[Editor: This letter from Trooper J. C. Ryan, regarding the Battle of Beersheba (1917), which took place during the First World War (1914-1918), was published in The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), 16 February 1918.]
Not in the text books
How Light Horse fought in capture of Beersheba
Turks’ debacle pictured by Australian trooper
“The ‘cold-footed Light Horse, who have been marking time in Palestine’ (according to stay-at-home critics) “have at last come into their kingdom,” writes Trooper J. C. Ryan, of the 4th Light Horse, to his brother, Mr Percy Ryan, of Maffra. Prior to enlisting Trooper Ryan was correspondent for “The Herald” at Maffra.
Continuing, Trooper Ryan says:— “After many dreary, sweating months in the desert, choked by sand and tantalised to the verge of madness by flies, exposed to the burning rays of the sun by day and drenched by night dews on patrol, all the time keeping in touch with the enemy, and occasionally handing him out a surprise packet of no mean order, we passed under the shadow of Tel-el-Fara on the evening of October 29. This historic and formidable redoubt had been modernised in defence by the best German and Austrian engineers, but our troops pressed the enemy so hard in earlier engagements that he retired to his positions before Gaza and Beersheba. At the base of its frowning summit we crossed the Wady Ghuzze, where, in ancient times, the Chaldeans had trodden, and where the French later, under Napoleon, had marched to battle.
The magician’s wand
“Since the early April fiasco the new G.O.C. (General Sir Edmund Allenby) had drawn the wand of a magician over the desert — his stupendous task was now complete, and the time ripe for a general advance. The infantry were long since snug in their trenches before Gaza, and for months shadows were moving up through the darkest nights to our front lines. But, in my humble capacity as a mere cypher, I can only deal with the doings of portion of the Fourth Brigade, and as matters eventuated with such lightning-like rapidity, my process must necessarily be a skimming one.
“For obvious reasons, a circuitous route was taken by our various brigades, and our horses appeared to have been seized with the spirit of adventure as well as ourselves. The hours of darkness were too precious to waste, and after two stops, morning light disclosed contingents of mounted Australians but five miles to the north-west of Beersheba, screened by the surrounding hills. It may be as well to mention that our air service appeared to have obtained complete mastery over that of the enemy, for we had him beaten at observation at every point. Feelings throughout that day were tense, for there is nothing worse than inaction when alongside the foe. This was due to the fact that portion of the infantry was held up by a strong force in another quarter, and about 4.30 p.m. on October 31 an urgent order came along that Beersheba had to be taken at all costs. General H. W. Hodgson, C.B., had Divisional command, while Brigadier-General W. Grant, D.S.O., had charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade.
A decision was soon arrived at, and the 4th (Victorian) and 12th (N.S.W.) Regiments were assigned, the advance, with the 11th (Queensland) in reserve. The first three miles was covered cautiously, and then hell was let loose. The order “Charge!” was given, and the good Australian nag was fired with the determination of his rider. Colonel J. M. W. Bourchier, D.S.O., led the 4th, while Colonel D. Cameron, D.S.O., was in the van of the 11th Regiment, and it goes without saying that the pace was hot. Shells shrieked, and devilish machine-gun fire hit our boys from three points of the compass. Redoubts bristling with guns were passed, and deep Turkish trenches in crescent shape were jumped or avoided. It was a mad two-mile gallop, and, while some dismounted to the attack, a couple of squadrons of the 4th and 11th kept their spurs busy, Australian coo-ees rending the air, and — I have to say it — the atmosphere was electrically charged with good round Australian oaths and anathemas against the enemy.
“Those mad Australians”
“Within 45 minutes of the word “Charge!” some of our men were rounding up gunners in the main street and alleys of Beersheba. Here a sergeant captured an enemy machine-gun and turned it on to its minute-before owners; there an officer and a trooper galloped after and dismantled a howitzer; at every corner batches of 20 or more Turks were surrendering to a couple of our men, and by dusk this ancient city was in our hands. Of a truth, ‘Jacko’ had got the wind up with a vengeance, and the rot that set in quickly spread. The remark of a British officer who viewed the sensational denouement is apropos: “There go those mad Australians again; they will all be shot.”
It may be said truly that the attack on and fall of Beersheba was not according to the army text books, but it is certain that had the usual dismounted tactics been adopted before the Turkish crescent of trenches and their strongly fortified redoubts, the assault of them would have cost many valuable lives, as well as hazarding the great coup which eventually followed. The rapid and devil-may-care nature of the operation, though looked at in calmer moments as more akin to huge ‘bluff stakes,’ materialised, and that was the predominant and urgently needed issue.
