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This dramatic bronze in the present-day Israeli town of Be'er Sheva, aka Beersheba, commemorates the 1917 charge of the 4th Light Brigade against entrenched Ottoman forces. (Photo by Ian Nellist/Alamy)

We have seen and we’ll remember till the dark approach of death
Overmantles fond reflection and consumes the living breath,
How the mounted men of Anzac bared the bayonet as they sped
Hard a-gallop at the trenches through a hurricane of lead!
—Edwin Field Gerard, 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade

Be’er Sheva.

Thousands of years ago it was the site of several wells at the windblown, sandy foot of the Judaean hills and, according to the Book of Genesis, the home of Abraham. The old patriarch and his son Isaac each made pacts with other men over the water here. Those treaties were immortalized in the place name (translated as “Well of the Oath”), which has come down through modern history as Beersheba. The settlement grew into a heavily garrisoned, strategic walled city before its glory faded and it crumbled into ruin.

In the looming dusk of Oct. 31, 1917, some 800 Australian mounted infantry of the 4th Light Horse Brigade looked from the crest of a ridge across nearly four miles of open, gently sloping ground at the fortified town that had grown up just west of the ancient ruins. This time the enemy was not Babylonians or Philistines, Assyrians or Herod’s Edomites, but the Turks, eastern allies of imperial Germany. And once again it was about the water.

In the British forces’ struggle to take Palestine, two earlier attempts to capture the strategically vital Mediterranean coastal city of Gaza had ended in costly failure. Since then the Ottomans and Germans had heavily reinforced the city. The Turkish line, supported by troops of the seasoned German Asia Corps, stretched along a nearly 27-mile-long fortified front, extending from Gaza southeast to Beersheba. Rather than risk another potentially disastrous frontal attack, General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, adopted a plan to turn the flank of the Turkish defensive line at Beersheba and proceed along it to Gaza.

The operation began at dawn on October 31, when Allied forces attacked and systematically captured key strategic Turkish positions around Beersheba. By late afternoon, however, the town itself remained firmly in enemy hands. Knowing that success depended on seizing Beersheba that same day, Australian Lt. Gen. Sir Harry Chauvel, commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered the 4th Light Horse Brigade to circle around to the rear; from there they were to stage a mounted attack and capture the town, along with its 17 vital wells. Chauvel’s orders were simple:

(a) Attack Beersheba from the east so as to envelop the enemy’s left rear and (b) seize as much water supply as possible in order to form a base for future operations northwards.

Although the capture of the town itself was strategically crucial to the success of the plan, the seizure of its wells had become a much more immediate need. Some 50,000 to 60,000 Allied troops were marching toward Beersheba under the brutal desert sun; the heat and dust were oppressive, and the lack of water had become critical for men, horses and machines. Unless the Allies could procure water quickly and in quantity, the entire British effort would be doomed to failure. As was the case 4,000 years before, the only wells for miles in any direction were at Beersheba.

Only two of the 4th Light Horse’s three regiments—the 4th, from Victoria, and the 12th, from New South Wales—would charge the Turkish position. The 11th Regiment, on detached duty at the time, was ordered to saddle up and follow the 4th and 12th into Beersheba when ready. Although British artillery would support the 800 charging horsemen, more than 1,100 Turkish riflemen, nine field pieces and several machine guns protected Beersheba’s eastern defenses. Well-placed Turkish redoubts and a double row of trenches commanded excellent fields of fire, and the roughly three miles the horsemen would cross afforded no cover whatsoever. It was an order that must have struck many of the Australian troops as ill-advised, if not suicidal. But time was of the essence, and it was the only strategy that stood a chance of success.

The light horsemen were not, in the conventional sense, cavalry; they were mounted infantry. Taking a page from the Boers, against whom the Australians had fought in South Africa years earlier, they traditionally used their horses to carry them swiftly to the fight and aid in rapid withdrawal. They carried neither lances nor sabers and fought on foot, using rifles and bayonets. Once engaged, one man in four was responsible for leading and holding the horses out of harm’s way.

