[Editor: These three wartime letters are from Trooper J. R. French, who recounts his part in the Battle of Beersheba (1917), during the First World War (1914-1918); the letters were published in The Gippsland Times (Sale, Vic.), 11 February 1918.]
Capture of Beersheba.
A real Australian charge.
Graphic details from Trooper French.
Trooper J. R. French, A Troop, 4th A.L.H., and son of Mr. Jas. French, Shire Secretary, Maffra, writes the following letters to his parents:—
I thought I would drop you a line and let you know a little about our latest exploits. We had had a dreary time for the last month; camp life is very tame with nothing to break the monotony. We often used to talk about the big stunt, or big push, that will be coming off, but it never seemed to get any closer. But at last it came off. Brig. had to go R.H.P., so I was acting Q.M. That meant a lot of work, especially when shifting camp and moving about.
The first two nights on the track I had to ride with the transport waggons. It was a weary, dusty ride. The train was miles long, so you can imagine the amount of stopping and starting. We were travelling over rough country, with few roads, so it meant that we were up nearly all night. We bivouaced in Beersheba for the night. We never got to sleep till about 1 a.m., as we were busy hunting up grain for the horses. We found large quantities in the grain shed at the railway station. We came across some sackfuls of Turkish brown bread, also some Budapest tinned horse. We tried the bread and tinned horse for supper, and found that the bread was quite good, and rather a change after a long period on biscuits. The tinned horse was not up to much; some poultry we caught went better.
I have been writing this on the track, when I have had an opportunity. It is now the 8/11/17, and the scrap took place on the 31/10/17. We have been travelling or saddled up nearly ever since. I will write again in a few days. Things are still going strong, and news is plentiful.
After the first few days came the final stage of the journey. I could then travel with the squadron, for we were finished with the waggons for the time being. We were carrying three days’ rations for man and horse. Often travelling all night, and just as day was breaking, we halted well round to the south-east of Beersheba. We did not know one another, for we were covered with fine white dust. We looked like so many clowns powdered up for a show. I called out to the padre (a captain), “How’s she going, Alf?” and never noticed my mistake till he laughed, and, whoppo, gave me a dig in the ribs. We travelled on for a few miles in the direction of Beersheba. It had been raining there through the night, and had laid the dust. (I have not seen rain for nearly 12 months). It also left a few pools of water, at which a few of us were lucky enough to be able to water our horses. They called a halt, dismount. I was asleep in a second, with the reins over my arm. I could not have been asleep more than two minutes when we had to mount again. At about this stage of the journey we came across some tikken stacks, which came in handy to mix with our grain for the horses. The Bedouins have a strange way of thatching their stacks. They build in heaps the tikken up in cone-like stacks, about 10 feet high, and cover it in with a layer of earth, which hardens, and keeps the rain out. Tikken is like straw chaff. We rode on again for a mile or two, and again halted. This would be about 9 a.m. We then put on the nose bags; they were dead hungry. I slipped along to Frog’s section, and we opened a tin of meat and veg, and were just preparing for breakfast when the order came round, “Move off at once!”
We must have put in another couple of hours of mounting, riding a few hundred yards, and down again. At last we were within a few miles of Beersheba. It must have been about midday. Our guns, not far off, were bombarding Beersheba. We had a few hours, so off-saddled, fed up, and had dinner, and then slept. When we awoke it was “Saddle up!” So we had to hop round. The water cart came to light, and we were able to fill our bottles. We went off at the trot; a few pack-horses were left behind. We wound round a few gullies, galloped over a ridge, and down another gully, and were on the flat, with Beersheba about two miles distant. We formed up in a long line across the plain. A squad of the 4th, and A Squad. of the 12th lead, with B Squad. and supports, &c., as reserve. We opened out to six yards interval between files, and set sail. The first thing I noticed was one of the troop horses turn a somersault. The rider came off and the horse led the charge. We never saw him again. The ground was fairly rough, with some ugly water courses, about 15 ft. deep, which took some judgment to cross safely. The troop leader lost his hat. When we were about a quarter way across, a few hundred Turks opened fire from our left flank, and kept it up till the fire reached us from the front. We crossed a few more washaways, and were drawing near the Turkish trenches. The bullets were now flying thick overhead. The first line of Jackos came in sight. Then we slipped into another small gully. The troop lingered a moment, and looked at the troop leader, for here we could have dismounted for action. But the rest of the squadron had no cover, and were galloping on. So we dug our heels in, and swept on again at a furious gallop among the bullets again. We passed the first line, and hardly noticed them. Some jumped over them; others flew through the gaps. Then we got into the thick of it. As we were in the midst of a redoubt, we were fired on from front and rear and both flanks. The bullets seemed still high, and we rode like Hell, and kept our heads down.
