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Remarks by Ambassador Dave Sharma at the Battle of Beersheva Commemoration 2015

Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Be’er Sheva
30 October 2015

Distinguished guests one and all, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me first acknowledge and, on behalf of the guests assembled here today, convey our sincere sympathy and condolences to the Mayor and people of Be’er Sheva for the terrorist attack perpetrated against them less than a fortnight ago.

We mourn for the lives lost and pray for the recovery of the injured. Our thoughts and condolences are with the city of Be’er Sheva as it recovers from this terrible attack.

98 years ago, almost to the day, horsemen of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments lined up on the high ground, to the south east of Ottoman-held Be’er Sheva.

It was late in the day, and the sun was drifting towards the horizon.

The attack on Be’er Sheva had commenced at 555 that morning. British, New Zealand and Australian offensives had achieved a good share of their objectives.

But the town of Be’er Sheva itself, and its eponymous seven wells, remained in the hands of the Turkish defenders.

And so a last desperate push was required if Be’er Sheva was to be captured on this first day, as General Allenby’s campaign plan demanded.

In October 1917, the outcome of the First World War still hung in the balance. We tend to forget this now and, blessed with hindsight, imagine an Allied victory to be pre-ordained.

In fact, in October 1917, it looked anything but.

At that time, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany, were holding firm.

And it was the governments who had brought the Allied Powers into the war – the Asquith Government in Britain, the Viviani Government in France, and the Czar in Russia – that had collapsed or been overthrown.

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign, a military catastrophe in Mesopotamia, and setbacks on the Western Front had greatly damaged Allied morale.

Of only peripheral importance when the First World War broke out in 1914, by 1917 the Middle East theatre had become critical to the outcome.

Lloyd George, the new British Prime Minister, was an ‘Easterner’ in both his war strategy and goals – he saw the Middle East in general, and the territory of Palestine in particular, as vital strategic interests.

Two earlier Allied attempts to break the Turkish defensive line running from Gaza on the coast to Be’er Sheva 43 kilometres inland – the First and Second Battles of Gaza – had failed. This was the third such attempt.

This, then, was the backdrop to the Battle of Be’er Sheva.

And so it was that at 430pm that afternoon, the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments drew up behind a ridge some four miles to the south-east of the town, and moved off at a trot.

Surprise and speed were their one chance, and almost at once their pace quickened to a gallop.

Following close behind were supporting forces, from the 11th Light Horse Regiment and from the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades.

Facing sustained enemy fire, but moving fast, the mounted infantry rode under the Turkish guns and quickly fell upon enemy lines

jumping the trenches, dismounting their horses, and then entering the trenches on foot, clearing them with both rifle and bayonet.

Other parts of the force rode on, heading directly for the town.

Though outnumbered, the momentum and audacity of the surprise attack carried them through Turkish defences.

The light horsemen took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Be’er Sheva. Some 750 Turkish and German soldiers were taken prisoner.

The capture of Be’er Sheva was complete by nightfall, and the Gaza-Be’er Sheva defensive line broken.

Most importantly, the precious wells were secured. Not since the days of Abraham had the water in the old wells of the patriarchs been such welcome relief.

It was the success and desperation of the Charge, late in the day and by mounted infantry, not cavalry, that earned it an immortal place in Australian history.

The breakthrough at Be’er Sheva set the stage for rapid Allied advances in coming weeks.

The Turkish stronghold of Gaza fell one week later. Allied troops then went on to capture Jerusalem and Jericho, Damascus and Aleppo.

The Ottoman Empire’s control of the Middle East was shattered irrevocably, setting the stage for the post-war settlement that still exists – under varying degrees of strain – in the Middle East today.

In a symmetry of history, the same day as the Battle of Be’er Sheva, 31 October 1917, the British War Cabinet in London approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations.

Together, these two developments – the Balfour Declaration, and the Battle of Be’er Sheva – would set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

The Battle of Be’er Sheva, though mild by the standards of the bloody Western Front, nonetheless exacted its share of human tragedy.

31 Light Horsemen were killed in the charge. But the heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry. New Zealand also suffered for its heroic efforts in taking Tel el Saba.

