The Battle of Beer-Sheva Centenary

This year 2017 is the centenary of the Battle of Beer-Sheva that took place on Oct 31, 1917.   That historic battle was a turning point in WWI and for the Middle East as a whole.

The Battle of Beer-Sheva came about as a result of strategic mistakes on both sides of the conflict.   The British were not making any gains on the Western front in trench warfare against the Germans and when Turkey joined with Germany, Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill decided to open an Eastern Front by making a quick and poorly planned attack against Turkey at the Dardanelles leading to Istanbul.  Five British Navy ships were sent, but they were fired upon as they approached the narrow straits and retreated.  This led to the decision to send ground troops into the Dardanelles. But the delay allowed Turkish General Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk) to bring in a defensive force, that pinned the landing troops down and led to the defeat at Gallipoli in which many Australian troops (ca. 8,000) were killed.

Meanwhile the triumvirate of young Turks who had effectively taken over the Turkish government, with German advice and support, sent their main army to Gaza in an attempt to take the Suez Canal from the British who controlled Egypt.  This led to the British sending an Egyptian Expeditionary Force to  block this attempt.   Under Gen. Maxwell the British counter-attacked Gaza but were defeated twice at great cost by the Turks.  Maxwell was then replaced by Gen Allenby, who tried to devise an alternative approach.

Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish Palestinian agronomist, who ran the pro-British spy ring known as Nili, and who had studied the topography of the Sinai desert, advised Allenby to instead attack Beer-Sheva.  This was a dangerous  maneuver, but with knowledge of the water sources it was feasible.  A British intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen (of German origin) in a ruse dropped a haversack containing maps near the Turkish front lines that convinced them that the British would attack Gaza again.  Meanwhile a large British force crossed the desert in strict secrecy.   They attacked on Oct. 31 and the Australian Light Horse regiment with a New Zealand contingent, part of the ANZAC corps, galloped over the plain before the Turkish lines and captured the wells and defeated the Turks.  This was considered a recompense for the defeat at Gallipoli.

Today was the centenary of that battle and there were several celebrations in Beer-Sheva.  We walked about 5 mins from where we now live to see the parade of the Australian Light Horse soldiers, who then went on to partially re-enact the famous horse charge, one of the last in history.   There was a ceremony at the British Military Cemetery where many Australian soldiers are buried, at which PM Netanyahu spoke and the Australian PM attended.  They also opened a museum commemorating the event. There was a ceremony at the memorial to the Turkish soldiers who died fighting here and an event for the New Zealanders.

Because their army was out-flanked at Beer-Sheva, the Turks were forced to withdraw from Gaza, which allowed Allenby to advance and capture Jerusalem by Christmas 1917, the first major success for the Allies in WWI.  As a result of the victory at Beer-Sheva Palestine fell to the British and this led to the British Mandate for Palestine and ultimately the establishment of the State of Israel.  The Turkish Empire collapsed and resulted in the formation of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk and six Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Arabia and Kuwait) and one small Jewish State – Israel.