At the time of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, the Australians fielded five light horse brigades, each comprising three regiments. Their mounts were specially selected and bred for endurance. Standing no more than 16 hands (5 feet 3 inches), they were called “Walers,” for their New South Wales origins, and they made consummate warhorses. Walers were the result of crossbreeding and showed a considerable thoroughbred strain. They could go from a walk to a canter without entering a trot and were able to cover great distances without feed or water. The soldiers’ lives regularly depended upon their horses, and the bond between man and animal was strong. The men of the 4th Light Horse Brigade were not concerned that their horses might not be capable of covering the expanse of hot, dusty ground that lay before them; their focus was on the guns at the far end of their ride.

By 4:30 the sun had nearly set, and it was rapidly growing dark. As 4th Light Horse Trooper John “Chook” Fowler later recalled:

I heard some remarks: “It’s getting too late now to do anything,” etc., and when we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on our good fortune for the day, the order was given: “B Squadron, all packhorses to the rear. Remainder prepare for action.”…We had heard that order many times and knew what it meant. A tingling feeling ran down my spine.

At the order the two regiments—the 4th on the right and 12th on the left—walked off the ridge and down onto the plain. They rode in three successive lines, 300 yards apart. Each man was ordered to ride with drawn bayonet—with its gleaming 18-inch blade it closely resembled a short sword. The men deployed into artillery formation, keeping a distance of five yards between each man to minimize the potential carnage from cannon fire or aerial bombardment. Almost immediately they spurred their mounts into a trot, then a canter and finally a gallop, shouting at the top of their lungs and waving their bayonets overhead.

Working in their favor was the fact that neither the Turks nor their German officers and advisors had anticipated such an attack. Accustomed to fighting mounted infantry, the officers ordered their troops to hold fire until the enemy dismounted. The horsemen, however, gave no indication of slackening their pace, as they spurred their Walers over the ground toward Beersheba at breakneck speed.

Artillery shells soon began bursting over and in front of the Australians, the shrapnel killing horses and emptying saddles. After what seemed an eternity, the light horsemen galloped inside the Turkish gun range, and the shells burst harmlessly behind them. When they closed to within 800 yards of the enemy’s trenches, the Turkish rifles and machine guns opened up and began to take a toll. One Turkish machine gun emplacement atop a ridge fired on the men of the 12th with deadly effect, but well-directed British artillery quickly silenced it.

As Trooper Fowler recalled:

The artillery fire had been heavy for a while. Many shells passed over our heads, and then the machine gun and rifle fire became fierce as we came in closer to the trenches.…No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did.

Unnerved at the screaming apparitions galloping out of the red dust and coming dark, many of the Turkish riflemen had failed to adjust their sights and fired high, unwittingly saving countless Australian lives. In his after-action report Brig. Gen. William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse, wrote, “The rapidity of the attack seemed to demoralise the Turks, as they mostly fired high, and it was afterwards found that the sights of their rifles were never lowered below 800 metres.”

The Turks did shoot or bayonet a number of horses as they leaped over the trenches. The light horsemen dismounted once within the Turkish lines, and the hand-to-hand fighting became intense. After galloping into Beersheba, Trooper Fowler discovered one bullet hole in his haversack and two more through his trousers.

The 12th Light Horse Regiment War Diary and Routine Orders for the day present a straightforward, unemotional account of the bold cavalry charge and its aftermath:

The Regiment moved on Beersheba at the gallop. Heavy enemy rifle and machine gun fire developed on the left flank.…This fire was silenced by artillery. The leading Squadron came under very heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire from the trenches.…On reaching a point about 100 yards from these trenches, one Troop of A Squadron dismounted for action, and the remainder of the Squadron galloped on.…The Regiment, less 1 troop, kept straight on to Beersheba.

Barely an hour had passed from the time the two light horse regiments first rode onto the plain until they subdued the troops in the Turkish trenches.

