Captain Jack Davies: Beersheba Hero

Captain Jack Davies

Jack Davies was one of Scone’s and the Hunter Valley’s greatest heroes. His story was the stuff of legend. Jack Davies was born at Redbank, Scone in 1883. He was the youngest of three brothers after A L Davies and Dr Reginald Davies. His father J H Davies had extensive pastoral interests in the Hunter Valley and North West NSW. In 1908 Jack Davies married Mildred Lucy Traill at ‘Llangollan’, Cassilis. The couple lived first at ‘Yarrawa’, Mungindi and then moved to ‘Puen Buen’, Scone. Jack Davies was absent during WWII (see below) and disposed of Puen Buen in 1938. He and Mildred moved to neighbouring ‘Yarrandi’; the same property earlier owned by John Gould’s brothers-in-law the Coxens from Kent. In 1953 the Davies family relocated to ‘Underwood’, Uralla where with two younger sons they carried on their pastoral interests. Jack Davies died in 1956.

Jack Davies had always shown a keen interest in the army. He obtained his commission in the CMF at Duntroon in 1912 and enlisted in the 12th Light Horse on the outbreak of hostilities under Commanding Officer Col P P Abbott. In 1915 he moved to Egypt on the staff of General Chauvel. He participated in the battle of Romani plus several other engagements before returning to the Light Horse. He took part in the charge at Beersheba and was reputedly ‘the first man into the town’. He was promoted to Captain and then to Major before being awarded the MC by General Allenby in the field.

Returning to Egypt Jack took a safari trip through the Upper Nile in company with Col Don Cameron, W H (Bill) Mackay and Dr Clive Single. Jack Davies returned to Puen Buen after short furlough in England. He took a very keen interest in local affairs as Shire Councillor, Secretary of the Polo Club (27 years) and keen player, shooting, Commanding Officer of the 16th Light Horse Hunter River Lancers (following A A White) and assisting Mrs Davies with the CWA and Red Cross.

October 21 2017

http://www.smh.com.au/national/one-hundred-years-since-beersheba-australias-first-big-achievement-on-the-world-stage-20171003-gyt8hl.html

 

One hundred years since Beersheba, Australia’s first big achievement on the world stage

Little-known compared to Gallipoli, Beersheba was a make-or-break battle 100 years ago this month in the Allied campaign in World War I.

Jonathan King

It was October 1917, and Allied Forces had hit a brick wall.

Having driven the Turks back east from the Suez Canal and into Palestine by winning a series of battles since August 1916, they had been defeated so badly at the coastal fortress of Gaza that the War Cabinet sacked their commander-in-chief, Sir Archibald Murray.

Now Britain’s new commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, had arranged for fake battle plans to be lost from a saddlebag falling off a horse near the Turkish front line that claimed he was going to pretend to attack Beersheba from the south while in reality he would be attacking Gaza harder than ever. The Turks fell for it.

He was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, who had recently captured the Red Sea port of Aqaba by riding camels out of a desert wasteland to launch a surprise attack from behind. At Beersheba, 100 years ago this month, Allenby sent Australian Light Horsemen out into the waterless desert to skirt around the back of the town to attack from the east, knowing the Turks would never expect that – they had not even erected barbed wire defences there.

It was a make-or-break battle in the Allied campaign to defeat the Turks and dismantle the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Success depended on the Australians surviving for days, galloping across desert sands, leaping trenches and capturing Beersheba before sunset on October 31.

Beersheba, isolated and surrounded by rocky hills and outcrops at the foot of the Judean Hills, was the only town with water wells. If the plan failed, both horses and men could die from thirst. Commanded by veteran Turkish general Ismet Bey, Beersheba had 28 artillery guns, nine machine guns, two aircraft and 4400 men, including 1000 experienced riflemen.

World War I correspondent Charles Bean noted: “The Light Horsemen knew well that the fate of the battle – and probably the campaign in Palestine – depended on this charge; they also realised, that for the first time, Australian cavalry were actually to charge! For this time the Light Horse were to act purely as cavalry, although with only their bayonets as shock weapons. Australians had never ridden any race like this”.

In late October, the commander of the Desert Mounted Corps and skilled Boer War veteran Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel led his troopers 50 kilometres into the desert to ruined water wells at Asluj, which he repaired as their base. Lieutenant Philip Tod wrote:”We have orders to set out on an all-night ride in complete silence, even our stirrups and bridles are muffled. Rumour is we are to attack the Wells of Beersheba.” Corporal Harold Gleeson complained he was “parched with thirst marching all night on a weary dusty ride of 30 miles”. Private Hunter wrote: “The dust was terrible. One could not see beyond his horse’s head.”

