Horses have played a special role in the story of Australia. For the first hundred years of European settlement they were the only means of transport across most of our huge country. Outside the few cities, ability to ride a horse was almost as basic as the ability to walk.
The value of the mounted soldier in Australia was first shown in 1804 when redcoats of the New South Wales Corps set out in pursuit of a large force of rebel convicts who had broken out of the Castle Hill Prison Farm.
Riding with the commanding officer of the Corps was a trooper called Thomas Anelzark, a member of Governor King’s mounted convict bodyguard. Anelzark scouted the rebels’ movements, helped capture their leaders and was slightly wounded in the Battle of Vinegar Hill that followed. He won a pardon and a land grant.
After this, men of the “bodyguard”, already described as “lighthorsemen”, played an increasingly important role and were fore-runners of a semi-military mounted police force..
Some of the British infantry regiments stationed in Australia found the need to create special mounted units. One of these units took part in the attack on the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in 1854.
That same year, three colonial governments created their own small cavalry forces, partly from fear of Russian invasion. This began the tradition of Australia’s mounted citizen soldiers – men who rode their own horses and trained in their spare time.
When war broke out in 1899 between Britain and the Boers of South Africa (“Boer” was Dutch for “farmer”) the Australian colonies sent troops to fight in the Imperial cause.
At first Britain was wary of using untried, unprofessional colonial cavalrymen. But she quickly saw that the slouch-hatted Australian “bushmen” were a match for the fast-moving and unconventional mounted commandoes of the Boers. Soon even Australian infantry were put on horseback.
The Australians proved themselves to be expert rough-riding horsemen and good shots. Bush life had hardened them to go for long periods with little food and water. They also showed remarkable ability to find their way in strange country and use its features for cover, in both attack and defence.
When a squadron of England’s famous 17th Lancers was wiped out by Boers, this was seen as part of a noble “death or glory” tradition. When a few hundred Australians and some Rhodesians held out successfully against several thousand encircling Boers at Elands River, they were helping create a new and better tradition.
Lord Kitchener who commanded the relieving troops commented, “Only colonials could have held out and survived in such impossible circumstances.”
Australia became a Commonwealth in 1901 and the foundations were soon laid for the Commonwealth military forces.
Recruiting the Light Horse
By 1914, when Australia joined the war against Germany, there were 23 Light Horse regiments of militia volunteers. Many men from these units joined the Light Horse regiments of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Initially Australia promised four regiments of Light Horse, 2000 men, to fight in the British cause. By the end of the war, 16 regiments would be in action.
The Light Horse were seen as the “national arm of Australia’s defence” and young men, most from the country, flocked to join. Many brought their own horses and some even brought their dogs. It all seemed like a great adventure.
The recruits took a riding test which varied from place to place. At one camp they had to take a bareback army horse over a water jump and a sod wall. In another, they had to jump a log fence.
Recruits had to pass a very strict medical test before they were accepted.
They were then sworn in and issued with their uniforms – the normal AIF jacket, handsome cord riding breeches, and leather “puttee” laggings bound by a spiral strap. They wore the famous Australian slouch hat and a distinctive leather bandolier that carried 90 rounds of ammunition.
If a man’s horse met army standards, it was bought by the Commonwealth for about £30 ($60). Many men were given remounts – army horses bought by Commonwealth purchasing officers from graziers and breeders.
These were called “walers” because they were a New South Wales stockhorse type – strong, great-hearted animals with the strains of the thoroughbred and semi-draught to give them speed, strength and stamina.
Each horse was branded with the Government broad arrow and initials of the purchasing officer, and an army number on one hoof.
In camp, the horses were tethered by head and heel ropes between long ropes called picket lines.
In front of each horse was placed its saddle and equipment. The men slept close by in bell tents – eight men to a tent, feet to the centre like the spokes of a wheel.
At the start of each day, the lighthorsemen watered, fed and groomed their horses and cleaned the horse lines before breakfast. Then they did their training. Most were already expert horsemen and riflemen. The rest was drill and mastery of the mounted infantry fighting technique.
Each regiment lived and fought as a series of four-man “sections”. When they went into action, three men would dismount to fight as infantry while the fourth man led the four horses to cover until they were needed for a further advance or withdrawal.
