Australian Screen

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Clip description

Tas (John Walton) and his three comrades watch with disdain as the new British commander, General Allenby (Anthony Hawkins), inspects the Light Horse camp. The soldiers see typical ‘Pommy brass’, but Allenby is different. As he inspects the horses, Lieutenant-Colonel Murray Bourchier (Tony Bonner) outlines his plan for an attack on a Turkish patrol. The patrol passes by a ruined house each morning, near Beersheba. Bourchier places one troop in hiding inside the house, and another three on the hills above.

As the Turkish cavalry approaches the ruined house, the Australians on the ridge show themselves. Major Rankin (Serge Lazareff) and his men rush out of the house and open fire, routing the surprised Turks. New arrival Dave Mitchell (Peter Phelps) can’t bring himself to shoot a man in the back. As they cease firing, a wounded Turk calls to his friend. The Australians watch in admiration as one Turkish cavalryman turns his horse, picks up the wounded man and retreats. Rankin orders his men to fire. The horse and the two riders are brought down.

Curator’s notes

The script, by Ian Jones, has a detailed knowledge of the way in which the Australian Light Horse regiments were organised, and the way they fought. This sequence also gives us a strong sense of the way the men thought. Contempt for British officers was widespread, but in this case, the idea is subtly contradicted. The senior soldier Tas sees nothing new about Allenby, because he regards all British officers the same way – 'Wouldn’t know a horse from a bloody camel’ – but Allenby does indeed know about horses and mounted warfare. He can see that the horses are in good condition, and he guesses that that means that the men have seen little action. He is also keenly interested in Lieutenant-Colonel Bourchier’s offensive plans. This is the first sign in the movie that the style of leadership has changed.

The transition from talk to action is well handled. As Lieutenant-Colonel Bourchier outlines his plan, we flash forward to see the raid. Most of the Australian men have seen action before. They are hardened to the task of killing, but the newest recruit Dave, played by Peter Phelps, is in crisis. He wants desperately to be a good soldier and he has shown that he does not lack courage, but he can’t pull the trigger to kill a man. The end of the clip is brutal, but a good demonstration of the realities of war. The other men do not hesitate to cut down the rider who rescues his mate, even though they admire his guts.

The sequence also demonstrates the different ways in which the two armies fought. The Turkish cavalry are true cavalry – they ride with lances and swords. The Australian Light Horsemen are not true cavalry, but mounted infantry. They ride to battle, dismount, retire the horses to safety and fight as infantry, with rifle instead of lance or sword. The Australian tactics had been developed in the Boer War, but there were many arguments during the Palestine campaign about the most effective way to use the Australians. The traditions of cavalry went back centuries, but modern weapons such as machine guns were changing the way in which war was fought. Jones’s script makes clear that the German officers who assisted the Turkish army believed that the British did not use the Australian mounted troops effectively. Historians have speculated that one of the reasons that the charge at Beersheba succeeded was that the Germans expected the Australians to dismount and fight on foot. They did not expect a direct charge at Turkish trenches defended by machine guns.