Lighthorsemen (1987)

 

 

 

Director:    Simon Wincer.

Starring:    Peter Phelps (Dave Mitchell), Nick Waters (Lighthorse Sergeant), John Larking (Station Master), John Heywood (Dave's Dad), Di O'Connor (Dave's Mum), Shane Briant (Reichert), Ralph Cotterill (Gen. Friedrich von Kressenstein), Bill Kerr (Gen. Sir Harry Chauvel), Grant Piro (Charlie), Tony Bonner (Col. Murray Bourchier), Serge Lazareff (Rankin), Gary Sweet (Frank), John Walton (Tas), Tim McKenzie (Chiller), Jon Blake (Scotty).

Australian Film about the Australian Light Horse Brigade.  Deals with the brigade's experiences during a World War I desert campaign (with charge on Beersheba).  The battle at Beersheba may be Australia's greatest victorious battle honor.

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

World War I.  On October 31, 1917, in the third year of the Great War, two regiments of Australian Lighthorsemen charged the Turkish defenses of Beersheba, in Palestine.  With bayonets in their hands, they galloped against machine gun, rifle and artillery in an eleventh hour attempt to save the attacking British army from disaster. 

The opening scene is of horsemen driving a group of horses to the train for the Lighthorsemen.  The train steams into the town of Preston.  A young man watches the train intently.  He wants to join the Lighthorsemen in the worst way.  His parents agree to his signing up since father says that they can't stop him anyway. 

The scene switches to the Turks in Gaza, the key fortress of the Turco-German army in Palestine.  Suddenly the Turks are being hit by artillery fire.  April 19, 1917.  The British troops walk behind the tanks heading for the Gaza fortress. 

Gen. Von Kressenstein says welcome to Captain Reichert.  Kressenstein recently won a great victory, but Kressenstein tells Reichert that this was due to Archibald Murray.   He had captured the town, but he didn't know it.  So he withdrew his troops.  The two men look at the battlefield.  The Australian Lighthorsemen, mounted infantry, have arrived.  They can be identified by the plumes in their hats.  Artillery fire starts killing the soldiers advancing on the fortress.  Kressenstein stresses that his forces will hold out until the British are defeated by the desert, especially by the scarcity of water. 

General Chauvel and his Lighthorsemen are heading toward Gaza.  He remarks that he is running out of time, water and patience.  They are still 50 miles out.  Their advancing unit meets the defeated troops returning from the battle.   The defeated look very sad and weary.  What was the battle like, someone asks.  Like a bloody disaster.  They took 18,000 casualties. 

The Lighthorsemen have been away from Australia for three years.  Chauvel is given the command of the whole desert column.  They are moving out in ten minutes.  A small group of Lighthorsemen buddies (Frank, Scotty, Tas and Chilla) are out scouting the area.  In the area is some Turkish cavalry from Beersheba.  Frank spots and then chases a Palestinian.  But soon Frank runs into a group of three more men.  He quickly wheels his horse around and heads back as fast as he can.  The enemy fires at him and Frank is hit in the leg.  The same bullet went into the horse and Frank has to kill his beloved animal. 

Forward Base Camp, Abasan.  Only 60 men from the campaign at Gallipoli are left in the present unit.  With Frank in the hospital, the group of buddies gets a new young recruit, Dave (who we met earlier).  They are very doubtful of the young fellow, but he soon shows them that he is a good rider and an excellent marksman.  Dave wins some more points when he tells the men that he lost a brother in the war.  The buddies visit Frank in the hospital.  Poor Frank receives a "dear Johnny" letter from Joyce.  She married six months ago.

The unit blows up a Turkish railway line.  Turkish cavalry are in the area, but they soon retreat as the Aussies fire on them.  Tas notices that Dave does not fire his weapon.  This, of course, is very disturbing to Tas and the other guys because they wonder if they can count on Dave in a life and death situation.  On top of this, the buddies receive news that Frank died in a Cairo hospital.  His wound had become septic and they had to amputate it.  He was taken to Cairo where he died. 

