During World War I, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was allied with Germany and Austro-Hungary. In January 1915, a force of 20,000 Turkish troops set out from the Negev and crossed the Sinai Desert in an attempt to attack the Suez Canal, which was under British control. The attack was a failure.
Major-General John Maxwell, commander of the British forces in the Egyptian theatre, had however learnt a valuable lesson. To protect the Suez Canal from another attack, in March 1915 he ordered the British positions redeployed to the Sinai, on the eastern side of the canal.
Several months passed, and for the remainder of 1915 the Great War was focused on other fronts. In December 1915 however, having failed to wrest Gallipoli from the Turks, the British evacuated their forces to Egypt. As a result, thousands of Turkish troops were freed for a renewed offensive in the Sinai.
In April 1916 the Turks, aided by German officers, launched another offensive towards the Suez Canal. In the decisive battle at Romani (August 1916), the Turks suffered a crushing defeat.
In the wake of this battle, the British decided to take a more offensive stance and prevent the Turks from any future access to the canal. The mission was assigned to a special force, the Desert Column, in which the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division played an important role. These mounted troops were referred to as ANZAC, an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
The JNF, as custodian of the ANZAC Trail, seeks to preserve this history and retell it to new generations, while providing a source of tourism revenue for struggling communities in Israel’s South.
The ANZAC Trail
The ANZAC Trail is a sightseeing trail that traces the history of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division in the western Negev during World War I. The ANZAC horseman accomplished a tremendous outflanking manoeuvre that led to their making a mounted charge into Beersheba and capturing it from its Turkish defenders. The conquest of Beersheba was a proud chapter in the annals of Australia and New Zealand.
The Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel initiated the marking of the route and its preparation as a sign-posted hiking trail, and is overseeing the professional aspects of its development. JNF supporters in Australia and New Zealand funded the ANZAC Trail as a commemorative and educational project, with the Jewish National Fund in Israel bringing the initiative to fruition.
The ANZAC Trail is a depiction of desert ecology and the human endeavour to exist in this environment. Most importantly, the ANZAC Trail does historic justice to the events of World War 1 in the Negev and is an important addition to Israel’s tourist trails.
The ANZAC Trail, some 100 kilometres long, retraces and commemorates the route the ANZAC horsemen took when they conquered Beersheba. Several key elements include:
The ANZAC Memorial
The ANZAC Memorial commemorates the ANZAC soldiers who fell in battle in the Land of Israel. The monument was designed in the shape of the letter A, the first letter in ANZAC, and viewed from a distance it resembles the silhouette of the front of a horse.
The ANZAC Memorial is located in the heart of Be’eri Forest. The JNF purchased the land in the area during the 1930’s. On 6 July 1946, the first residents of Kibbutz Be’eri settled in the spot where the Nahabir rest area is now located, at the same time as the establishment of ten other Jewish communities on other JNF-owned land in the Negev.
The JNF maintains the forest and has marked hiking and biking trails through it. The trails pass several fascinating sites, including the remains of British bunkers dug during World War II, and abandoned sulphur mines. The Nahabir rest area, which is accessible to the disabled, is located near the old kibbutz’s security headquarters, water tower, and military positions from the War of Independence in 1948. During the month of February, the forest grounds are carpeted with beautiful red anemones that attract many visitors.
Tel Gamma (Tel el-Jemmi)
Tel Gamma rises above the western bank of the Besor Stream. The hill was a British army position. British lookouts and signalling teams were stationed on top of the hill, which overlooks the plains surrounding Gaza City, and sent messages to the troops in the field. At the foot of the hill the British built a reservoir and a field hospital where the wounded from the Second Battle of Gaza were treated.
Tel Gamma was inhabited during the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), and archaeologists have located the large Canaanite city of Yarza in this area. The city benefited from the fertile plains around it and from its location on an important trade route running along the Besor Stream en route to the port of Gaza.
An ANZAC sign stands on the southern slopes of the hill.
Nahal Assaf Lookout
A large rest area and lookout plaza, built with contributions from JNF supporters in Australia and New Zealand welcomes visitors to the Nahal Assaf Lookout. En route to the lookout point, you will pass columns commemorating the dates of the Gaza battles and the date Beersheba was conquered. The parking area and the lookout point are accessible to the disabled.
