The Australian Light Horse – part 1

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Australian Light Horse march in the town of Laidley (Derek Barry)

Yesterday the streets of Brisbane marked another one hundred year anniversary of the First World War. As the city prepared to celebrate Riverfire, a bunch of men, women and their horses paraded from Victoria Park to the Story Bridge. One hundred years ago on 23 September 1914, the newly trained second light regiment, then all men, rode from Brisbane to Pinkenba docks where ships took them to the war in Europe. Many would never come back and none of their horses did. Roland Perry tells their story in his book The Australian Light Horse.

At the beginning of the war most commanders believed cavalry would be a crucial factor in securing victory. Mobile warriors on horses had proved decisive in conflicts for centuries. In 1914 Germany’s strategy was contingent on a swift victory over France while Russia slowly mobilised. That meant avoiding France’s defences by invading through neutral Netherlands and Belgium. At the last moment, the Kaiser decided he needed Netherlands to remain neutral so his invading forces had only a narrow strip of Belgian land with which to enter France. For three months it was swift-moving war where horses played a role. But the narrow front, stubborn resistance from the Belgians, and last ditch defence by the French at the Marne stopped the offensive and the war developed into stalemated battles of attrition across trench lines. It was no war for horses and the many Australians that rode them would have to wait for other campaigns to show their merit.

Horses were a core part of the Australian colonial experience and one reason why white settlers defeated Aboriginal resistance. Even with the advent of the trains, the horse remained the quintessential pioneer accoutrement in 1914. Many country kids rode to school every day while others like Harry Chauvel rode enormous distances to boarding school in bigger cities. By the time Chauvel left Toowoomba Grammar in 1881 he was an accomplished jockey and bushman. His father and grandfather were soldiers so it was only a matter of time before Harry enlisted. Chauvel’s first “battle” was against fellow Australians when the military were called to Western Queensland to put down the 1891 Shearers Strike. Chauvel’s men arrested strike leaders and faced down an angry crowd without a bullet being fired. Afterwards Chauvel gave his men emu feathers to put in their slouch hats as a reminder of their courage.

Chauvel fought in the Boer War where he was concerned about the maverick reputation of Australian soldiers. The lack of a class system meant all Australians had to be treated with respect but discipline was crucial. Chauvel married and had family as his career slowly advanced in peacetime Australia. In faraway England First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, influenced by Shell founder Marcus Samuel, declared oil to be of supreme importance to the Navy and plucked Kuwait from the thralls of the dying Ottoman empire. In early 1914, Churchill had eyes on Mesopotamia, the three Ottoman vilayets Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. He gained 50% control of an oil company to exploit Mosul oil. With the Germans beating the war drum in Europe and Africa it seemed only a matter of time when conflict would drag in the British Empire.

The catalyst was Sarajevo and the Serb Black Hand assassination of Franz Ferdinand. A chain reaction, fed by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bloodlust brought all the European powers to war. Chauvel, already called to London, was on the high seas when he found out, and was relieved he and his family made it safely to Liverpool. Now 49, he was appointed commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, and had to wait months for his troops to arrive. His first decision was to abandon the waterlogged Salisbury Plains as a training ground and instead ordered the ships to disembark at Egypt. Mounted units were formed all over Australia, with their ‘waler’ horses (originally New South Walers) sired by English thoroughbreds from breeding mares that were often part draught horse. With genetic input from brumbies and Welsh and Timor ponies, the walers were tough and had stamina, vital for arid Australian conditions.

The men volunteered gladly, fired up like their European counterparts by patriotism and a sense of adventure. Of the 12,000 Aussies that served in the Boer War only 231 died in action, with a similar number dead to disease. The men thought their odds were good for survival with the big worry being the war would be over by the time they arrived.

Churchill put in place his Mesopotamian plan and took Basra from the Gulf. It was a natural progression to attack the Ottoman capital Constantinople via the Dardenelles. This war was unknown to the troops that landed in Cairo in late 1914. Chauvel commanded three regiments in a 1500-man brigade as well as looking after 8000 walers.