The Lighthorsemen are headed to Te el Fara then to Beersheba, which was founded by Abraham of the Old Testament of the Bible. Forward Base Camp, Tel el Fara.  An airplane attacks the camp and Dave is wounded in a bomb explosion.  In the hospital Dave and a nurse named Anne start to fall in love.  He explains to her that he did not shoot the Turk he had clearly in his sights because he did not want to shoot a man in the back.  They go shopping in the market together and they watch the sun set and kiss.

El Arish railway station.  Nurse Anne says good-bye to Dave who is heading back to his unit.  Scotty meets Dave at the other end of the line.  Later Dave and the Colonel are checking the wells in the area.  Bedouins are spotted.  With them seems to be a British officer.  The officer approaches them alone.  The officer is a major.  The Colonel is suspicious of him.  While Dave trains his rifle on the major, the major slowly turns his pistol over to the Colonel.  Back at camp, the officers grill the major to check out his story.  The Major works with General Allenby who is the new replacement for Murray as commander of all the troops in the area.

The unit sets up an ambush for a Turkish patrol.  During the fight, Dave fails to fire his weapon even though he was in great danger of being killed by a Turk.  Other men had to save Dave by shooting the Turk. 

Rest Camp, Maraked.  Three of the close buddies discuss Dave.  They believe that he is going to get himself killed by failing to use his rifle.  Tas is the one who tells Dave that he is just not cut out to be a soldier.  Dave agrees and transfers to the field ambulance corps where he will be unarmed.. 

General Allenby decides to strike Beersheba.  The Germans and Turks must be fooled into thinking that the attack on Beersheba is just a decoy for the main attack at Gaza.  This job falls to the newly arrived Major.  Dave sees Anne at the hospital.  The Major has Anne write a love letter as a woman who has just had a baby and who is writing her husband that she loves him, misses him and tells him to return to her and the baby safe and sound.  Anne writes the letter and the Major loves it.  The Major takes Tas on a sortie behind Turkish lines.  Tas is very worried that they will run into the Turks and warns the Major.  And, indeed, they do run into a patrol that begins to chase the two men.  The Turks soon give up the chase.  At this, the major stops his horse and fires on the Turks.  This causes the Turks to resume the chase.  The Major accidentally on purpose drops his rifle and a documents carrier and then takes off again.  The Turks stop to pick up the rifle and the documents pouch.  

Turkish Colonel Ismet in Beersheba thinks the documents are false.  But the German military adviser says the letter from the wife to her husband is absolutely genuine.  Colonel Ismet is dubious, but agrees to let the German decide on the overall strategy.  The Colonel then says that if this is a trick, the enemy has set a big trap for themselves.  The Colonel wants to blow the wells if they are attacked in force, but the German advises caution. 

October 31, 1917 is the date set for the attack on Beersheba.  British infantry will attack from the south and the west, the desert mounted corps from the east.  The Aussies will be held in reserve. 

October 31, 1917.  The horses have not had any water for two entire days and the men only have what is in their canteens.  When the troops show up near Beersheba, the Turks take up their defensive positions.  The German military adviser still thinks the main attack will be on Gaza.  The New Zealand troops start out over the three miles to the fortress.  They take a bloody beating.  The situation is serious.  The only water available to horses and men is in Beersheba.  It appears to be a do or die situation.  They have to take the fortress to get at the water.  Under the British are some 60,000 men versus 4,000 of the enemy.  But the British forces have to approach the fort over a long distance of absolutely flat land devoid of any vegetation.

The British fail to take the fortress after twelve hours of battle.  They are facing a military disaster.  So then the decision is made to direct a cavalry charge from the east.  The German military adviser insists that the cavalry will not charge.  It is a bluff.  It is would be too disastrous for cavalry to attack entrenched positions over an open area and over a long distance. 

The cavalry charge begins.  At first they proceed at a moderate pace.  But when they reach the right distance, they run their horses at a full gallop.  The Turkish artillery opens up on them.  But they are coming so fast that the Turks have to keep adjusting their sights.  They can't adjust their sights fast enough to get the right firing distance.  And before they can set their artillery for a direct assault, the Lighthorsemen are jumping over their trenches and/or jumping into the trenches from their horses to kill the Turks. 

