Between the Lines: Charging into history

Historic charge: The 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse rode into history at Beersheba 100 years ago.
Historic charge: The 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse rode into history at Beersheba 100 years ago.

Just as April 25, 1915 changed everything for Australians, so the date of October 31, 1917 would come to mean extraordinary valour, heroics in the face of defeat, and downright unabridged nerve. It was the date that two regiments of the Australian Light Horse did something so unexpected that in defying all conventional warfare, they succeeded in obtaining a victory that they really had no right to.

Roy Wightman in 1916.

Roy Wightman in 1916.

In autumn 1917, the war in Europe was bogged down in the filth of the Western Front. However, in a theatre thousands of miles away, on another much drier continent, a heavily fortified town near Turkish-held Gaza, was the scene of an historic charge by the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse. The troopers there were after water, an element which many of the soldiers in Flanders would have given them gladly.

Arthur Adams from the Gunnedah region.

Arthur Adams from the Gunnedah region.

The attack was launched at dawn but late in the afternoon little headway toward the town and its very vital wells had been made. It was then that Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, and Brigadier William Grant commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, rode into history ordering the light horse units forward.

Upon their orders, troopers from two light horse units were ordered to charge at the Turkish trenches. There that day from the Gunnedah region were members of the NSW 12th Light Horse Regiment. They were, in civilian life, stockmen, boundary riders, and farmers, but on that day Charles Stafford, Rex Stanger, Thomas Hynes, and Godfrey Dempsey, as well as William Steinhauer, Roy Wightman, Arthur Adams and Robert Campbell formed part of the last great horseback charge in modern warfare.

Leslie Rex Stanger from the Gunnedah region.

Leslie Rex Stanger from the Gunnedah region.

The Daily Observer of November 6, 1917 gushed a warranted tribute: “The Australian mounted troops and the British Infantry had a … long fight. They displayed great endurance and great courage … the splendid infantry made long night marches attacking with … determination … and just as the moon rose over the Judea Hills the Australian Horse charged mounted against the strongly held trenches with fixed bayonets, overwhelming the Turks and galloping, cheering into the town.”

Just for once, in the case of this war, truth was stranger than any fiction or spin that the media could think up. Men on seething, but very flesh and bone horses, overwhelmed guns, cannon and steel, saving very needed water supplies and taking over 1000 Turkish prisoners. The Turks that had defeated Australians on the beaches in 1915 were, in their turn, defeated … and the retreat from Palestine had begun.