CORPORAL JOHN FIELDING
AUSTRALIAN LIGHT HORSE
31ST OCTOBER 1917 AGE 22
BURIED: BEERSHEBA WAR CEMETERY, ISRAEL
On 31 October 1917 the British (at the time the term British would automatically have included Empire and Commonwealth soldiers) secured the capture of the Ottoman-held town of Beersheba with a magnificent Australian cavalry charge that has gone down in legend. The capture of the town, important though it was, was perhaps of less importance than the capture of its wells since the British soldiers and their horses had been short of water for days.
Some parts of the town had been captured during the day but the British wanted total possession and the day was getting late. The commanders therefore decided to gamble on a full-scale cavalry charge and the task was entrusted to the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse regiments. Much has been written about this famous charge, which rode off at 4.30 pm just as the sun was beginning to set. Armed only with their bayonets, the cavalry was organised into three lines, each line 300 yards apart, and each man keeping a distance of five yards between him and the next to minimise the impact of enemy artillery. As the Ottoman lines came into view the Australians spurred their horses into a gallop and rode straight into a hail of artillery and machine-gun fire. Within in an hour they had achieved their objective and although the Ottoman commander tried to destroy the wells all but two were saved.
It was a magnificent achievement but amongst all the hyperbole that has been subsequently written about the event, I love the 12th Light Horse's laconic war diary entry:
October 31 1917:
"The Regiment moved on Beersheba at the gallop. Heavy enemy rifle and machine gun fire developed on the left flank ... This fire was silenced by artillery. The leading Squadron came under very heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire from the trenches, ... On reaching a point about 100 yards from these trenches, one Troop of A Squadron dismounted for action, and the remainder of the Squadron galloped on ... The Regiment, less 1 troop, kept straight on to Beersheba."
John Fielding was in A Squadron. Eight hundred men began the charge in which 31 were killed, mainly in the hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches.
Fielding was born in Rawtenstall, Manchester and arrived in Australia in 1908 when he was 13. He enlisted in January 1915 and served in Gallipoli from August to December that year. His father chose his inscription. He began it with a reference to Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, a euphemism for dying:
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea
And concluded it by indicating his pride in his son's participation in this legendary event. There's one other point about the inscription. John Fielding's father says, 'he crossed the bar for his country', which country? I'm going to say Britain, and by that I mean the British Empire because at that time many Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans thought of themselves as British, despite the fact that so many episodes, like the 'glorious charge at Beersheba', have now become building blocks in the construction of their various nationhoods.