Winton Outback Festival hosts re-enactment of the Charge of Beersheba

Confronting: After a gallop across the plains, the re-enactment troop halted and drew their mock bayonets to salute onlookers at the sunset extravaganza dinner at Bladensberg National Park. Pictures: Sally Cripps.
Confronting: After a gallop across the plains, the re-enactment troop halted and drew their mock bayonets to salute onlookers at the sunset extravaganza dinner at Bladensberg National Park. Pictures: Sally Cripps.

They rode into history in the first World War and last Thursday, Winton got a chance to watch history in action, when over 50 mounted riders from Australia and New Zealand re-enacted a Light Horse charge that helped change the course of the war.

It was the culmination of three days of street processions, commemorative services and community visits to share the legend of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, which generated huge community interest.

The full-throated charge, with mock bayonets brandished, remembered the 800 Anzacs who rode and 31 who lost their lives in breaking through the Gaza-Beersheba Turkish line of defence 100 years ago.

Many of those brave soldiers had enlisted from Queensland’s far west and have descendants living in the region today, which made Thursday’s events, part of the Winton Outback Festival, all the more poignant.

According to Jed Millen, the chairman of the Queensland Mounted Infantry Historical Troop, the Light Horsemen were an incredibly brave and skilled group of young men.

“They grew up riding and camping but it wasn’t until the war that their horse and bush survival skills were fully recognised.”

Jed said the ​In Pursuit of Beersheba re-enactment, involving more than 120 horses, 1000 bales of hay, and support from the Australian Defence Force, had done what they’d wanted, and more.

Jed Millen took advantage of the rest day in Winton to reflect on the achievements of the Beersheba re-enactment ride.

Jed Millen took advantage of the rest day in Winton to reflect on the achievements of the Beersheba re-enactment ride.

“It’s about presenting the legend,” he said. “It’s very symbolic and people in these regional areas don’t get to see this all the time.

“People came from all over Australia, and New Zealand, many in precious school holiday time, with one focus, riding knee to knee.

“I take my hat off to everyone who remembers the Light Horse in any way – at the end of the day, it’s something to strive for.”

It was a similar feeling of achievement from Kim Flehr, the president of the 11th Light Horse Darling Downs troop, who got to lead the front rank of the re-enactment charge before the sunset extravaganza dinner crowd at Bladensberg National Park.

“It was something I was pretty nervous about – having 20 horses in line, cantering across a gibber plain, keeping a straight line – but it was a great thrill,” he said.

The Battle of Beersheba in October 1917 included a three day ride to go round the end of the Turkish line and take up a position thought to be impossible, and Kim said to come to Winton and replicate the ride through the desert had left a strong impression on all the participants.

In order to reach Bladensberg the troop undertook a dusty three-hour ride in temperatures of 39 degrees, followed by a similar return journey in the dark.

“To do all that, then form up and charge – we’re not full-time soldiers, and we’re not 25 years old,” Kim said, leaving unsaid the feeling it gave them an affinity with the soldiers of a hundred years ago.

Unexpected war maneouvre

Mr Millen, whose great-grandfather was in the 10th Light Horse in Egypt, said the Queensland and Australian horsemen were called upon when all seemed lost.

“The Allied troops had been trying without much success to penetrate the Turkish trenches near the Palestinian town of Gaza,’’ he said.

As part of General Sir Allenby’s offensive, Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel’s troops attacked Beersheba at the end of the Gaza-Beersheba line on October 31, 1917.

“In a last-ditch effort to move forward and save the troops’ lives, it was decided to take the unusual move of sending members of the 4th Light Horse brigade (4th and 12th Light Horse regiments) in on horseback with their bayonets to be used as swords.’’

The Light Horsemen’s usual tactics as mounted infantry was to ride into position, dismount and move forward to engage the enemy.

“On this occasion the horsemen saddled up and charged,’’ Mr Millen said.

“The Turkish troops were so surprised and shocked by the sudden mounted attack they were unable to properly return fire or retaliate.

“The Allies took up to 1000 Turkish prisoners and the town of Beersheba that day.’’ 

The re-enactment ride received $80,000 from the Queensland government’s Anzac centenary committee, and used local shops, vets and farriers, as well as an Australian Defence Force support crew of soldiers, armoured vehicles and trucks to transport 1000 bales of hay.

Barcaldine, Ilfracombe, Longreach and Winton residents helped prepare meals, and the Kedron-Wavell RSL provided a mobile kitchen and 1500 meals for the 100 riders and soldiers.

FAST FACTS:

  • 1000 Turkish riflemen with nine machine guns and two aircraft defended Beersheba. They had a good position and numerous trenches – however the eastern and southern trenches were not topped with barbed wire. The Turkish commanders believed the terrain was too treacherous and open to warrant enemy attack from these directions.
  • The Light Horsemen rode fast and hard to jump the eastern and southern trenches.
  • Members of the Australian Light Horse wore distinctive emu feathers in their slouch hats. Queensland members of the Mounted Infantry, some of which went on to become the 2nd, 5th and 11th Light Horse, started the tradition during the Shearers’ Strike by, legend has it, plucking the tail feathers from emus while on horseback.
  • The event was supported by the Queensland government, Winton Shire Council, Longreach Regional Council, Barcaldine Regional Council, Harry Redford Cattle Drive, Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, National Parks (Bladensberg National Park), Longreach, Barcaldine, Winton, and Kedron Wavell RSLs, and the Australian Defence Force.