Modified From Excerpt of Shattered Lives Broken Dreams: William Cooper and Australian Aborigines Protest Holocaust
Book by Barbara Miller
Uncle Boydie or Alf Turner is an Indigenous friend of Israel, as was his grandfather William Cooper. Also, many of the Cooper descendants are friends of Israel. His reason for visiting Israel in 2017 was to lay a wreath on behalf of Indigenous Australian soldiers at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Be’er-Sheva on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. He also visited England, Germany and Belgium.
We arranged that Uncle Boydie and his team of Abe Schwarz, David Jack and Uncle’s son Lance would meet us at Abraham’s Well in Be’er-Sheva on 30 October. Norman Miller, co-founder of the Indigenous Friends of Israel and the Centre for International Reconciliation and Peace, and I were leading an international team of fifty Christians to Israel. They were from Australia (including Indigenous), New Zealand, Asia-Pacific and the UK and we timed our tour to be there for the centenary commemorations at Be’er-Sheva. We had already been to Tel Be’er-Sheva, site of the original Abraham’s Well and where the patriarchs and founders of Israel lived – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is believed to be the ruins of Biblical Beersheba dating to the early Israelite period of the 10th century BC. It is a national park today, and the ruins are amazing. The original altar with its four horns is in the Israel Museum, so a replica stands at the gates to the National Park, and the original city gates and governor’s palace ruins feature in this world heritage listed area.
It was wonderful for our two groups to meet up at Abraham’s well International Visitors’ Center, and David took a photo. I was wearing my khaki felt Australian Light horsemen hat with its distinctive emu feather plumes. In an impromptu action, we held the Aboriginal flag with the Israel and Australian flags behind us. The Aboriginal flag has black on top representing Australian Aborigines, a yellow circle in the middle symbolising the sun and red below representing the red earth and Aboriginal peoples’ spiritual relation to the land. Lance is holding a copy of my 2012 William Cooper book, a handy reference. We watched an audio-visual and an interesting 3D presentation showcasing the life of Abraham. Images of desert sand were used to swallow up a scene and bring in another. The curtain then opened to reveal a huge circular stone well in the courtyard. We had moved from ancient images to the actual well right in front of us.
What is particularly intriguing to me is that the city of Be’er-Sheva was named after the oath that Abraham made with the King of the Philistines, Abimelech, so that Abraham’s people could live peacefully in the land and drink from the wells they dug. Be’er-Sheva means well of seven or well of oath. The oath or covenant was necessary following contention over the wells Abraham’s people dug, as water is very important in a desert. It was the first peace treaty between the Hebrews and the Philistines, and Abraham’s son Isaac made a similar treaty here with Abimelech.
What is also very interesting is that the wells of the patriarchs of Israel are the ones the Australian light horsemen saved from destruction by the Germans on 31 October 1917 (World War 1). In doing so, they brought a breakthrough that paved the way for the liberation of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire on 11 December 2017 by Allied Forces. The Ottomans had ruled it for 400 years, and it variously changed hands between Muslims and Christians in the centuries before that, always maintaining a Jewish presence.
On 2 November 2017, the Balfour Declaration by Britain approved the setting up of a national home for the Jews in what was then called Palestine. In 1922, the League of Nations approved the rule of Palestine by the British Mandate. After a contentious rule, the Mandate ended, and Israel declared itself a state in 1948. This resulted in war with its Arab neighbours in which Israel was miraculously victorious. The City of David, as Jerusalem is also called, was the capital of Israel 3,000 years ago under the rule of King David. Because of its chequered history, it is a city in contention still today.
Battle of Be’er-Sheva Centenary
But why the high-level attendance at the Battle of Be’er-Sheva centenary in Israel by the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and wife Chloe along with New Zealand’s Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy? Naturally, the Prime Minister of Israel Benyamin Netanyahu and wife Sara and a high-level British contingent were present. It is because Australians and New Zealanders had a key role in this battle under British command. Known also as the Third Battle of Gaza, Australian journalist Paul Daley writes about it:
“The British – including mounted infantry of the 1st Australian Imperial Force – had twice failed, in the bloodiest of circumstances, to take Gaza in early 1917. Now under the ultimate command of British General Edmund Allenby (who’d been ordered to deliver Jerusalem to his prime minister, David Lloyd George, by Christmas 1917) the British imperial troops – including New Zealanders, Australians, English and Scots – were sent in to break the line at Beersheba rather than Gaza.
Beersheba held the key to Jerusalem, and all that lay beyond – Gaza, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, the Jordan, the Plains of Megiddo (biblical Armageddon), Damascus, Homs and Aleppo in Syria – which would, within a year, be taken by the largest column of mounted troops to traverse these lands since Alexander the Great, this time under the command of Australia’s General Harry Chauvel.”
The Allied Forces made a surprise attack at dawn with the infantry divisions of the British XX Corps attacking from the south and south-west. By mid-afternoon, neither the infantry attacks from the south or the Anzac Mounted Division’s attack from the east had succeeded in capturing Beersheba though they had artillery and air support. Men and horses had not had water for over 24 hours, and the wells had to be taken by nightfall, or they might perish in the desert.
