Reports sent back from this area indicated such a lack of water that it was clear that no more than one cavalry division could be maintained there. Accordingly the Australian Mounted Division was ordered to remain in Beersheba, in general reserve,[Pg 33] and was directed to endeavour to improve the water supply there. There were a few surface pools in the Wadi Saba, the result of a thunderstorm that had broken a few days previously, but these were already rapidly drying up. Of the seven good wells in the town, five had been blown up by the Turks on the night of the 31st, and the remaining two had been prepared for demolition, but the charges had not been fired. Our sappers were left in splendid isolation, as they gingerly probed the débris round these wells, and eventually located the charges and safely removed them.

The enemy had evidently intended, in the event of his having to abandon Beersheba, to leave nothing but ruins behind him, for the whole place was a nest of explosive charges, 'booby traps' and trip wires. By a fortunate chance the German engineer who was responsible for the destruction of the town was away on leave in Jerusalem at the time of its capture. Consequently most of these trip wires were not yet attached to their detonators. A few, however, had been connected up before the town was taken. The writer came across one such, while making a rapid artillery reconnaissance round the town at daybreak on the 1st of November. Luckily it was noticed before the party rode over it, and, on being cut and followed to its source, was found to be connected to a detonator concealed in twenty cases of gelignite in the railway station,—enough to have laid the whole town in ruins.

Large numbers of hand grenades had been concealed in stores of grain and food in different parts of the town, and there were one or two accidents at first among parties of too eager explorers. Sir Philip Chetwode, commander of the 20th Corps, moved his headquarters into Beersheba a day or[Pg 34] two later, and occupied the house of the enemy commander. On examining the building before he moved in, our sappers found it packed from cellar to garret with cases of explosives, all connected to trip wires.

This house was one of the fine stone buildings, of which there were a number, surrounding a large public garden, and which had been built by the Germans during the war. The whole of this modern portion of the town appeared to have been built for propaganda purposes, or like the cities of lath and plaster which are run up in a few days for cinematograph productions. From time to time articles on the war in the East appeared in the German papers, generally synchronising with some reverse on the Western Front. In these articles, which were lavishly illustrated, Beersheba figured under headings such as 'the Queen City of the Prairies.' Apparently, in order to supply the necessary pictures, the Germans had laid out a large public garden, and built around it a series of imposing public buildings, including a Governor's house, Government offices, hospital, barracks, mosque, and even an hotel. The surrounding country abounds in a species of hard white limestone admirably suited for building, and all the houses were built of this and roofed with red tiles. They were ranged round the square, like four rows of stiff white soldiers with red helmets, and were so sited that any number of photographs could be taken from various positions, each showing a different view, and each hiding the real town behind the brand new German architecture. But once behind these houses, a shocking contrast met the eye. Here was the real Beersheba, a miserable collection of filthy mud hovels, huddled shrinkingly together as though trying to hide their shabbiness[Pg 35] from their gorgeous neighbours. The place in the centre was conspicuously labelled 'Bier Garten,' and was laid out with a number of little paths in an exact, geometrical pattern. The flower-beds supported a few dusty shrubs and a quantity of those hideous 'everlastings' so dear to the Teuton heart. All the buildings were laid out exactly facing the four points of the compass, except the mosque, which, in deference to Moslem prejudices, had been built with its mihrab turned towards Mecca, and consequently was lamentably askew. The Huns had taken their revenge, however, by garnishing the windows with German stained glass of an ugliness so startling that the Australians vowed their horses shied at it!