“ With bayonets drawn, they charged the town, they were a fearsome sight
But they had fulfilled their orders, they took the town by night”
From the poem “The Wells of Beersheba” by Warren Eggleton
105 years ago during World War I, British, Australian, New Zealand, French and Empire troops stormed ashore at Gallipoli in western Turkey on 25th April. The plan was to seize control of the strategic Dardanelles Strait and open the way for their naval forces to attack Constantinople, the capital of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. The campaign failed. The Turks never succeeded in driving the Allied troops back into the sea, and the Allies never broke out of their beachhead. After eight months of bitter fighting the peninsula was evacuated in December 1915.
On 25th April, each year ANZAC Day (the acronym ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) is commemorated in Australia and New Zealand with marches and ceremonies, even though the Allies were defeated. This year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ANZAC Day will not be publicly celebrated, for the first time since 1916.
Ironically Australia’s first great World War I victory, the Charge of Beersheba that ended the Battle of Beersheba is barely remembered or celebrated. It is considered history’s last great cavalry charge and provides some great lessons for managers.
Beersheba (now Be’er Sheva, in modern-day Israel) is situated in desert terrain and was a strategically important town. Here the Allied advance into Palestine was blocked as it was protected by over 4,000 well-armed Ottoman Empire troops in trenches. Beersheba an important transport hub had water wells that were vital in the desert for both men and horses.
The battle for Beersheba began at dawn on 31st October 1917 when the British infantry began attacking with artillery and air support combined with infantry attacks. By mid-afternoon the British had failed to capture the town. The situation had become serious – horses and men needed water. In the late afternoon, looking at a potential defeat the order was given to the Australian Light Horse to charge the Turkish trenches protecting the town. 800 mounted Light Horsemen, armed with bayonets not cavalry sabres, charged over 6 kilometres of open ground towards Beersheba. Initially the Turks opened fire with shrapnel. This was ineffective against the widely spaced horsemen. They then used machine guns. which were quickly silenced by British artillery. The charge caught the Turkish defenders off guard. They failed to allow for the speed of the charge and had little time to recalibrate their weapons for close range fighting. The Light Horsemen, whose horses could apparently smell the water, jumped over the trenches. Some men dismounted and attacked the enemy with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Others galloped ahead and captured the town and its vital water wells.
If the Allies had failed, over 60,000 troops would have been stranded in the desert without water. If they didn’t prevail, men and their horses who had already been without water for two days faced dying of thirst. It was also the first major victory for the British army over the Turks in World War I. More importantly, the Battle of Beersheba was a precursor to capturing the city of Gaza. The city barred the way north to the important cities of Jerusalem and Damascus. Within a week Gaza fell, and the Allies marched north routing the Turkish troops. The campaign to secure the Sinai Peninsula ensured the Suez Canal remained open to Britain and its allies and led to the collapse of the 400 year old Otterman Empire.
So, what are the lessons for managers from the Charge of Beersheba?
Here are three lessons, that as managers we can learn from the Charge of Beersheba.
- 1. A leader needs to be flexible. The Australian commander, General Chauvel had planned to make a dismounted attack on Beersheba but as evening approached, ran out of time. The alternative was to make a cavalry charge. The traditional strategy was to dismount and attack with rifles from a distance. In the open desert this would have made the Light Horsemen vulnerable to shrapnel and machinegun fire. Clearly a different approach was required so a new strategy was devised. The Light Horse attacked like a cavalry unit, with bayonets in their hands like sabres, thereby catching the Turks by surprise. Their speed and determination outweighed their limitations of protection and weapons.
- Planning. There is no substitute for sound planning. Fighting a war in a desert required careful planning as Beersheba was surrounded by desert. This posed obvious logistics challenges for moving troops and equipment, particularly mounted troops. British army engineers established forward supply dumps of water and reopened wells that had been blocked by the Turks. This secured sufficient water for the troops and horses as they moved across the desert. Although the town was protected by a system of trenches, there was no barbed wire on one side because the Turks believed they would not be attacked through the desert from the southeast. The British-led forces, by careful planning and doing their homework proved this to be a false assumption. Logistics planning and doing your homework is critical whether in warfare or in business
- People. Success in any organisation depends hugely on the quality of the people. The importance of experience and training is critical. Many of the Light Horse men involved in the Charge of Beersheba were battle hardened from fighting on the beaches at Gallipoli, and most were tough Australian bushman who were experienced horsemen and used to tough living conditions having also trained extensively in Egypt for desert fighting before the Palestine campaign. The Turks led by German officers, were poorly trained as evidenced by them failing to set their rifle sights correctly and not being able to adjust to the changing circumstances.
What do you think the management lessons from the Charge of Beersheba are?
If you are in Australia or New Zealand on ANZAC Day please don’t forget to remember the sacrifices made by service men and women in your country’s defence.
Note: if you are interested in reading about this event in more detail, I would recommend reading the following books:
Paul Daley, Beersheba, Melbourne University Press, 2009
Roland Perry, The Australian Light Horse, Hachette Australia, 2009