The order was given to dismount for action; but our troop was on the left flank, and never heard it. Three troops dismounted, and charged the Jackos. But I saw nothing of it. I remember getting mixed up with some of the 12th Light Horse, and running the gauntlet along the front of a trench, with rifles bursting a few feet away. Then riding between dugouts, with Jackos firing from both sides, and shrapnel bursting, and machine guns rattling. One thing started to strike me as peculiar — I never saw any one hit, nor a horse fall, and I looked back to see if any dropped behind. Next minute four horses dropped nearly in front of me. I just managed to dodge them. I didn’t see how any of us had a hope of lasting much longer. A heavy fire had opened up from a redoubt on the left. Then my hat blew off, and I sighted Beersheba about half a mile ahead. Then we started yelling like madmen. I was giving an old patrol cry of ours of “Wild cattle!” I was in a wild mad rush, making for the road that led into the town. I remember jumping a few drains, and then off down the metal road. In the waddi, right near the town, a couple of Turkish guns were endeavouring to escape; but the mules could not get out of a walk. As I rushed by the guns some one fired a shot from a revolver, and blew dust out of the cushion under the driver, and his arms went up like a shot. In a minute I was in the main street — only a narrow street — but I was one of the first dozen in. We raced up the shabby street, and were greeted by a magazine blowing up, and thousands of cartridges cracking off in the fire.
Everybody seemed out for fun. Nobody was in charge of us, for we had long lost the run of our officers. I think I was then with nearly all our fellows. A few Jackos were running along the streets, and our fellows seemed to get plenty of fun emptying their revolvers.
We were still racing, and must have been galloping for at least three miles. My pony was still pulling, and I had to keep both hands on the reins. At the end of the street there was a Turkish hospital, and a few Jackos were sniping at us. But they soon quietened down as we approached. We then swung round to the right, and out at the back of Beersheba, and we were able to check a few Jacko soldiers from escaping, and a good few flasher looking officers, riding Arab ponies. Some of the refugees proved to be Austrian and German officers, and were soon relieved of their revolvers, field glasses, plans, &c. We were a wild mob now, for we could see refugees ahead. Some would yell out, “Charge this place!” But would charge right past, looking for some bigger capture. We split up into small parties, and went all directions. One fellow captured a field gun by himself, and brought it in. He got a D.C.M. for it.
In lots of cases one man would order six or a dozen Turks to surrender, while there were not more than six or a dozen of his comrades in the vicinity, who would be busy overhauling an Austrian or German officer. It was soon dark, or, really, moonlight, and we were out at the back of Beersheba. There were only about a dozen of us; the rest had gone in all directions. We were not too sure of the country, and odd Turks were still sniping at us. We had a bunch of prisoners, so started back for the other side of the town.
We heard a “coo-ee” in the distance, and picked up a few of our fellows.
When we arrived back at the Ussdi we were rather a strong party again, for we picked up batches of our fellows, all of whom had some spoils in the way of Turks, machine guns, donks, and ponies. We came across a field gun, and hooked all the spare mules and donkeys on to it, and got it away. While we were watering our horses at one of Jacko’s water troughs, some Turks opened fire on us, and killed nearly all our prisoners, so they saved us dragging them about. We gradually collected up and counted our troops. A Troop had no casualties, although we had over 20 in the squadron. A good few horses were shot, and the men without horses saddled up anything at all. One big fellow looked dead funny riding a big donk, with an ear in each hand for reins.
December 1, 1917.
Last time I wrote we were back from the firing line, and were not far from Gaza, just for a few days, and had time to go across to the sea and have a dip. While we were there we got our winter issue of clothing, which made extra work for me. I have been carrying out the duties of Squadron Quarter Master Sergeant for over a month now. It’s not a bad job; a fair bit of responsibility — but no extra pay. The major promised me promotion to Q.M.S., but so far there is no vacancy.
