I t was one of the last actions of the Great War and a scene of bitter fighting and heroism that contributed to the breaking of Turkish and German power in Palestine.
Overshadowed by the more famous ride on Beersheba, the Battle of Tzemach is to be commemorated by the State of Israel next year when a memorial to the Australian Light Horsemen who seized the village from its Turkish and German defenders 94 years ago is unveiled.
Fourteen Light Horsemen, including three officers, were killed during and after a gallant moonlit charge that overwhelmed Turkish and German machine gun and artillery positions just before dawn on September 25, 1918. They were buried on the shores of the Sea of Galilee alongside the 98 enemy dead. The Australian casualties have since been reburied at the Haifa War Cemetery.
A small but intense and bloody affair, the battle resulted in the death or injury of more than a quarter of its estimated 692 combatants. Half the Australians had their horses shot out from under them during the initial assault. Further heavy losses were sustained on both sides when opposing troops engaged each other in the darkened rooms of the village railway station with swords, bayonets and hand grenades.
''At dawn the two (Australian) squadrons rushed in on the concealed enemy,'' Australian official war historian, H.S. Gullett, wrote. ''The garrison, outnumbering the Australians by two to one, and made up largely of Germans, had, in addition to their extraordinary position and their machine guns, an ample store of hand grenades. They fought with exceptional boldness and stubbornness, their courage stimulated by an abundance of rum. But the Australians would not be denied.''
The Tzemach memorial is to be part of a study centre housed in the former railway station that will tell the story of a battle that, while small in scope, is rich in historic significance and heroism.
The attack was the last cavalry-style charge by Australian troops during WWI and the only one during which the Light Horse used drawn swords. These had been issued following the success of the much better-known assault on Beersheba immortalised in Ion Idriess's war diary The Desert Column and, in 1940, in Charles Chauvel's film 40,000 Horseman.
Chauvel, one of Australia's most influential early film directors and the man who launched actor ''Chips'' Rafferty, was the nephew of legendary Australian commander Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel. The elder Chauvel was the commander of The Desert Column at Beersheba in October 1917 and during ''The Great Ride'' that culminated in the fall of Damascus.
General Chauvel broke the Turkish and German hold on Palestine (modern day Israel) before linking up with Lawrence of Arabia's Bedouins to bring about the unconditional surrender of Turkey on October 30, 1918.
In September, 1918, Tzemach was, according to Gullett, ''a mean little mud village on southern edge of the Sea of Galilee'' (now known as Lake Kinneret).
''(It is) about a mile east of the outflow of the Jordan. The railway from Deraa, emerging from the great gorge of the Yarmuk, follows the Jordan plain in a north-westerly direction to Tzemach and then proceeds almost due south,'' he wrote.
The railway station, a two-storey building made out of white bricks and with a tiled roof, was the only substantial structure. The settlement's real importance, to both the allies and the Turks, was as the junction between the Haifa to Damascus railway line and the road up into Kinnereth, a Jewish settlement.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, General-Lieutenant Otto Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the Turkish forces in Palestine, had beefed up the defences. He appointed a German officer to command the Tzemach garrison and sent German machine gunners to augment the existing defences which included a 77mm German ''whiz bang'' field gun. This was later taken back to Australia and is now on display at Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane.
On the afternoon of September 24, 1918, Brigadier William Grant - the commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade - received orders from General Chauvel to attack Tzemach at dawn the following day.
He had been told the enemy had ''a few hundred men with some machine guns'' around the railway buildings. There were actually more than twice that number. When the 4th Light Horse Brigade's 11th Regiment was attacked with machine gun and rifle fire while still more than two kilometres from the village the order was given to ''form line and charge the guns''. Gullett, writing in the official war history, described this as a ''brave night gamble against a foe of unknown strength in a totally unknown position''.
''The men drew their swords as they moved into line and, within less than a minute, were galloping hard for the German machine guns. A nest of these was speedily overrun; but fire had also opened from the railway buildings which now showed up dimly in the moonlight about a mile (1.6km) away. Riding hard the Australians closed swiftly although holes in the ground brought down a number of horses. When about 800 yards (790 metres) away the enemy machine gun fire from the buildings became effective and several horses were crashed in their stride. Driving in their spurs the leaders quickened the pace but the fire had the effect of dividing the force,'' Gullett wrote.
''The squadron under Loynes, a headstrong veteran of the South African campaign, approaching 60 years of age, swung to the left while Costello led his men around the railway station on the right. The horses showed up dark and clear in the moonlight and the German gunners continued to shoot down both them and their riders. Loynes, galloping into the village, swung to the right and rode up under cover of some mud huts to within 150 yards of the main railway buildings. There he dismounted his men and led them on with the bayonet.''
