Victory for the Australian Light Horse came at a price

The courageous men of the Light Horse and their magnificent mounts

Perhaps the best qualities a writer can display in describing a battle long ago in a faraway place are those that tell the reader, in understandable terms, why the conflict was important, how it progressed, what the outcome, and to put it across without the overt nationalistic zeal employed by some authors. It’s fine to be proud of what our servicemen achieved, frequently against enormous odds, but misplaced patriotism detracts from the telling.

This is certainly not the case with David W Cameron. In his new book The Charge (and earlier works, including 25 April 1915, also available from Dymocks), the language he uses is descriptive, accurate, and lacking in excessive emotion or gratuitous chauvinism. He has a distinctive style and writing quality that provides the reader with a vision of the event such that one feels almost there. That it all happened long before writer or reader, I can provide no better descriptor of his ability.

The English pulled out of the Sinai in the early days of World War 1, withdrawing to the Suez Canal.  It was a mistake, allowing the Ottoman forces to threaten the essential waterway. Pushing the enemy back out again was, in a way, a costly exercise but it also provided lessons to the Australian Light Horse and others who were involved. The greatest problem to be faced, and around which the men and their steeds had to work, was the lack of potable water.

Some townships across the Sinai and into the Gaza Strip had wells but the water was bitter and brackish. It was unsuitable for human consumption, making the men sick. The horses could manage to drink it but even so, operations tended to be marginal. In the 50°C-plus temperatures, men could manage with as little as one litre a day but their horses, tough Walers used to hot and dry conditions in their native Australia, required at least twenty times that just to survive.

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The Charge, then, covers not only the final dash to victory but tells much about the climate and geographical layout of the Middle East. The objective was to force a way through the Gaza-Beersheba line, with great import placed on taking the heavily fortified Beersheba and saving its good quality water supplies. Once taken, it would open the way for the advance on Jerusalem and on to Damascus.

There were three attacks on Beersheba, the first two failing. The third, an outflanking manoeuvre began at dawn on 31 October 1917 but had not succeeded. Late in the day, with water levels desperate and not a lot of daylight remaining, the Australian Lt.-Gen. Chauvel ordered his 4th Light Horse to charge. Along with a simultaneous infantry attack, the surprise broke through Turkish defences. The sheer pace of the offensive overcame a stout defence, took more than 1000 Turks captive, and succeeded in saving the town’s water supply. It will remain in history as perhaps the last great cavalry charge.

A lot more effort was required but within a few months, Jerusalem was captured.

I know this is a review of The Charge but I’d like to mention that on the subject of Australians at war, David W. Cameron is now perhaps my favourite writer. He has written at least five books on the subject and I think it right to mention one other book he has written. Sorry, Lads, But The Order Is To Go is the saddest of sad records of the August offensive at Gallipoli. It, too, is available at Dymocks.

The Charge, by David W Cameron, is available from Dymocks. Click here for details.