Charge! And Charge again! And again! And again!

No other Australian battle has been reenacted as often as the Battle of Beersheba. Although the America Civil War is the most reenacted war in history, something about the 1917 charge of the Light Horse on the Turkish foothold in Palestine has the same elements of attraction for Australian reenactors. It’s probably the comforting links back to preindustrial warfare and to an ‘Outback’ national mythos that makes this ANZAC Melbourne Cup so attractive for those who want to feel what it felt like a hundred years ago.

But, reenactment was at the battle’s very origin. For decades a photograph of distant horsemen against a parched horizon was taken to be an authentic document grabbed by a frightened Turk as the 800 hoses thundered down on him. It wasn’t, it was taken by Frank Hurley more than three months after the battle in early 1918. Hurley characteristically exaggerated the number of men put at his disposal for the reenactment to 1000, but the men themselves resented being conscripted for such a ‘rehearsal’ so soon after the trauma of the actual event, and refused to push  their horses to a full gallop.

A supplied image obtained Wednesday, October 11, 2017 of “‘Thunder of a light horse charge’. This photograph has been described as one of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on the 31st October 1917. It’s now believed to have been taken by photographer Frank Hurley in February 1918. (AAP Image/ Australian War Memorial) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Hurley filmed the charge again twenty years later in 1938, this time as a teaser for the financial backers of Charles Chauvel’s patriotic blockbuster Forty Thousand Horsmen, eventually released right on cue for World War Two in 1940. They borrowed some cavalry horses from Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations and got them thunder over the sand hills at Cronulla as Hurley filmed them from a trench dug into the sand. (The future famous war photographer Damien Parer, who also occasionally included reenactments in his subsequent newsreels, was also there filming amongst the horses)

Beersheba Reenactment, Winton Queensland, September 2017

In September this year a hundred horses reenacted the charge at Winton in Queensland, and on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle a couple of days ago Australian enthusiasts reenacted the charge in front of the prime minister and opposition leader back at Beersheba, now in Israel, on  horses borrowed from an Israeli pony club.

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

The first assault on the dignitaries was at a slow trot, but later  thirty horses suddenly returned for a charge at full gallop.

Beersheba reenactment, Israel, October 2017

In the Footsteps of Others at AAANZ

My colleague from the University of Canberra, Louise Curham, and myself are convening a session on reenactment at the conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, ‘The Work of Art’, to be held in Canberra 1-3 December.  Check out the call for papers. Proposals are due to Louise by 26 August. Here is our session abstract:

In the footsteps of others

Louise Curham (University of Canberra) and Martyn Jolly (Australian National University) 


This session follows on from the 2015 AAANZ panel on re-enactment and repetition as generative strategies used by contemporary artists. Extending those ideas, this panel explores the broader idea of ‘walking in the footsteps of others’ as an empathic, affective experience. Reenactment has surrounded us in contemporary art and museum practice. At AAANZ 2015, a panel convened by Lucas Ihlein and Louise Curham discussed “Re-enactment / Repetition / Reiteration / Re-performance as embodied research”. Developing from the lively discussion that that panel engendered, we ask again, why re-enact? We know the work re-enactment can do for traditional idea of preservation (Santone, 2008). We know the problems of trying to touch an authentic past, the queasiness of the syncopation of the time of the earlier work and the time of our work (Schneider, 2011). So why do it again? Perhaps it’s different if we ask why walk in the footsteps of others? This session invites reflections on the empathic, affective experience of 2 doing something that’s been done before, a strategy that contemporary curators, historians and artists continue to deploy, as performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider puts it, we to try to get at a past that is not present and yet, through re-enactment, not not present. Through this lens of we can also again pick over the problems of the authentic original, the work re-enactment can do for preservation, along with what happens when we try to re-stage, re-enact and repeat from within the institution. Contributions are invited for this panel involving (but not limited to): • Walking in the footsteps of others – we think of re-enactment as putting us in a specific material relation to experiences from the past. What happens if this is reframed as an attempt to absorb something of the forces of the past, their affect? • How does re-enactment relate to reproduction? In reproduction the material end-result of the work of art is remanufactured. However in reenactment the process of art work itself is reconstructed. The reenactor becomes a reworker. • The experience of curation, the work of art history and making artworks as re-enactment • The impact of the experience of re-enactment. What might it do to audiences, be they readers, gallery visitors, peers? Why re-enact? • Discussion of ‘contact’ with work from the past – learnings about the original and its preservation and how we do the work of ‘archiving’ • Exploration of specific Australian contributions to this field. We also invite non-traditional and performative presentations which physically enact or re-enact as their creative / scholarly contributions to this panel (pending technical feasibility and approval of the AAANZ conference convenors).