I am amazed that it took an hour and a half to round up all the men and horses once the decision had been made. They had been scattered because of the threat of an air attack. And as the Australian Fourth Light Horse Brigade made their charge they were not waving sabers but bayonets. Still it may have been one of the most successful cavalry charges in all of history. But oddly enough what is usually written about the charge remembers none of that. What is usually written is that it was the last cavalry charge in history, and it wasn’t the last one at all; not by a long shot. It was October 31st , 1917 – Halloween - when the British Army made a third try to break the Turkish line at Gaza. They had a new General, Allenby, and a new plan. Instead of attacking the barbed wire and trenches close to Gaza, Allenby decided to try the other end of the Turkish defenses, at Beersheba. It was a similar choice to the sweeping left hook sent against Iraq forces in 1991: then, fast armored columns were supported by fleets of fuel trucks. But the limiting factor in 1917 was not fuel but water.
There were 17 wells at Beersheba, and that made capture of the village vital for an army coming across the Negev desert, because the weapon of maneuver in 1917 was not the tank but the horse. It is simply astonishing that a horse, a prey animal, a grass eater, could be so powerful a weapon of war. Since 4000 B.C. humans have trained horses to assist in killing other humans and other horses. We have ridden their backs into close combat where Equus caballus is shot with arrows, pierced with spears and slashed with swords: and beginning in the 18th century, cut by shrapnel and surrounded by deafening gunfire and explosions. And what is most astonishing is that for a horse, such combat is much more frightening than for a human. Horses have the largest eyes per body size of any land animal. The construction of those lovely huge eyes also gives them a field of vision of 350 degrees, far wider than a humans’. Their ears can rotate 180 degrees, giving them the equivalent of hearing depth perception. In short, hoses can see and hear much more of the horrors on a battlefield more accurately than a human can. And the sound of a pistol in their own riders’ hand is more frightening because it is closer. So given this higher level of horror why have horses joined us in war? It has been pointed out that war horses actually lived much more happy lives than their pampered domesticated stabled pets of today because a war horse was constantly surrounded with other horses – a herd. An army was a strict hierarchical social structure that mimicked the herd. And learning to use a horse in battle taught humans how to teach them selves to fight: every combat maneuver used by cavalry is based on herd behavior. A horse in column with willing follow the horse in front rather than run for safety alone, and a horse in a charge will run because all the other horses are running as well. But the actual charge of Napoleonic cavalry (and the Australian Light Horsemen of 1917) was a good deal slower than the paintings might suggest. Sabers might be wildly waving and lances glinting in the sunlight, but charging horses do not slam into enemy troops at the end of a charge. The “shock” effect of a cavalry charge was far more psychological then physical. And that is the great secret of combat; the objective is not to kill your opponent. The objective is to convince him that he is about to be killed or worse, about to be painfully mauled, so that he stops fighting. The reality is that nobody fights to the death, not even a kamikaze pilot or a suicide bomber. They fight until they are convinced they cannot win. And seeing, as one general famously described it, “…a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friends face…” has proven a very effect way of making people stop fighting. For every soldier killed a dozen will run away. And that is what humans learned by teaching horses to fight. They formed up to the east of Beersheba, the 11th and 12th regiments, behind a ridge out in the Negev desert. They were 800 mounted men under the direct command of Lieutenant Colonel Bourchier, trained to fight as mounted infantry but this afternoon with their rifles slung across their backs and their bayonets gripped tightly in their right hands, they were pure cavalry, straight from the ancient steppes of Eastern Europe and the rolling fields of Belgium.
They crossed the ridge line in three waves at a trot, about 8 miles an hour, and five meters between each horse. The three lines advanced across the open desert toward the Turkish infantry trenches four miles away. After a mile a battery of Austrian artillery began to bark at them. Shells exploded just behind them as the Axis gunners tried in vain to adjust their range to match the horsemen’s advance. About two miles out they broke into a canter, about 15 miles an hour. The Turkish machine guns began to pepper the advancing cavalry. But most of the Turkish infantry were holding their fire, waiting for the horsemen to dismount and attack on foot. But instead, a half mile from the trenches, they broke into a gallop, and fell upon the Turkish soldiers at 30 miles an hour. Trooper Eric Elliot remembered, “It was the bravest, most awe inspiring sight I’ve ever witnessed ...the boys were wild-eyed and yelling their heads off.” And Trooper Vic Smith would write years later, “Of course we were scared, whishing to hell we weren’t there…But you couldn’t drop out and leave your mates to it; you had to keep going on.” In fact the infantry was so stunned by the cavalry’s audacity that they failed to adjust their sights and most of the Turkish fire that finally began went sailing over the horsemen’s heads. And suddenly it seemed to the Turkish soldiers’ that their gun sights were filled with the barrel chests of charging horses, each carrying a screaming mad man directly at each Turkish private and corporal.
The Australian horses leapt across the first trench line. And the Turkish soldiers, brave men and determined, well led and well disciplined, threw down their rifles and ran away. The Australian regiments carried the trench and the wells and the village beyond. The attack captured 38 officers, 700 men, 9 field guns and 3 machine guns. Many more Turkish soldiers, having run into the desert, came back to the wells over the next few days and surrendered. The cost for this triumph was 31 Australians troopers killed and 36 wounded, almost all of them in the fight for the trenches. By five-thirty the battle was over. The Turkish Gaza line had been turned. But so surprised and stunned were the victors themselves that it was almost another hour before anyone thought to send word back headquarters. We have no listing of how many horses were killed or wounded. But afterward a trooper noted, “It was the horses that did it; those marvelous bloody horses.”
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