The centenary of the charge of Beersheba created enormous interest in Israel.
I estimate some many millions of shekels were spent on preparation for the event. With grandstands, field preparations, streets adorned with banners and flags of Australia, New Zealand and Israel, not to mention the enormous cost of security with the Prime Ministers of Australia and Israel and countless VIP’s present.
While on the subject of flags, we did get some criticism from the ABC Insiders program, surprise, surprise, for carrying the Israeli flag during our ride. However we carried the Israeli flag with pride, out of respect for our host Nation and its great support for our event. In addition, it symbolised something of the special relationship between our two nations and our unique shared history. I must say though other ABC coverage was excellent.
Our journey was publicised as a “ride for peace” and our tour “in the steps of the Light Horse” took us through the length and breadth of Israel. We had a contingent of Kiwis with us and acknowledged their role in the battle for Jaffa at Ayun Kara and Tel El Saba.
Peace for Israel means security and we must stand with all our might for its right to exist
We also gave recognition to the Aboriginal Troopers of WW1 at Tzemach. Here we collaborated with JNF to host a ceremony at the Turkish Railway Station where Aboriginal Troopers had been prominent in that engagement. Around 500 attended including the Australian Ambassador and senior DVA representatives, it was a remarkably moving occasion. Ten riders made up of “white and black” Australians stood guard over the ceremony that proceeded with much emotion.
The Perth Hills and Wheatbelt band provided wonderful music, including a special song for the occasion called “The Railway at Semak”, written by band leader Peter Hind.
The chorus line runs;
‘They came from many backgrounds Great riders white and black united By a brown slouch hat.”
There were 178 in our group including 100 riders. Kelvin Crombie was our accompanying historian and gave some amazing insights to the campaign and the geopolitics surrounding it.
We worked closely with the Society for the Preservation of WW1 History in Israel. They scouted out the route through the desert for us following the same route as our boys in 1917. They arranged permits and concerts with local inhabitants and school children along the route, it was a great partnership.
After leaving the WW1 staging point at Shellal we travelled about 60 kms over three days, through the desert and wadis camping out along the route the Australians took one hundred years ago.
The service at the Beersheba CWGC cemetery both Prime Ministers gave moving addresses, Netanyahu was particularly powerful and I had the pleasure of meeting him and hearing from him how much he believed our visit had achieved.
The great highlight was the parade through the city, for a couple of kilometres tens of thousands of Israelis lined the streets waving flags and cheering, I will never forget the sight. The emotional welcome we received indicated to me Israelis were now understanding the modern history of Israel didn’t begin in 1948 but in 1917! There were many tears along that route.
The charge re-enactment later in the afternoon was delayed because of security concerns and we had to proceed at a walk. However it was in keeping with the “ride for peace” that we walked in this time instead of charging.
Kelvin addressed the crowd with his thought provoking subject ‘Beersheba more than just a military victory’. I gave the final address finishing with a quote from the great advocate of peace Dr Martin Luther King:
“Peace for Israel means security and we must stand with all our might for its right to exist, it’s territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, a marvellous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood.”
Rapturous applause followed the statement, truly a remarkable time.
A Jewish woman came up to me later with tears in her eyes and said “you have touched our soul.” To me that was enough, more than enough.