Jack Cohen – The Anzac Museum & The Lamed-Heh
The Anzac Museum
We visited the new Australia and New Zealand Armoured Corps (ANZAC) Museum in Beer Sheva that was opened on October 31, 2017, in the presence of the PM of Australia and the Governor General of New Zealand and PM Netanyahu of Israel, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beer Sheva on October 31, 1917. This battle proved to be the turning point in WWI between the British and Turkish forces in the Holy Land, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The ANZAC forces represented by the Australia Light Horse regiments attacked Beer Sheva unexpectedly in the famous last horse charge in history and succeeded in capturing the town with its essential wells.
This museum is situated adjacent to the British Commonwealth Cemetery that contains nearly 1,300 graves of mostly Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died in the campaign for what was then named Palestine by the British. It tells the story of the British Expeditionary Force that sent many Australians as well as British and other forces to their deaths in the abortive attempt to capture Turkish territory at Gallipoli, with the intention of thence capturing Istanbul. This attack was the idea of Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty, who sought to open a second Eastern Front as the Allies were bogged down in trench warfare on the Western Front. As a result of this terrible failure he was forced to resign.
The Turks tried also unsuccessfully to capture the Suez Canal by attacking Egypt from Gaza, but were turned back. Then the British under Gen. Murray counter-attacked Gaza twice unsuccessfully. PM Lloyd George replaced him with Gen. Allenby, who decided to outflank the Turks, with their German officers, and attack Beer Sheva instead. (There are two claimants for the origin of this idea, Aaron Aaronsohn, the famous agronomist, who advised Allenby about the water sources in the Sinai and Negev deserts, and Richard Meinertzhagen, an Intelligence Office on Allenby’s staff, who dropped a knapsack with plans for a third attack on Gaza, that misled the Turks.)
The attack on Beer Sheva required the transfer of tens of thousands of men and horses through the desert. The British built a railway to transport materiel part-way and also they traveled at night so as not to be seen by the enemy. The British attacked Beer Sheva from the west and the New Zealand regiments captured Tel Sheva, but the Australian Light Horse were the ones who were sent in on a charge from the east that proved the victorious attack. The Light Horse were not cavalry who remain on their horses during battle, but infantry who ride to the front on their horses and then dismount and attack. In this case, the Light Horse actually jumped over the Turkish defensive trenches and caught them by surprise and won the day.
The Museum tells this story in detail, and then there is a re-enacted movie that is both historically accurate and exciting to watch. There is no doubt that the bravery of the Australians to some extent made up for their defeat at Gallipoli. This pivotal battle caused the outflanked Turks at Gaza to withdraw and led soon after to the capture of Jerusalem by Allenby’s forces, the first great Allied victory of the War. Without the Australian’s sacrifice the British could not have defeated the Turks in Palestine and the State of Israel would probably not have come into existence.
When the movie is finished you exit onto a balcony that overlooks the Cemetery where these brave soldiers are buried and it is a sobering and magnificent sight. This Museum is a gem that anyone who visits Beer Sheva should not miss.
The Lamed-Heh (35)
January 16 marks the commemoration of the massacre of 35 (“lamed-heh” in Hebrew letters) young Hebrew University students who volunteered to try to relieve the siege on the Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem during the Israel War of Independence in 1948.
The Etzion land had been bought and was owned by Jews during the Turkish period and the kibbutzim established there existed for several generations. They had very friendly relations with the nearby Arab villages. When the State was declared several Arab armies attacked Israel, and a joint Arab force was sent to attack Jerusalem from the south, but first they had to conquer the Etzion area. When the Etzion bloc was attacked all the children were evacuated. But, the adults who could fight remained to protect the kibbutzim.
At some point the area was on the verge of being overrun by the Arab forces and the defenders were running out of ammunition. It was decided that a small force had to be sent with supplies to relieve the Etzion bloc siege. But, there were no reserves available. A group of students at Hebrew University volunteered to go at short notice led by a young man named Danny Mass. They could not leave directly from Jerusalem so they went by truck at night to a rendezvous point to pick up the supplies. They left from there at 11 pm, but this was not enough time for them to travel the distance at night over unknown terrain through hostile country. At one point they came across a pair of Arab women, who they did not kill and who fled from them and raised the alarm.
Subsequently when it became light they were surrounded on a hill-top several kilometers from Etzion. At no point did they consider retreating. The Arab forces called on the nearby villagers to join the attack and eventually after many hours the 35 were overcome and any still alive were murdered. A new settlement was later established nearby in their name called Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh where there is a monument to their courage and bravery.
This incident, although a severe defeat for Israel, was in other respects a pyrrhic victory. Apparently after the massacre, the local Arab villagers, impressed by the fighting courage of the Lamed-Heh group, realized that if Jews fought like this then they could not be defeated. For whatever reasons the siege of the Etzion bloc was not re-enforced for another 2 months, giving the Israeli side the opportunity to strengthen the southern approaches to Jerusalem.
Eventually with the help of the Jordanian Arab Legion the Etzion bloc was over-run, and 127 of the 131 defenders were massacred. The kibbutz was razed to the ground by the Arabs, as if it never existed. But, in a strange turn of events, one Jordanian officer saved a woman defender from being raped and killed by local villagers, and then he took her and a small group of other survivors with him as prisoners to Jordan where they spent the rest of the war as POW’s until repatriated back to Israel.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Etzion area was recaptured from the Jordanians and some of the children of the original settlers returned and today it is a thriving community. Let those who oppose the existence of the State of Israel learn about our true and tortuous history, so they know that we are not colonialists or imperialists, but are in fact the indigenous people reclaiming our land at great cost from Arab usurpers.