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Category: WW1/Light Horse

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Stout Hearts that Never Failed

 Ian L Idriess, who was there with 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment 

There are few folk nowadays who know that the great debt we owe to our gallant horses for helping to shorten and win the 1914-18 war.

The Turks, in a long series of battles, were driven back seven hundred miles until their armies were utterly annihilated.

Then the Turkish Empire collapsed, which was virtually the end of the war.

Those bitterly fought, extraordinarily difficult campaigns would have been impossible but for the courage of our horses. Through constant danger, hardship almost unimaginable, they battled ever on as bravely as the men who rode them. We loved our horses. We know they loved us.

Over the ten days on the ride to Damascus, there were thousands of Australian horses, both in our force and among the Indians which averaged not less than 40 miles a day. Hundreds of these horses, engaged with the advance guard and on various liaison work often did from 60 to 80 miles a day. For one day 60 to 80 miles is nothing carrying up to 20 stone, but for a horse averaging 40 miles on the days before and after it was a great performance.

At the commencement of the desert campaign, twenty thousand of us were wondering if our horses could last out. Conditions there were so utterly different to those of our homelands. Blazing deserts, sand, sand, sand. Never the sign of a bird except a vulture. Not a blade of grass, not a drop of water, not a tree, except in the oases so far apart. Nothing but a blazing sky, burning sand, accursed flies and the howl of the mad khamsin!
The Jif Jaffa raid made us laughing glad, not because it was our first action in this new war, but because of what the horses did. They carried the raiders for two days and nights into an unknown desert of sand and stone and returned to camp fresher than the exhausted camels.

Pack horses with Vickers machine guns and ammunition of the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade.

The Australian "Waler" had beaten the Ship of the Desert in his own stamping grounds. We rode out to the Romani battles with a confidence that would brook no defeat.
In those weeks of desert fighting, terrible marches, thirst and heat and longing for sleep, horse and man grew very close. It was the period that cemented the lasting mateship between them. Each man came to realise that his horse no longer looked on him as "The Master" but as "My Friend". The friend who cared for him by day, slept beside him by night, the friend who grimly saved, stole, fought for every precious grain from comrade or foe that his horse might eat. The friend who comforted him when the rifles were crackling like a bushfire raging with the dawn. The friend who laved his muzzle with the last few drops from his water-bottle during the terrible marches when man and horse battled on in a sleepless half-world of exhaustion and fantasy.

The bay gelding 'Marcus' which is typical of the Australian horses which served throughout the campaign in Sinai and Palestine, 1916-1918.

And in return for the friendship of the man the horse never failed him throughout the stern years that followed. Man and horse became one, each knew the other’s exhilaration, thirst, dog-tiredness, laziness, expectancy or sense of immanent danger. The feel of the man in the saddle, the pressure of knees or rein, his tone of voice told the horse exactly what was doing.

The horse felt and reacted to the tenseness, to the thrill of the rider as we mounted, preparatory to a charge. We in turn felt the response in the quicker movement of our horses, their tossing heads, eager necks, saw their eyes brighten as we trotted up over the skyline. Then squadron after squadron plunged ahead in the thunder of a breathless charge. As we closed together knee to knee in yelling madness towards the shell bursts, the horses responded with a furious energy as abandoned as our own indescribable feelings.

Men of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade watering their horses at Esdud. Note the unusual collapsible canvas troughs.

Then on picket lines the horses knew well the familiar faces, the walk, the voices of those on duty - knew as well as we what those duties were. Knew too the drone of the Taube. Heads erect, ears pricked, many of them at the tremble, they watched for us to come running. They could hardly wait for us to unstring the halter and vault upon their backs; then they were away in the scatter to the desert. They knew just as well as we did when the cursed thing droned away; for as they turned back to the picket lines we could feel the easiness in their bodies. It was wonderful when we got them into the drab, rocky hills. Brilliant daylight, the column on the march!  

Our education in what our horse could do began at Romani where horses carrying 17 to 20 stone, travelled constantly with heavy sand up to their fetlocks, endured 70 hours without a drink, and this in the August heat of Sinai. This was the record but it has often been approached since.

