, lived in Israel for 25 years with his family and founded CMJ's Heritage Centers which preserve the contribution that British and European Protestant Christianity had on the Middle East and in particular to the Jewish people in the Land. He is head of Heritage Resources and leads annual tours to Israel. He is a chief organizer of this year's ANZAC tour leading over 170 participants throughout Israel. Yesterday, he met with JCF's study tour, led by Yoni Gerrish and hosted by Larry and Mary Ehrlich, and explained the importance of October 31,1917.
Oct 31st is also the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther hung his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Kelvin explainsits implications for the Balfour Agreement 400 years later.
A new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and a new Foreign Minister, Arthur Balfour came into office in London on 7 December 1916. Both were of the opinion that if Britain did not take control over the east bank of the Suez including Palestine, then at the conclusion of World War I, they could be confronted with a potential hostile power there, be it France, Russia or Germany if they won the war.
Lloyd George immediately pushed for an offensive into Palestine, ‘having for its object the capture of Jerusalem.’ The British High Command was wary of such an offensive, fearing it would take valuable troops away from the fighting on the Western Front. The French too were against such an offensive, as they realized it would seriously impinge upon their political bargaining power. But if it did proceed they wanted military involvement in it. Lloyd George managed to avoid this. He did not want French involvement.
Britain, for the sake of the Empire, including Australia and New Zealand, now began to seek a legitimate way of being able to have a controlling interest in the future administration of the land between empires.
The War Cabinet on 2 January 1917 finally sanctioned Lloyd George’s request to capture the land. At the same time the British Government began seriously considering what type of regime would suit the internationalization scheme for Palestine.
Through the efforts of Herbert Samuel, Chaim Weizmann, C.P. Scott (influential editor of the Manchester Guardian), and others, the British Government now began seriously considering the Jewish homeland proposal.
Informal links were thereafter made with the Jewish nationalists. It was then that Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, both of who were in London, sent a formal petition to the British Government, requesting ‘the formation of a Jewish Legion for Palestine.’
Once the British Government agreed to the capture of Palestine the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) crossed the border from the Sinai on 9 January 1916. Powles recorded that the commander of the Auckland regiment:
…rode forward alone past the Boundary Pillar, and taking off his hat, there thanked Almighty God that he had at last been permitted to enter the Holy Land (and was the first New Zealander to do so!).
Shortly later the EEF fought its first battle inside the land of Israel, at Rafa (Rafah). This was a short but very intense battle. Australian Harry Bostock recorded:
The New Zealanders had the toughest job. They were attacking the toughest positions.
The Turkish resistance was finally overcome, and the EEF recorded their first victory in the ‘Holy Land.’ The cost though was quite high, with 71 killed and 415 wounded, with many of these being Anzacs.
The major defensive position commanding the entrance into the land of Israel was Gaza, just north of Rafa. If Palestine was to be conquered, then Gaza had to be captured.
The Turks had established a solid defense line around Gaza, centred upon a domineering height named Ali Muntar. The commander of the EEF General Archibald Murray chose to attack this position with his British infantry, while his Anzac and British mounted forces were to encircle Gaza and cut off all of the roads leading into and out of the city.
This crucial battle began on 26 March 1917 when the British infantry attacked Ali Muntar. Idriess observed this assault and wrote:
The poor Welshmen, coming up the open slopes towards the redoubts were utterly exposed to machine-gun and rifle-fire … Some thousands of the poor chaps bled on Ali Muntar that day.
With his infantry being pinned down near Ali Muntar, Murray commanded Chauvel to move his Anzac troops into Gaza from the north. Following desperate fighting by six o’clock in the evening the British and Anzacs troops had linked hands in Gaza.
Unfortunately, the British Higher Command was unaware of this situation, and due to a preconceived plan, they ordered a withdrawal to take effect before night fall.
The British and Anzac commanders inside Gaza were bewildered by this command, but withdraw they had to. The first battle of Gaza was lost. And with that loss some 523 men were killed and many hundreds were captured. Those prisoners were later paraded through the streets of Jerusalem.
Unperturbed by news of this loss the British Government sanctioned a second assault, as well as preparing for the future political status of the land once Gaza had been captured. Although they had no concrete plan for the future political status, they sent Sir Mark Sykes to the war front to ensure that the French did not receive any part of Palestine; to ensure that no pledges be given to the Arabs concerning Palestine; and not to prejudice the Zionists and their possible future involvement alongside Britain in administering Palestine.
The second attack on Gaza was scheduled for 17 April. In the interim the Turks had strongly consolidated their lines, and those lines spread along a ridge for many kilometers to the south east of Gaza.
