Battle of Beersheba, 31 October 1917

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The battle of Beersheba, 31 October 1917, was the first part of the wider third battle of Gaza (31 October- 7 November 1917). The British had already launched two unsuccessful attacks on the Turkish position at Gaza (First battle of Gaza, 26-27 March, Second battle of Gaza, 17-19 April), and since then the Turkish defences at Gaza had been greatly strengthened. The new British command in Egypt, General Allenby, adopted a plan that was already in place on his arrival, for an attack beyond the Turkish left, at Beersheba.

The main Turkish defensive line ended at Kauwukah, ten miles to the north west of Beersheba. There was a simple reason for this. The countryside to the west and south of Beersheba was entirely waterless. Any attacking force would have to carry its own water, and be confident that it could capture Beersheba in a single day, for the only water in the area was within the town. The biggest danger was that the Turks might have time to destroy the wells within Beersheba, forcing the attacking force to retreat back towards its water supplies.

The Turkish defences of Beersheba were strongest towards the south and west. There they had a line of trenches, protected by barbed wire, supported by strong redoubts, all constructed along a ridge. To the north and east the defences were much weaker, and crucially lacked any wire. No serious attack was expected from the area of rocky hills east of the town. Beersheba had just been designated as the headquarters of a new Turkish Seventh Army, but on 31 October that army had not yet come into being. The town was defended by 3,500-4,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry with four batteries of artillery and fifty machine guns.

Allenby allocated a very powerful force to the attack on Beersheba. Three infantry and two cavalry divisions would take part in the attack. Two of the infantry divisions were to attack against the main Turkish defences, to the south west of the town, to tie down the Turkish garrison. The third division was to protect against any Turkish reinforcements arriving from the north-west. Meanwhile, the two divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps (Anzac Division and Australian Division) were sent around the town to the east, with orders to sweep into the town through the weaker eastern defences.

The infantry attack proceeded entirely according to plan. The bombardment began at 5.55am, and lasted, with one gap, until 8.30. Over the course of the day the Turks were slowly forced out of their strong defensive positions, the last of which fell at around 7 p.m. The attacking infantry suffered 1,200 casualties during the battle.

At 9.00 am the Desert Mounted Corps was ready to attack the eastern defences of Beersheba. The New Zealand Brigade of the Anzac Division soon ran into a problem. The Turks had a strong defensive position at Tel es Saba, a steep sided flat topped hill three miles east of the town. The battle to capture the Tel took up all of the morning and much of the afternoon, and did not end until 3 p.m.

General Chauvel then decided to take something of a gamble. The delay at Tel es Saba threatened to prevent the capture of Beersheba before dark. Rather than continue with the methodical plan of attack, Chauvel ordered one of his reserve brigades, the 4th Australian Light Horse, to mount a direct assault on Beersheba. They had the ideal terrain for a cavalry charge – a long gentle slope running down into Beersheba. It was defended by two lines of trenches, but crucially not by barbed wire.

The attack soon developed into a classic cavalry charge. The 4th A.L.H. simply galloped over two lines of Turkish trenches. Part of the brigade then dismounted to attack the trenches, while the rest galloped on into Beersheba. There they found a Turkish column preparing to retreat. The sudden appearance of the Australian cavalry caused panic. Most of the 1,500 prisoners captured by the Desert Mounted Corps on 31 October were taken during the charge of the 4th A.L.H. The Australians suffered very light casualties during the charge of 32 killed and 32 wounded, most of them in the attack on the trenches east of Beersheba.

The capture of Beersheba, with its wells intact, allowed Allenby to continue with his wider plan. A night attack at Gaza on 1/2 November convinced the Turks that the attack on Beersheba had been a feint, although the Germans were more suspicious. A counterattack north of Beersheba did not distract Allenby, and on 6-7 November the Turks were forced out of the entire Gaza position.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 September 2007), Battle of Beersheba, 31 October 1917, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_beersheba.html

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