October 31st was the centenary of the victorious battle for Beer Sheva by the Allied forces of Britain, Australian and New Zealand during the First World War against the Ottoman forces, and falls just before the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. (h/t John McCormick). The commemoration ceremony and reenactment of the battle was attended by dignitaries from Israel, Britain, Australia and New Zealand:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand’s Governor General Patsy Reddy attended a World War I battle re-enactment on Monday to mark 100 years since the liberation of Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire by Australian and New Zealand mounted troops.
The battle was re-enacted by 175 members of the Australian Light Horse Association, which included descendants of the soldiers who fought in the actual battle 100 years ago.
“We learned about the ethos of courage of Australia’s and New Zealand’s soldiers,” Netanyahu said after the mock battle in Beersheba. “It was an example of the spirit of fortitude and courage and the willingness to act in the defense of our people and our values.”
“These are the values that guide us today as well,” he added. “We saw here in Beersheba 800 cavalry go up against 4,000 embedded Turks with machine guns, with bunkers, the few against the many. That’s the spirit of the army of Israel. It stands today.”
The battle was a crucial if largely forgotten victory in the Middle Eastern campaign that enabled the Allies to break the Turkish line and capture Jerusalem weeks later. The victorious campaign redrew the map of the Middle East.
In the fall of 1917, Allied forces with General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force advanced on the Gaza Strip as part of a campaign to knock the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, out of the war.
To outflank the Turkish troops entrenched around Gaza, a parched detachment made a desperate maneuver through the Negev Desert to capture the strategic biblical town of Beersheba, known both in antiquity and in modern times for its wells.
On October 31, 1917, Allied troops launched their assault, but by late in the day, the critical water sources remained in Turkish hands. In a desperate gambit, mounted infantrymen with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps drew their bayonets, charged the Turkish trenches cavalry-style, and stormed into the town.
Had they been turned back, the entire campaign might have been lost.
“They spurred their horses through that fire, those mad Australians, through that fire, and took the town of Beersheba, secured the victory that did not create the State of Israel but enabled its creation,” Turnbull said.
“Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words,” Turnbull said, “but this was a step for the creation of Israel.”
Two days later, after word of the victory reached London, Britain’s then-Foreign Minister Lord Arthur Balfour issued a declaration calling for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The Jewish NZ site Shalom Kiwi provides us with a deeper look at New Zealand’s role in the Battle of Beersheva. Without their participation the battle may well have been lost:
The attack on Turkish troops was a turning point in World War I, and is a revered part of Australia’s military history.
From this point on in the desert war the Turkish forces and their German allies were in retreat.
The famous charge by the 4th Australian Light Horse is regarded as the last great cavalry charge in history.
What is less well known is that it wouldn’t have taken place had it not been for the skill and bravery of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
After two failed attempts to break the Turkish defensive line between Gaza on the coast and Beersheba 43 kilometres inland, the newly appointed commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which was spearheaded by Australian and New Zealand mounted troops, devised a plan to take the town of Beersheba.
Israeli military historian Avi Navon told Newsroom “all the advantages lay with the Turkish troops. They were fresh, had the high ground and plenty of firepower. The only advantage the New Zealanders had was bravery.”
“The cavalry charge and the Australians are much talked about but really the New Zealanders deserve a lot of credit,” said Navon.
The war diary of the Auckland Mounted Rifles recounts how the regiment met Jewish people for the first time at Richon le Zion.
“One member of the community was a brother of Rabbi Goldstein, of Auckland. The joy of these people at being freed from the tyranny of the Turks was unbounded. They treated the New Zealanders most hospitably—an exceedingly pleasant experience after the tremendous effort they had just made, and the harsh hungry times spent in the south with its hostile Bedouins.”
The NZMR’s connection with the Jewish people is being recognised in Auckland on Tuesday.
An olive tree – a symbol of peace – will be planted at Auckland Grammar School in memory of those who fought and died in the 1917 Palestine campaign.
Several of the soldiers killed at Beersheba were Grammar old boys.
Later in the day, native trees donated by the New Zealand Jewish community will be planted at Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate School in Mangere.
New Zealand Jewish Council President Stephen Goodman said the war forged a permanent bond between Israel and New Zealand.
With these warm thoughts of friendship in mind, it was hard not to notice who was missing in action? New Zealand’s Prime Minister. The country was represented instead by the Governor-General, who is in effect the head of state, i.e. a representative figurehead with no political power. This was a disappointment to many Israelis and Israel supporters, as Michael Kuttner, a Jewish New Zealander, writes in Arutz Sheva:
Australia has been particularly active in keeping alive the deeds of their soldiers while serving in occupied Ottoman Palestine and that is why almost all the publicity associated with the forthcoming celebrations has concentrated on them. In fact the absence of any publicity about any New Zealand contingent means that the average Israeli is totally unaware of a Kiwi presence.
The re-enactment of the famous cavalry charge which defeated the Ottomans in Beersheba is being undertaken solely by Australian descendants of the original soldiers. This has garnered much attention and undoubtedly will be the highlight of the commemorations on 31 October. It is a pity that the absence of a visible New Zealand presence will mean that locals are unlikely to obtain a complete and accurate understanding of its contribution to the campaign.
Thousands of Australians are coming for the events. I have no idea how many Kiwis are coming but it seems to be miniscule.
This lack of a meaningful New Zealand presence is also reflected in the official representation being sent from both countries.
The Australian Prime Minister accompanied by a strong delegation will be in attendance. Originally the New Zealand Prime Minister was due to come but in the meantime the elections have scuttled that plan. The new Prime Minister is no doubt busy settling into office and her Foreign Minister is staying home. In the absence of any political presence, New Zealand will be represented by the Governor General who as the nominal head of State is apolitical and therefore unable to engage in any meaningful negotiations with the Israeli Government. Likewise the NZ Ambassador to Israel who ironically is stationed in Turkey will only be a fleeting visitor. It will be interesting to see what sort of message they convey as NZ still refuses to apologize for or withdraw its support of the scandalous UN Resolution 2334 which it sponsored with such human rights “champions” as Venezuela and Malaysia.
It is a great pity that at a time when friends are gathering to celebrate this momentous occasion and when Malcolm Turnbull will undoubtedly reiterate his personal and his Government’s whole hearted support for the Jewish State that New Zealand’s voice will either be absent or muted.
With this history of friendship between New Zealand and the Jewish People, let us hope that the new Prime Minister of New Zealand is more friendly to Israel than predecessors and that our relations can warm up once more.