Speech at the Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba Commemorations  - Israel

October 31, 2017

Tuesday, 31 October 2017



Well thank you very much and Bibi thank you so much for your warm address and your warm welcome. Thank you, joining us here with Sara and the leaders of Israel. Thank you to the Governor-General of New Zealand representing our Kiwi brothers and sisters and of course, I'm here with Dan Tehan, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the Minister Assisting me on Cyber Security, which has been a key priority of his visit here. Lucy and I are joined by Bill Shorten and Chloe Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition and his wife and so many other Australian parliamentarians.

The leaders of our three nations are here assembled and we are here assembled because we are honouring an extraordinary battle, an extraordinary campaign, which made history, which fulfilled history.

A tale of incredible courage, of men and horses. Horses that came, many of them, from a part of New South Wales that Lucy and I know very well; the Hunter Valley. Indeed the horses were called Walers, I think there’s some of the Murrurundi team up there, I reckon. A few Haydons in the stands, I would say.

And the horses you know, the horses were as legendary as the men that rode them.

Bill the Bastard - that was a horse, that was a horse, I hasten to add - he was un-rideable. He was a rogue and one Michael Shanahan managed to ride him, managed to break him in. After he was wounded at the Battle of Ramadi, Bill the Bastard returned Shanahan to the Australian lines, carried him back, returned him - so legend says - not to the medical officer, but to the vet.


And then of course, Guy Haydon, who like so many of the young Australian bushmen, came with his own horse, Midnight, who was killed at the Battle of Beersheba, leaping over a Turkish trench. The Turk fired up through the horse, wounding and killing the horse, killing Midnight and wounding Guy Haydon. But so much courage from these animals.

You know, I recall as a young boy listening to the First World War stories of my grandfather who was not in the Light Horse, I hasten to add. He served on the Western Front, but one of the most bitter, heartfelt stories of those old soldiers was of the fact that the horses did not come home. Banjo Patterson who was also in the Light Horse, one of our greatest poets, wrote beautifully about that; the horses that didn't come home. Shooting the horses was, for so many of those men who had seen horrors beyond imagination, the worst moment of that war.

Now you mentioned Bibi that the soldiers knew that they were walking in lands filled with history and of course, it was a generation that was perhaps much more familiar with the Bible than perhaps our generation is. Every place was a household name. Mind you, there was a limit to how much biblical education one could absorb on campaign. One of the Troopers in the Light Horse Ion Idriess wrote a diary and turned it into a book, the Desert Column. He talks about a Bible enthusiast in his troop who was regularly giving them lectures about wherever they were. When they reached Ashdod, the Bible enthusiast became very, very, very motivated and he climbed on top of an empty German beer barrel. Idriess lamented that it was empty, of course with the Australians, it wouldn't have remained full for very long - but it was empty.

He told them the history of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron and just as he had got to the 29-year Siege of Psammetichus, Idriess concludes;

"A shell has just burst above The Bible enthusiast and he ended his lecture abruptly, five shrapnel bullets whizzed right through the barrel."

One gets the feeling he’d had enough history lessons. The battle of course, was in effect a defiance of the norm, a defiance of history.

The Australian Light Horse were not meant to fight on horseback; they were mounted infantry and they were to ride to the battle, dismount, one man would hold the horses, three others would go in and fight like infantry. But on this occasion, water was short, they had no choice. General Harry Chauvel ordered that afternoon that they had to charge and he said:

"Put Grant straight at it."

What William Grant and the men of the 4 and 12th Light Horse Regiments achieved that day was astonishing. They charged six kilometres into Turkish fire. Their determination was unstoppable.

Idriess wrote - who watched it, he was on an observation post – he said: 

"At a mile distance, their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man. They were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze, knee to knee and horse to horse, the dying sun glinting on bayonet points."

And he went on to say that:

“Captured Turkish and German officers have told us, they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by machine guns and artillery.”

‘The mad Australians,’ was a common description. Not so mad. Brave, heroic, turning the tide of history, making history, fulfilling history.

The horses, as I said, they were stock horses. Now, the Australian stock horse was looked down on by some of the English officers, we're told. They weren't purebreds, but Australian stock horses, as we know, are bred for their intelligence, their agility, their ability to work in all sorts of country and particularly from the Hunter Valley, in steep country, their ability to anticipate, often better at mustering than the stockmen that rides on them.

They are the best of horses, the most intelligent of horses and the most hardy of horses, as were the men that rode them.

This battle, you know, has become part of our history, part of our psyche. It is an extraordinary episode in our national story.

Imagine these young men, so far from home, out of the Australian Bush with their own horses, in a completely alien landscape, the only familiarity being the names of the places and that from their Bible lessons.

Of course, General Sir Harry Chauvel commanded the Desert Mountain Corps but it was his nephew Charles Chauvel that made an extraordinary movie in 1939, 40,000 Horsemen.

You can imagine, Bibi, how Australia, how isolated Australia felt in the Second World War; Hitler sweeping through Germany, Japan a looming threat. The protection of Mother England seemed a long way away.

40,000 Horsemen was a film that inspired a nation. It was a story of Australian victory, of courage, of determination and it etched this battle permanently in our national story.

As a young boy at boarding school in the early 1960s, I have to say we watched it again and again and again.

All of us imagined that we could be there, spurring our horses over the Ottoman lines, fighting all the way up through the lands of the Bible, taking Jerusalem, liberating Damascus.

As you know, that was done by a couple of Australian officers who got lost in the narrow streets, found their way to the town hall and being not particularly concerned about what orders they'd been given, promptly accepted the surrender from the Mayor.

Their feats will never be forgotten. Their memory will never fade. The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It's part of Australia. It always will be. This was the last great cavalry charge in history.

There were more men and horses in this charge than there were in the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was a bigger charge and it was successful. They spurred their horses through that fire, those mad Australians, through that fire and took the town of Beersheba, secured the victory. That did not create the State of Israel, but enabled its creation.

Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words.

But this was a step for the creation of Israel and with their courage...


It was. It was. And this, while those young men may not have foreseen, no doubt did not foresee the extraordinary success of the State of Israel, its foundations, its resilience, its determination, its indomitability against overwhelming odds, their spirit was the same. Like the State of Israel has done ever since, they defied history, they made history and with their courage they fulfilled history.

Lest we forget.



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