10 Nov 2009

The Horses of Beersheba

It is Remembrance Day tomorrow.

At 11 am on 11 November 1918, the guns of the Western Front finally fell silent after more than four years of continuous fighting. The allied forces had driven the German invaders back after having inflicted heavy defeats upon them during the preceding four months. In November the Germans called for an armistice - a suspension of fighting - in order to secure a peace settlement. They accepted the allied terms of unconditional surrender.

The Great War was over.

The war was over, but not all the fighters would go home.

Tomorrow at 11 am we will remember them.

The fallen.

But the soldiers were not the only fallen of the Great War.
(Lieutenant-General Sir Harry) Chauvel and his men brought off a series of brilliant and victorious battles, beginning with the attack on Beersheba, ending with the long pursuit up the Palestinian plain, and the surrender of Turkish and German arms. This has been given place as one of the great cavalry exploits in the history of warfare - and the Australian Light Horsemen off-saddled at the close of hostilities with the names of many ancient cities added to their colours.

Of the horses that bore the burden of this campaign only one was brought home to its native pastures. The aged and battle-worn were destroyed and the remainder sold to the local population.

Frank Dalby Davison The Wells of Beersheba 1947

In his wonderful book, The Wells of Beersheba, Frank Dalby Davison tells us the story of the Charge of Beersheba - not only through the soldiers' eyes but also through their mounts, the Australian-born Walers.

Davison's horses behave like horses - there is no anthropomorphising here. He does not attribute human behaviour to them but rather allows them their own natural nobility and dignity without superimposing the virtues of man. Seeing their struggle brings a new perspective to this now famous page of Australian history.

A trooper was worried. His mare, a high strung beast, hadn't drunk when the horses were taken to the trough. Something had upset her. While the others lowered their heads to the water and drank, with twitching ears and long sucking gulps, she had stood with head high staring, as if she saw some vision far across the plain. Patient coaxing had not prevailed upon her. The trooper looked now at her hollow flanks...and his eyes smarted with the tears of vexation...The thought of her not having drunk would be nagging at him every hour he was astride her. A cavalryman's strength was that of the horse beneath him. It was of greater concern to him just then then the thought of facing shell-fire.

We get to know the horses as characters in the saga:

The stocky round-barreled bay was bred on a farm in the Burragorang Valley - a little place, bounded on one side by native oaks, leaning above a bend in the Wollondilly. They didn't want to part with him, for he was quiet and easy to catch; but the old man sold him into the Army. They often think of him back home by the Wollondilly. The girls - they had no brother - regard him as the member of the family who went to war; and they sometimes wonder where he is.

The horses were important, you see. Without the horses the last great cavalry campaign of modern warfare would never have been:

...Nightfall was at hand. Turk, German and Austrian gunner had resisted with the courage of men who knew that time fought on their side. The enemy had now fallen back on the redoubts. To rouse him from them, trench by trench, would take more time than the remaining span of daylight allowed. Tomorrow could not enter into the general's calculations. His horses must be watered by dawn.

Water was thirty miles behind him - or three miles in front. To retire on the wells from which his horses had last drunk would be to leave victory in the hands of the enemy.

It was the moment of crisis in battle.
Of course all Australians know what happened next. The Wells of Beersheba is not a thriller relying on the outcome of the battle for its excitement, but the conclusion is satisfying for all that.

This is a beautiful book - I struggled to know which parts of it to quote to you - and yet we read little of it. Frank Dalby Davison's Children of the Dark People and Man-Shy are written about often while The Wells of Beersheba rarely get even a mention. It would be sad if this little book disappeared.

Do keep an eye out for it in your forays through the shelves of the second-hand bookshops. (Abe has some) Do read it to your children.

Lest We Forget.
The Wells of Old Beersheba

In saga and in story their tale has been told,
As long down the years of madness the battle tides have rolled;
Their drops of crystal water - more precious than gold
The Wells of old Beersheba were battle scarred of old.

On an Autumn evening that seems so long ago
The war-worn Walers reached them with stately step and slow,
And the guns roared welcome, peal upon thunder peal,
The Wells of old Beersheba were held by Moslem steel.

On barren cactus ridges the British army lay,
All sore in need of water at the burning close of day;
And so the desert riders must charge at evening gloom -
The Wells of old Beersheba - to victory or doom.

A league across the desert, slowly Walers came,
And Turkish shrapnel answered with a burst of flame
That flashed amid the smoke clouds, deep in the murky haze,
The Wells of old Beersheba with trench-lines all ablaze.

They lined the ridge at sunset and, in the waning light
The far-flung line of squadrons came on in headlong flight,
The desert land behind them - in front the fearful fight,
The Wells of old Beersheba must fall before the night.

The Turkish rifles raked them and horse and man went down,
But still they held the gallop towards the blazing town;
They heard the hot lead whining, the big guns thunder-roll -
The Wells of old Beersheba their destiny and goal.