Brave Turkish and German troops died that day as well, defending their lines, and in large numbers.

Jewish-Australians made up part of the ANZAC contingent. Most famous amongst them was Major Eric Montague Hyman, who was raised in Tamworth and lead the A Squadron of the 12th Light Horse Regiment.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his role in the charge, for “conspicuous gallantry and dash in action”.

In the cemetery around us, 1241 Commonwealth soldiers are buried, some of whom fought in this very battle we are commemorating.

We come here today to pay our respects to those men of all countries and nations who fought in this deadly theatre of the First World War.

We recognise that these men, who were ready to sacrifice their life in service of their country, exemplified values of the highest order: honour, courage, loyalty and duty.

Values that we continue to hold dear and cherish.

Today, we honour their memory.


Youth mental health, Headspace Bat Yam, and what Israel has learnt from Australia:

Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma's Op-Ed in Maariv, July 19

As we pass the first anniversary of the outbreak of last summer's war with Gaza, people are quite properly remembering the suffering and pain that this war caused, in both Israel and Gaza.

Some of these scars are visible. Others, equally as painful, are hidden from the eye. We rightly remember the physical cost of this war. But the toll taken on mental health - and especially amongst young people - was equally high.

A few weeks back I attended the opening of the Headspace clinic in Bat Yam, the very first centre in Israel dedicated solely to treating youth mental health issues.

Any parent knows that the teenage and young adult years are some of the most difficult in a child’s life. It is a time of immense transition and challenge. Depression, anxiety, relationship breakdowns, bullying, military service, peer pressure, drug use, social isolation, self-image and sexuality – these are just some of the challenges faced.

Add to this the emotional toll of living in a state of war for over 50 days, and it is little wonder that youth mental health problems spiked in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge.

Mental health issues are in fact the biggest health issue facing young people. One in four young people will experience a mental health problem by the age of 25. Suicide is the second most common cause of death amongst young people in Israel. Every day in Israel, on average, 17 Israelis attempt suicide. Hundreds more suicide attempts by teenagers go unreported.

These are sobering statistics, and they make a compelling case for improved mental health treatment for youth in Israel.

Headspace clinics were first established in Australia in 2006, with a view to improving the mental health of our youth population. The motto of Headspace is simple: “We help young people going through a tough time.”

There are now over one hundred Headspace centres operating around Australia, with more opening each year. The secret to the effectiveness of these centres is three-fold.

Firstly, mental health needs are just as acute and just as prevalent amongst youth populations as they are amongst the adult population.

Secondly, youth need their own treatment facilities for mental health. The stigma of mental health, insecurities, and family and societal pressures all mean that adult mental health facilities are not up to the task of dealing with young patients. A different environment and approach is needed – one that is friendly, accessible, private and non-judgemental.

Thirdly, early identification and treatment of mental health issues is essential. If options for early treatment are not available, mistakes and decisions are often made which have long-term and damaging consequences. The impact on the lives of those involved, their families, and society at large, can be immense, and stretch for decades. And the costs to the public health system are orders of magnitude larger.

In six short months only, Headspace Bat Yam has learnt these lessons and more. It has conducted over three hundred consultations and treated over two hundred patients. It has tapped a previously unmet and unmeasured demand for youth mental health services in Israel. And its early intervention model promises better lives and better public health outcomes.

Australia has been a proud supporter of these efforts. Not only has Headspace Australia helped establish the model here in Israel, but many Australian Jewish families – the Pratt, Lowy, Gandel, Saunders and Smorgon families – have provided financial support to this Israeli pilot.

We have taken to heart the view that the best way to ensure the future success of Israel is to help invest in Israel’s youth.

Headspace is a genuine example of an Australian/Israeli Start-Up – disruptive, innovative, consumer-driven, results-oriented, and life-transformative.

The Australia-Israel bilateral relationship

To be an Ambassador to Israel is a great honour…We feel just as much at home here as anywhere we’ve lived” says Ambassador Dave Sharma in an interview with Dov Lipman on Voice of Israel.

June 2015

Press on the link to listen to the ambassador speak frankly about Australia-Israel relations as well as his personal experience in Israel over the past couple of years and his mission for the next two years.

See also

Development cooperation