“The surprise was so well-timed and complete that we found the enemy’s coppers full of food for the evening meal, with ladles ready for serving same, while, in his cosy room, a German officer looked round from the telephone only to find a revolver levelled at his head. One main well was blown up but several others were intact, while, though holes had been freshly bored in the solidly-constructed railway viaduct of 20 spans, it was unharmed. The quantity of artillery and shells, small arms and ammunition and stores left behind was colossal, and in addition, a couple of aeroplanes under repair were left in the aerodrome, which was situated underground, as was also most of the wireless plant.
The Colonel was proud
“Colonel Bourchier was naturally a proud man when addressing his regiment a couple of nights afterwards. He had gone over the ground, traversed on the eventful day, in company with several high officials. And the opinion of one and all was that the Light Horse had achieved the seemingly impossible. The climax was reached when he read General Sir William Robertson’s cable message expressing admiration at the undaunted valor and dash displayed by the Australian Light Horse.
“Among the first to enter the town were six Gippslanders — Sergeant G. French, Corporal Wollard, Troopers J. French, W. Jenner, Cantwell, and Tackaberry.
“Our losses can be put down as exceptionally slight considering the nature of the undertaking and the splendid resultant gains. Our killed included Lieutenants R. P. G. Meredith and F. J. Burton (the latter having just received his commission), and Warrant-Officer Alex. Wilson, of Traralgon. The latter left Victoria with the original 4th Regiment, and rose from the ranks. He was a splendid specimen of Australia’s manhood both in physique and morals, and a promising military career was cut short at the early age of 24 years. Trooper Ben Cleaver, of Sale, is also mourned by the regiment, for he was a general favorite with all whom he came in contact. Others killed were Corporal Mitchell, Lance-Corporal Kinghorn, Troupers M’Grath, Renake, Morley (three brothers killed and one wounded during the war), Womersley, Kerrigan, Wickham. Half a dozen others of the regiment have been wounded in subsequent engagements, including Corporal Sam Williams, a fore-time relieving constable at Stratford. He was shot through the head, but is expected to recover.
Colonel Leslie Maygar, V.C., D.S.O., Third Brigade, was badly wounded by a bomb dropped from an enemy plane the night after the occupation of Beersheba. His arm was amputated, but he succumbed to shock.
Tattooed the crucifix
“Some instances of German barbarity can be quoted against the craven Turk. Many who put their hands up shot their captors in the back while the disarming process was going on, but those deaths were speedily avenged. One particularly vile atrocity, however, came under our notice. A trooper of the 12th Light Horse, who was shot through the head, had a crucifix tattooed on his chest. This the enemy perforated all round with a bayonet, finally leaving the blade sticking through the chest. A field ambulance was also deliberately bombed. Beersheba possesses some fine buildings, but the immediate surrounding country is rocky and of poor quality. It was pleasing to see young gum trees making headway through the stony soil.
“Gaza was evacuated by the enemy a few days after the fall of Beersheba, but not before it and its year’s toil in the shape of fortification had been pounded to dust by our artillery from sea and land. Here also we came into possession of arsenals of ammunition and stores.
“From this on our successes magnified, though in some places, notably at Tel-el-Sharia, the Turks put up a stubborn resistance. The nature of the country favored them — in fact they were driven from one range of hills to similar lines of defence further back all along their front — but the indomitable pluck and perseverance of the infantry eventually gained the day. Here a troop of the 11th Regiment Light Horse charged a position, and but two men returned. The wady was heaped with dead, but it eventually came into our hands, and the sorely-tried horses, without water for 72 hours, slaked their thirst. Our rapid forward movement seems inconceivable under the circumstances, for, though there were wells in abundance throughout the country, time was too precious to hand-water thousands of animals. Where time permitted, the engineers took a hand with the pumps and troughs.
Retreat became a rout
“At Huj an ammunition dump covering about 10 acres was captured, and in every instance throughout the campaign, the enemy seemed to think more of flight than destroying his possessions. As our pursuit increased and became more threatening, the Turks’ German and Austrian confreres in the air abandoned them, after which the retreat became a rout. They shot their mules and oxen in the limbers, and all along the line were shattered remnants of their convoy. Their two main lines of railway fell into our hands, and we are now utilising them.