In a desperate measure, General Harry Chauvel told Brigadier General William Grant to charge over 6,000 metres of open ground straight at the Turkish guns. The 4th and 12th brigades of the Australian Light horsemen charged about 4.50 pm. It became known as the last great cavalry charge in history, though they were mounted infantry. One Australian digger (soldier) who was there described it vividly, “evoking the luminous sunset, the miasma of dust, the wild panting of the horses and screamed obscenities of their riders, the sounds of whizzing rifle rounds, hacking machine guns and thousands of hooves” as the Australian light horsemen galloped towards the Turkish trenches.
German planes dropped bombs on the light horsemen as the British artillery protected them from the Turkish machine guns and artillery firing from the trenches. The pungent smell of gunfire filled the air, and the horses’ nostrils flared as these “madmen” charged the guns in a frontal attack. The Light horsemen had no swords, but they had bayonets, guns slung over their shoulders. The Turks expected them to dismount and fight, but they just kept coming. They rode so fast the Turks were not able to adjust the sights on their machine guns quickly enough, and they were overrun in the trenches with fierce hand-to-hand fighting while some light horsemen kept going to stop the Ottomans who were about the blow up the wells.
The smell of water kept the frenzied horses leaping the trenches into the town where the light horsemen could see the minaret in the dying sunlight. Thirty-one Australians died, and hundreds of Turks died with a large number of Turks captured as they retreated. While the charge was critical to the success of the Battle of Beersheba, it could not have occurred without the Allied Forces valiantly fighting all day under British command. The Ottoman forces at Tel El Saba resisted the ANZAC Mounted Regiments’ attempts to take their position of high ground until after 2.30 in the afternoon when they were successful. This prevented the light horsemen being picked off from high ground as they made their famous charge. Mostly New Zealanders, with some Australians, their brave stand is becoming more recognised:
“It took nearly six hours of fighting before the Auckland Mounted Rifles managed to capture the first enemy position. Two or three machine guns were taken, along with 60 prisoners. The machine guns were turned around and used to good effect on the Turks. The “Aucklands” (as they were known) were joined by the Wellington Mounted Rifles and with bayonets fixed they charged up the hill on foot … 25 Turks were killed and another 132 taken prisoner. Eight New Zealanders (mainly Aucklands) died, and 26 were wounded.”
The day’s victory was a defining moment that spelled the beginning of the end of the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Gaza fell a week later and Jerusalem on 9 December 1917 with General Allenby entering Jerusalem on foot out of respect for the Holy City two days later. Among the mounted units to accompany Allenby were the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment and a New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade made up of representatives of the Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington units.
Uncle Boydie realised that he was taking part in a momentous moment in world history, not just Australian history, with this centenary commemoration. He looked out of the window of the car as he travelled to the ceremony. The trees were in darkness, and the sun was rising in the distance, turning the blue sky shades of pale orange. It seemed as if a ray of the sun reached out and touched his window to welcome him. It would be a long tiring day but also an exhilarating one.
Our team had to be up around 4 am to get ready and travel from our kibbutz by bus to the ceremony. Norman and I had been to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery several times over the years and walked respectfully through the rows of graves and prayed there. We have had some very touching moments there. For Abe, Uncle Boydie, Lance, David and Manny, it was their first time and an awe-inspiring moment. Only Abe and Uncle Boydie had permits to enter, even though David and Manny had Israeli press passes. Today, it was different as a large, sheltered stadium provided seating for the huge crowd from around the world. We caught up with teams of other Australians there and local Israelis that we knew like Howard and Randi Bass from Be’er-Sheva and others from around Israel.
The haunting sounds of the didjeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument like a trumpet, pierced the air as David Hudson, my cousin, played it as part of the official welcome. David had painted his face for the occasion. We took a quick photo with him afterwards wearing our slouch hats. I had already wrapped the Australian flag around me while Norman had the Aboriginal flag over his shoulder. The rows of headstones stood silently behind us as the high-rise buildings in the distance looked on.
As the official speeches began, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had on his mind that hours earlier, the Israeli military blew up a ‘terror tunnel’ running from Gaza into Israel that Hamas fighters could have used to infiltrate Israel. He related it to the current commemoration:
“We saw here in Be’er Sheva 800 cavalry go against 4000 embedded Turks with machine guns, with bunkers. The few won against the many. That’s the spirit of the army of Israel. It stands today,” he told the 2000-strong crowd of dignitaries, direct descendants and members of the public at Beersheba War Cemetery.
“We set out a simple policy. We seek peace with all our neighbours, but we will not tolerate any attacks on our sovereignty, on our people, on our land, whether from the air, from the sea, from the ground or below the ground.”