The effectiveness of this fighting method had been shown in the Boer War. But some of Britain’s highest ranking officers opposed the technique – perhaps because other high-ranking officers supported it.
Meanwhile, the Light Horse eagerly awaited their chance to fight on the battlefields of France and Belgium – where cavalrymen were already dying in their hundreds, true to the terrible old “death or glory” tradition.
Man and Horse
Everything the Light Horse trooper needed for living and fighting had to be carried by him and his horse.
His extra clothing, food and personal possessions were in a canvas haversack carried over the shoulder. Across the other shoulder hung a one-litre water bottle. As well as the 90 rounds of ammunition in his bandolier, he carried ten rounds in the .303 (“three-oh-three”) rifle slung over his shoulder and another 50 rounds in pouches on his belt, which also supported the bayonet and scabbard.
The horse was carefully fitted with the special military saddle, designed to carry a remarkable array of equipment with the least possible discomfort.
The saddle was built on a pair of felt-padded wooden “bars” which sat on either side of the horse’s spine. These were joined by steel arches with a shaped leather seat laced between them. The same basic design had been used by the British army for many hundreds of years. Each century had improved it.
Now, when many experts believed that the day of the mounted soldier was past, this saddle would help men and horses achieve what had seemed impossible.
Across the front was strapped a rolled greatcoat and waterproof ground sheet. Mess tin, canvas water bucket and nosebag with a day’s grain ration, were slung at the back of the saddle. There was also a heel rope, removable length of picket line and a leather case with two horseshoes and nails.
The man’s blanket was sometimes carried in a roll, more ofter spread under the saddle on top of the saddle blanket or “rug”. Most men added to this collection of equipment a billy and a tin or enamel plate.
Later in the war, troopers were issued with leather saddle wallets to strap at the front of the saddle. Some also received swords and leather rifle “buckets” or scabbards. Often, the horse carried an extra bandolier of ammunition around its neck, a large grain sack (called a “sandbag”) strapped across the saddle wallets, and an extra nosebag slung behind.
When fully loaded, walers often carried between 130 and 150 kilos. And, in the years of war to come, they would have to carry these huge loads for long distances, in searing heat, sometimes at the gallop, sometimes without water for 60 and even 70 hours at a stretch.
In the first days of the war, even men who had owned horses since early childhood could hardly imagine the bond that would grow between man and horse as each came to depend on the other for their very lives.
To Egypt and Anzac
On 1 November, 1914, Australia’s First Infantry Division and the first four Light Horse regiments sailed for England in a fleet of transport ships.
Special stalls were built for the horses below decks and the lighthorsemen worked very hard to care for their mounts and exercise them in the limited space available.
Some walers died on the voyage and all of them suffered terribly in the tropics. Each man spent much of his spare time tending his horse. This helped reduce the death rate and strengthened the relationship between them.
Plans were changed and the Australians landed in Egypt to complete their training there. They were soon joined by another two brigades – six regiments – of Light Horse.
When the Australian infantry left to take part in the invasion of Germany’s ally Turkey, the lighthorsemen remained in Egypt. But soon afterwards, they too sailed for Gallipoli as infantrymen, leaving their horses behind.
A trooper wrote: “We were hoping that in a couple of weeks at the latest, once more mounted, we would canter gaily along the Gallipoli road to Constantinople (capital of Turkey). We were mostly young and optimistic! We were soon to find what a long, long road it was.”
The first of the Light Horse arrived at Gallipoli in May. Anzac Cove, scene of the first infantry landing, was already a bustling little port. Hundreds of men swam in the cove, ignoring the Turkish shells that burst over them.
As the lighthorsemen clambered to their camping areas up the steep, winding ravine of Shrapnel Gully, Turkish bullets cracked high over their heads. Infantrymen, who were old hands by now, laughed when the newcomers ducked.
Very soon, they too were old hands. They quickly proved themselves to be excellent soldiers and readily adapted to the dreadful living conditions at the Anzac front.
By August, when a huge attack was launched on the Turks, there were ten regiments of Light Horse at Anzac.
The 3rd Brigade – the 8th, 9th and 10th Regiments – was to make a dawn charge across a narrow ridge called The Nek.
Plans went horribly wrong and nine tiers of Turkish trenches packed with riflemen and machine-gunners waited for the Australian attack.