Suddenly the drone of planes coming up over the hilltops. Too late to scatter, fatal to move! At the instant the column dismounted, every man stood by his horse, warning hand on soft muzzle, murmuring at the understanding brown eyes. Hundreds of horses standing as still as mice, The motionless column merged into the drab landscape.
The enemy planes would drone right over us, then go on their way. Again and again has the "old regiment" frozen thus, every man hiding the white of his hands, his face staring downwards, his horse motionless, while the planes swept so low overhead that we could feel the wind of their passing. Horses who did not understand their job, who did not "feel" the "feeling" of their riders, could never have done that!
The close understanding between man and horse, allied to endurance, helped us to win not only one of the most victorious campaigns in history, but throughout years of fighting was constantly saving lives. We realised this early at Romani.
The Turks, brilliantly led, were sweeping onto the Canal. That artery to the heart of Egypt lay at our backs. From the Romani sandhills, where we were to make the stand that was to decide the fate of Egypt, we rode forty miles out into the desert, keeping in touch with the advancing enemy throughout the far-flung chain of Katia oases.

Tribute to the Light Horse by English Cavalryman, Lt-Col R M P Preston, DSO.

(November 16th, 1917) ...the majority of the horses in the Corps were Walers, and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest Cavalry mounts in the World. They (the Australians) have got types of compact, well-built, saddle and harness horses that no other part of the world can show. Rather on the light side according to our ideas, but hard as nails and with beautiful clean legs and feet. Their records in this war place them far above the Cavalry horse of any other nation. The Australians themselves can never understand our partiality for the half-bred weight-carrying hunter, which looks to them like a cart horse. Their contention has always been that good blood will carry more weight than big bone, and the experience of this war has converted the writer, for one, entirely to their point of view. It must be remembered that the Australian countrymen are bigger, heavier men than their English brothers. They formed just half the Corps and it probable that they averaged not far off 12 stone each stripped. To this weight must be added another 9-1/2 stone for saddle, ammunition, sword, rifle, clothes and accoutrements, so that each horse carried a weight of 21 stone, all day for every day for 17 days, - on less than half the normal ration of forage and with only one drink in every 36 hours! The weight-carrying English Hunter had to be nursed back to fitness after these operations and for a long period, while the little Australian horses without any special care, other than good food and plenty of water were soon fit to go through another campaign as arduous as the last one!

Roaming patrols, scouting patrols, outposts, isolated groups of horsemen strung for miles across the line of the Turkish advance, while away behind us our comrades were feverishly preparing the Romani sandhills for the Big Stand.
Those were a weird three weeks, those dark nights within the blackness of the palms, our ears straining for the whispering sighs of the desert night. Those moonlit nights when the palm shadows were ink pillars splashed with moonlight in a camouflage through which a thousand grey-coated men might be creeping but yards away, while out in the open every desert bush could become a moving thing to the straining eyes of the cossack posts.
They were crouched by the dark shadow of their horses – horses that rarely moved. Horses whose big eyes also stared into the desert, whose ears and nostrils were ever twitching, whose bodies were instantly ready for the leap into the saddle and the wild plunge back into the sheltering night.
Our job was to wait until the Turks were right on us. No matter if right or left they had crept between the next post and us and were surrounding us; we had to wait to the very last moment. Only thus could the distant "Heads" get some idea of the length of line of the Turkish advance, and at what points it was of greatest strength.
Perhaps the listening posts experienced the worst of the tension. For these tiny isolated posts could not have the relief of fighting, of one quick volley before mounting and away, then to wheel around ad wait again. The listening post must stand in utter silence, listen and learn.
The horses were wonderful. The almost uncontrollable longing with the urge to neigh when a vagrant breeze brought them the scent of another horse in some distant outpost. The tenseness, the loneliness, the definite sense of danger drawing near urged them to neigh to a mate as an uneasy human might raise his voice at the sign of company. We had struggled hard, throughout long training, to control this and now the horses knew; though in occasional urgency it depended the vigilance of the horse-holder. Throughout the tense hours his eyes never left his horse. At the slightest sign it meant a quick urgent whisper, the comforting hand upon the muzzle and the horse would sigh his neigh away.