Colonel Ismet knows all is lost and he and his staff leave the fortress.  He shouts at the German military adviser:  "Damn you to hell!"  The German rushes to the control room to blow up all the wells.  There is a delay because the artillery fire knocked out some of the wires.  The German sends someone to reattach the wires.  A couple of the wells are blown.  But Tas grabs one of the wires and runs along it pulling it up to see where is ends.  Tas enters the control room and captures the German before he can blow all the wells. 

Chilla is wounded and Dave stops to dress his wounds.  A wounded Turkish soldier throws a grenade near the two men.  Dave jumps on Chilla to save him from the blast.  Dave takes the main blast and is seriously wounded.  The fortress is taken with the loss of only 39 men. 

At the hospital Anne looks for Dave.  She finds him alive on a stretcher. 

Dave and Anne were married two years later.  They lived until 1974.  The suspicious major, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, became a world expert on birds of the Middle East and a champion of Zionism.  He died in 1967.  Brigadier General Sir Murray William Bourchier died in 1937 after a successful political career.  Trooper Sloan Bolton was wounded seriously the following year and back in Australia became a champion cattle breeder.  He died in 1947. 

 

Good movie.  We see the flow of the campaign through the eyes of a small group of close buddies.  In addition, there is a love story between nurse Anne and Lighthorseman Dave.  The movie shows just how dangerous a situation the British were in.  It seemed to me that the leadership was planning the attack on Beersheba with too little wiggle room.  Water was absolutely necessary to have a successful campaign.  The leadership gambled on their men and horses.  The horses went without water for two days, so they had to capture Beersheba in order to get the water.  My wife and I felt sorry for the horses.  The charge of the Lighthorsemen was guite impressive as well as exciting. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 


 Historical Background:

 

 1916 March --  in Egypt the ANZAC Mounted Division is formed from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade; commanded by Major General Harry G. Chauvel.

1916 August  --   the Division helps defeat a Turkish advance to Romani.

1917 March  --   force the enemy back to the Gaza-Beersheba line and the battles for Gaza begin.  

1917 April --   a new plan made to breach the Turkish defenses by attacking Beersheba and rolling up the Turkish defense from the flank. Australian Lieutenant General H.G. Chauvel of the Desert Mounted Column commanded the undertaking.

1917 August  --  the Desert Mounted Corps forms from the ANZAC Mounted Division (minus the 3rd Light Horse), the Australian Mounted Division (3rd and 4th Light Horse and 5th Yeomanry Brigades) and the Yeomanry Division.

1917 October 31  -- after a morning of fighting, in the afternoon Chauvel orders the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Brigadier General Grant to charge Beersheba.  The charge at Beersheba so shocked the Turks there that after firing at the charging horsemen, they forgot to adjust their sights for close range.  

Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron commanded the charge. Major Eric Hyman led 'A' Squadron to attack a redoubt guarding the eastern outskirts of the town while the remainder of the troops jumped the trenches. 'A' and 'B' Squadrons entered the town together. Captain Jack Davies from Scone and his troops then turned to prevent the escape of the fleeing Turkish Garrison. Lieutenant Rodney Robey and his soldiers helped flush the Turks into Davies' trap where most of the enemy immediately surrendered.

That day 738 prisoners were taken by the 12th Regiment with only 20 of their own killed. The well-known Australian cricketer, Albert 'Tibby' Cotter, was one of the dead.

1917 December  --  the Corps helps capture Jerusalem.

1918 April -- even though many of the British troops had been redeployed to France  in March, the Corps defeats a German attack at Abu Tellul.

1918 September  -- the Corps participates in the advance to Haifa and Semakh.

1918 October 1  --  enter Damascus.

1918 end of October  --  Corps reaches Aleppo by the time Turkey signs an armistice.

Source: Australian Army - History website: http://www.defence.gov.au/army/ahu/history/sinai_palestine_syria.HTM

HISTORY OF THE 12TH AND 16TH LIGHT HORSE REGIMENTS AND HUNTER RIVER LANCERS website:
http://www.defence.gov.au/army/12_16hrl/history.html

 

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