A first hand story of the disastrous mounted charge by C Troop, A squadron, 11th Light Horse Regiment into Turkish trenches on the slopes of Sheria, Palestine by ex-Sergeant Gordon Thistlethwaite, as told to Ernest Hammond ‘Parade’ 1971
|When the Turkish stronghold of Beersheba, in southern Palestine, fell to an assault by the Australian 4th Brigade on October 31, 1917, the enemy fled 12 miles north to a fortified position of trenches and redoubts on Mt Sheria.
The 60th Division (Londoners) took up the chase and on November 5, the Cockneys went in with the bayonet and cleared the mount, forcing the enemy to retreat a distance of two miles, where he took cover in shallow trenches on a long, low ridge.
Spurning the cover of the trenches on the mount, the gallant Cockneys dashed in pursuit, but as they crossed the first ridge and reached open country the Turks opened fire with artillery, machine-guns and rifles, inflicting heavy casualties. The Londoners, weakened by the earlier fighting were forced to retire to the ridge they had just crossed, where they ‘dug in’ to consolidate the position.
General Harry Chauvel reviewed the position on the morning of November 6 and decided to deploy the 4th Brigade, comprising of the 4th, 11th and 12th Australian Light Horse, to attack the enemy. His order to Brigadier General Grant, of the 4th Brigade, was concise. It read: ‘Clear the enemy from the front of the 60th Division.’
That was the position early in the morning of November 7 as the 11th Regiment waited in a wadi (usually dry watercourse) close to the Turkish position.
C Troop, A Squadron was on the extreme left of our line. A mere handful, we were, with Lieut. Brierty in command, four NCOs and 16 troopers, and here my story begins in earnest.
Being senior Sergeant of the troop, I moved along the line instructing the boys to check gear and tighten girths. I paused awhile to brief horse-holders in their special duties.
The worst feature in ‘going over the top’, emotionally anyway, is those few tense moments while the soldier waits for the signal to ‘be up and doing’, and the tension was revealed in the faces of my cobbers as I moved among them.
Lieutenant Brierty mounted his horse and the troop followed suit. He moved to a position facing the men and in a firm but quiet voice said, “Right oh, boys, we’re on our way. Good luck”, and wheeling his horse he called back in a louder voice, “C Troop, charge.”
We spurred our horses up the bank to emerge on a barren rise that sloped easily up from the wadi. Sixty yards away, we saw a Turkish trench, and in a matter of seconds we were on to it.
The surprise of our attack must have unnerved the few riflemen there, for they threw down their weapons and raised their hands in token of surrender but, without pausing, we cleared the trench at the gallop and raced on to the next objective. This was a jumble of trenches and redoubts that had the appearance of being established a long time.
Thirty yards from the trenches we dismounted and made haste to go in with the bayonet. We had reached this point without a shot being fired when, suddenly, “all hell broke loose”.. machine-guns chattered and rifles cracked as the enemy trenches erupted, spreading death, horror and fear among us. Men and horses were falling around me, assuming grotesque shapes as they thrashed around in the dreadful agonies of death.
A burst of machine-gun bullets ripped into my left thigh, tearing the flesh away in great chunks to reveal the bone. The force of the blow hurled me on to my back, where I lay for an instant feeling the hot blood coursing down my leg.
Realizing that I must take cover, I back-peddled, using my hands, elbows and undamaged right leg to propel me behind the shelter of a dead horse. I treated my wound with a field dressing and tied a khaki handkerchief above the wound to act as a tourniquet. This reduced the bleeding.
I took stock of the position and concluded that I was the only one left alive. Knowing the Turks would search me later, I cleared my pickets of all papers and buried them in the sand under the carcass of the horse.
The enemy ceased fire and presently six Turks left the trenches. I thought it wise to declare myself, so I put my hat on a bayonet and hoisted it above the carcass of the horse. When they spotted it they came forward smartly and gathered around me. They were a mixed lot. Some were armed with swords and revolvers, while others carried rifles with bayonets fixed. All of them were dressed in dirty, ragged uniforms except one, who sported a neat, blue uniform that I assumed indicated he was an officer.
My assumption was soon confirmed when two of the ruffians moved in with rifles at the ready as though intending to bayonet me, but the man in blue intervened and pushed them back roughly into the group.