The horse often knew when danger was drawing near, perhaps because some current of air brought then the unforgettable tang which is the smell of men or things of the East.
The Turks throughout the centuries had become past masters at desert fighting. Now at night, creeping upon us in their grey uniforms, indistinguishable in the night from the shadows and varying desert sands, they sometimes completely surrounded our outlying posts.
On occasions the first sign of them was the glint of steel as they sprang up and charged. A leap to the saddle and the horses were away to the howls of "Allah!" Allah!" "Kill!" "Kill!" "Finish Australia!" "Finish Australia!" The horses knew that they were enemy hands snatching at the bridles, and charged straight through with a violent plunge of the head, even pawing out at the screaming Turks.
I have felt my horse shiver expressively at the sudden close glint of steel. But they knew our steel too, knew by the flask and click of the bayonet driven home that something exciting was doing, and we felt it in the wave throughout the hundreds of horses in the regiment. How well we were to learn that feeling merging through men and horses! Never will we forget them in that first mad charge with fixed bayonets at Katia.
During the next two years men and horses were to react to the steel of friend and foe many, many times.
When the Turks broke through they hurled themselves on the grim Romani hills en masse. Then our horses experienced a terrible form of fighting and endurance. Screaming thousands came plunging up the sandhills to hurled back by steel and bullet, only to come again hour after screaming hour. But against our pathetically thin lines they took hill after hill, ever gouging into the heart of Romani. The Horses were under the crash of shells, listening prick-eared to the howling charges, with only a wall of sand separating them from the hot smell of blood and Eastern foemen.
They stared in eager readiness at our boys plunging back down the hills; instinctively they were ready and away at a gallop when the men leapt for the saddles. Under a hail of bullets they raced for the next hill where the nerve-racking crash forth again, hill after hill.

Understand that in the Headquarters tents the temperature was 166 degrees F. In this inferno, under the backbreaking loads and constant galloping over sand, again and again the horses went thirty hours without water. The struggle and movement was on both day and night and throughout the worst fortnight sleep was only snatched for one precious hour every now and again, but the horses never failed us.
The battle of Romani was touch and go. It finally hinged on the last few hours of endurance. Our horses gave that endurance. They were still on their feet when the Turkish army faded into utter exhaustion. The Australian and New Zealand Walers won the battle of Romani and by saving the Suez Canal saved Egypt.
Then commenced the well organised and fighting retreat of the Turks, choosing their own ground to fight their stubborn rearguard battles at Katia, Oghratina, Bir-el-Abd, Mazar until at last they faded back to the redoubts of Magdhaba and Rafa, on the borders of Palestine.
To us, those were nightmare days and nights, but worse for our horses. The ride throughout the night, the attack at dawn, the stubborn resistance through hell’s own heat, the blistering misery of thirst, the long ride back next night because we must have water! Water! Water!
Swaying in the saddles, riding by the stars, the long black columns winding through the ghostly sandhills. The horses with bowed heads doggedly pressed on, heartened by the murmuring of their thousands of hooves, by the great breath of the tight packed columns, by the smell of sweat and humanity, by the reassuring feel of the riders. Halting instantly to the Voice, you could hear them sigh. Flopping down to the sand as the riders dismounted, lying motionless in the weariness of utter exhaustion.
Many a time have I dropped to my knees and used my old horse as a pillow, his body for warmth during that heavenly moment of time, that ten minutes rest each hour. Then the horses would hear the Voice again. We would stumble to our feet. They too would stumble to theirs and the columns were on the move again, asleep in the saddles, the horses doggedly ploughing on, on, on.
From the Canal to the borders of Palestine, two hundred miles across terrible desert, our heavily laden horses more than we drove the Turks out of Sinai