Indeed this battle was a nightmare. Except for a few gains, the ultimate goal, the capture of Gaza eluded the EEF. This time there were some 6,444 EEF casualties, again mostly British infantry. More Anzacs died at Gaza than at any other location in the land of Israel.
Following these humiliating defeats, General Murray was replaced by General Edmund Allenby.
Before Allenby arrived however, a Jewish intelligence network operating inside Palestine, known as “Nili” was sending back valuable information to the British concerning Turkish troop locations and so on.
Taking heed of this and other intelligence information the interregnum commander, General Philip Chetwode, then sent out a force, comprised mostly of Anzac forces in May 1917 to destroy the Turkish railway line to the south of Beersheba. While on this trip the troops and accompanying engineers gathered important information for a plan that Chetwode was now developing.
Chetwode proposed to attack Beersheba, inland from Gaza, in a surprise assault. His plan called for British infantry to attack Beersheba from the west, while the mounted forces would encircle Beersheba from the south and attack, undetected, from the east.
Allenby, when he arrived in June, adopted this plan and spent the following months fine tuning it and preparing all his troops, British, Australian and New Zealanders for this attack, which was scheduled to take place on 31 October 1917.
The two defeats at Gaza provided the British Government with an opportunity to firm up a political solution for the future administration of Palestine when it was captured. This solution centred upon developing an alliance with the Jewish people.
The first part of this plan entailed giving official sanction to the formation of a Jewish fighting force. In August 1917 a special Jewish fighting unit was officially recognized and although colloquially known as the ‘Jewish Legion’ it was officially the 38th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and was commanded by Colonel John Patterson.
Jabotinsky’s vision had finally come to fruition, and he, rightfully, was one of the first soldiers to enlist.
(RIGHT) Captain Seymour James Henry van den Bergh of the Middlesex Hussars. He was a Jewish officer killed five days before the capture of Beersheba. He is buried in the British War Cemetery in Beersheba.
Soon afterwards Jewish men in the United States began volunteering also for service in this unit. They were formed into the 39th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Eliezar Margolin was released by the Australian Army to command this battalion. The 39th Battalion was comprised of Israel’s future first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and second President, Yitzah Ben Zvi.
One British recruit for the 38th Battalion, Private Rubinstein, was informed about the creation of this special unit while in France, and stated:
It was a visiting rabbi who conducted a Sabbath service who brought to my notice that a Jewish Regiment was being formed for service in Palestine and said to me: ‘Who knows, this may be the beginning of a National Home for our Jewish People.’
While these components of Jewish nationalism were being put together, there was also momentum in the Arab nationalist movement. Under the supervision of T.E. Lawrence and Emir Hussein’s son Feisal, a force of Arab recruits slowly came together. This force was later known as the Arab Northern Army.
They won their first victory at Aqaba on the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba (location of present day Aqaba and nearby to Eilat) in July 1917. This victory caused General Allenby to realize the potential of this Arab force.
Thereafter substantial supplies and very generous financial incentives were given to the Arab Northern Army. Their task was to hassle the Turkish forces in Transjordan and thereby draw away some Turkish troops which otherwise might be employed against the EEF as it moved forward into the land of Israel.
The second part of Britain’s plan for developing a future administration in the land of Israel entailed entering into discussions with Jewish Zionist leaders, in particular Chaim Weizmann.
From the very outset it was obvious that it would require a major miracle, or lots of minor miracles, if the Allied powers would support this British - Jewish idea.
For a start there was internal Jewish opposition. Many Jewish people just did not see the need for a particular Jewish homeland in Palestine, as they were comfortable in their own countries.
Apart from such Jewish ambivalence and opposition, the proposal had to overcome both theological and political opposition from the Russians, the French, the Italians and the Vatican.
As the Allies desperately wanted the involvement of the USA in the war, they had to persuade the anti-imperialist President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson would not be supportive of any European take-over in the land of Israel, unless it involved a future Jewish national home.
In this he was supported by many of the Jewish people in the United States, most of whom had fled from Czarist persecution in Russia. And Britain was allied to Russia. The American Jewish constituency would not support a British imperialist take-over of Palestine - unless it was indeed committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland there.
Miraculously, all the obstacles were overcome one by one. When President Wilson finally agreed to the proposal, the British Cabinet then had to make the final decision. This decision would be made at a War Cabinet meeting scheduled for 31 October – the same date as the attack on Beersheba.
The Turkish administration in Palestine, paranoid about a fifth column from within, now increased its persecution of Jewish and Christian communities, as well as known Arab nationalists.
A British missionary, Marie James, who managed to avoid detention in Safed wrote in her diary in October 1917:
Many Jews and Christians were imprisoned and severely beaten. In Acre and Haifa and in Nazareth, they were tortured unmercifully…
Apart from the military perspective, an Allied victory was urgently needed for the sake of the minority groups in the region, the Armenians to the north of the Turkish Empire and the Christians and Jews in the south.