The Aussies and Egyptians warily sized each other up. The locals were amused by the feminine touch of the emu feathers but wisely said nothing. The Aussies thought they were ‘filthy Arabs’ but were not above using women as prostitutes, with 3000 Anzacs contracting syphilis. As Chauvel worried about discipline, the war moved dangerously close as the Turks attacked the Suez Canal. Churchill’s plans to take the Dardanelles by naval power alone was defeated by Turkish mines making a land invasion necessary. The narrow ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula was no terrain for horses and Chauvel told his men they would be going in on foot, though not with the initial invasion.

It took three days after 25 April to realise an easy taking of Constantinople was an impossibility. The wards in Cairo were filling up with dead and injured troops and Chauvel’s men were deployed in early May, with orders for 50 to be left behind to look after the horses. Of those, 25 disobeyed orders and were smuggled aboard, with Chauvel turning a blind eye. They arrived to a nightmare. “Things were pretty warm,” wrote Chauvel to his wife, laconically. His men had orders to hold the Monash Valley, an 800m narrow cleft of land along the cliffs connecting two battlefronts, just 15m from Turkish trenches and open to sniper fire from above. The constant noise was deafening and the stench was intense with dead men and animals rotting in Mediterranean heat. The subterranean life of trench warfare was alien to the horsemen but they quickly learned or were killed.

For months, their lives were dominated by attack and counter-attack. On June 13 Chauvel wrote “The Light Horse are now cave dwellers and I am living the life of a rabbit”.  He knew instinctively they no chance of breaking free of the mountain and superiors scolded him for a negative attitude. While some wanted him relieved of command for his pessimism, there was no doubting his courage. He was evacuated to Egypt for six weeks diagnosed with pleurisy but returned in August in time for the Suvla Bay offensive. Like most attacking offensives in this brutal war, Suvla Bay failed with the defences ready for everything the Allies threw at them. At the Nek, British commanders butchered two regiments of Light Horse sending them over the top to their deaths in a futile attack. It was a matter of grim survival before the British mercifully called a halt to the invasion in December.

Chauvel and his men went back to the welcoming embrace of their walers in Egypt. But the war to end all wars had barely begun.

Alternate realities: Tony Abbott speaks out on climate change

abbottIt was inspiring and refreshing to hear Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott address the world on the great challenge of our time: global warming caused by human actions. Abbott was in New York to address the UN Security Council on the challenge which he called “the weightiest of matters” and saying those who opposed action were a death cult.

“Countries do need to work together to defeat it… and every country is a potential target,” Abbott said.

Abbott pointed out the destructive work of those who have opposed action on the matter.

“It’s hard to imagine that citizens of a pluralist democracy could have succumbed to such delusions – yet clearly they have,” he said. “The Australian Government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future”.

Abbott congratulated Barack Obama on the broad coalition he had formed to take action on climate change.

“The West can’t solve this problem alone – and won’t have to,” he said. “Our goal is not to change people, but to protect them; it’s not to change governments, but to combat (global warming)”.

But Abbott remained optimistic.

“Even in what seem to be darkening times, there are grounds for hope,” he said. “The (denialist) horror has generated all-but-universal revulsion.”

Abbott said he was delighted to attend the world leaders meeting on combating climate change which he said had major ramifications for Australia as well as the world.

“As President Obama made clear, it’s not often that they have a leader-level Security Council meeting,” Abbott said. “I was happy to accept the President’s exhortation to attend, because this is a very important domestic issue, as well as being a critically important international issue.”

Abbott said he wanted to remind the world of what a good global citizen Australia has been. “It’s absolutely imperative that at all times, and in every way, our government remains vigilant,” he said.

Abbott praised President Obama’s speech where he pledged America’s support to fight climate change.

“It was a really outstanding speech by President Obama. It was uplifting. It was honest. It was challenging. It was a fine, fine speech. It was the speech of a great leader, and to his credit, President Obama has been measured and considered here. He hasn’t rushed in. He hasn’t been quick to reach for the gun. He has carefully weighed the situation as it has developed and he has acted to prevent genocide,” Abbott said.

Abbott then went home to Australia to focus on his Energy Green Paper 2014, a plan which throws all the nation’s resources into renewable power.

