The New Zealanders and The Capture of Beersheba - 31 October 1917
The Anzac Mounted Division was ordered to leave Asluj at 6 p.m. on 30 October, and march to a position east of Beersheba. From there it was to cut the Hebron road between Tel el Sakaty and Tel el Saba and seize both hills. The Australian Mounted Division was to be prepared to advance into Beersheba, or assist the Anzac division.
The New Zealanders departed Esani at 5 p.m. on 28 October, bound for Khalasa. The men reached their destination at 9.30. After a day’s rest, the New Zealanders rode from Khalasa to Asluj, arriving at 9.30 p.m. on 29 October. Behind them, the Australian division rode to Khalasa. Allenby’s great concentration was complete by dawn on 30 October, which was a rest day for the 10,300 horsemen of the Anzac and Australian mounted divisions.
At 9 a.m. on 31 October, after an all-night march, Chaytor sent the 2nd LH Brigade cantering towards Tel el Sakaty to cut the Hebron Road and to protect the division from counter-attack from the north. The light horsemen successfully cut the road and captured the lightly defended tel, but they were unable to secure the hills to the west.
Tel el Saba, allocated to the NZMR Brigade, proved to be a much more difficult nut to crack. It was defended by about 300 Turks whose role was to protect eight machine guns that dominated the wadi and the flat land along its banks. The New Zealand brigade began its assault on Tel el Saba at 9.10 a.m. on 31 October 1917. The Canterbury regiment was ordered to cross Wadi Khalil and envelop the hill from the north, while the Aucklands attacked directly from the east. The Aucklands (as they were known colloquially) slowly advanced on foot, under covering fire from Vickers machine guns. The advance slowed to a crawl, and casualties mounted. The light shrapnel shells of the Somerset Battery were practically useless against the entrenched Turks and Germans, and the enemy machine guns were difficult to spot. At 11 a.m. Chaytor ordered the commander of his reserve 1st LH Brigade to send two regiments and a battery into the fight; at 1.30 p.m. Chauvel ordered Major General Hodgson to place one of his brigades and two artillery batteries at Chaytor’s disposal.
The 1st LH Brigade captured the blockhouses on the southern bank of Wadi Saba and turned the machine guns in them against the main enemy position. To the north, the Canterbury regiment crossed Wadi Khalil and threatened Tel el Saba from the north, but long-range fire from the hills overlooking the Hebron Road stopped them from reaching the tel. This support allowed the Aucklands to get very close to the first enemy position. Two or three machine guns and 60 prisoners were taken at 2.40 p.m. The guns were immediately turned around and used against the main defensive position. Twenty minutes later the Aucklands, reinforced by a WMR squadron and a light horse squadron, completed the job by charging the tel itself. As they clambered up the steep slopes, a number of fleeing Turks were shot down as they ran. 132 prisoners were taken, along with four Maxim machine guns and a camp cooker. Twenty-five Turks lay dead on the tel. Enemy aircraft and artillery bombed and shelled the tel and its environs for the next two hours. Eight NZMR Brigade men were killed and 26 wounded on 31 October, almost all from the AMR. Six horses were killed and 19 wounded.
Chaytor immediately ordered the 1st and 3rd LH brigades (the latter from Hodgson’s division) to advance immediately on foot to the northern outskirts of Beersheba, but they were hotly opposed and made little progress. The capture of Tel el Saba had removed the main enemy position dominating the eastern approach to Beersheba but the day was far advanced and the town and its vital wells were still in Turkish hands. With the sun almost setting, there was little time left to capture Beersheba.
General Chauvel had always intended to use the Australian Mounted Division for the assault into Beersheba, using a standard dismounted attack, but that was now out of the question. Instead, the 4th LH Brigade was ordered to lead a mounted charge into Beersheba, followed by the 5th and 7th Mounted brigades. Grant’s two leading regiments were ordered to carry their bayonets in their hands as they rode. The horsemen were ready to go at 4.30 p.m., just before sunset. They set off at a trot until the squadrons had spread out and settled, then they increased the pace to a canter. The last two kilometres or so were ridden at the gallop. At the first trench line, the 4th ALH Regiment killed 30 to 40 Turks before the survivors surrendered. Further south, small groups of men from the 12th regiment killed about 60 Turks, while the rest of the regiment galloped straight on for the town. Seeing the town invaded by these Australians, the Turks abandoned their defences and attempted to flee without stopping to destroy most of the wells. The New Zealanders moved forward from Tel el Saba to the edge of Beersheba, reaching it by 6 p.m. Half-an-hour later, Beersheba was firmly in the hands of the Desert Mounted Corps.
The DMC captured more than 1500 Turks in the day’s fighting. The entire DMC lost 53 men killed and 144 wounded. Although all the wells in Beersheba were prepared for demolition, the speed of the Australian charge had not given the German engineers enough time to destroy more than two of them before they were captured or chased off. Two reservoirs holding about 410,000 litres of water were taken intact. The water in Beersheba, plus a few pools of rainwater in surrounding wadis, seemed to be enough to meet nearly all of the needs of the forces around Beersheba.
The above notes are summarised from Terry Kinloch's new book, 'Devils on Horses: In the Words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-19' (Exisle, 2007).