We are now in the firing line. We had a couple of days travelling, and then sent our horses back. The country here is too hilly for horses, so we are carrying on at present as infantry. Our swags are pretty big, and take some carrying. When we handed over our nags we had a couple of miles walk up a steep hill. We slept to the sound of shells and rifle bullets. One shell caused a bit of a scatter in the morning. It landed between four fellows having breakfast, but did not go off. One just landed about a chain away, but we are fairly safe under a ledge of rock. I had some rough going packing the rations to the firing line. We got orders to move in the middle of the night. I caught a scrag of an old horse that was running loose. It could not have had a feed or a drink for a few days, and had run itself dog-poor trying to dodge shells. I found a saddle and pieces of rope, and was able to pack my gear back over the hills for a few miles. I kept the horse tied up till next morning, when they told us we would be camping for a few days; so I let him go again, as I had no feed. The horse had just about wandered out of sight, when we got orders to move again. I felt rather down in the dumps at having to hump my swag about four miles. Our boys make the best of it. It is not much of a joke, to ask us to march about, after being used to horses. I heard one little fellow, who was staggering along, dog-tired, under a heavy load of blankets and equipment, saying, “With my bundle on my shoulder, shure no man can be bolder!”
Our brigade is holding a portion of the front line at present. Jacko is getting a bad time of it; but seems very stubborn. We are doing all right. Got plenty of tucker and water. I am not camped in the firing line, as I have to draw the rations and keep the squadron fed and clothed. I could do with some “dark” Havelock tobacco. We can’t get much here, and never get it “dark.” Some one pinched my billy a few days ago. I now use a jam tin to make my tea. The country here is very hilly and rocky. The hills are covered with wild thyme. We use it in our bully beef stews. Must stop now, as it is bed time.
November 24, 1917.
The last long letter I wrote after Beersheba, and I had to write it on the track, a bit at a time. After we took Beersheba we had a long weary ride at night time back towards Gaza. It was that dusty that we could not see a yard at times. Had to ride in single file for hours, with one horse touching the other — the only way to keep from getting lost. Riding over trenches and rough country, with not a blade of grass, nothing but dust. We were spitting mud — that’s when we could rise a spit. We stood to for a day or two, doing a few patrols; always ready to move off at a moment’s notice. One of our troops had rather a nasty job — had to proceed to a waddi at night time, where they could get cover for themselves and the horses, but were very close to Jacko’s lines, and under fire from their guns and our own. We moved out at dusk one evening, and after that kept moving. Next day we had to charge through shrapnel fire into a waddi. But our squadron were in reserve, so we stopped there all day. We were near our field guns, and were able to watch them firing, and the Turkish shells bursting a few chains distant. But our guns silenced them before the day was out. Some of our fellows discovered a Turkish bakery about a mile distant. Some of the bread was burnt up in the oven, and some was ready to go in. But we found plenty of good bread. It was a change after biscuits. It is good bread when fresh, although it is nearly black. We were riding about nearly all night; the horses had to be watered, which was a big contract in the dark. Every time we halted we would dismount and fall asleep. Some time towards morning I was glad enough to put the nose bag on the pony, and go to sleep with the reins across my body. We watered our horses next morning, and had to push on. We never watered again till the following night. The horses were nearly always saddled up, sometimes for days at a time.
We had a rough ride one night. Our squadron was the screen for the brigade advancing up a waddi, over rough country. Two of our horses fell down deep holes. We managed to get men and horses out safely. One horse had his four feet through a cave; another was on his back, and must have fallen about 15 feet. At some stages of the journey it was marvellous how we watered our horses. Had to haul our water with buckets tied to rope, bales, &c., from ancient wells. They must be thousands of years old. The tops of some of them are made of marble, which is worn into deep grooves from the ropes constantly rubbing against it. Some of them were nearly a thousand feet deep. Everybody would be battling for his own horse, for some of them had not been watered for sixty hours. I have been hours some days getting a bucketful. I have paid a Bedouin two or three shillings for a jar full. As we pushed on we came to better water. We passed some lovely country; but always the one thing — it was dry and barren from the want of rain. In some places all the surface was cracked. We came to some lovely hilly country, fairly rocky, with grass and plenty of wild thyme. The thyme came in handy to cook with the bully. We came across some Jewish villages; very pretty villages; red-tiled houses, orange groves. They had bread, nuts, oranges, and jam for sale, which was handy.