Indyref is for all of us

The #Indyref is over and it has become a referendum for the ages, wherever we come from. The question of Scotland concerns all of us and the “yes” vote has won even if, as most polls, pundits and most importantly bookies, are still predicting it falls short. Devolution is catching on and Scotland has won big out of this election no matter the result. Indyref has been a transforming argument which forced Scotland to look at the possibilities of the future as well as the fears. The no argument appealed to the fears saying independent Scotland would be worse off on defence, the pound, pensions, taxation, the national health and the banks. The best positive argument they could come up with was the United Kingdom was “better together”. But mostly it was just the English who felt they were better together and many Scots had other ideas. The yes campaign forced Scottish people to confront their own identity on many layers and made them wonder whether they had the “right stuff” as a nation to solve the myriad problems separation would bring.

This was a dangerous argument but also exciting in its possibilities. The media simplified this appeal to nationalism by endless re-runs of American-Australian Mel Gibson in a make-believe movie about Scottish legend William Wallace rousing his troops to fight the English. But Indyref is a lot deeper than Hollywood romanticism of buttock-weaving Bravehearts. Modern Scotland has the potential to be an important independent bulwark in northern Europe and an antidote to the American-centric stridency of London. That the English media and its paymasters don’t like this possibility was shown by George Monbiot who noted that almost “the entire battery of salaried opinion” was against the yes vote. That was also reflected in the desperation of English political leaders in the final days of the campaign when the polls tightened to 50-50.

Prime Minister David Cameron staked his leadership on “no” when that result looked comfortable and was forced to eat humble pie of “don’t divorce us” and offer more powers to Holyrood in return for victory. Cameron’s arrant hypocrisy mixed appeals to British nationalism with fears of what might happen and threats if he did not get his way. It’s Cameron’s own fault for allowing the referendum question to be the simple “Should Scotland become independent?” It left Scots forced to make a stark choice and it is hard to feel any sympathy for his “you can’t undo this” stance this week. As I pointed out in 2012, only 30% of Scots wanted independence but 60% wanted more taxation powers for the Edinburgh parliament. Half of these did not want independence, but with that option not on the referendum, the question is how many of those wanting more Scottish powers will vote “yes”.

Cameron’s opponents in Westminster have even more to lose. Scotland has a left-leaning history, a fact that alarms Labour if it lost 80 seats in a general election. North Brit Gordon Brown has been wheeled out to continue the illusion the Scottish working class have a say in Whitehall. You can be Scottish and British, Cameron and Brown say (for different reasons), but no one mentions “the English”.

England was the premier power in the initial 1707 Act of Union and although the Scots punched well above their weight since then, England, or to be more precise London, is where the action is. Scotland may look to Ireland of how an English-speaking nation thumbs its nose at its imperial master and survives, if not thrives, in the shadow of Westminster. Ireland exudes a lot of soft power, particularly through its vast diaspora. But Ireland’s governance reeks of corruption so an independent Scotland would look to east not west for a more better inspiration. Norway is not part of the EU but like Scotland has vast oil and gas reserves. Norway has gone down the social democrat path of establishing a secure future fund out of its resource super profits (something that many Australians look on with envy and perhaps why PM Tony Abbott spectacularly intervened in indyref) and Salmond’s SNP government would look kindly on a similar scheme.

We’ll find out soon enough if Salmond has that opportunity. It will ultimately come down to Glasgow, who declare their result with Edinburgh later this afternoon Australian Eastern Standard Time. Catalonia, Kurdistan, Lombardy and Quebec will all be watching closely – but so will everyone else. Scotland has tapped into deep politics of identity that profoundly affect us all. Nationality may be an imagined identity, but its consequences are real.

Ian Paisley: from demagogue to democrat

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)
Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

My earliest memory of Ian Paisley is on the news from a black and white television set. It was the early seventies, the height of Northern Ireland’s war which the news presenters called the “troubles”. Paisley was a chief trouble-maker and a daily presence in Irish affairs. In grainy footage he would appear in front of flag-waving protestants. With his lantern jaw, rosy-red cheeks and forbidding glasses Paisley would shout out with unerring steeliness and swagger in a sharp Ulster accent: “No surrender! No Surrender!” His simple, negative, but rhythmic message, spoke at a visceral level to an ancient sense of threatened privilege. It was met with huge cheers and dogged resolve by his working class audience.