The first line of the 8th Light Horse charged and was shot to pieces. Most men ran only a few yards before they fell.
The second line of the 8th went over the top and they too were cut down.
The first line of the 10th Regiment went to their deaths in the same way. The second line waited for the attack to be cancelled. Then, through an error, they too charged.
In three quarters of an hour 234 lighthorsemen were dead and 138 wounded in a futile action. They had shown remarkable courage and discipline. Never again would these qualities be wasted so tragically.
Across the Sinai
Reunited with their horses in Egypt after the evacuation of Anzac, the Light Horse regiments watched the Australian infantry leave for France. They were envious. But only two regiments – the 13th Light Horse and part of the 4th – were sent to the Western Front in Europe.
The rest of the Light Horse endured further training and patrols and outpost duty. Many felt they were missing out on “the real war”. But there were good reasons for keeping them there.
Egypt was of great strategic importance to England and France because of the Suez Canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. And Palestine, (present-day Israel) which had been part of Turkey’s empire for hundreds of years, lay at Egypt’s north-eastern border, across the Sinai Desert.
Before the Australians left for Gallipoli, the Turks had launched an unsuccessful attack on the Canal from across the Sinai. Now, in August of 1916, a massive Turkish force prepared for a second attack on the vital waterway.
British forces headed out into the Sinai to block the Turks from Romani – a crucial group of oases in a great waste of sand dunes.
The Turks struck on the night of 3 August and tried to sneak around the end of the British line. But their move had been anticipate by General Chauvel, commander of the Anzac Mounted Division (three brigades of Light Horse and one of New Zealand mounted riflemen). He had placed the 1st Light Horse Brigade across their path.
Outnumbering the Australians by more than ten to one, the Turks pushed them back. But the lighthorsemen made fighting withdrawals in classic mounted infantry style. Another Brigade took up the fight at daybreak. Towards sunset, the Australians were so close to their camp that cooks were serving tea straight to men in the firing line.
Almost at nightfall, New Zealanders, British cavalry and infantry struck at the Turkish flank and by dawn the Turks were in full retreat.
During the Battle of Romani, Brigadier “Galloping Jack” Royston, one of the great “characters” of the Light Horse, had gone through 14 horses. Once, when Chauvel tried to find Royston, he was told: “He’s wounded and gone to get another horse.”
Now came two actions which set the pattern for the desert battles to follow. On 22 December the Anzac Mounted Division made a long, night march and at dawn attacked the big Turkish post at Magdhaba.
Unless Magdhaba fell in one day, the attackers would be without water.
The Turks fought stubbornly and, almost at sunset, Chauvel ordered withdrawal. When shown the order, Brigadier Cox of the 1st Brigade said: “Take that damn thing away. And let me see it for the first time in half an hour.”
A dismounted bayonet charge saved the day and Magdhabe fell.
Two weeks later there was an almost identical attack at Rafa. Again, near sunset, the retreat to water was ordered.
Again, the order was ignored and a final bayonet charge won the battle.
Observers noted a remarkable thing. As the final charge of fiercely yelling troopers was almost on top of the trenches, the Turks dropped their guns and surrendered. It seemed too late to stop the apparently crazed Australians.
But the lighthorsemen jumped down into the trenches and shook hands with the startled Turks.
They were delighted not to have to kill the enemy they had learned to respect at Anzac.
“The Kings of the Feathers”
The lighthorsemen who now rode into Palestine along the desert battle paths of Napoleon and the Crusaders and the ancient Romans and Egyptians, were very different from the eager young men who had flocked to the muddy training camps of winter Australia.
They were quickly developing their own “style” – something very different from their early attempts to imitate British military bearing.
One observer found them “tired-looking” as they moved around “with the slouching gait of the Australian countryman at home”. But when ready for action, he saw the same men show “an almost miraculous note of expectant eagreness”.
Another thought that the lighthorseman moved with a “lazy, slouching gait like that of a sleepy tiger” but described how the promise of battle “changes that careless gait into a livesome athletic swing that takes him over the ground much quicker than other troops”.
They had already proved themselves as formidable infantrymen. The Turks called them “the White Ghurkas” – a reference to their deadly skill with the bayonet.
Now the Arabs called them “The Kings of the Feathers”.
