The battle saw British forces suffer multiple defeats against the Ottomans, most notably the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Kut in today’s Iraq, and then two defeats in Gaza.
The commanding general of what had been dubbed the “Egyptian Expeditionary Force,” General Sir Archibald Murray, was replaced by General Edmund Allenby, who had received instructions to retake Jerusalem before Christmas.
Rather than launch another attack on Gaza, Allenby decided to attack Beer Sheva.
The attack certainly involved risks. The city was heavily fortified, but not as heavily defended as Gaza. It was, however, near the highly fortified Ottoman front line, dominating the south with trenches, redoubts and strong fortifications.
Beersheba itself also had natural geography on its side, with a dire shortage of trees and water coupled with rolling hills and narratives reinforced by Ottoman fortifications.
But despite an apparent lack of water, Allenby was convinced otherwise. This was done with the help of Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist from Zichron Ya’akov and a member of the Nili spy ring, who discovered that there were large water supplies hidden in the area.
This was essential for Allenby, as water would be needed for men, horses, camels and vehicles to reach the countryside.
Using espionage work, Allenby and a British Zionist intelligence officer, Richard Meinertzhagen, managed to understand Turkish lines and strategy, and tricked them into believing that another attack on Gaza was imminent. The Ottomans began to strengthen their defenses near Gaza.
At 5:55 a.m. on October 31, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force launched its attack, bombing the fortifications and other targets for several hours and advancing slowly, capturing territory as they advanced into the trenches and other Ottoman positions. However, progress was slow and British forces were still considering a potential defeat by mid-afternoon.
But the most famous part of the battle is the cavalry.
The Anzac and Australian mounted divisions were given important tasks for the battle, such as cutting off the city’s roads to Jerusalem and Hebron. They were also told to act as screens and stop reinforcements and to have seen fighting in other areas, such as Tel el Saba, a highly fortified defensive position that would have destroyed any attempted charge mounted against Beersheba.
Tel el Saba in particular was a major offensive effort, seeing several regiments charging in the region against heavy Ottoman fire, artillery and even aircraft. But the objective was captured, and unbeknownst to the attackers, the Ottoman forces had in fact planned to withdraw as they could not hold Beersheba.
Soon it was time to launch an attack on Beersheba herself. Australian and New Zealand cavalry continued to charge towards the city and quickly began to block the city exits.
The 4th and 12th Australian Light Cavalry Brigades were ordered to launch a frontal charge against the trenches. And that’s exactly what they did, several hundred soldiers with bayonets charging across miles of open ground, riding through artillery and gunfire.
Ultimately, this charge was successful, with some soldiers descending into the trenches to fight the Turks hand-to-hand and the others charging into Beer Sheva and taking the city.
The British victory in this battle had huge ramifications. In the short term, the battle was important for the entire campaign, pushing back the Turks and allowing the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to advance. Gaza was taken a week later, and Jerusalem was successfully captured within six weeks.
But in the long run, the battle had two other major impacts.
The first was about the future of the region itself. Days later, on November 2, then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour contacted Baron Rothschild and sent the Balfour Declaration, noting that the British government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. “
It is no coincidence that this followed the victory at the Battle of Beersheba, as it effectively broke the stalemate in the region. This declaration was crucial in advancing the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.
The second was about promoting Australian and New Zealand identity.
The battle remains important for Australia to this day.
“The battle has become part of our history, part of our psyche,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in 2017, according to the BBC. “They rammed their horses through this fire, these mad Australians, through this fire, and took the city of Beersheba, achieved the victory that did not create the State of Israel but enabled its creation.
“If the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria had not been overthrown by the Australians and New Zealanders, the Balfour declaration would have been empty words,” he added. “But it was a step for the creation of Israel.”
Barry Shaw contributed to this report.