Battle of Beersheba survivor sends sweet letter to Kurrajong woman

The front of the envelope.
The front of the envelope.

Tuesday, October 31 is 100 years since the ‘Charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade’ at Beersheba, part of World War I, which has Hawkesbury connections.

Second page of the letter (we did not get the first page).

Second page of the letter (we did not get the first page).

Not to be confused with the more famous Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 in the Crimean War, the Battle of Beersheba was part of the wider British offensive known as the third Battle of Gaza, according to the Australian War Memorial site where this account was sourced. The battle lasted all day in what is now Israel, ending with the famous cavalry charge which took the town of Beersheba.

Third page of the letter.

Third page of the letter.

The Hawkesbury connection came to us last week. Minnie Pittman, the great aunt of Basil Pittman and Donnie Webster of Kurrajong Heights/Bilpin, knitted socks as part of the Richmond & District Comfort Fund, which sent them to Australian troops overseas during WWI. The custom was to leave a little note of encouragement in the toe of the socks with your name and address so the soldier could write and thank you. 

The letter pictured here was from James Timmins of Yarramundi, who fought in the Battle of Beersheba and received socks knitted by Minnie. His letter of thanks left the front around January 5, 1918, two months after Beersheba, and was received around February 20. Basil Pittman found the letter amongst his mother’s things, and showed it to Kurrajong Heights resident Taia de Burca as he thought  she would be interested.

Last page of the letter.

Last page of the letter.

She brought a scan of it into the Gazette, along with a bit of research she’d done on the writer. She found Jim Timmins’ father had a butcher shop in Richmond. She also tracked down another Jim Timmins living near Mt Druitt in the hope he might be a relative.

“He said the Timmins family from Yarramundi came out as convicts from Ireland in around 1850, and they were a large family,” she said. “The father of the elderly man I spoke to also had a butcher shop, in Blacktown, so I don’t think they would have been too far apart on the family tree. Our fellow [the letter writer] would have been born about 1895.”

Ms de Burca said she believes Jim did come back from the war. 

Publicity shot from the 1987 film 'The Lighthorsemen' abut the legendary charge at Beersheba (not to be confused with the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War).

Publicity shot from the 1987 film 'The Lighthorsemen' abut the legendary charge at Beersheba (not to be confused with the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War).

The battle

The Australian War Memorial site says Turkish forces held the line from Gaza near the coast to Beersheba, about 46km to its south-east. The plan was to attack Beersheba by using mounted troops from the east while infantry attacked from the south west. The plan was also to deceive Turkish forces into believing the offensive would be against Gaza.

The biggest problem was to find enough water in the area for the mounted troops. Old wells were found which made the attack on Beersheba a feasible operation.

Beersheba’s defences were held by 1000 Turkish riflemen, nine machine guns and two aircraft, with a series of trenches. The Turkish forces were relying on the forbidding open terrain and lack of water to defend the town.

Troops were told the town must be captured on the first day. On the night of October 30 about 40,000 allied troops trekked over 40km towards Beersheba, including most of the 20th Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps. Corporal Harold Gleeson’s diary said they got no water from the old well at Asluj and at 6pm had to keep moving all night on a “very weary and dusty ride of 30 miles”.

Private Hunter wrote “The dust was terrible. One could not see beyond his horses head. The horses braved the journey which was about 36 miles. Walked at my horses head for about 10 miles of flat country giving him a rest.” The horses were carrying packs of about 120kg, with no water available until they captured Beersheba. Many horses of the Desert Corps had already been without water for several days. 

The fall of a town 3km from Beersheba at about 3.15pm on October 31 meant brigades could start attacking Beersheba from the east. General William Grant Grant made the decision to order his light horsemen to charge cavalry-style, when they would normally have ridden close then dismounted to fight. “Men, you’re fighting for water,” he told one regiment. “There’s no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck.”

 Dead horses lie on the ground near a line of soldiers and other horses after the Battle of Beersheba. (AAP Image/ Australian War Memorial)

Dead horses lie on the ground near a line of soldiers and other horses after the Battle of Beersheba. (AAP Image/ Australian War Memorial)

They charged at dusk. A Private Keddie wrote after “we were all at the gallop yelling like mad, some had bayonets in their hand others their rifle then it was a full stretch gallop at the trenches . . . the last 200 yards or so was good going and those horses put on pace and next were jumping the trenches with the Turks underneath . . . When over the trenches we went straight for the town.”

The war memorial said the success of the charge was due to the shock value and sheer speed in which they took the town before it could be destroyed by the retreating Turkish forces. “The capture enabled British forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on November 7 and advance into Palestine,” it said.

Transcription of Jim’s letter

Palestine 21/12/17

Dear Minnie

A few days ago I received a parcel from the Richmond & District Comfort Fund which was very acceptable, among the contents were several pairs of socks which my mates & myself needed very much.

I also got a shirt so I can tell you I was not long getting out of my old duds. This happened after the fall of Beresheba & Goya & I can tell you we needed a clean up & in one of the socks I found your address so I thought I would write to you a few lines thanking you for all your trouble & to let you know somebody got the benefit of your socks, you must have knew my size in socks they fitted like a glove & you know a mans feet gets cold in a place like this.

I also got some socks made by Miss Beryl Giddens of Grose Vale so you see I have another letter to write yet. I suppose by now you have heard of the fall of Jeruselum & a few other small towns such as Jaffa, Duran, Ramleh, Hebron & a few other villages. The 4th Brigade have did their bit in this stunt alright. 

Its been raining here this last few days & it makes you feel very miserable, we are going to find Christmas in the front line this time under much worse conditions than last Christmas.

Its very rough country here too rough for the horses we had to send them back behind about twenty mile & climb the mountains on foot, we have had several frosts here lately one don’t want to be wet at night here too often. Once more I will thank you people of the Richmond Comfort fund for the nice parcel. I don’t know what we would do only for the girls. I will close now wishing you the jolliest of times through xmas & coming year. P.T.O.

Reg No. 1612 / 12th Regiment L. Horse

From your very 

Sincere Friend

Jim Timmins

I see in the local rag where some of the Kurrajong boys had a great welcome home.