Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba – Major General Sir Granville Ryrie

  • October 26, 2017

On 31 October, Australia will commemorate the centenary of the famous charge of our 4th Light Horse Brigade at the battle of Beersheba. This was the last great charge of the Light Horse, the world’s greatest mounted column to take the field since Alexander the Great.

We will commemorate our soldiers’ courage in defence of their ideals, the mateship they showed under fire and their solidarity with the allies they fought alongside, and we will remember a battle and a victory that for so long was understated in the annals of Australian military history, despite its scale and importance in bringing an end to the Ottoman Empire.

Today I want to pay special tribute to one of our great leaders during that battle and a leader of his community in this parliament, Major General Sir Granville Ryrie, the third member for North Sydney.

Granville Ryrie, or ‘Bull’ Ryrie, as the Light Horse affectionately called him, was born in Michelago in country New South Wales on 1 July 1865, not far from where our national capital would be later established. As a young man, Sir Granville worked as a jackeroo, learning the horseback skills which later earned the respect of the Light Horse. Even more interestingly, he took the time to learn about the local Indigenous people and to learn their language.

Sir Granville Ryrie joined the 1st Australian Horse in 1898, serving in the South African war, where he was wounded. In 1904, the regiment became the 3rd Light Horse, and he became its commanding officer. In the same year, Sir Granville entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, representing Queanbeyan, before joining the still-nascent federal parliament in 1911 as the member for North Sydney.

In 1914 he volunteered for the front, telling his wife he couldn’t look fellow Australians in the face if he stayed. In a sign of the respect he had won among his own constituents, the people of North Sydney came together to buy Sir Granville Plain Bill, a black charger which, despite the homely name, was regarded as one of the best mounts in the Allied forces.

Leading the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, Sir Granville was wounded twice at Gallipoli. He won the hearts of his men through his solidarity with them in the trenches and when he protested successfully against an attack order which he knew would’ve been a bloody failure. In tribute, they named their position on Holly Ridge Ryrie’s Post.

In 1916, Granville’s 2nd Light Horse Brigade was incorporated into the Anzac Mounted division and, with this division, Sir Granville took part in the battle of Beersheba, seizing the Hebron road. In a letter home, Sir Granville told the story of the charge his own men made through an enemy camp and in pursuit of Turkish cavalry and guns. In his book Beersheba, the journalist Paul Daley wrote that Sir Granville ‘forged a reputation as one of his country’s most fearless soldiers and finest leaders of men’.

Another predecessor of mine comes into the story here. Joe Hockey’s grandfather and namesake, Joseph Hokeidonian, was appointed deputy town clerk of Beersheba after the Allied victory.

Sir Granville continued to serve until the Armistice and was decorated several times. I want to particularly pay tribute to his honour and his humanity towards prisoners, on one occasion allowing 5,000 Turkish prisoners to keep their arms and to bivouac with his own soldiers to protect them from the anger of local Allied troops.

After the war, Sir Granville and the Light Horse returned to Sydney to a rapturous welcome. Some have estimated that 200,000 Australians waited at the docks for their arrival. I suspect no current politician would receive such a welcome on returning to their electorate!

Back in parliament, Sir Granville served as Assistant Minister for Defence from 1920 to 1921. In 1922, when Bendigo was at risk, he gave up his seat for Billy Hughes. Sir Granville himself was moved to the newly-created seat of Warringah and became its first member. In 1927, Sir Granville became High Commissioner to London, representing Australia at the League of Nations in Geneva as well. He passed away in 1937 and was buried in his home town, where his family still lives.

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of meeting with his great-grandson, Xander Ryrie, who followed the example of Sir Granville and served in the Australian Army for several years. His own service took him in Sir Granville’s footsteps, as a peacekeeper on the Israeli-Egyptian border, wearing the blue cap.

Granville Ryrie was a man who served North Sydney and who served his country with courage and honesty and with a sense of the value of each Australian. He showed an interest in Indigenous Australians when few did and always stood beside the soldiers he led in several wars, as his wounds bore witness to.

He was not the only North Sydney resident to show such qualities when their fellow Australians needed it, but he is representative of them all. In paying honour to him today I do so with a salute to the thousands of Australians who marched or rode beside him. We shall never forget their service to our nation.