To my young eyes Paisley was incomprehensibly strange. His ever-present dog collar marked him as a man of god, but he didn’t talk like a preacher. While I found Paisley’s fierce enmity to Ireland and Catholicism unfathomable, I wasn’t afraid of him – it was just television after all. But if this was the rapturous reception his dour Presbyterianism and hatred of all things Catholic and Nationalist got in Belfast, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with their part of Ireland. I agreed instinctively with my paternal grandmother who wished a giant set of scissors would cut off troublesome Northern Ireland and let it drift away into the North Atlantic.

My ideas on the north changed as I understood more of its complex history and my opinion on Paisley softened. He remained a firebrand anti-popish folk devil but that also made him a figure of fun. His Calvinistic “Wee Free” Presbyterian domination (which he co-founded in 1951, aged 29) seemed a Pythonesque puritan outcrop of an increasingly pointless religion dedicated to keeping gays illegal, and pubs and playgrounds closed on Sundays. His hardline Unionist politics was also irrelevant as my own sense of Irish nationalism diminished.

While Paisley’s mix of religion and politics seemed silly, it was prescient. Ayatollah Khomeini showed in 1979 how to become a politically successful theocrat. Paisley kept up the rhetoric as years passed and he was a thorn in the side of English and Irish leaders. He sabotaged Ted Heath’s Sunningdale Agreement in the 1970s, brought down Thatcher’s Anglo Irish Agreements in the 1980s, opposed Tony Blair’s Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s and was suspicious of the IRA’s truce in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite his obstructionism, the public tirade was increasingly a charade. The private Paisley was a charming man and he and wife Eileen would entertain Northern nationalist leader John Hume and his wife for dinner.

This would have been disquieting to supporters if they ever found out. They preferred the blustery Paisley and “No Surrender” was a simple and effective message to sell to worried Protestants. But behind the scenes, Paisley was considering some form of surrender. While always personally popular, his Democratic Unionist Party failed to dominate the more moderate Official Unionist Party. But Northern Irish opinions hardened on both sides as the ballot box replaced the bullet in the late 1990s. Hume’s peace-talking SDLP was replaced by Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein while Protestant seats fell to the DUP. By the mid 2000s Adams and Paisley were dominant, and the time was ripe for talks on Paisley’s terms.

Paisley was 80 when the St Andrews Agreement was signed in October 2006 but he remained the dominant force in Loyalist politics. The Agreement was an astonishing compromise which put forward new models for government, the police and the courts. Bitter enemies formed a coalition government. Paisley’s Unionists became major partners with the “terrorists” Sinn Fein. Their leader Gerry Adams was a bridge too far, having served years in Belfast’s The Maze prison but crucially the Unionists decided they could work with Adams’ deputy Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was, like Adams, an IRA leader but never served time in a Northern Irish prison. His two criminal convictions (for being near an explosive-loaded car and being a member of the IRA) were across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Paisley established a warm rapport with McGuinness. Often seen laughing together, they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

There was a serious side to the chuckling and both men seized a chance to bring devolution to Northern Ireland on their terms. That McGuinness and Paisley’s aims were radically different didn’t matter, this was power and both men were determined to grab it. Paisley’s relentless negativity in opposition, softened in government. He became Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, aged 81, and like Mandela in South Africa in the 1990s he steered a path towards workable democracy before retiring in 2010. Paisley’s success can be judged by the longevity of the government – the DUP and Sinn Fein remain in unlikely partnership. Paisley was not easy to forgive for the way he destroyed hopes of peace for 20 years. But his path from demagogue to democrat shows cunning calculation. It also shows a person of great imagination. I was surprisingly saddened to hear Paisley had finally surrendered to his maker on Friday, aged 88. His legacy is mixed but Northern Ireland has lost a giant of a man in many ways. His bile was vile but the wisdom and spirit of his compromise was second to none.

Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)
Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

On the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, near the border between NSW and Queensland, a small stream quickly gathers pace as it slithers down the mountains. In an area of good rains it picks up tributaries in the Dorrigo Plateau. By the time it reaches the valleys, it is large and broad, the widest Australian river to enter the Pacific.