As ordered, the light horsemen captured the village and secured the wells. When defeat appeared inevitable, the enemy commander had ordered the wells destroyed, but the horsemen managed to save all but two. Nearly all the Turks surrendered immediately, although, according to the regimental orders, “about 60 of these enemy, including 3 officers, tried to escape but were intercepted by a troop of our ‘C’ Squadron and taken prisoners.” Reportedly, one dazed German field officer commented on his captors’ bold, headlong charge: “They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen.”

After rounding up their captives, the 4th and 12th regiments—now joined by the 11th—established defensive positions in anticipation of a counterattack from the southwest. They held the positions until daylight. As the orders recorded:

The picquets in the vicinity of the pumping station were withdrawing at 2300 [11 p.m.] when Brigade Headquarters arrived and took over. A patrol of 1 NCO and 8 men was sent out at 2300 and made a reconnaissance in a south-west direction, returning at 0300 [3 a.m.], bringing in 23 prisoners and reporting, “All clear.”

The success of the charge had depended upon speed and surprise—and the men of the 4th Light Horse Brigade had accomplished both. The victory was complete; the wells and town of Beersheba were securely in Allied hands. As Grant wrote, “The number of prisoners captured is 59 officers and 1,090 other ranks.” In addition, the Australians had seized nine field guns, five machine guns and, the orders continued, “a large quantity of various war materiel, including rolling stock, transport vehicles and animals.” By the next morning tens of thousands of men and animals had slaked their thirst with the water from Abraham’s ancient wells.

Although the butcher’s bill was comparatively light given the nature of the operation, the action had not been without cost. At least 70 Walers died, while dozens more were hurt. And of the 800 men who rode against the Turkish guns, 31 were killed and 36 wounded. “The high percentage of killed to wounded,” Grant wrote, “was due to the hand-to-hand fighting against superior numbers at the trenches. The majority of the wounded fell before the trenches were reached.”

But the capture of Beersheba altered the course of the war for the Holy Land. The 4th Light Horse Brigade victory was a decisive factor in the battle for Gaza and helped lay the groundwork for Allenby’s victorious entry into Jerusalem less than two months later. According to the records of the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre, the victory at Beersheba “opened the way for the whole Turkish defensive line to be outflanked and rolled up from east to west.”

By 1942, in the early stages of another world war, much of the Australian Light Horse had ceased to function as a mounted unit, trading in their Walers for tanks and armored cars. But Australians in Canberra and other cities and towns still celebrate Beersheba Day, commemorating the October 31 charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments with parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and re-enactments. Over the past century sculptors have crafted a multitude of statues honoring the light horsemen, none as dramatic as the larger-than-life bronze that graces the Park of the Australian Soldier in the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. Sculpted by Australian Peter Corlett, it was dedicated jointly in 2008 by then-president of Israel Shimon Peres and Maj Gen. Michael Jeffery, governor-general of Australia. It depicts a mounted Light Horseman leaping the sandbags at the Turkish trenches. An emu plume graces his slouch hat; he clutches the reins in one hand and a gleaming bayonet in the other. The statue and the park in which it stands pay tribute to the impossible mounted charge that, by initiating the removal of the Turkish military presence from Palestine, paved the way for establishment of the state of Israel.

Some historians have referred to the action as the last cavalry charge of modern times; it was not. Horsemen on both sides would charge the guns during World War II. However, the Australian Light Horse’s headlong assault on the Turkish trenches at Beersheba was one of the most startling and inspiring triumphs in a seemingly endless war with more than its share of bloody debacles. Mounted infantrymen, brandishing only bayonets, had carried the field in the face of entrenched rifle, machine gun and artillery fire, and in the process they had gained immortality. As one light horseman and bush poet later recalled:

We marched away at the close of day to mount in the dying light:
We rode aflank through the tense, grey gloom with plenty of sad, spare
The swift hoofs sounded a roll of doom to the Turkish arms that night!

Ron Soodalter, a former columnist for America’s Civil War, has also written for Smithsonian, Civil War Times and Wild West. For further reading he recommends Chauvel of the Light Horse, by A.J. Hill, and Light Horse: The Story of Australia’s Mounted Troops, by Elyne Mitchell.