“After 16 days’ continuous travelling and fighting, Jaffa and Ramleh were evacuated, and our portion of the Light Horse is now resting among the corn and wine, the olive and orange groves and vineyards of Biblical fame, and we are well and truly anchored not far from Jerusalem.
“The movement was too vast, too awe-inspiring to follow in detail, and it seems incredible even to a participant that such a sweeping forward move has in reality been made. It would indeed be difficult to praise too highly the perfect organisation of the attack or the spirit and dash of our men, and no doubt the thrashing the Turk received was a thing undreamt of even in his lowest despondency.
“The aftermath of battle is hellish, and the sights I have witnessed made me pause and think that there is sound logic in the quotation — ‘Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war.’”
The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), 16 February 1918, p. 4
Also published in various other newspapers, including:
The Maffra Spectator (Maffra, Vic.), 31 January 1918, p. 3 (a shorter version, entitled “With the forces in Palestine: The taking of Beersheba”, by J.C.R., dated 19 November 1917)
The Kerang Observer (Kerang, Vic.), 23 February 1918, p. 3 (entitled “Letter from a late Kerang soldier”, from Trooper J. C. Ryan, of the 4th Light Horse, to his brother, Mr. Percy Ryan, of Maffra)
Camden News (Camden, NSW), 5 December 1918, p. 1 (entitled “How the Light Horse fought in the capture of Beersheba”, attributed to Trooper T. J. C. Hoskisson, of the 12th Light Horse, writing to his brother Norman Hoskisson, of Orangeville)
Alex. = an abbreviation of the name “Alexander”
apropos = (French) à propos, literally “to purpose” (i.e. with regard to the purpose); pertinent, relevant; opportune, fitting, at the right time; with reference to, with respect to, with regard to the present topic
C.B. = Companion of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (the Order of the Bath is a British order of chivalry)
See: “Order of the Bath”, Wikipedia
come into their kingdom = regarding someone who has: come into their own, made good, achieved their potential, attained a prominent position, become successful
confrere = a colleague, a fellow worker; an associate, a comrade; a fellow member, brother, or companion of a fraternity, profession, or religious order (plural: confreres)
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”)
copper = a copper pot (commonly used for cooking food, heating or boiling water, or washing clothes)
cypher = someone or something of no importance, someone who doesn’t wield any influence or power, a nonentity; someone used by another person, or people, to achieve a particular purpose (also spelt: cipher)
denouement = the final resolution, conclusion, unravelling, clarification, solution, or outcome of a novel, play, or series of events (also spelt: dénouement)
D.S.O. = the Distinguished Service Order: a medal awarded for meritorious service during wartime, usually awarded regarding service in combat (originally only awarded to commissioned officers; the award was utilised by the military forces of the British Commonwealth)
fore-time = (also spelt: foretime) of former times, of times past, in the past; of a time prior to the present; of a time prior to a time referred to
G.O.C. = General Officer Commanding
got the wind up = regarding someone who has become afraid, frightened, nervous, panicked, scared
hath = (archaic) has
Jacko = a nickname for Turks (especially used during the First World War, 1914-1918) (plural: Jackos)
limber = a two-wheeled cart (also known as an “ammunition wagon”), being that part of a gun carriage used to support the trail or legs of a piece of field artillery; limbers commonly have an ammunition chest attached, used to carry ammunition and/or equipment for field artillery
marking time = doing nothing, doing very little, or doing very little of any importance, whilst waiting for something to happen; marching on the spot
nag = (slang) horse; can also have a negative meaning, referring to a horse which is regarded as inferior or worthless
Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war = a quote from the poem “To the Lord General Cromwell, on the Proposals of Certain Ministers at the Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel” (1652), written by John Milton (1608-1674), an English poet
See: 1) John Milton (editor: Charles W. Eliot), “The Complete Poems of John Milton”, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, p. 85
2) “John Milton”, Wikipedia
plant = the machinery, mechanical installations, buildings, workshops, etc. of a mining operation; a place where industrial processing or manufacturing takes place (can also refer to just the machinery thereof)
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)
van = an abbreviation of “vanguard”: in the lead, at the front; the advance unit of a military force; the forefront in an area, field, movement, profession, or science; the leaders of a cultural, intellectual, political, or social movement
wady = 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: wadi; plural: wadies)
[Editor: Changed “bit our boys” to “hit our boys”; “20 spans” to “20 spans,” (added a comma); “Turks, German and Austrian” to “Turks’ German and Austrian”.]
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