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Category: Conflicts/WW1/Lt Horse

Click to enlarge Light Horse Field Ambulances
< Maadi, EGYPT. 1915. The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade Field Ambulance moving out of camp. (Donor A. Balland)

The Australian Light Horse units were mounted infantry. They were not a force of cavalry, in that it was never intended that they should fight on horseback. Indeed, one of the most memorable battles of World War One, the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba was quite unusual.

In general, Light Horse units would be sent to key positions in the forward line, where they would dismounted, and then fight.

One important element in the success of the light horse was efficient, highly mobile medical support. Unlike mounted units in the British and other Dominion armies, the primary medical personnel of the light horse were mounted. They ensured the removal of the wounded from the front line or regimental aid posts to the advanced dressing station, at which there were surgical and resting tents.

In the early stages of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, sand-carts and camels were used to evacuate men from the lines of battle.

However, each were found to be inefficient means of moving the wounded. The sand carts were adaptations of a design that had long been in use in upper Egypt and Sinai. They had two wheels with tyres that were wide enough to stop the cart digging into soft sand, and could carry two or three stretchers. 

However, in heavy sand it was that four horses were necessary to pull the cart, and that the cart had to be steered by a rider on one of the lead horses. In times of emergency, many more than three men had to be speedily evacuated, making the sand cart liable to become bogged or hard to steer.

Click to enlarge Camels were also used. Two wounded were strapped into a horizontal platform suspended from either side of the camel's saddle, with their heads facing that of the camel. Early versions of these platforms were little better than boxes rigidly joined together which, in the words of the official historian of the Australian army medical services, were '...perhaps the most uncomfortable form of wounded transport ever devised.' 

The design was improved after similar devices used by Turkish medical units were captured after the battle of Romani. However, no matter comfortable the resting position of the wounded was made, the fact remained that they were strapped to a camel, an animal which walks with a slow and swaying gate. 

Pte. G.H. Blyth, 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance, wearing full equipment, photographed on board a transport on 1915-10-04. (donated by Captain J.D. Cramb.)

When the weights of the men on either side of the camel were unequal, the device sagged, and as the camel sought to keep upright and moving forwards, the movement of the platforms were made even more unpleasant. It was not uncommon for the wounded to suffer motion sickness, which in the case of the severely wounded was sometime fatal.

Camels were slow, moving on average only two and half miles an hour. They also attracted flies which could spread bacteria from the camel's digestive tract to hastily dressed wounds. Further, camels, especially those heavily loaded and some time without water could be ill-tempered and ready to inflict what could be quite savage bites.  Click to enlarge

Given the shortcomings of sand-carts and camels, medical personnel were quick explore other modes of conveying the wounded to field ambulances. They soon came to realise that the best form of conveyance would be a sledge, constructed in much the same way as those traditionally used by the nomadic peoples of the Sinai region. 
Sand sleds (sledges) being used to move the wounded, Palestine 

Sledges had the advantage of being able to be pulled by one horse, at reasonable speed, and with much less discomfort to the wounded. However, absence of ready materials for sledges meant that light horse ambulances continued to use a mixture of sand-carts, camel platforms and sledges to evacuate the wounded, often reserving the sledges for the transport of the most severe cases.


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