We are now back a bit, having a spell. We had a swim in the sea to-day. Bit of a change to my usual plunge in half a pannican of water and a wet rag. The Maffra boys are all well. Frog is a sergeant now. I forgot to tell you that we had rain for two nights. First night we were unprepared for it. Four of us slept under a little bivvy, about big enough for one. But we kept a bit dry. The next night we made a nice comfortable bivvy, and went to bed early. Did not expect to be moving through the night, so I undressed. I had blankets, too. I had got them off the baggage waggon that day. I had not been using them, as it made it lighter for the pony. I have been Acting Squadron Q.M. for the last month, and rations arrived in the middle of the night, so I had to hop out in the rain, and go and draw them. I must stop now as it is bed time.
Will be glad when the next billy of biscuits arrive, as we have lost one billy on every gallop lately. Don’t Linton is [?] and as fat as can be.
The Gippsland Times (Sale, Vic.), 11 February 1918, pp. 3-4
Also published in:
The Traralgon Record (Traralgon, Vic.), 12 February 1918, p. 3 [most of first letter only]
The Western Herald and Darling River Advocate (Bourke, NSW), 28 August 1918, p. 2 (entitled “Capture of Beersheba: A real Australian charge: Where Trooper Kerrigan was killed”) [first letter only]
Some words in the last paragraph, marked as “[?]” are obscured due to the poor scan of the original newspaper in the microfilming process.
&c. = an alternative form of “etc.”; an abbreviation of “et cetera” (also spelt “etcetera”), a Latin term (“et” meaning “and”, “cetera” meaning “the rest”) which is translated as “and the rest (of such things)”, used in English to mean “and other similar things”, “other unspecified things of the same class” or “and so forth”
A.L.H. = an abbreviation of Australian Light Horse
Bedouin = of or relating to the Bedouin tribes (nomadic Arab tribes) of the Middle East; a person of Bedouin ethnicity
See: “Bedouin”, Wikipedia
Beersheba = a city in Israel
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
bivouaced = past tense of bivouac: to set up a temporary casual encampment for the night, with little or no shelter (usually without setting up tents)
bivvy = a bivouac shelter, a bivouac tent (usually small in size)
bully = bully beef [see: bully beef]
bully beef = (also called “corned beef”) processed meat which has been preserved (“cured”) with large grains (or “corns”) of rock salt (a treatment known as “corning”, hence the name “corned beef”); the meat used is “brisket”, usually tough and fatty meat from the lower breast area of a cow, which is then braised (making the meat less tough), salted, minced, and soaked in gelatin; bully beef has long been used for field rations for military units; the term “bully beef” derives from the French term “boeuf bouilli” (boiled beef)
cartridge = a cylindrical casing, usually metal, normally containing a metal bullet and an explosive charge of gunpowder, for use in a firearm; a round of ammunition
chain = a unit of measurement, being a distance of 66 feet (20 metres)
check = to block, halt, or stop something; to control or slow down the development, increase, or progress of something
coo-ee = a prolonged call used by Australian Aborigines to attract attention; the call of “coo-ee” was adopted by Europeans in Australia (spelt “coo-ee”, “cooee”, and “coo-ey”)
D.C.M. = Distinguished Conduct Medal: a medal awarded for “distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field” (the medal was awarded to soldiers below commissioned rank in the military forces of the British Commonwealth)
dog-poor = extremely tired, very tired, exhausted; can also mean: poverty-stricken, very poor
dog-tired = extremely tired, very tired, exhausted
donk = (slang) an abbreviation of “donkey”; “donk” was also used as disparaging term for a horse
dugout = a trench or hole dug out of the ground, with a roof placed over it, to create a place for the use of military personnel, whether for shelter (including protection against artillery fire or mortars), sleeping quarters, or storage (a dugout could be a stand-alone construction, or dug out of the side of an existing trench, or dug into the side of a hill)
emptying = (in the context of shooting) firing all of the bullets of a pistol, rifle, or other firearm
flash = showy, vulgar; fashionable or showy, but often in a way that shows a lack of taste
ft. = an abbreviation of “foot” or “feet”; a foot is a unit of length in the British imperial system of measurement (a foot is equal to 30.48 centimetres)
Gaza = a city, also known as Gaza City, in Palestine; can also refer to the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea
