Eighteen-year-old Kate Woodward, wearing a band uniform and holding a shimmering gold alto-saxophone, stood at the side of a dirt field in Beersheba on Tuesday watching as 100 horses marched and kicked up a dust storm in front of the leaders of Israel, Australia and New Zealand.
“Amazing,” is how she summed up the experience.
Woodward, from Perth, is a member of the Perth Hills and Wheatbelt Band from western Australia that entertained an audience of some 5,000 people who gathered on grounds just outside the Nahal Beersheba Park to watch what was billed as a re-creation of the cavalry charge that took place at the exact same place 100 years ago – a historic cavalry charge by 800 mounted Australian soldiers that led to the defeat of the Ottomans at Beersheba and, ultimately, throughout the Holy Land.
It wasn’t really a re-creation, though.
The horses on Tuesday didn’t gallop, they walked; and nobody played the part of the Ottomans firing machine guns from the trenches at the horses and riders. But none of that detracted from Woodward’s enthusiasm.
“This is historic,” said Woodward. “It is important that we recognize the Australians that fought here. It is important that they get noted. They fought for us and we need to recognize them.”
Tuesday was that day of recognition.
The ceremony at Beersheba Park – a ceremony where Woodward’s band played songs like “Waltzing Matilda,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Hava Nagila,” – was the final event to commemorate the battle on a day that was full of commemorative events.
It began with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and New Zealand’s Governor-General Patsy Reddy taking part in a somber ceremony at the British Military Cemetery in Beersheba commemorating the 31 Australians and eight New Zealanders who died in that battle. The music, the prayers, the ceremony were all of a different place – Australia.
From there, the leaders went to initiate a new museum commemorating the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – and the spirit of ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand soldiers – in Beersheba. This “spirit of ANZAC” forged on World War I battlegrounds is what is taught in Australian schools, Woodward commented, and is more than any one battle.
A cavalry parade marched the streets of Old Beersheba, followed by a memorial ceremony for New Zealand soldiers at nearby Tel Sheva. A century ago, New Zealand soldiers cleared out an Ottoman machine gun strong-point at the site that had a commanding position over Beersheba.
The ceremony there included the chilling cries of a Maori war chant, the first time – Netanyahu said – that Maori was probably ever spoken in an official capacity at Tel Sheva.
From there, it was to the Beersheba park and the marching horses.
Foreigners far outnumbered Israelis at the event, leading one journalist to quip that this was sort of like the Maccabiah Games – important for Australian Jews, less so for Israelis.
Nevertheless, there were some Israelis in the stands, including Avraham Shoshan, a middle-aged man who said his interest in the Australian role here was aroused by a monument to ANZAC he once saw near Kibbutz Be’eri.
“I’m curious,” he said. “I came here out of curiosity and also for the atmosphere.”
Shoshan, a Beersheba resident, did not have to come far.
But this was not so for Russell Anderson, who traveled here from Perth.
Anderson, who is not Jewish, is part of a Jewish National Fund trip that is following in the footsteps of the 4th Light Horse Brigade.
“It is important for us to realize the role Australia played here,” said Anderson, an Australian flag sticking out of his front pocket.
“Gallipoli is well known,” he added, referring to the disastrous 1915-1916 campaign in which 11,000 Australians and New Zealanders were among the 58,000 Allied forces killed. “But what happened here is less known, and it was a victory.”