At 3.30pm, Chauvel ordered the two regiments closest to Beersheba to mount the 6.4-kilometre charge, the 4th from Victoria commanded by Lieutenant Commander Murray Bourchier and 12th from NSW led by Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron – each with just 400 troopers. Their commander, Brigadier General William Grant, told men who had gone 48 hours without water: “Once they smell it, your horses will be so keen to get to the water in the wells of Beersheba they will gallop faster than ever.”

At 4.45pm, Chauvel gave his famous order, “Put Grant straight at them!”. Grant rode to the regiments hiding behind a ridge at the assembly point and shouted, “Men, you are fighting for water. The only water in this desert is at Beersheba. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck – Forward!”

The 800 troopers rode their horses to the crest, from where they saw Beersheba across a long, slight slope, flat right up to the trenches. Looking through binoculars Trooper Ion Idriess who became one of Australia’s greatest authors said: “Hiding in a depression behind the hills was Beersheba. The white dome and minaret of the great mosque and the railway station, barracks and numerous buildings, growing plainer to us”.

Captain Jack Davies stood up in his saddle, turned and shouted: “Come on boys, Beersheba next stop!” They trotted down the ridge then cantered. But once the startled Turks spotted them and fired artillery shells, they galloped.

When they got within 3 kilometres, machine gunners started firing. But they were riding so fast the Turks did not have time to adjust the artillery sights from long to short range and even machine gunners, let alone riflemen, could not hit the weaving horses that had spread out widely.

Then 2½ kilometres out, Bourchier screamed “Charge!” and they galloped full pelt, yelling at the top of their voices.

Britain’s commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby Photo: Supplied

Now the horses were only 2 kilometres away. Idriess reported: “We laughed with delight when the shells burst behind our men as Turkish gunners wild with fear forgot to lower their sights”.

That fear was explained when “captured Turkish officers told us they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by roaring machine guns and artillery. Yet they just galloped on, their thousand hooves stuttering, coming at a rate that frightened a man – an awe-inspiring sight galloping through red haze – knee to knee – horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points”.

When the horses were only a kilometre away, Turkish officers mistakenly ordered men to hold their fire until the Australians dismounted to fight in trenches – not realising many Light Horsemen would leap over them.

Galloping closer with surprisingly few casualties, Idriess reported “the last half-mile was a berserk gallop”.

Bean continued: “Next the foremost troops were jumping trenches, some dismounting and turning upon the Turks from the rear with bayonet in bloody hand-to-hand fighting.”

Others galloped ahead to rear trenches, one trooper captured 50 frightened Turks. Some galloped straight to Beersheba. The bewildered garrison quickly surrendered.

Lieutenant Guy Haydon said: “You’ve never heard such awful war yells as our boys let out, they never hesitated for a moment, it was grand. Riders would roll off or a horse drop but the line swept on. As we neared their trenches, the pace became faster. A bullet hit me high up in the left buttock, just under the belt, lifting me clear off my horse and dropping me sprawling on a heap of dirt and I rolled down into a pit and safety.

“But all this time, only a few seconds, men raced their horses through and over the trenches and while some of us were hand-to-hand fighting the remainder had charged through the town. Although it is the heaviest fire I have been under, I never felt less afraid.”

Captain Jack Davies, who was first into Beersheba, said: “Providence guided me that day as I rode into the town as if I knew all the roads leading into it.”

Allenby’s trick had worked, Davies said, because “I’ve seen some surprised people in my life and those Turks were certainly not expecting us!”.

As many of the troopers believed their wonderful horses, aka Walers, had won the day, they were very sad when ordered at war’s end to leave their horses behind. “Rather than sell them to locals who treated their horses badly, many of us decided to shoot them instead,” said trooper Albert Cornish.

The Australians had killed 500 hundred Turks and taken 1500 prisoners at the cost of 31 troopers and 70 horses. Haydon reported “a British Cavalry Officer serving since 1914 said ‘I have seen every action in which the British Cavalry have taken part, but the charge of the L.H. at Beersheba, is the finest thing that I have ever seen mounted troops do’.”

