World War I victory overshadowed by defeat

Saturday, April 13, 2019

THE politicians are in Israel for the ceremony to mark the 100thanniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will take his place in thesolemn line-up, despite the chaos left behind after an historic High Court citizenship case that cost the Turnbull government dearly.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is in Israel, too. He wasted little time after landing in Jerusalem to take a swipe at the Prime Minister for the citizenship chaos. Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan tried to settle the argument, but his comment that “This sort of thing happens all the time” probably didn’t help.

A search of Hansardfrom Federal Parliament in Australia’s earliest years as a nation shows political debate has not changed a great deal in 100 years. But Australia has changed, which is why it is interesting to consider our extraordinary fascination with warsand our involvement with them.

A majority of Australians had most likely not heard of the Battle of Beersheba before we embarked on a four-year, $600 million commemoration of World War I.

Gallipoli was the Turkish campaign that captured public attention and redefined Anzac Day, for many, as a symbol of Australian male courage under fire. For servicemen, though, it was the campaign that had them openly challenging the glorification of war.

It is a wonder why the Battle of Beersheba, with its dramatic charge by two Australian Light Horse units on a Turkish stronghold, was not better known or commemorated.

It was, after all, the battle that prompted British General Edmund Allenby to thank the Australians in a letter that ended: “Such a complete victory has seldom been known in all the history of war.”

In Israel, at Beersheba, there will be a re-enactment of that famous charge that started at 4.30pm and ended with the town of Beersheba falling. It is credited with changing the course of history because of subsequent events that were pivotal to establishment of the state of Israel.

Commemorations are political. The relationship between Australia and Israel is a cause of celebration for some, concern for others. But even in Israel the reality of what was at stake for those young men on that autumn afternoon will almost certainly hit home, despite the pageantry.

Back in Australia that reality finds proof in weathered graves now a century old –that young men died while fighting for others.

Issue: 38,636.