October 31, 2017 marks the centenary of one of the most famous battles in Australian military history: the charge by the 4th and 12th Regiments of the Australian Light Horse on Beersheba in Palestine, a small town in what is now the country of Israel.
From the Archives
“Put Grant straight at it.”
The above quote came from Old Sydneian and Major General Harry Chauvel to his regimental commander William Grant in the late afternoon for his regiment to attack the Turkish trenches holding the wells of Beersheba, so important for the allied advance in the region.
The description of the events leading up to and the battle are well covered in the book Chauvel of the Light Horse by (Major) Alec J Hill, himself an Old Sydneian who taught at Grammar from 1938 to 1940 and then from 1949 to 1965, commonly known to boys as ‘The Baron’. The book is a biography of Chauvel from boyhood to death and is an extremely absorbing and well-researched read, as you would expect if you knew ‘The Baron’.
It was an audacious plan to have these mounted infantry undertake what proved to be the last cavalry charge in a war where the use of a horse was overwhelmingly superseded. In the setting sun with Chauvel watching from his headquarters on a hill called Khashim Zanna east of the town, ‘… squadron after squadron in line swept into full view of the enemy, the men grasping their bayonets as if they were swords’. They faced artillery and rifle fire but fortunately the enemy did not adjust their rifle sights correctly towards the fast-advancing charge. ‘Over the Turks they went, leaping the two lines of deep trenches, and, dismounting on the farther side, flung themselves into the trenches…’ Dust and darkness quickly concealed the scene and it was not for half an hour that it was reported to Chauvel that Beersheba was his.
Following the charge were the stretcher bearers to assist the wounded, one of whom was another Old Sydneian – NSW and Australian Test cricketer Albert ‘Tibby’ Cotter. Cotter had joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment in April 1915 at the age of thirtytwo and was shipped out to Gallipoli where he languished until the final withdrawal on 20 December that year. The fearless job of the stretcher bearers was admired by the troops as they were exposed to enemy fire without defence, working in pairs. He gained a reputation for being courageous in the face of his job’s obvious challenges, with claims ‘he behaved in action as a man without fear’.
It was during the Beersheba attack that Cotter mysteriously died. The official account says he was ‘shot dead by a Turk at close range’; however, several other versions came out later from returned soldiers who gave a more glamourous description which authorities liked because it encouraged the ‘epic formula’ war story. What was he doing at close range? Was he close to the trenches? Was he the unfortunate victim of a haphazard bullet? Did a captured Turk pick up a rifle or revolver when an Australian was not paying attention? This would surely not have been acceptable.
Suffice to say, he died while performing his duty and how he died is how you choose to perceive him: hero, larrikin or fool. The photo of him lying in a row of dead the next day, half covered by a blanket is tragic, but probably as he would have liked – just another trooper among his mates.
Mr RJW Cattlin