The Australian Light Horse – part 1

light horse
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 of the reasons why white settlers defeated Aboriginal resistance. Even with the advent of the trains, the horse remained the quintessential pioneer accoutrement to 1914. Many country kids rode to school every day while others like Harry Chauvel rode enormous distances to boarding school in the 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 released Kuwait from the thralls of the dying Ottoman empire. In early 1914, Churchill had his 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 their 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 contingent.

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 downplaying matters. 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 the Mediterranean heat. The subterranean life of trench warfare was alien to the horsemen but they quickly learned or were killed.

For months, their lives would be 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 but 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 could throw 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.


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