1917 Battle of Beersheba
A key battle in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I which a co-ordinated deception plan helped win
The battle of Beersheba is perhaps best known, not for the actual battle itself, but for the preparations, although a cavalry style charge by mounted infantry is still commemorated by the Australians to this day. The preparations involved a co-ordinated deception plan. This enabled the attacking force to have a ten to one superiority over the defenders.
Established in early 1916 the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was established with the aim of defending the Suez Canal and Egypt. It comprised both UK and Commonwealth troops under the command of Lt Gen Sir Archibald Murray. The Turks had invaded the Sinai Peninsula and threatened the Canal but by the start of 1917, they had been forced out of Sinai and the EEF was pushing northwards into Palestine.
Two attacks on Gaza, one in March and one in April 1917, failed to dislodge the Turks. Under Gen von Kressenstein the Turks commenced fortifying a line from Gaza to Beersheba and around Beersheba itself. Other than being the left flank of the Turkish defences, Beersheba had one other important attribute – water. There were a number of wells in the town.
Gen Sir Edmund Allenby, a veteran of the Western Front, replaced Murray in June 1917. Allenby was under some pressure from the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to provide Jerusalem as a ‘Christmas Present’ to boost morale all around. It was realised that another assault on Gaza would probably have the same lack of success. However, good EEF intelligence indicated that was what Kressenstein was expecting. One of Allenby’s corps commanders, Lt Gen Sir H Chetwode, suggested an attack on Beersheba, but only after a deception plan to convince the Turks that Gaza was still the main target. This set in train a number of activities.
Preparations continued in front of Gaza indicating the build-up for an attack. False radio traffic was also used to help with the deception. At the same time the supply lines and water pipelines were extended towards Beersheba. These initially had to be carried out at night and camouflaged in the day as the Royal Flying Corps had yet to establish air superiority over the area. Strong mounted reconnaissance patrols were carried in front of Beersheba to accustom the defenders to the presence of EEF horsemen in the area.
It was through these patrols that one of the most audacious plans was carried out – “The Haversack Ruse”. The plan was to let the Turks capture a haversack dropped by a fleeing EEF officer. The haversack, suitably bloodied, contained information indicating that Gaza was the main target with a start date in November; Beersheba was a diversionary attack; some cypher information to help the Turks read more of the false radio traffic. Also included, to make the loss of the haversack seem more accidental than deliberate, was the inclusion of personal items (letters etc.) and £20, a substantial sum in 1917. The Turks were seen to find the ‘lost’ haversack and carry it off. This was on 10 October 1917. Allenby had set the date for the attack as being on 31 October 1917.The deception activity by the EEF would mean that Bey received no further reinforcements.
Preparations for the attack began on 21 October 1917 when the troops of XX Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) left their positions in the Gaza area and moved eastwards. The DMC had furthest to go looping around to the south to come up on the eastern side of Beersheba. By the time the fighting started, the DMC’s animals had gone 24 hours without water. These moves were covered by extra activity in front of Gaza and on 27 October 1917 a bombardment of the Turkish positions around Gaza. To this was added bombardment by naval units offshore.
The battle for Beersheba started at about dawn on 31 October 1917 with a bombardment of the Turkish lines facing XX Corps. Progress was steady with fierce hand-to-hand combat taking place in the trenches. (Cpl John Collins won the Victoria Cross). In the east, elements of the DMC had moved around Beersheba and captured the road out leading to Hebron.
Initial progress was slow in the east. After some reinforcements had been committed and artillery moved up, the DMC captured the hill Tel as Saba. At around the same time the infantry had taken the Turkish first and second lines. However, by late afternoon no EEF forces were in Beersheba. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the trenches southwest of Tel as Saba did not have barbed wire in front of them. As dusk was falling, regiments of Australian Light Horse (mounted infantry) using bayonets as sabres charged these unprotected lines, captured them and continued into the town. The wells were captured intact. The EEF forces lost a total of some 170 killed whilst the Turks lost approximately 1000 killed with 1900 taken prisoner. Most of these were taken as a result of the charge by the Light Horse.
Having taken Gaza, Allenby was able to move his forces behind the Turkish lines. The Turks retreated northwards and Gaza was captured on 07 November 1917. By 09 December 1917, Allenby was in Jerusalem. Lloyd George had his ‘Christmas present’.