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CWGC marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba

The capture of Beersheba from Ottoman forces was a key moment of the First World War in the Middle East. It will be marked at a commemorative service in the CWGC’s Beersheba War Cemetery today (Tuesday), to be attended by thousands including leading military and political figures. Here is more about the battle and the Commission’s work in Israel and Palestine.

The Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the First World War

British forces had been stationed in Egypt before the First World War, guarding the vital Suez Canal. After the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire, they were joined by Australian, Indian Army and New Zealand troops. After defending the Canal against Ottoman-led forces in 1915, a British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was formed of infantry and cavalry troops to advance into Sinai and Palestine. Today, the campaign is perhaps most famous for the role of Captain T.E. Lawrence – known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – who was an advisor to Arab forces fighting against Ottoman rule, but it also saw fierce fighting involving units from across the Commonwealth.

The Battle of Beersheba

In the early months of 1917, the EEF advanced from Sinai into Palestine, but by April the campaign reached a stalemate, which lasted for several months. In October 1917, the EEF attempted to break the deadlock by launching an attack against Ottoman forces entrenched along a line from Gaza to Beersheba.

The first blow was stuck at Beersheba on 31 October, by forces including Irish, Welsh and London regiments. Meanwhile, the Desert Mounted Corps, which included Australian and New Zealand cavalry units, had moved around the Ottomans and attacked them from behind. That evening, units of the Australian Light Horse charged across the Ottoman trenches into the town. Another attack came the next day at Gaza, and British Empire forces began to advance along the Ottoman positions, eventually capturing Gaza on 7 November.

Over the following months, British and Anzac forces continued to advance, and arrived at Jerusalem in early December. Further battles would be fought in Palestine throughout 1918, many involving the Indian Army. Victory over Ottoman forces at Megiddo in September 1918, followed by the capture of Damascus by Commonwealth and Arab troops, led to the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918, ending the war between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire.

Commemorating the fallen

There are more than 1,200 servicemen of the First World War buried in CWGC Beersheba War Cemetery, of whom more than 65 are unidentified.

It was first begun to bury the dead of 31 October 1917, when British Empire forces attacked and captured the Ottoman-held city of Beersheba. Burials continued until July 1918, by which time some 140 servicemen had been laid to rest there.

After the Armistice the cemetery was expanded with remains brought from across the region. In the early 1920s the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission added the architectural features and replaced temporary grave markers with permanent headstones.

Today, there are servicemen of British, Australian and New Zealand forces commemorated in the cemetery. Most died in October and November 1917 during the capture of Beersheba and the fighting in the region.

Those who died during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and who have no known grave are commemorated on the CWGC Jerusalem Memorial in Jerusalem. It bears the names of more than 3,300 servicemen of the First World War. The memorial was designed by Sir John Burnet, with sculpture by Gilbert Bayes. The mosaic in the Memorial Chapel was designed by Robert Anning Bell. The memorial was unveiled by Lord Allenby and Sir James Parr on 7 May 1927.