Havelock = a brand of tobacco
Jacko = a nickname for Turks (especially used during the First World War, 1914-1918) (plural: Jackos)
Jas. = an abbreviation of the name “James”
magazine = a building designed for the safe storage of explosive gunpowder (also known as a gunpowder magazine), usually isolated and of sturdy construction (travelling magazines were heavy chests which were used to move gunpowder); can also refer to a place where ammunition and weapons are stored
metal road = a road constructed from broken stone, cinders, crushed rock, gravel, etc. (known as “road metal”); also known as a “gravel road”
nag = (slang) horse; can also have a negative meaning, referring to a horse which is regarded as inferior or worthless
nose bag = a feed bag for horses, mules, oxen, and similar animals, being a bag or sack (usually made out of canvas) which is tied to the animal’s harness and slipped over the animal’s nose (eating from such a bag eliminates spillage) (also spelt: nosebag)
padre = a Christian clergyman (chaplain, priest, reverend), especially one working in or with the military (from the word “padre”, meaning “father”, in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; the title of a Christian priest in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Latin America)
pannican = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup (also spelt: panakin, panikin, pannikin)
pinched = (slang) stole; stolen
Q.M. = quartermaster
Q.M.S. = Quartermaster Sergeant
redoubt = a fort, a stronghold; a defensive military fortification or position (especially a small and temporary one); a protected place, a safe place of refuge; an organisation, movement, or ideological collective which defends a belief or a way of life (especially a belief or a way of life which is under threat and/or disappearing)
scrap = fight, brawl
set sail = to commence, embark, get going, start (originally regarding travel on water, but later used for general purposes); (past tense) commenced, embarked, got going, started; to begin a journey or voyage; to hoist a sail on a sailing vessel
shilling = a coin equivalent to twelve pence (colloquially known as a “bob”); a unit of British-style currency used in Australia, until the decimalisation of the currency in 1966 (the decimal monetary equivalent of a shilling was ten cents)
shure = (Irish vernacular) sure
spell = rest, or a period of rest (“spell” refers to a period of time, but was also used to refer to a period of rest, due to the common phrase “to rest for a spell” and variations thereof)
Squad. = an abbreviation of “Squadron”
stood to = past tense of “stand to”: stand to for action; a military situation of alertness whereby military personnel are take their positions, with weapons ready, and be prepared for action, for battle, or to resist an attack; to wait in readiness for action
stopped = stayed
stunt = a military action, a battle
swag = back pack, a load of one’s personal possessions; can also refer to: a swagman’s bundle; a criminal’s ill-gotten loot (especially when carried in a bag)
train = a group of animals (especially pack animals), people, or vehicles slowly following each another in a line (e.g. a camel train, a wagon train); a retinue of attendants or retainers following an important person (e.g. a king or president); a caravan of animals or vehicles (can also refer to a train of thought, or a train of events, being a line or sequence of thoughts, or of events, which appear to be connected to each other)
tucker = food
waddi = (plural: waddis) an alternative spelling (or a common misspelling) of “wadi”: a river, stream, or watercourse in North Africa or the Middle East which is dry except during the rainy season; a ravine, defile, gorge, gully, passage, or valley containing a stream bed or river bed which is dry except during the rainy season (also spelt: wady; plural: wadies)
waggon = an archaic spelling of “wagon”
washaway = a narrow channel created by the erosion of earth, caused by the process of running water washing away the earth; a gully
water cart = a cart (usually horse-drawn) used to haul and deliver water, commonly incorporating a large cylindrical metal tank with a tap on it
whoppo = the sound of a thud or a thump
[Editor: Changed “meat and wegs” to “meat and veg”; “an old patrol cry of ous” to “an old patrol cry of ours”; “I could do with same” to “I could do with some”; “proceed to a uaddi” to “proceed to a waddi”; “into a uaddi” to “into a waddi” (as per the spelling of “waddi” elsewhere in this item); “comfortable bivy” to “comfortable bivvy” (as per the spelling of “bivvy” previously in this item).]