My water bottle had been pierced by a bullet and I was thirsty, so I asked the officer for water, speaking in both English and Arabic, but he didn’t respond. Presently the officer ordered his men to strip me of my equipment and search my pockets, but the search proved futile. After they had gone I realised I had hidden seven Egyptian pound notes in an inner pocket of my undershirt and the searchers had missed them.
My next visitor was an evil-smelling Turk, who sat beside me and searched the pockets of my jacket, of course, without result. He carried a bottle of water and speaking in Arabic, I asked him for a drink, but he refused. I then offered him 100 piastres for a drink and when he agreed, I cautiously withdrew one of my notes, which he snatched from my hand. Leaning roughly across my body he found and took the rest of my scanty hoard and without giving me a drink, hurried away towards his trenches.
Just before darkness set in, the enemy troops in the trench had galloped over gathered around me on their way back to their main line. They were commanded by a German officer, who spoke English.
He asked me questions of military importance about our troops, but I told him I knew nothing. At this he grew very angry and his right-hand moved to the butt of a heavy pistol on his belt. He raged at me and said that as a Sergeant, I should know the answers to his questions. I was scared, but I tried to conceal my fear, and in time he calmed down. I was relieved to find that he was bluffing.
He said something to the Turks and as they walked away he bent down to examine my wound. Believing this to be the right time for sympathy, I begged him to order his men to carry me to their dressing station for treatment, but he replied sharply, ‘Not now, later’, and hurried off.
Assuming the Turks would move the wounded in under the cover of darkness, I waited in high hopes for about an hour before deciding to try to escape. I did not want to contemplate the odds of my getting back to our lines, but I reckoned I’d give it a go.
At first I moved very slowly, but after experimenting with the use of my leg, hand, arms and shoulders in varying positions I was able to make better progress. Reaching another carcass, I rested there for some time.
Reflecting that I had no broken bones and that my right leg was uninjured, I decided that I would make better progress if I could get on to my feet and walk erect. Using my hands and arms to lean on the carcass, I regained my feet and found I was able to make better time hobbling along.
It will always be a source of wonderment to me that I was never unconscious during the long hours of my ordeal, but I was in a state of semi-delirium, I’m sure, because I have hazy recollections of falling to my knees many times and of the exquisite agony of regaining my feet to push onward in trembling haste and fear.
The night was dark. There was no landmark to guide me. I was sick, thirsty and tired, but determined to keep on moving as often as possible, lest I should fall asleep from fatigue or lapse into unconsciousness.
Came a time when I was walking downhill and I entered and crossed the bed of a wide wadi. The bank here was steep and when I succeeded in surmounting it, I was exhausted and had to rest for a long time.
Resuming my journey, I discovered I was faced by a fairly steep hill and I was compelled to crawl rather than walk. Progress was painfully slow.
At last I heard voices out of the darkness ahead of me. They were faint and indistinguishable, and for one wild and terrifying moment I wondered whether I had traversed a circle, as lost men do. Perhaps I lay under the Turkish trenches. It was a maddening though and then I began to reflect, more sanely, upon the course of events throughout that terrifying day.
Surely all of the good fortune I had experienced was not now to be denied. It all had to mean something.
I heard the voices again. They were English voices and hope filled my heart. I shouted at the top of my voice that I was a wounded Australian soldier. “Don’t shoot”, I cried. “Come and help me. I can’t walk”. All the time I kept repeating that I was an Australian soldier. Four men came out finally and placed me on a blanket and carried me into their trenches. Someone flashed a torch on me and in a quaint Cockney voice one of them said,”Cor blimey, cock’o, you are in a bloody mess”..
I had reached the trenches of the 60th Division, Londoners. My journey back through our lines was a slow, nightmare of suffering.
Eight days later I reached the Australian military hospital in Heliopolis, near Cairo, and after 18 weeks of treatment I was boarded for Australia. I still suffer with a permanent leg disability and a nervous condition, but otherwise I’m not doing so badly.
I am 84 years of age, and while I can never entirely forget the affair at Sheria, I feel that with the passing of time I can now view the harrowing events of that day through a softer focus.
By ex-Sergeant Gordon Thistlethwaite,
as told to Ernest Hammond.