BETWEEN speeches from politicians and ceremonial activities, it dawned on the thousands of people at the British War Cemetery in Beersheba during a moment of silence that they were standing on a battlefield.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, New Zealand Governor-General Patsy Reddy, dignitaries from across the world, Australian Jewish communal leaders and more than 3000 Australians attended the moving service on Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.
On October 31, 1917, the Australian Light Horse charged the Ottoman lines and smashed through it, which gave the British the upper hand in World War I.
“This battle,” Turnbull said, “has become part of our history, part of our psyche. It is an extraordinary episode in our national story.
“Imagine these young men, so far from home, out of the Australian bush with their own horses, in a completely alien landscape, the only familiarity being the names of the places, and that from their Bible lessons.
“Their feats will never be forgotten. Their memory will never fade. The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It’s part of Australia. It always will be. This was the last great cavalry charge in history.”
Turnbull said that had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Anzacs, the Balfour Declaration, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel, would have been empty words.
“While those young men may not have foreseen, no doubt did not foresee the extraordinary success of the State of Israel, its foundations, its resilience, its determination, its indomitability against overwhelming odds, their spirit was the same.
“Like the State of Israel has done ever since, they defied history, they made history and with their courage they fulfilled history.”
The commemoration included an official welcome from Australia’s Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan, and a wreath-laying ceremony for representatives from more than a dozen countries, including France, Germany, Hungary and India.
It also included the singing of the national anthems of Australia, Israel and New Zealand, and the Last Post, performed by Warrant Officer Class Two Rod Fry from the Australian Army.
Netanyahu thanked the Anzac soldiers, and their families, who fought and died in Beersheba.
“Nearly 4000 years ago, Abraham came to Beersheba,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.
“Exactly 100 years ago, brave Anzac soldiers liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history. The heroism of your fallen men will never be forgotten.”
Netanyahu said that when he joined the Israeli army he was taught about the ethos and courage of the Anzac soldiers because it was an example of spirit, fortitude, courage and a willingness to act in the defence of Australia’s people and Australia’s values.
“These are the values that guide us today as well. We saw here in Beersheba 800 cavalry go against 4000 embedded Turks with machine guns, with bunkers.
“The few won against the many.”
He added that a century on, Israel and Australia continue to stand on the right side of history.
“We stand for progress; we stand for peace; we stand for democracy,” Netanyahu said.
“We stand against tyranny and terror.
“Israel salutes the sacrifice of these brave soldiers. We will never forget them.”
Josh Sharp, who is currently in Israel on a gap-year program with Habonim Dror, told The AJN he felt it was a moving ceremony.
“It was pretty amazing that you could see the representatives from all the different countries across the world come together in the middle of the desert to commemorate a true link between Australia and Israel,” Sharp said.
“Since we arrived in Israel nine months ago we’ve had a lot of explanations about the battle.”