When the Light Horse went to Egypt, Queenslanders, Tasmanians and South Australians wore splendid emu plumes in their hats – actually, small squares of emu hide with the long, brown-tipped white feathers still attached.
The plume had originally been a battle honour of the Queensland Mounted Infantry for their work in the shearers strike of 1891. Now it was adopted by almost all the Light Horse Regiments.
Even when a Regiment did not wear the plume on parade or in battle, the men kept one in their kit and tucked it in the hatband when they went on leave.
It was the proud badge of the lighthorseman.
Already the Billjims, as they called themselves, had become glamorous figures in the desert war.
The British cavalrymen were splendid soldiers, but tended to get lost in the featureless sea of sand.
Australian troopers seemed almost as much at home in the desert as the Bedouin, the Arab nomads.
Many of the desert Arabs had the reputation of being great thieves – ready to take what they could from those who invaded their lands.
But these same Arabs soon had a saying: “The Kings of the Feathers, they steal your bread”.
Food, firewood, poultry, livestock – all were “scrounged” by the Billjims.
Through the centuries, the Bedouin had seen many kings riding in the desert. But none were quite like these.
Defeat at Gaza
General Chauvel of the Light Horse had been knighted for his fine leadership. At the Battle of Romani, he had kept in touch with the battle on horseback, often under heavy artillery fire, while some other senior British officers stay by telephones, some kilometres from the action.
Now, in March 1917, as the British launched their attack on the key Turkish fortress town of Gaza, problems of leadership became more obvious.
The attack was delayed by fog and by poor communication between some British officers.
When the lighthorsemen eventually attacked, they swung in behind the main Turkish positions and fought the Turks in a maze of tall cactus hedges marking laneways and fields on the outskirts of Gaza.
Shots exploded from fleshy cactus walls and troopers hacked through them with their bayonets to reach the enemy.
They had fought their way into the town before sunset and the Turkish commander thought the battle was lost.
But when word reached British headquarters that Turkish reinforcements were on the way, the order was given to withdraw – just as the major Turkish strongpoint was taken by British infantry.
Chauvel protested and some Light Horse officers refused to believe the orders. They had entered Gaza. They had found water for their horses. The order must be an enemy trick. But the signal came back: “Retire! Retire! Retire!”
They slipped away from Gaza in the darkness, many men asleep in their saddles.
The British commander, General Murray, reported the battle to London as though it was a victory and, the next month, attacked Gaza again.
This time, no effective use was made of the Light Horse. Some joined the British infantry in almost suicidal advances across naked ground swept by artillery and machine-gun fire.
The only cover was the shallow holes they could scrape with their bayonets.
One trooper commented: “Many times we had to jump away from the nosecaps of shells speeding along the hard surface of the ground, like a cricket ball hit at terrific speed, but I didn’t see anyone try to stop them.”
The 10th Light Horse, built up to strength after the massacre at The Nek, was again badly mauled. Half the regiment was killed or wounded.
Further unnecessary casualties were avoided when a sergeant of the 10th refused an order for a bayonet charge across 300 metres of open ground. He told the officer who had ordered the charge “not to be so bloody foolish and to go somewhere”.
The attack was eventually broken off and the Light Horse withdrew.
Now, for five months, the British and Turkish armies would face one another along a 50 kilometre line from Gaza on the coast to Beersheba in the forbidding drylands between the Sinai and the Dead Sea.
Many lighthorsemen were disillusioned with the way they had been used. They now hoped for a chance to meet the famed Turkish cavalry. But after ambushing some small Light Horse patrols and being ambushed in return, the Turks avoided major clashed and retreated to their base at Beersheba.
In these months, the lighthorsemen became familiar with the arid lands on the Beersheba flank – rolling brown country with eroded wadis, or creek beds, very much like huge areas of Australia.
They manned lonely outposts by day and night, dug trenches, scoured the country to find enough wood to boil their billies and learnt the position of every well and waterhole.
Then, in June, everything changed. A new English Commander-in-Chief arrived – General Sir Edmund Allenby, a big, stubborn, energetic cavalryman who quickly earned the nickname, “The Bull”.
Up to this time, British headquarters had been at the Savoy Hotel in Cairo. “We’re a bit too far from our work here,” Allenby announced. “I’d like to get up closer where I can have a look at the enemy occasionally.”