At Nahal Assaf the JNF has planted a desert forest covering 850 acres. Most of the trees planted are eucalyptus trees, while other broad-leaved trees and conifers make up the rest. The JNF has turned the streambed into a ‘field laboratory’ to demonstrate different methods of preventing erosion. Several soil-stabilising devices have been installed along the streambed as part of the development of technologies to fight desertification.
Nahal Assaf commemorates Assaf Shachnai, the commander of a Palmah squad that defended the Negev communities during the pre-state period. He was killed in December 1947 along with five of his men near Kafr Shu’ut, close to Gevulot Junction.
Besor Park (Eshkol National Park) Shellal
In the centre of the park, which boasts large grassy areas and thousands of palm trees, you will find the Besor springs, whose water fills picturesque shallow pools as it trickles down to the Besor streambed.
Around the abundant springs the British Army built its main forward water base for the forces on the Gaza-Beersheba front. It also built a dam on the Besor stream to create a reservoir for more than two million litres of water with the help of JNF Australia.
The ANZAC mounted forces knew the area as Shellal (the Besor ravine was known in Arabic as Wadi Shellal). At Khirbet Shellal, the small hill east of the springs, the troops discovered the remains of a Byzantine church floor with a spectacular mosaic. The mosaic was transferred to Australia where it is displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The British Army laid a railroad track in the Sinai, constructing it together with the advance of its troops, which reached as far as the Shellal (Besor) springs. After World War I, a railroad bridge for the Rafah-Beersheba line was built near the springs. In Besor Park one can see a restoration of part of the bridge and a replica of a goods wagon from the period.
An entrance hall containing a replica of the original mosaic as part of the ANZAC Trail is in the planning stages.
The Besor Route- The Besor Route runs some 18 kilometres along the western bank of the ravine. The track is suitable for cars but should be driven along carefully. The route was built by the JNF in conjunction with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and Eshkol Regional Council.
Along the route and within the ravine, one can see sections of the light railway line that led from the Besor springs to the British field units stationed along the Besor streambed. The route passes through Tel el-Fara (Sheruhen), which is adjacent to the west bank of the Besor stream. A sign on the hilltop describes the life of the ANZAC horsemen stationed around the hill.
Another site worth visiting is the Reservoir Lookout, located near the new Besor reservoirs built by the JNF together with Mekorot with a donation from JNF Australia. The reservoirs, which hold 7 million cubic metres, collect the flood waters that flow through the Besor ravine and also utilise purified wastewater from the Dan Region. The water from these reservoirs irrigates some 2,500 acres of orchards.
At the foot of the reservoirs is a sign describing how water was supplied to the ANZAC forces serving in the area.
Golda Park (Bir Asluj)
Golda Park covers both sides of the Revivim streambed and was formerly a gravel quarry. After the closure of the quarry, the JNF rehabilitated the landscape and developed the area as a leisure spot with large lawns, picnic areas, a lookout point and hiking trails.
A children’s playground has been established with the help of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia. Floodwaters and the waters of a saltwater well are collected here to create a beautiful lake.
The ANZAC horsemen knew this area as Bir Asluj. The water-rich wells in the area made the spot strategically valuable. At the end of the 19th century the Ottoman regime erected a service centre here for the Bedouin of the area. Bir Asluj was also alongside the railway route built by the Turks to the Sinai Peninsula in their efforts to reach the Suez Canal. The railway reached Kuseima in the eastern Sinai but its construction was stopped in the summer of 1916 after the Turkish defeat at Romani.
Near Mashabim Junction the ruins of a large Turkish railway bridge can be seen arching across the Revivim streambed. The ANZAC Mounted Division blew the bridge up on 23 May 1917.
Bir Asluj was one of the way-stations for the ANZAC horsemen during the Great Outflank. Although the Turkish forces had destroyed the wells when they withdrew from the area before the attack on Beersheba, they were rebuilt by ANZAC engineers. Several of the mounted regiments camped at Bir Asluj the day before the attack on Beersheba. It was from here that they marched through the night, arriving at dawn on 31 October 1917 at the positions from which they launched the assault on the city.
Plans to use the British well house in Golda Park as an information centre on the ANZAC Trail are in the advanced stages.
