Australia in the First World War – The Ottoman campaign 1916-1918

Members of the Australian Light Horse in the Sinai Desert 1916.
Members of the Australian Light Horse in the Sinai Desert 1916.

While the entire Australian army fought at Gallipoli, only a small number remained to fight against the Ottomans in the rest of the war. The Australian Light Horse stayed in the Middle East while the vast majority, five Australian divisions, split off to fight a separate war on the Western Front against Germany.

The Light Horse were a ghost of previous wars whose most effective tactic was the cavalry charge with sabres. Both weapons – horses and sabres – were becoming obsolete in the 20th century. The Light Horse was the embodiment of the Australian bushmen but the horses were ineffective on the cliffsides of Gallipoli and in the trench warfare of France and Belgium. The horses however did give them mobility and they would be useful in the Sinai and Arabian Deserts.

In 1915, the Light Horse sat out the April 25 landing at Gallipoli but as the death toll mounted in May, they were drafted in without their horses and suffered casualties in large numbers.

The Light Horse again missed out when the infantry was sent to France. They would stay behind in Cairo to help defend the Suez Canal and launch raids into Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

The Aussies repulsed the Turks in Romani in Sinai and under new leader Harry Chauvel pushed east. Gaza was a crucial gateway to the Holy Land and the Allies failed to take it in two sieges in 1917. For the third attempt Chauvel’s men made an audacious charge on the wells at Beersheba, armed with bayonets instead of traditional swords.

The full-paced charge over machine gun fire late in the afternoon of October 31, 1917, crashed through the terrified defenders. Beersheba fell and within days the Turks abandoned Gaza. Before the year was out, the British Army had taken Jerusalem.

The war was still far from over for the Light Horse who endured reverses in 1918 in the Jordan Valley. There the enemies were heat, flies, lice, scorpions, dust and sickness as much as the Ottoman army. They were re-issued with swords, allowing them to fight on horseback and took part in a big coastal offensive which forced the Turks to retreat.

The Light Horse marched into Damascus in triumph bringing the desert war to an end in October 1918. About 1500 Australian soldiers died in the campaign, many of sickness and disease.

The Light Horse had 130,000 sturdy Waler horses that they loved as dearly as life. But none but one would go home to Australia. At the end of the war they were either sold or transferred to the British and Indian armies. Many soldiers preferred to shoot the horses rather than have them put to cruel use. In later years the talk of Light Horsemen was of their beloved horses and the tragedy of leaving them behind.

The only horse to return home was Sandy, the mount of commander of the Australian 1st Division, Major General Sir William Bridges. General Bridges was killed in a sniper attack at Gallipoli in 1915. It was his dying wish that Sandy should return to Australia.

The horse was transferred to France and in 1917 the Minister for Defence called for Sandy to be returned for pasture. He arrived home in 1918 and the official record says he was “pensioned off”, turned out to graze for the next six years at Remount Hill, the home and training ground of the Light Horse Brigade. Sandy’s eyesight failed with age, and his growing debility prompted the decision to have him put down, “as a humane action” in May 1923. The days of horsemanship in war were also numbered.

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