It was a stunning victory that established the Light Horse as the best cavalry force in the world. A turning-point battle for Palestine, it enabled Allenby’s forces to capture Gaza from the demoralised Turks, and drive them north from Jerusalem and finally Damascus to win the war in Palestine.

Beersheba was Australia’s first big achievement on the world stage, ahead of 1918 Western Front victories. Now 100 years on, it is a stark contrast to the battle that stands as the cornerstone of Australia’s national identity, Gallipoli – which cost 8709 Australian lives for no gain.

Jonathan King’s Palestine Diaries: The Light Horsemen’s Own Story Battle by Battle is published in October by Scribe Publications.

An Account of the Charge at Beersheba by Colonel Jack Davies MC OC B Squadron to his brother Reg dated at ‘Belah’ 29/01/1918

 

From his earliest days the late Colonel Davies took a keen interest in the army.  He gained his commission in the Commonwealth Military Forces at Duntroon in 1912 and on the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 accepted a commission in the 12th Light Horse on its formation under Colonel P. P. Abbott who was commanding officer at that time.  Early in 1915 he went to Egypt and was taken on the staff of General Harry Chauvel.

He participated in the battle of Romani and several other major engagements after which he returned to the 12th Light Horse into Beersheba and was awarded the Military Cross in the field by General Allenby.  Throughout the Great War as it was known he kept a complete record of events both documentary and pictorial through Egypt, Syria, Palestine and ending at Tripoli.

A letter written by Jack in reply to his brother Reg gives a personal description of the charge at Beersheba.

Belah 29/1/1918

My Dear Reg

Your long letter to Mill from Hospital Temporaire No 8, dated 4/12/1917, came along a few days ago and jolly glad I was to get it, as I was beginning to think something might have happened to you.

Your letters or some of them must be at the bottom, same as some of mine.  I have just been hunting for the copy of the last one I wrote you, but the book seems to have gone astray, I think.  I wrote just prior to the start of the last operation, which started about 24th of October.  I should have written before, but one is kept going on these things and it is only during the past few weeks that one has had much facilities for letter writing.

We are very comfortable now back “resting” at Belah which was railhead for so many  months, whilst Johnny hung onto Gaza.  Just about 7 miles from here and old Alymunter smiles sweetly on all things now, previously it used to frown.  Alymunter is the hill where Sampson deposited the gates of Gaza.  Anyway it took some time to get through the gate and really we did not like the Yank who said to Bullen “we went round”.  That was the Beersheba stunt, where yours truly was lucky.

It was rather peculiar you referring to the polo game in connection with it.  I made the remark to Cameron that night, after the charge was over and I had just finished counting my little lot of prisoners and sent them away under escort (it was a beautiful moonlight night and I counted them like a lot of sheep with Marnie and Haft keeping tally.  647 and 38 officers was the number as well as I remember the odd figures – the other right (4th Light Horse got 350 odd more and we collected about 30 strays during the night).  Well to get back to the afore mentioned remark I said, “Well I,’ve had some good games, but that was the best run I ever had, from start to finish it was just about 6 miles.

1st half mile at walk and slow trot, getting into line.  Two squadrons each in line with 5 yards between each man and 300 yards from A Squadron back to B (my squadron).  The next mile I should say was a trot, then the fire started and we went at it hell for a split, we struck the trenches 1 1/2 miles from the town, some of them went over them.  I feel certain only a few. Some went round end; myself round the left flank.  Providence guided me that day and I rode into the town as if I knew all the roads leading into it.  I think I can say quite without fear of contradiction, that I was the first officer, or man into the town, but really it was only just easy going once we passed the trenches, everyone we saw after that was getting for his natural.

I’ve seen some surprised people, but  those Turks were certainly not expecting us, just then.  Though I have no doubt they thought we’d be along on foot sometime that night.  The greater majority were evacuating the place and it was just a camp rounding up as many as we could handle.  We had been told that the ANZACs on our right and the 3rd Brigade were also going to ride into the town, where we did and expected to find about  7 or 8 regiments concentrating where we got through past the mosque, but to my surprise I found when I got through that I had about 80 men with me and the troop had followed on to the Railway.

I got a message back from the troop leader that he wanted help as he had more prisoners than he could handle.  Aubrey Abbott was also close by with another troop and that was about all the Desert Mounted Corp that I could see and I began to think it was time to go home, then I sighted another troop that had come around the right of the town, so we just grafted as many as we could and made back to the wells which was what we were really after as the whole troop engaged were depending on them for water.  Johnny got out in such a hurry that though he had the wells and the Railway Station and the approaches to the town mined ,he forgot to let them off, or when he tried and they failed to explode properly he did not try again. 