At its estuary the river is a majestic kilometre wide. The ferry from Yamba in the south to Iluka in the north takes 30 minutes to negotiate the dangerous channels, islands and sandbars. Most Australians know it as the Clarence but to the Yaegl and Bundjalung people (collectively the Yaygirr) that lived in this valley the river was called the Ngunitiji.

The Yaygirr had a good lifestyle for 6000 years, and could afford to set up roots and live in bark huts with woven vines. At night they gathered around to tell the story of the old woman Dirrangan swept down the river during a flood clutching a fig tree. The Yaygirr were eventually swept away when newcomers coveted the river and its fertile land.

These ghostly whites were initially slow to see the river’s significance. Cook missed it in 1770. Matthew Flinders found bark huts when he landed at the mouth of the Ngunitiji during his second voyage in 1799. He called the area Shoal Bay but was unimpressed by the shifting sandbars and failed to see the mouth of a major flow, calling it “a small opening like a river”.

For 40 years, the river remained invisible to white eyes. John Oxley missed it in his discovery of the Tweed River in 1823 as did Henry Rous in the same area five years later. Rous called Oxley’s Tweed the ‘Clarance’ but that name didn’t stick. In the decade after Oxley, rumours persisted of a Big River in northern NSW especially after convicts escaped south from Moreton Bay penal colony.

In 1830 one escapee “Sheik” Jack Brown made it to Yaygirr country where he lived with locals for two years. When he returned to Moreton Bay he told of a great river which “abounds with fish”. Its land was abundant in “emus, kangaroos, and wild fowl in all directions” and “pine, oak, gum and other trees of use” were growing. Brown excited the imagination of settlers looking for easy pickings among apparently friendly natives.

Captain Alexander Butcher took the Eliza into the estuary and mapped 200km up river. His report got Sydney’s attention. Explorer Joseph Hickey Grose verified Butcher’s findings the following year and he reported to deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry about “the future opening of the country on the banks of the river”.

The schooner Susan also left Sydney in 1838 with a party of sawyers looking for cedar. It was not a good wood for building houses or boats so they lived in tent-huts, surviving on beef, flour, tea and sugar. Three times a year they went to the new settlement at Grafton where there were complaints about drunken behaviour. Though the cedar was quickly exhausted, many stayed to try their hand at farming.

By now the Ngunitiji had a white name. The master of the ship King William, Captain Francis Griffin urged Governor Gipps in Sydney to name it “with a title somewhat more clear than the Big River.” Perhaps it was the name of Griffin’s ship as well as loyalty to the crown that caused Gipps to go with the name Rous tried to choose for the Tweed in honour of recently deceased King William IV, formerly the Duke of Clarence.

As word spread in Sydney, there was a rush of cedar-cutters, squatters and selectors into the Clarence’s fertile valley. The Yaygirr watched apprehensively as strangers poured into their territory. Initially there was cautious co-existence but the trickle of Europeans became a flood and took black lands and waterholes.

Once they started locking up land for cane growing, the Yaygirr had to steal back to survive. They killed white stock and attacked isolated settlements. In 1847 Thomas Coutts took revenge as he poisoned 23 Gumbaynggir people with strychnine in their flour. Five died in agony but Coutts avoided prosecution with not enough evidence against him and the blacks could not testify.

There were two documented massacres, one at Green Hills near Red Rock where mounted native police drove natives off the headland, the other at Station Creek. Oral histories also tell of killings at Minnie Waters, Cassons Creek and Tyndale in the early 1840s. By the 1900s massacres and disease had weakened the black population and land dispossession was complete. There were few left who could speak Yaygirr language. Their journey back from the precipice of non-peoplehood began with the 1967 Referendum. They were then remembered in the naming of the Yuraygir National Park in 1977.

Though widely dispersed today, the area’s traditional owners still proudly call out links to the region. The Bundjalong gave their name to the national park north of the Clarence. To the south, the Yaegl and the Gumbaingirr trace common descent through the female line. Their land councils and totems are important. The Bundjalong won the first Aboriginal land grant in NSW in 1985 at Evans Head. But the mighty Clarence, the Big River, the Ngunitiji, still speaks loudest. The Europeans have moulded it in their own industrious image with breakwaters and ports. But the ghost of Dirrangan still haunts its wide waters.