Kandos and Rylstone History P.10
Animals in War by Ron Roberts
Waler Horses & General Chauvel of the Light Horse Brigade
These notes are taken from:
Australia at War
The Light Horse
by Ian Jones
The Commonwealth military forces were formed shortly after Australia became a Commonwealth in 1901. Australian light horses were a major feature of the military force.
There were 23 Light Horse regiments of militia volunteers in the 1914 World War 1.
Many brought their own horses and their own dogs. If their horse met army standards, the Commonwealth bought their horse for about thirty pounds ($60). These horses were called 'Walers', because they were raised in NSW as a stock horse. They descended from the thoroughbred and a cross-draught to give them speed and strength.
Each horse was branded with the Government broad arrow and initials of the purchasing officer, and an army number on one hoof. They were tethered at a picket line by a head rope, and a heel rope. Their owners slept close by them in a 'bell tent' - "eight men to a tent, feet to the centre like the spokes of a wheel".
The men carried their clothing, food in a canvas bag slung across one shoulder, with a one-litre water bottle crossing the other shoulder, accompanied by a 90 round leather ammunition bandolier. A .303 rifle hung on one shoulder and another 50 rounds in a belt, also containing the bayonet and scabbard.
The horse had "a saddle 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... 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 often spread under the saddle on top of the saddle blanket or 'rug'. Most men added...a billy and a tin plate." Walers often carried 130 to 150 kilos, adding more to the above as time went on. They carried this load in searing heat and sometimes went without water for 60 to 70 hours at a time. At the front, one man of a team of four would hold their horses under cover while the other three team members fought as infantry. This was a most effective battle strategy.
The first Infantry Division and first four Light Horse regiments sailed for England on 1 November, 1914. Each man spent most of his spare time caring for his horse - brushing, bathing, massaging their legs. The first Light Horses arrived at Gallipoli in May at Anzac Cove. By August, there were ten regiments.
The 3rd Brigade - the 8th, 9th and 10th Regiments, suffered badly at a dawn charge on The Nek. The first line of the 8th Light Horse charge was shot to pieces, and the carnage continued. In three quarters of an hour 234 lighthorsemen were dead and 138 wounded.
Two regiments, 13th and part of the 4th, later went to the Western Front (French & Belgian area) in Europe. The rest stayed in Egypt. In August 1916, the Turks prepared for an attack on the Canal, from across the Sinai. This was the Battle of Romani. There were battles at Magdhaba and Rafa where, at the final charge, when the Australians reached the top of the Turkish trenches, the Turks dropped their guns and surrendered, shaking hands with the Australian men.
The Australian lighthorsemen became known as 'The White Ghurkas' by the Turks, and the Arabs called them 'The Kings of the Feathers' (many wore emu feathers in their hats). They called themselves 'the Billjims'.
General Chauvel, of the Light Horse Brigade, was knighted for his fine leadership. Mounted, in the thick of the Battle of Romani, he allegedly shamed the British officers sitting by their phones at the Savoy Hotel in Cairo, 240 kilometres away from the action.
The men were fighting along lanes of cactus marking the outskirts of Gaza. The Australians fought their way into Gaza before sunset, the battle almost won. But word reached British headquarters that Turkish reinforcements were on the way and they ordered a retreat. Chauvel protested, they could not believe the orders. They had entered Gaza and had water for their horses. But the order came and the men had to obey. British Commander, General Murray, reported the battle a victory, but attacked Gaza again shortly after, this time by infantrymen. The second attack was almost suicidal. The men themselves began to take charge. A sergeant of the 10th refused a bayonet charge order across 300 metres of open ground. "Don't be so bloody foolish" he told his commander. They eventually retreated.
In June 1917, a new British Commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, (soon nicknamed 'The Bull') arrived. He was a friend of Banjo Paterson, the Australian poet. One of the first things he did was move the British command base close to the front. He had lost a son in the war, and seen terrible slaughter, and wanted the war over. He formed all his mounted units into the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel.
Allenby had a great respect for the Light Horse Brigade. He planned to use them well in his battle strategy to break the 50 kilometre Turkish line from Gaza to Beersheba. The Light Horse Brigade was to fight in the daunting drylands between the Sinai and the Dead Sea.
Allenby arranged a British officer to 'lose' some faked papers, setting the real battle at Gaza with a mock attack on Beersheba. "Then he planned a series of secret night marches 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.
At dawn, 31 October 1917, the attack on Beersheba began. By late afternoon, there were still some heavily manned trenches protecting the town. Time was crucial. Brigadier General Grant, 4th Light Horse Brigade, planned with Chauvel to charge against these remaining heavily armed trenches across three kilometres of open ground. The sun was almost setting. The horses had already been without water for almost 48 hours.
The Turks saw the mounted infantry coming in the fading light. Suddenly, the lighthorsemen spurred to a gallop, shouting and screaming, with their bayonets drawn. The Turks opened fire, but the guns exploded behind the galloping line. Two German planes swooped over the horsemen, dropping bombs. But the horsemen were widely spaced, and the bombs did little damage. The Turks were unnerved by the thundering lighthorsemen, and their defence badly went astray. The Germans began to blow up the precious wells, but within minutes, their officer in charge of the demolition was captured and the wells saved. By nightfall, the battle was over. Thirty one men out of 800 were killed. The Battle of Beersheba swung the Palestine war and changed the course of history. The Walers of the Light Horse Brigade had led the victory.
Chauvel's Light Horse Brigade swept northwards across the ancient Philistine Plain towards Jerusalem - the Holy City. On the 9 December the Turks surrendered Jerusalem to the British. Jerusalem is the Holy City, to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they did not want to risk it being destroyed in the battle.
The Light Horse battled on - Jericho in the heat of summer, where few Europeans had ever endured; Es Salt; the Plain of Megiddo (Armageddon), where again, Chauvel was part of an amazing victory - 15,000 prisoners taken in 3 days, 75,000 prisoners within two weeks. Banjo Paterson described the ironic friendship that developed between our troops and their prisoners. They had a great respect for each other, sharing their food and cigarettes - neither really wanting to kill each other.
The last remaining bastion, Damascus in Syria, was captured on 1 October. Damascus was a crowded, unhealthy place with flu and malaria epidemics sweeping through the lighthorsemen. Many died, not from the war, but from illness there. However, the great move toward the north continued, almost to the Turkish border. The Turks surrendered on 31 October, 11 days before the armistice on the Western Front.
But a tragedy was in store for the Walers. The tens of thousands of army horses could not return to Australia because of the quarantine laws. "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." Their shoes, manes and tails were to be removed first (these were saleable). Then the horses were to be skinned and their hides tanned for leather.
Many men took their horse for a last ride, returning carrying the saddle and bridle, claiming "He put his foot in a hole and I had to shoot him".
In World War 11, there was extensive cavalry action on the Russian front. The Russian cavalry was more than 200,000 strong, and the Germans used mounted troops until the end of the war. The last British cavalry units fought in Syria. Australia's 6th Cavalry Regiment served here as 'The Kelly Gang', mostly scouting work. Walers also took part in New Guinea and Borneo, but by the end of World War 11, horses were not used. However, The Light Horse was revived and fought in Vietnam. Today the army has a small Light Horse team, mostly for display purposes, but there are many civilian groups who have collected the Light Horse uniforms and equipment and carry out training and take part in parades etc.
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