The 4th Light Horse on our right got about 350 prisoners on the right of the town, the reason they were there when we got through was that they were forced to dismount, also we were the lucky men and rode practically straight through.  To make it a little easier to understand how such a thing was possible here is a diagram. 

Line shaded #### was the 4L.H on our right, rode practically perhaps square onto the redoubt ==== the 12th Regiment, right flank of which you see is messed up with the 4th Regiment. I was riding on extreme left flank (so you see had no personal trench worries until the last, when I only had to ride round one end) I suppose about 20 or 30 yards.

One troop of A Squadron struck the redoubt and dismounted on the order of their Squadron leader had his horse shot here and was later wounded himself.  This left me the senior officer with the two Squadron though I knew nothing of this until it was all over.

Guy Haydn from Blandford was wounded badly and has since gone back to Australia by the next boat.

We had 20 men killed and 20 wounded, of whom one has died since. It was a rum day.  We did a 38 mile march the night before so you can imagine Adbul hardly expected us where he found us at dawn, but we just sat there until a few minutes after 4 P.M., at a few minutes after 5 P.M. we had the town and then nothing to do but collect and consolidate, though I was not very frightened of the Counter Attack which is what one always has to prepare for.

Colonel Cameron (long on from Rouchel) got a D.S.O Featherstonhaugh and Hyman a D.S.O each.  Robey and myself an M.C, three D.C.M.s and 5 MM’s.  Grant our Brigadier got a bar to his D.S.O. Bouchier of the 4th a D.S.O., one of his Majors D.S.O. and two Captains M.C,s 2 D.C.M.s and 4 Military medals. Not bad going for an hour’s job, more especially as Allenby personally gave Grant his bar next day and gave his orders for the immediate decoration of us other lessor lights. They were all though inside four days i.e. by the 5th November. I was jolly pleased that Featherstonhaugh got a D.S.O., because he thoroughly deserved a recognition for the splendid cool way he deployed the Squadron in action, when his horse was wounded the first thing he did was shoot his horse out of pain, shortly after he was hit through both legs – he’ll soon be back with us now. He’s a great old bird, son of the old man who drove horses four in hand in the old days – Hyman thinking he could not possibly get past the redoubt gave the order to dismount for action, fortunately only one troop heard the order and acted on it.  The rest going on all finding some way through the odd gap or down the left side, anyway Hyman was left with the troop of men who did dismount and most of our casualties were I think amongst them, but of course one could not tell if the killed had dismounted or shot on their horses, anyhow Hyman and a few others accounted for 60 dead Turks which was not bad seeing that they were in the open and the Turks were in a beautiful trench.  All it lacked was wire and why they had not wired it I don’t know.

I think I have written enough about that stuff now old chap except that when General Hodgen was giving out the ribbons he made a general speech to us all.   When he came along to me he said “Captain Davies has done excellent work.  I hope soon to have the pleasure of pinning a D.S.O. alongside that.” And he tapped the M.C. he had just put on.  Well I don’t mind taking one you know, but I am not anxious to be winning one again.

Well I’ll have a chance now for Pukka promotion to the rank of Major has gone in and I have no reason I suppose it won’t go through, in fact I wish I was as certain the war would be over in 6 weeks.  I have been commanding a Squadron all the time since February when I joined the Regiment so I shall be glad to have the rank, also glad I did not have to get anyone killed.  Major Birder the late squadron leader has been appointed A.P.M.A.I.F. in Egypt and o/c ANZAC Provost Corps which should be a good soft job and one the old chap should get along O.K.  He is the soul of uprightness and is getting too old for the field.  I am writing by candlelight old chap and cannot see what I am doing so I will stop now.  I will get a copy made of what I call my official account of the Beersheba action with a copy of plan and sketch made of the place the next day which will give you a better idea of what happened.

I hope by this that you are settled down again and getting a little more appreciation for your work.  I often regret that you did not wait and join the AIF, you would certainly have your majority by now and a grand job at one or our general hospitals, but one never really knows.  I often say one wants to leave oneself in the hands of providence at the game and try to get through.

Goodbye now old chap.  I hope Phyl and the children are well.  Give them my love when you write as I understand they are in England.

Mill will soon be shifting to Port Said.  She is following No. 14 General to that place as they asked her to do so.

Your affectionate brother Jack R.Davies.