Finally, in the last days of October all the troops began moving out of their camps towards their objectives. The horsemen moved towards the south of Beersheba with the two Anzac divisions then circling around to the east of Beersheba.
It was imperative there would be total secrecy in this encircling movement. The British had done everything possible to ensure the Turks thought the main attack would be against Gaza, while the attack on Beersheba was merely a diversion. They mostly succeeded.
It was also imperative that Beersheba would be captured in one day. This was so that the Allies would not surrender the element of surprise, and also because of a shortage of water. Numerous water wells were located in the area around Beersheba.
Once Beersheba was captured, Allenby then wanted to quickly release his horsemen up the coastal plain and capture Jerusalem, before the winter rains arrived. Prime Minister Lloyd George wanted Jerusalem to be captured before Christmas in order for it to be a morale booster for the public.
As the Turks anticipated a frontal assault from the west, they had dug numerous trenches facing this direction. Although they had some trenches on the east of the city, and the strategic location of Tel es Sheba, the ancient Beersheba, was well fortified, they were not anticipating any serious assault from the east.
Early in the morning of 31 October the British infantry attacked the Turkish trenches from the south and west. To these men fell the brunt of the difficult fighting on this day.
This assault was followed when men of the Anzac Mounted Division rode across a plain to the east of Beersheba to cut the road from Beersheba to Hebron at Tel es Sakati. New Zealanders and some other Australians then attacked Tel es Saba.
By mid afternoon the British infantry had achieved most of their objectives, while Tel es Saba still held out. Chauvel then released some of his reserve Australian Mounted Division to assist in its capture. The ancient city or tel fell shortly later.
It was now mid afternoon and the sun would shortly be setting. Chauvel called his commanders together, and then did something completely unorthodox. He released the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, mounted infantry from Victoria and New South Wales, to charge directly at the Turkish trenches on the east side of the town, with bayonets drawn.
At almost the same time as the charge was about to take place, the members of the British War Cabinet were arriving for their meeting in London. On the agenda was the discussion relating to the future of the land of Israel, pending its ultimate capture. All the esteemed members put forth their opinions for and against the proposal for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
While this matter was being debated in London, between 500-800 men of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade came out from behind the low lying hills to the east of Beersheba onto the plain which led to the town.
At about 4:30 in the afternoon they began to move towards their destination—Beersheba. Henderson describes part of what happened thereafter (although it would appear that not all of his account is accurate):
The moment the leading troops had crowded out on to the plain, a storm of shrapnel, high explosives and machine gun fire began and the great spread of horses increased pace to a canter …The horses were shying aside from the shell bursts. A thin haze of smoke and dust began to rise, but the three lines of horses moved steadily forward.… The first half miles was the worst. After that, much of the fire seemed to be going over our heads. As we learned later, the Turks had ranged all their weapons on us but the sight of these Australians coming from an entirely unexpected direction and bearing down on them was demoralizing, and they had forgotten to bring their sights down as we advanced.
Indeed, the horses galloped so quickly that they rode under the Turkish guns. The horsemen then cleared the trenches, some dismounting and then engaging the Turks in hand-to-hand combat.
Other horsemen then galloped directly into town, and shortly afterwards they were joined by Light Horsemen from other units who had been at Tel es Saba.
By approximately 5.30pm Beersheba was captured. What the British infantry had set up earlier in the day, and which the New Zealanders had consolidated with their victory at Tel es Saba, was brought to an amazing finale by the courageous charge from the 4th Light Horse Brigade.
Although the British infantry sustained most of the casualties that day, the victory was indeed a wonderful team effort with all of the British and Anzac formations playing a role. Allenby’s message to the Secretary of State for War says it all:
… attempts to advance in small parties across the plain towards the town made slow progress. In the evening, however, a mounted attack by Australian Light Horse, who rode straight at the town from the east, proved completely successful. They galloped over two deep trenches held by the enemy just outside the town, and entered the town at about 7p.m., capturing numerous prisoners.
The Turks at Beersheba were undoubtedly taken completely by surprise, the dash of the London troops and Yeomanry, finally supported by their artillery, never gave them time to recover. The charge of the Australian Light Horse completed their defeat.
At almost the same time as the Charge the War Cabinet in London agreed to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Minute as recorded at that historic meeting said:
His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Two days later the Jewish Zionist organization was officially informed of this decision in a letter from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, and thereafter the decision became known as the Balfour Declaration.
Two history-changing events thus coincided on 31 October 1917. Indeed, one event was totally dependent upon the other and both laid the foundations for the establishment of the State of Israel some thirty years later. Australians and New Zealanders played a significant role in this foundation being laid.