Sites in Be’er Sheva (Beersheba)
During the Ottoman period, the Beersheba area was known for its many wells and as an important meeting place for the Negev Bedouin. At the beginning of the 20th century the Ottoman regime wanted to strengthen its control in the Negev and it built a well-planned city here. Modern Beersheba was inaugurated in 1907.
During World War I, Beersheba became an important military base and logistical centre, as the desert city had 17 abundant wells. The Turkish forces defending the city numbered around 4,300 soldiers and 1,000 mounted troops.
Four sites in the city and its environs are included in the ANZAC Trail.
Tel Be’er Sheva (Tel el-Saba)
Tel Be’er Sheva is a National Park with remains dating from biblical Beersheba. UNESCO has declared the hill a World Heritage Site. The hill, which lies 5 kilometres east of the Turkish Beersheba, rises 20 metres above its surroundings.
The strong position the Turks established here was a key obstacle to the conquest of the city, and the ANZAC troops had to conquer it before storming the city itself. The Turkish soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 pm that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a hand-to-hand battle.
Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel, the Desert Mounted Corps commander, found himself facing a dilemma. Daylight was fading and there was not sufficient time to properly regroup for a charge on Beersheba. An unsuccessful attack would mean retreating all the way to Bir Asluj.
Putting off the attack until morning would mean eliminating the element of surprise, also giving the Turks time to destroy the city’s wells. Chauvel decided to attack, and assigned the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
The Be’er Sheva Stream Park and the Turkish Bridge
The area between Tel Be’er Sheva and the Turkish city of Beersheba is now a large park that runs along the Be’er Sheva streambed for some eight kilometres. The park was built with the help of JNF supporters from all over the world, in cooperation with the Shikma-Besor Drainage Authority, Be’er Sheva Municipality and the Environmental Protection Ministry. In the heart of the park you will find the restored structures of the Beit Eshel Lookout.
About a kilometre west of Beit Eshel are the impressive remains of the Turkish railroad bridge that spanned the Be’er Sheva streambed.
At 4:30 pm on 31 October, the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General William Grant, cantered towards the Turkish positions, which were near Beit Eshel (now in the heart of the Be’er Sheva Stream Park). The Turks expected that, as usual, the Australian horsemen would advance until reaching the range of the defenders’ rifles, and then dismount and charge on foot.
But there was a surprise awaiting them. At the signal, the Australians galloped directly into the Turkish defensive lines and overran them with lightning speed. The 4th and 12th Regiments exploited the breach and its horsemen galloped directly into the centre of the city to capture the wells.
Beersheba had been taken with the water wells still intact.
Located at the corner of Herzl and Ha’atzmaut Streets, in the heart of the Old City. Allenby Park was planted in 1902 and was one of the country’s first public gardens. It was located near the Turkish Government House (the Saraya building) and was used for public assemblies.
In 1915, at the order of the Turkish Army commander Djemal Pasha, the park was refurbished. The gardeners, most of them graduates of the Mikveh Yisrael Agricultural School, created a symmetrical garden with four entrances from which four paths led to the centre of the park where a marble pillar bore a commemorative inscription.
After the British conquest, a statue of General Edmund Allenby was placed on the pillar. The park has undergone numerous modifications, and the Be’er Sheva Municipality plans to restore it with the help of the JNF.
The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
Located in Ha’atzmaut Street, at the corner of Hertzfeld Street. The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery was established after the conquest of Beersheba in 1917. There are 1,239 soldiers buried here, among them members of the ANZAC Corps that fell in battle in the region stretching from the Besor stream to Be’er Sheva and north to Yavne. The ANZAC fallen buried in Be’er Sheva include 174 Australians and 31 New Zealanders.
The Park of the Australian Soldier
Located on Ahimeir Street, between Masada and Shaul Hamelech Streets
The Park of the Australian Soldier is a memorial park and public playground, with special facilities and equipment for children with various types of disabilities. The park aims to promote the integration of special-needs children into the community.
The Park of the Australian Soldier commemorates the ANZAC Mounted Division that captured Beersheba. In the centre of the park is the impressive bronze statue of an Australian Light Horseman designed by Peter Corlett. A memorial ceremony for those who fell in the Battle of Beersheba is held near the monument on 31 October every year, with representatives from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Turkey and Israel participating.