The Dandy of Beersheba

t922LeonardKnightonMissenOne year and one day after the Gallipoli landing in the First World War, a Morse code expert Sapper Len Missen was taken on strength in Romani, Egypt, by the Auckland signals squadron of the ANZAC Mounted Division. He didn’t know it at the time, but the wide-eyed Australian Light Horseman was being given a front row seat to see the last great cavalry charge in history. This week on the 31st of October, it’s the 100th anniversary of that momentous event.

Len was a spirited nineteen-year-old in Melbourne in 1915, when he began reading in the newspapers the letters from young Australian soldiers in faraway places of the ancient Assyrian and Byzantium Empires, and Constantine the Great. Egyptian rulers Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II, were being brought to life for these Australians, and Len wanted to join them.

Len always displayed a penchant for dubious scheming. He had been expelled from Avenal State School, one hundred and thirty kilometres north of Melbourne, after his older brother Claude tempted him to go fishing when he should have been in detention. Now the boys hatched a plan to enlist in the army together. Claude had a dodgy right eye which meant he’d need Len to take the medical examinations for both of them. The plan failed of course, and although Len was now in the army alone, the schemes didn’t end.

Len was in training camp when he was arrested and convicted for “unlawfully disposing of a pair military trousers” and “unlawfully having five pairs of military trousers in his possession”. He’d been buying spare trousers from hard-up soldiers, and on-selling them for a profit. The police magistrate didn’t want to stop the youngster going to the front, so instead of imprisonment, Len forfeited his profits courtesy of a £2 fine and 16/ costs.

“My father Claude reckoned Len something of a dandy as his photograph attests,” nephew John Missen recalled a century later, referring to the photograph shown here, taken in a studio in Alexandria in Egypt. “A close look reveals much better riding breeches than those issued by the army, more officer-like than those of a sapper.”

It was in Cairo, and then Alexandria in mid-1917, that Len was twice punished for breaking out of barracks. It wasn’t anything serious, just a twenty-one-year-old boy exploring the faraway places of his dreams. And he continually wrote letters home to Claude. In a letter written in mid-December 1917 and published in the Melbourne Age, Len gave an eye-witness account of the Battle of Beersheba, and the world’s last great cavalry charge by the Australian Light Horse.

The battle was a brilliant victory by the ANZAC Mounted Division of high speed and outflanking in the parching Palestinian desert – modern day Israel – in which the Ottoman defenders were caught unawares.

Len picks up the story on the 30th of October, the day before the great charge.

“It was a bright, moonlight night, very cool and fresh, and we all, more or less, enjoyed the ride. For the greater part of the journey we stuck to the road, and the going was splendid. As we neared Beersheba, in the early hours of the morning, we left the road and made a detour, so as to avoid any patrols or outposts; and shortly before daylight we came to a halt several miles beyond Beersheba, and everything was got in position for attack. The infantry had also taken up their position during the night, and attack from the rear and front was launched simultaneously.”

Once the New Zealanders, with Len in signals, captured Tel el Saba, the Australians were ordered to attack the final objective: Beersheba itself.

As the sun set on the 31st of October 1917, five hundred riders and horses of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments thundered headlong towards the enemy with bayonets in hand as their only weapon, with their rifles slung across their backs. The Australians charged at a full gallop, shouting as one voice, but didn’t dismount as was the practice of light horse. That meant that they came upon the Turks so quickly that guns with sights set for a longer distance, proved next to useless. This brave action stunned the eight hundred terrified Ottoman defenders, who managed to inflict only sixty-seven casualties on the Australian horsemen before being overrun and surrendering. As well as providing an epic spectacle, the charge ensured that the wells were secured before nightfall. The water was critically needed by the dehydrated horses which had been ridden for three days without water. The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba was immediately the stuff of legend.

“The Light Horse were first to enter the town, and do the clearing up. The town was mined everywhere, and it was not safe to touch anything, not even to pick up a piece of wood. Several railway carriages standing at the stations were full of dynamite. One chap picked up a bottle labelled “Walker’s Whisky,” and when he pulled the cork it exploded and blew him to atoms.

Although they blew up some of their dumps we captured tons of grain, ammunition, equipment, rations, and several guns. About 4,000 prisoners were taken.

“We captured a German wireless station at Beersheba, and we hope to get possession of it as soon as we get settled down.”

This was the beginning of the end of the war in the Middle East. Just 11 days later – at the very moment that Len was penning his letter – the British General Allenby, whose army included the ANZACs, entered Jerusalem. He was the first Christian to control Jerusalem since the Crusades half a millennium earlier.

Len Missen was a dandy, a young man who was unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable.

Len and his nephew John are cousins of my dad. I’ve always felt a connection with John, who is now 91 and living in Mornington, Victoria. Maybe I feel that way because John and Dad were born just days apart, and have a number of other similarities. But I think also because of their common sense of adventure, just like Sapper Len Missen, the Dandy of Beersheba.

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