With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood
They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood,
Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar
The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before.

They stormed across the trenches and, so the stories say,
They drove the Moslem gunners as wild winds scatter spray.
No force or fire could turn them on that long maddening run,
The Wells of old Beersheba had fallen with the sun.

Fast through the gap behind them column on column poured,
Loud in the darkening dust - wrack the guns of England roared;
Won in a race of ruin through the lurid waves of flame
The Wells of old Beersheba had brought them deathless fame!

Remember them, my brothers, lend them a helping hand -
They led that charge of splendour that won the Promised Land -
And those who came not homeward, their memory is grand -
The Wells of old Beersheba will guard their graves of sand.

Edwin Gerard 'Gerardy'


  1. I wish we had that book about a month ago when we were in the throws of the Great War. I never learned much about WWI in school (big surprise, eh?), and was horrified along with my kids to learn about the terrors of that war. Thanks to you, I even knew who the Anzacs were when I read about the awful battle at Gallipoli.

  2. Hi Jeanne,
    This book sounds excellent.

    I hope that my blog is fixed now.

    Have a great week.

  3. sounds like an absolute gem of a book

  4. Thanks Jeanne for another informative and inspiring post. My 11 yr old son has reminded us all day that tomorrow is Remembrance Day. I will definitely look for this book as he would love it. By the way, so great to read a patriotic post. We aussies are pretty laid back about things like this. Good to be reminded to be proud of our heritage and the sacrifice so many of our soldiers have made.

  5. Tomorrow is hubby's birthday.

  6. Ah Jeanne Mc Cain...you've done it again! Amazing book...will put on my wish list!


  7. "Tear in eye..." If you have seen the movie "The Light Horsemen" that poem is very vivid. Thanks Jeanne.
    The Ligh Horse has a special place in our hearts as an uncle was a light horseman pre WW2 and joined the regular army before it.
    Melanie is right, sadly. Patriotism is not big in Oz except on the 25th April.
    A poppy for each of you. :-)

  8. Hee Hee, Ruby, I've seen "The Lighthorsemen" - the character Scotty in the film is my grandfather!!

    A Poppy for you too.

  9. Are you pulling our leg? That is a fantastic "connection" ! Will you give us a bio?

  10. Hi Ruby, try here for some info!!



    (Can you find Jemimah, her Dad and me in the family tree pic?)

  11. Sorry, Ruby, the family tree pic is here: http://www.warandidentity.com.au/ADCCweb/iso/bolton/bolton.html

  12. SPLENDID!!!

    My boys are all agog now! that is a wonderful account which I have not read fully yet. (Should be getting tea :-)
    Are you 3 together in that family collage? I can pick faces I think are yours but not sure. If it were colour you'd be easier to pick :-)
    I am very excited about getting back to read thoroughly. Thanks Jeanne.

  13. Ruby, I posted about Grandpa here:


    We are not together in the pic. There are two of me - one as a teen and one as an adult, one of dh and one of Jemimah as a toddler. The prize from my previous post is still out there. Tell the boys that if they get it right then they win the prize!!

    Good luck!

  14. Okay, you have hubby - who doesn't want to be named on my blog if that is alright. I am to the left of Marga (our pet name for my grandmother), near the baby. The lady to the right is my cousin, Bronwen.

    The little girl on the left is not Jemimah - it is her cousin who is very like her (in both looks and temperament. The two girls are best friends.) Try again there!

    Which of the girls two above Marga are you referring to?

    Yes, you can have another go.

  15. I read this last night, and I didn't want to say anything, but I could NOT figure out why you were so convinced that today would be the 11th. :)
    I woke up in the middle of the night with the blinding realization... oh, that's right! Time zones!
    Silly Americans.

  16. I have just recently discovered that I had a great uncle in the army in world war 1 and one who was in the navy during both world wars. I have posted pics on my blog today. It has given Jaden a whole new respect for what today means knowing he had ancestors who fought, none of my family made it into the movies though, that's awesome!!!

  17. Thanks so much for the links Jeanne. I really enjoyed reading through all that last night. (Totally over ran my computer time!) I am going to use some of it with the boys today. They love the movie (censored by dad) and are very fascinated by what I was telling them about your grand father.
    How'd I go on the faces?

  18. Hi Ruby, you're a clever girl with the faces I must say! I did send you an email lst night complimenting you! Did you get it?

  19. Sounds like a very moving book. I'll have to see if I can find it via Interlibrary Loan. Here we are very conceited about WWI [it's not the "Great War" here] The American take on it is often "We came, we saw, we conquered when the Brits couldn't." Stupidly untrue, but there you have it. Today I think all my son learned was WE [not the others] used Mustard Gas [evil chemical weapons]and that women weren't allowed to serve except behind typewriters and that blacks were not treated fairly. That's history today in America!

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