He proceeded to move everything 240 kilometres nearer the front line. He then inspected everything from cook houses to flying schools, racing from one unit of his army to the next in his Rolls Royce staff car.
Signallers warned of his whirlwind approach by transmitting a cryptic “B.L.” for “Bull Loose”.
The famous poet “Banjo” Paterson was running a Light Horse remount depot. He watched Allenby arrive – “a great, lonely figure of a man, riding silently in front of an obviously terrified staff”.
Allenby had lost his son in the war and witnessed horrible slaughter on the Western Front. He told Paterson: “I am afraid I am becoming very hard to get on with. I want to get this war over and if anything goes wrong I lose my temper.”
In his drive for greater efficiency, Allenby formed all his mounted units into the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel.
The Light Horse respected Allenby. And, for his part, Allenby respected the Light Horse. He had commanded a squadron of Australians in the Boer War. He knew what they were capable of; and they were to play a vital role in his plan to break the Turkish line.
Instead of attacking Gaza again, he would strike at the other end of the line, Beersheba.
First, he arranged for a British officer to “lose” some faked papers which made the Turks believe that a new assault on Gaza would be covered by a mock attack on Beersheba.
Then he planned a series of secret night marches in which the British infantry prepared to attack Beersheba from the west and south while the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel would sweep out to the waterless east and attack from the desert.
If Beersheba’s famous 17 wells could not be taken in one day, nearly 60,000 men and tens of thousands of animals would be desperately short of water.
The Charge at Beersheba
The attack on Beersheba was launched at dawn on 31 October 1917, and lasted throughout the day.
The British infantry captured most of their objectives. But the Australians and New Zealanders had to make dismounted advances across open ground against two strongly defended hill-forts.
By late afternoon, the two strong points had fallen, but there were still heavily manned trenches protecting the town. Time had almost run out.
Brigadier General Grant of the 4th Light Horse Brigade suggested to Chauvel that two of his regiments, the 4th and 12th, make a mounted charge against these remaining defences.
Such a thing had never been heard of – a mounted charge across three kilometres of open ground against entrenched infantry supported by artillery and machine guns.
But the sun was almost setting and many of the horses had already been without water for nearly 48 hours. Chauvel agreed.
The two regiments formed up behind a ridge and moved off into a classic, three-line charge formation, going from walk-march, to trot, then canter.
The Turks recognised the advancing horsemen as mounted infantry and the order was given, “Wait until they dismount, then open fire”. Field guns were sighted on the cantering lines, ready to fire.
Then suddenly, about two kilometres from the trenches, the lighthorsemen spurred to a gallop with wild yells, drawing their bayonets and waving them in the dying sunlight.
The Turkish artillery opened fire and shrapnel exploded above the plummeting lines of horsemen. Some were hit, but the Turks couldn’t wind down their guns fast enough and soon the shells were bursting behind the charge.
Two German planes firing machine-guns swooped over the horsemen and dropped bombs. But they exploded between the widely spaced lines. About 1600 metres from the trenches, rifles and machine guns opened fire. Again, some men and horses fell. But the Turkish soldiers were unnerved by the huge mass of lighthorsemen thundering closer and they forgot to adjust their sights. Their bullets began to whistle harmlessly over the heads of the charging troopers.
The lighthorsemen jumped the trenches and some leapt to the ground for an ugly hand-to-hand fight with the Turks.
Others galloped through the defences into the town as demolition charges started to blow up the precious wells and key buildings.
But, within minutes, the German officer in charge of the demolition had been captured by a lighthorseman. The wells were saved.
By nightfall, Beersheba was in the hands of Allenby’s army. Of the 800 men who rode in the charge, only 31 had been killed. Mounted infantrymen and their superb walers had carried out one of the most successful cavalry charges in history – against what seemed impossible odds.
The fall of Beersheba swung the battle tide against the Turks in Palestine; and changed the history of the Middle East.
To Jerusalem and Beyond
Now the Turkish line could be broken and, soon after, Gaza was taken. The Turks fell back in a rapid but hard-fought retreat and the Light Horse pushed after them.
In a series of bitter fights and constant searches for water, Chauvel’s great mounted army swept northwards across the ancient Philistine Plain – towards Jerusalem.