The situation rapidly deteriorated with the Turkish and German defenders strongly positioned in a solid building from whose windows they could pour down heavy fire on the light horsemen from point-blank range.
''Many men were hit and the position was critical,'' Gullett wrote. ''A hot fire fight developed at revolver range and for more than an hour the struggle was stationary.''
It was at this point the Australian machine gunners, whose weapons had been pulled behind horses in the immediate wake of the charge, came to the rescue.
''(They) made it impossible for the Germans to hold the windows of the buildings and so substantially reduced the enemy's fire. At dawn the two squadrons rushed in on the concealed enemy.''
It was then the bitterest and most deadly hand-to-hand fighting began.
''Loynes' men, rushing from their cover, battered in the doors of the main station building and, entering one by one, followed the Germans and Turks in the darkness from floor to floor and from room to room with the bayonet. Captain W.F. Whitfield, Captain H.J Gee and Lieutenant F.G Farlow were killed in this fighting but there was no pause in the struggle until the whole of the enemy force was destroyed or captured.'' Gullett, who described the action as a ''stirring little fight'', concluded the ''dash of the light horse advance, followed by their steadiness under severe fire and their grim work with the bayonet'' was the outstanding feature of the battle.
''The machine gunners under Major H.W Harper also excelled. Advancing at the gallop over ground swept by bullets, they came into action at the critical moment, and by their sure fire made the final charge possible.''
The machine gunners were also able to destroy a motor boat that was being used by some of the defenders in an attempt to escape across the Sea of Galilee. ''The motor boat was caught by machine gun and Hotchkiss fire and burst into flames, only one man escaping destruction''.
''The Christian and Moslem dead were buried side by side on the edge of the Sea of Galilee in one of the most impressive of all the cemeteries of the war.''
The Tzemach railway station was gutted by fire during the war for Israeli statehood in 1948 and has been left unused for the last 63 years.
The Israeli Government has allocated funds to redevelop it as an educational complex complete with a visitors' centre and full documentation of its bloody past.
Based around the former railway buildings, the Kinneret College will accommodate up to 4000 students and include schools of engineering, social sciences, humanities and arts and health studies.
The development, which is to feature a Land of Israel Studies Centre and a Galilean Archaeology Institute, is expected to cost about $13million. Of this almost $1.2 million has been allocated for the restoration of the railway buildings that were the scene of the brutal hand-to-hand fighting on the morning of September 25, 1918.
A further $500,000 has been allocated for the visitors centre.
Once the scene of hatred and violence, the new college is to be dedicated to peace and reconciliation with student dormitories expected to allow a cross-cultural experience with Jewish, Arab and Druze students all having the opportunity to live together.
All students will be required to attend compulsory courses on Society and State.
David Ellery is Defence Reporter for The Canberra Times
Tzemach part of an important link to the coast
Commissioned by the Ottoman Empire, the railway line through Tzemach was part of the Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Mecca. It was part of a branch line to the Mediterranean Sea. An ambitious project, even by the standards of the golden age of railways, the Hejaz Railway was headed by German engineer Heinrich Meissner. It had been Meissner's idea to build the line to the coast. Work on the branch line began at Haifa on the coast in 1903 and the tracks reached Tzemach in 1905, with the first train reaching the Jordan Valley on September 1 that year. Regular operations commenced in May 1906 following the long awaited completion of a vital bridge over the Yarmuk River. The main station buildings were finished and in use by mid-1907.
At the time of the Australian attack in 1918 the railway complex was the most imposing - and defensible - collection of buildings for miles around. It was for this reason the Turks and the Germans ringed the forward perimeter with 13 machine guns in four different emplacements protecting the rifle pits under the station walls. The defences were also stiffened by a 77mm field gun.
In addition to the main station of two storeys there was a 30m-long platform, a steel water tower encased in basalt that pumped water from the nearby Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), a large locomotive shed capable of housing two engines and a turntable that allowed engines to be turned around. Tzemach was linked to nearby Tiberias, also captured by the allies on September 25, 1918, by a ferry service. Allied engineers repaired damage to the railway soon after the attacks.
In the post-war period, Palestine passed into British control under a League of Nations mandate. Tzemach was on the border with French-controlled Syria and became the point at which the engines of Palestine Railways were changed for those operated by DHP, a Syrian-French concern. The locomotive shed, and the turntable, were used by both companies.
During the Israeli struggle for independence against the British in 1946 the bridge over the Yarmuk River was blown up. The station was finally closed for good when, in 1948, Syria invaded in the wake of the Israeli declaration of independence. Tzemach, which had grown from a handful of mudhuts into a town of more than 3000 people, was the scene of fierce fighting before finally being retaken by the Israelis. The main building was gutted by fire and has remained roofless to this day.