Netanyahu also spoke movingly that Abraham had come here nearly 4,000 years ago and 100 years ago, the ANZACS, the Aussies and Kiwis “liberated Be’er Sheva for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history.” He said that as they liberated various cities in the Holy Land, they knew “they were retracing the steps of the heroes of the Bible; they were stepping on Bible verses, and they knew it”. He concluded that Israel will never forget the sacrifice of these brave soldiers and will forever honour them.
Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, related some humorous incidents among the seriousness of it all and also recounted how aware the diggers were that they were in the Holy Land and how the stories in the Bible came to life for them. He didn’t go so far as to say it, but some evangelical Christians from Australia and New Zealand say that some of the light horsemen knew they were fulfilling Biblical prophecy of the restoration of Israel:
“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’.”
There was a wreath-laying ceremony and the Prime Ministers of Israel and Australia and the Governor-General of New Zealand, all dressed in varying shades of dark blue suits, laid wreaths together. Many followed. Norman and I laid a wreath of red and white flowers for the Centre for International Reconciliation and Peace, and then Uncle Boydie laid one of orange flowers for Indigenous Australian soldiers. Australian soldiers stood to attention while we did this in front of rows of the official party which consisted of diplomats, high-level army officers, members of the Knesset and the Mayor of Be’er-Sheva.
As we waited for our buses, the Australian riders, dressed in the uniforms of the light horsemen, some descendants of the original riders, and some Indigenous, rode past. You could almost touch the horses with their swishing tails and proud riders. The crowd was in awe of this magnificent sight. We had lunch at the Old Turkish railway station which has been turned into a museum/tourist attraction.
The 250,000 crowd then gathered at the site of the original charge for the re-enactment. We gave Uncle Boydie and delegation a ride in our bus to the hill overlooking the charge. It took a long time to get through all the security barriers. Talk about horses chafing at the bit. I think we were all chafing at the bit to try to get a good view of the horses and riders. With palm trees in the distance, the riders emerged, slowly gaining pace, dust flying up. It was what the riders and people had been waiting for, and no one was disappointed. Instead of a charge, they did a canter, looming larger and larger as they rode over the dry ground. The crowd, straining to see every moment of this historic event, saw the light horsemen ride into history again. The atmosphere was electric, and the excitement gave way to cheers and clapping. David captured the moment on camera and a lot of people videod it on their mobile phones, straining to get a good view.
But there was still more with the Beersheba ANZAC Memorial Center opened in the presence of the Israeli and Australian Prime Ministers, the New Zealand Governor-General and Be’er-Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich. Peter Smaller, President and Dan Springer, CEO of JNF Australia, which donated most of the funds to build the memorial center, were present also. The building, built within the precinct of the British war cemetery, looks like a horse head, commemorating tens of thousands of horses that served and died throughout the war.
A small collection of war memorabilia from the battle sites is stored there, and Norman and I were privileged to first see these items in 2003 when they were stored at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. When Norman and I visited Be’er-Sheva in 2003 under the leadership of Jill Curry, those interested in an ANZAC museum like Ezra Pimentel, Vice Chairman of the Society for the Heritage of World War One in Israel and Avi Zakai, a businessman, thought that the Be’er-Sheva railway station could be turned into an ANZAC museum. It is a project that Australians like Jill Curry and Kelvin Crombie and Israelis like Ezra Pimentel and the Be’er-Sheva Municipality have been working on for years. So, it was good that the centenary provided the impetus for its completion on a new site and JNF provided the bulk of the funds.
Two other features of the day were a memorial ceremony for the Ottoman Turkish soldiers at the monument of the Turkish soldier. Norman and I laid a wreath there in the 2010 ceremony but not in 2017 as logistics were more difficult. There was also a memorial ceremony for New Zealand soldiers in Tel Be’er-Sheva (Tel es Sabe). We had earlier taken our New Zealand team to significant areas for them at Rishon LeZion near the battle of Ayun Kara, the memorial at Ness Ziona and the cemetery at Ramle.
The ANZAC Trail
The ANZAC Trail from the coast retraces the cavalry’s three-day path to the Battle of Be’er-Sheva. Our tour group and others followed this trail by bus before the centenary commemorations. Even a mountain bike trail ride, as well as the Australian horse riders, rode the ANZAC Trail, and this is captured in a film by Australian producer Judy Menczel and Israeli producer and bike ride organiser Danny Hakim. Called “Ride Like An ANZAC,” the bike ride has become a yearly event with Israelis, Australians and others participating. Former Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma rode in 2017, and the current Australian Ambassador to Israel, Chris Canaan, rode in 2019. Despite the rocket fire in 2019, it went ahead.
The centenary events ended with a ceremony and BBQ at the Park of the Australian Soldier built by the Pratt Foundation where there is a statue of an Australian Light horseman. Made by Australian sculptor Peter Corlett, it was unveiled on 28 April 2008 by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Australia’s Governor-General Major General (ret) Michael Jeffery.
There were many moving moments for Norman and I and our team and we were privileged to take an international team, including Indigenous Friends of Israel, to these historic events.Share this article