The British Prime Minister had asked for Jerusalem as “a Christmas present to the nation”. The battle moved into the rocky Judaean Hills which are crowned by the Holy City.
By now, it was bitterly cold and chill rain swept across bare ridges, making every gully a creek, every road a quagmire.
The Light Horse scrambled into this bleak battleground as infantry, with no shelter but their waterproof sheets, no food but army biscuits and tinned bully beef – and very little of these.
One regiment moved into the Judaean Hills to relieve British infantry for a single night. They stayed for five weeks, rain-soaked, frostbitten, half starved.
The ground was too rocky to dig trenches and the men sheltered behind “sangars” – walls of loose rock, about a metre high.
A lighthorseman recalled that he and his mates were crouched behind their flimsy rock barricade one freezing night, waiting for a big Turkish counterattack.
Suddenly they heard the sound of bagpipes as a Scottish regiment came marching to relieve them in the front line.
“It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard,” the trooper said. “It was salvation.”
Jerusalem is holy to Christian, Jew and Muslim. The Turks eventually surrendered it to the British on 9 December rather than risk its sacred places being destroyed by battle. The 10th Light Horse were the first mounted troops to enter the city.
Early in the New Year, the 1st Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles supported British infantry in the capture of Jericho – key town of the Jordan Valley.
The Valley is 400 metres below sea level and more than 1000 metres below the surrounding ranges. As summer came, temperatures climbed into the forties. Few Europeans had ever endured summer in this hellish place.
The soil powdered to choking white dust, flies and malarial mosquitoes filled the air. Then, as it grew even hotter, there were fewer flies. The Turks dropped a message to the Australians: “This month the flies die. Next month men die”.
But the lighthorsemen didn’t die. They had already ridden in two spectacular raids across the Jordan River. The second of these was a near disaster as the 3rd Brigade made a brilliant strike at the mountain town of Es Salt while the 4th Brigade fought to keep their line of retreat open. Both narrowly escaped.
It seemed a foolhardy manoeuvre. But Allenby was convincing the Turks that this eastern sector would see the major British attack; while he prepared to strike in the west. The Light Horse were “smuggled”, regiment by regiment, to the coast.
The Lord of Armageddon
At Beersheba, the Light Horse had shown themselves to be superb cavalrymen. Now, at their own request, nine regiments were armed with swords and rushed through cavalry training. Then they waited, hidden among coastal orange and olive groves, while Allenby – like a brilliant chess player – prepared for his winning move.
Everything told the Turks he was getting ready to attack in the east. Empty camps and long lines of dummy horses were laid out in the Jordan Valley. Infantry marched down into the Valley each day – and marched out again each night. A Jerusalem hotel was taken over and set up as a fake headquarters.
Then, in September 1918, Allenby struck near the coast. He pounded the Turks with an artillery bombardment, broke their line with the infantry, and Chauvel sent his huge mounted force through the gap to sweep around behind the enemy.
The retreating Turks were further battered by aerial attacks. Dazed, bewildered, they streamed down from the Samarian Hills in their thousands.
In three days, 15000 prisoners were taken. Within the fortnight, three complete armies were smashed and there were 75000 prisoners.
“Banjo” paterson had brought horses up for the great drive. He described how captured Turkish soldiers who hadn’t eaten for three days, sat down silently to accept their fate. He commented: “Neither English nor Australian troops had any grudge against the Turks, and the captured ‘Jackos’ were given more food and more cigarettes than they had enjoyed during the whole war”.
The Turkish commander had refused to eat until his troops were fed. Said Paterson: “Even in his worn and shabby uniform he could have walked into any officer’s mess in the world and they would have stood up to make room for him”.
This crippling defeat was centred on the plain of Megiddo – the Biblical Armageddon where a last terrible battle would be fought on the Day of Judgement.
When Allenby was made a Lord, he took as his title Viscount Allenby of Megiddo. He was, literally, the Lord of Armageddon.
The great drive continued against the Turks’ last remaining bastion, Damascus in Syria. Covering 700 kilometres in 12 days, the Desert Mounted Corps thrust at the ancient city.
After a terrible massacre of retreating Turks in the Barada Gorge, Damascus fell on 1 October, almost without a fight.
The 3rd Brigade, which had been shot to pieces at The Nek three years before, rode straight through the city, pausing only to receive its surrender. A single squadron of the 4th Regiment took 10000 prisoners with only a few shots fired and an officer and three men wounded.
