Last week on October 31st, Beer Sheva celebrated 100 years since the capture of the city by the British and ANZAC forces in 1917. And while the area around Beer Sheva was busy with streets closed, parades, thousands of visitors from Australia and New Zealand, and even a reenactment of the light horsemen’s charge, the event was scarcely remembered in the center of the country. A one-liner on the hourly news was almost all that the event garnered in the national press. Soon, on December 11th, we will mark 100 years since the British rule in Jerusalem, which will also be celebrated.
Echoing the disconnect between people in the center and in the periphery in Israeli society, the two events are seen as separate. Jerusalem doesn’t recall the Beer Sheva battle; and Beer Sheva has no idea how victory there led to British rule in Jerusalem. These two events are, in fact, intrinsically connected. In The Atlas of Palestine: 1917-1966 by Salman H. Abu-Sitta, the first section of the book on the British Mandate starts thus:
On the evening of October 31, 1917, with overwhelming force, the British army over-ran the small Turkish garrison in the town of Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the south and east. The attack had been expected from the west. The Turkish flag opposite the mosque was lowered and the Union Jack was raised. Thus ended 1400 years of Arab Islamic rule…. Beer Sheba was the key to Palestine at its southern gate. Palestine now lay open to British occupation.
Interestingly, Abu-Sitta does not even mention Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem. According to him, only because of the victory at Beer Sheva was the British mandate established. Beer Sheva was the turning point of the war in the Levant. After horrific losses in Gallipoli, the disheartened Commonwealth soldiers suffered 2 losses at Gaza. General Allenby replaced General Murray and breathed fresh air into the battle theater. His direct attack and victory at Beer Sheva would lead, finally, to conquest of Gaza and then Jaffa.
The possibility of threatening Jerusalem from the east via Hebron and from the west from Jaffa meant that the Ottoman line was stretched thin through mountainous terrain. Allenby decided to strike from the North and cut off the Jerusalem-Nablus road. This necessitated continuing on to el-Bireh through Shilta (Shilat), el-Burj (Givat Titura in Modiin), and Beit Ur El Tachta – Rt. 443 of today.
The fighting continued as a back and forth with a decisive battle happening on the plains below el-Burj. There, the Australian and New Zealand troops joined with the Scots who were stationed there. December 1, 1917 in the Judean hills was very different from Beer Sheva of October 31, 1917. Winter had set in and the rain was falling. (The Scots were still in their short knickers.) Added to the inclement weather, the British troops faced “storm troopers”, specially chosen and trained by the Germans. Only by sheer force of will and dedication did the British hold their fire when, “Allah hu achbar” was heard in the dark, cold silence. They waited until the Turks were at point-blank range and then opened fire. In the morning light the British troops prevailed and were able to advance up Rt. 443, cutting Turkish access to Jerusalem.
According to HS Gullett, an Australian War correspondent:
Had the enemy seized El Burj, the British would have been deprived of the use of the road leading up from Berfilya (on the western edge of Modiin), and the Beit Nuba (Mevo Horon) – Beit Sira valley would have become untenable. This would have weakened all the pressure towards the Nablus road, and exposed the left flank of the infantry which was making the main advance towards Jerusalem.
The same troops who first captured Beer Sheva were responsible for taking key positions on the road to Jerusalem. By learning the relationship between events, we can form a more complete picture of the true connectivity of all of the land of Israel – periphery as well as center.