Damascus was a crowded, unhealthy place and epidemics of influenza and malaria swept through the Desert Mounted Corps. Dozens of men who had survived Anzac and the desert campaigns, died in hospital beds.
But the great move to the north continued – almost to the Turkish border. The Turks saw that further resistance was hopeless and signed an armistice. On October 31 the war in the east was over – 11 days before the armistice on the Western Front.
“The Horses Stay Behind“
Victory had a sour note for the men of the Light Horse. Many had planned to buy their horses from the army. They dreamt of the good times they and their beloved walers could enjoy back home.
But the word quickly spread. “The horses stay behind.” Because of quarantine regulations, it was impractical to take tens of thousands of army horses back to Australia.
Major Oliver Hogue of the 14th Regiment, who wrote as “Trooper Bluegum”, summed up the feelings of many men in one of his poems.
“I don’t think I could stand the thought of my old fancy hack
Just crawling around old Cairo with a Gyppo on his back.
Perhaps some English tourist out in Palestine may find
My broken-hearted waler with a wooden plough behind.”
Then an order was issued that all walers were to be classified A, B, C and D, according to their condition and age. All C and D horses were to be shot.
They were first to have their shoes removed and their manes and tails cut off. Iron and horse hair were saleable.
Worse, the horses were to be skinned after being shot. Seven pounds of salt was allowed for the salting of each hide, to be sold as leather.
Horrible as these orders seemed, many men thought that this would be better than leaving their horses to be cruelly treated. Some tried to have their walers included in the C and D group.
Others asked permission to take their horse for a last ride and returned carrying saddle and bridle, with the explanation: “He put his foot in a hole and I had to shoot him”.
Hundreds of the walers who had charged Beersheba or endured the Sinai or carried their Billjim on the last great advance, were taken to olive groves outside Tripoli and tethered in picket lines.
They were then given a last nosebag of fodder and shot. Without panic. To the last they trusted the familiar uniformed figures. And gunfire held no fear for them.
Soon after, the men prepared to return to Australia. But most would be delayed for months, helping suppress a rebellion in Egypt. Some were killed.
Before the Light Horse left for Australia, Allenby wrote a remarkable tribute to them. It concluded: “The Australian lighthorseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind. This mental quality renders him somewhat impatient of rigid and formal discipline, but it confers upon him the gift of adaptability, and this is the secret of much of his success mounted or on foot. In this dual role . . . The Australian lighthorseman has proved himself equal to the best. He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world.”
Eventually, late in 1919, the last of the Light Horse were back in Australia. The regiments broke up. The men returned to homes and families and farms and jobs.
The Light Horse of the 1st AIF had existed for five remarkable years.
Lighthorsemen in France and Belgium
The two Light Horse regiments which served in France and Belgium – the 4th and 13th – are often forgotten; because they rarely fought as complete units and also because they sometimes worked in support of British, French and Canadian troops.
In 1916 they came from Egypt to France’s worst winter for more than 30 years. Some men had only summer uniforms and their horses weren’t issued with rugs. One resourceful Quartermaster Sergeant simply “scrounged” a truckload of tarpaulins from a nearby army depot and cut them into horse rugs. He was punished. But the horses were able to endure that terrible winter.
In France the lighthorsemen often went into the trenches as infantry reinforcements, as they had done at Anzac. They helped control tangled military traffic, escorted prisoners and rounded up lost soldiers after major battles.
They were sometimes sent to reconnoitre enemy positions or the Allied front line. On several occasions, small Light Horse patrols discovered that, due to poor communication between different armies, a section of our front line was deserted. A few men manned the empty trenches while others rode out to the units on either side and drew them together.
In June, 1917, when a huge attack was launched on the formidable, German-held Messines Ridge, men of the 4th Light Horse rode in support of the Australian advance.
As they charged across the shell-cratered wilderness to take up positions on the long ridge, many men and horses were killed by artillery fire.
Others had miraculous escapes when shells burst directly below them in muddy craters and blew them into the air without serious injury.
In 1918, lighthorsemen came to play a vital role in the Allied offensive. As the Germans fell back, they left machine-gun posts to delay the Allied advance.
Small Light Horse patrols went forward to locate these posts. The technique was to select a “dangerous” ridge or piece of exposed ground, then to ride forward in a widely scattered group.
When the enemy gunners opened fire, the lighthorsemen galloped to cover, swung out wide to each flank, then moved on the gun positions from both sides at once. The German gunners usually surrendered.
In the closing stages of the 1918 advance, many roads were impassable and bad visibility prevented aerial reconnaissance. Mounted troops became the “eyes” of our armies. When the armistice was declared on 11 November, 1918, lighthorsemen were in the spearhead of the allied advance.
One of them, Lance Corporal Vic Grist, was the last Australian soldier wounded in World War I.
After the war, Light Horse units played a key role in the Australian Government’s compulsory military training programme.
For a time in the sunny years of the 1920s, the Citizen Military Forces thrived on the glamour of the wartime Light Horse tradition. Enthusiastic trainees and high-ranking officers alike could ignore the possibility that motor vehicles would soon replace horses in both peace and war.
When training was no longer compulsory, the C.M.F. regiments declined and the Depression of the 1930s further weakened them. Horses became more of a luxury in those years of poverty and unemployment. Some regiments were motorised.
Then, in 1939, Australia joined Britain in another world war. Each infantry division of the 2nd AIF had a Light Horse regiment attached to it. But these lighthorsemen rode in tanks.
In the second year of the war, the last Light Horse C.M.F. regiments were dismounted. But the day of the Australian mounted soldier hadn’t quite passed.
During the World War II, there was extensive cavalry action on the Russian front. The Russian cavalry – sometimes more than 200 000 strong – made lightning raids on the highly mechanised German armies. And even the Germans employed mounted troops until the end of the war.
The last of the British cavalry units fought in Syria. Here, Australia’s 6th Cavalry Regiment formed a mounted unit they called “The Kelly Gang” which did valuable scouting work.
In New Guinea, a mounted Light Horse Troop did patrol duty and helped carry supplies. Some fully equipped walers were flown into Borneo for reconnaissance in rugged mountain country.
But by the end of the war, in 1945, the horse had disappeared from the Australian Army.
Three years later, armoured units with Light Horse titles were revived in the new C.M.F. and another generation of lighthorsemen grew up to fight in Vietnam.
Today, armoured regiments still carry the Light Horse name and their members often maintain valued links with the last survivors of the original units.
The army has created a small mounted team which gives displays of tent-pegging at agricultural shows and such like.
In most states, small civilian groups collect Light Horse uniforms and equipment, re-enact Light Horse training and, from time to time, take part in parades.
Sometimes old lighthorsemen watch these tributes to them and their horses with wistful smiles.
Perhaps the men and horses are carrying a bit more condition than the Billjims and the walers. Perhaps the equipment is a bit more “by the book” than in those days of the desert campaigns when you lived on your horse.
But it’s good to see the horses stepping proudly; and the men riding to “attention” with one hand on the reins; and the emu plumes tossing in their hats . . . .
Romance and Reality
The men of the Light Horse were dramatic, almost glamorous figures and it is still easy to see their exploits as some splendid adventure.
Much of it was adventurous and in the hardest campaigns, lighthorsemen still found time to laugh and play jokes on their mates, hold race meetings, organize concert parties, annoy British military police in Cairo – and generally made the best of their gruelling life.
These were the things they liked to talk about after the war. All the funny things, the good things that happened.
But almost every man in the Light Horse had endured hardships that are scarcely imaginable to us today. They had lived for weeks, sometimes months at a time with only one litre of water a day.
They had survived for long periods on tough army biscuits and tinned bully beef that melted to a greasy mess in the heat of the desert.
They’d gone for weeks without being able to wash, their bodies crawling with lice. Many nights, they slept on a blanket soaked with horse sweat.
They often risked death, sometimes had to kill men in ugly hand-to-hand combat, and saw lifelong friends die horribly.
And after it was all over, many of them saw their beloved horses shot in the terrible execution lines.
Today, you can still meet the last survivors of the Light Horse. They may show you snap shots, medals, souvenirs of Egypt – the bric-a-brac of war.
They’re probably happy to tell you about some of their adventures, some of the good times they had.
But remember the other side of the story. And remember that these gentle old men lost their youth in those terrible years of war when death was never far away.
Taken from the series “Australians at War”