None of us living can forget El Arish. Riding by night, subconsciously puzzling that something was missing, and the murmuring sigh of the horse’s hooves. Something had taken its place, almost a low rumbling. My old horse stumbled, giving me a shock. He had not stumbled for; it seemed, years and years. Then the horses were suddenly moving quicker with a strange excited sprightliness. My horse stumbled again; other horses were stumbling. Puzzled I stared down, the ground seemed black. Then a murmur of astonishment came whispering down the column. solid ground! For the first time in over two years our horses were again treading solid earth.
It was after Magdhaba, when many troops were four days and nights in the saddle or fighting without rest, and the equally bitter Rafia battle, that our horses went mad. We felt it just before dawn. A quickening, a pricking of ears and nostrils, a stretching out of necks, then muzzles jerking to the ground. Again and again and again! Shivering with some strange excitement, For the first time we could remember our horses were breaking line, jerking our arms as they reached to the ground. For quite a time we could hardly believe that they were eating, excited voices were murmuring, "There’s grass on the ground." Then came a beautiful dawn bringing madness to the horses for as far as the eye could see was a sea of green barley. Horses became almost uncontrollable, a ripple of laughing delight came down the column, a lark rose to sing sweetly high in the sky, excited shouts as the men pointed out the scarlet poppies, the lovely wild flowers of Palestine.
Our horses simply went crazy.
In the Palestinian plain we gradually grew into a great army that stretched right across Palestine from Gaza to Beersheba. The spearhead of this host was Forty Thousand Horse, a wonderful sight when seen from the hills when on the warpath, clouds of horsemen as far as the eye could see. Other clouds above them growing from the lazy puffs of shrapnel and the ugly brownish-black spoutings of the high explosive. At night the horizon was a vivid lightning of the guns.
But always the horses pressed on, against deep wadis, unbroken plains, rocky hills, trenches, pits, redoubts, fortresses and fortified towns. Saddles were emptied, horses crashed to the dust, but always they went on. We knew at times they felt fear as we did, but always they went on, even when at perfect liberty to turn around and gallop back from hell. We all have seen a riderless horse lead the charge hell for leather. How often have we galloped with the riderless horses of our mates beside us!
My old horse was once wounded in the early morning. He gave no sign through out a furious day of galloping, heat and thirst. It was only at sundown that I noticed the congealed blood under the saddlecloth. I have seen men hard pressed not to weep when their horses were killed. It was a blow when a horse was wounded or, at long last, led back to the sick lines. But within a month or so the horse would be back fresh and eager as our wounded men returned. The meeting of the horse and the friend was a reunion of true mates.

Though the big battles were frightening to the horses it was the snipers they feared most, just as we were unnerved by them. At time the regiment would be under partial cover behind a ridge or village awaiting the order to gallop into line. A sniper would crawl around our flank, settle himself down, and then proceed to systematically shoot the horses. They knew that distant crack! Then the hammer blow and the squeal as a stricken horse reared and crashed down. The close smell of blood, the tense atmosphere was all absorbed by the horses. I have seen men go berserk with rage as we helplessly waited there while a distant sniper went Crack! Crack! Crack! at the horses.
Into our horses bewildering New World came fog, the ghostly columns riding upon German planes that took to the air like startled partridges, and then a world of suffocating dust. The villages, orchards; how the horses stared at the trees. Then the great cactus hedges "spitting" at us where Turkish bullets were fired through the green spiky walls.
Then a glimpse of the sea and again the horses went crazy as they swam in the surf and rolled on the clean sweet beach. Then back to the dry lands and the howling Khamsin that, in swirling blackness, filled the mouth, ears and nostrils and cut into the eyes like needlepoints of fire. But still the horses toiled on!
Through the great series of battle in which we pushed the Turks back from one end of Palestine to the other perhaps the terrible country in the Amman and El Salt fighting tested men and horses most. A maze of rocky mountains where goat tracks skirting precipices were the only trails. Bitter rains, icy winds, slippery rocks and the gorges roaring under rifle and machine gun fire. Soon all food, all grain was gone! Five days and nights without sleep!
But the horses carried on and returned with the wounded on their backs, their weary legs sometimes carrying even more pitiful wreckage of war, women and babies and children moaning through the black night for their husbands and fathers, victim of the treachery of the Circassian villagers. Hellish misery was that retreat!
Again and yet again men and horses battled back again into those hellish gorges of death, then utterly exhausted staggered down again into the Jordan Valley. That valley itself was hell, smothered under dust with frightful heat by day, a valley of fever to the men, a valley of vipers, mosquitoes, flies and scorpions to the horses. Even the Arabs shook their heads and swore that neither man nor horse could live there in summer. For centuries they had called it the Valley of Death.
The good old horses battled through it all, cold so bitter, exhaustion so terrible that even Arab camel drivers lay down beside their camels and died. The horsemen saw them thus in the bitter dawns, the dead camel, and the frozen driver beside him. But the Waler still carried on.
That vast and magnificently led campaign ended in the complete destruction of the Turkish armies. Rarely in history has annihilation been so complete.
But for our horses it could not have been accomplished. The Turkish Empire had no more armies and sued for peace.
A bitter peace to the horsemen!
A law is that no animal from foreign shores can be landed in Australia, lest it introduce disease.
Our beloved horses were never to return to Australia, never to see again the dear homeland they had fought so bravely to save. It was a heart-breaking decision to make, but many horsemen shot their faithful friends rather than allow them to drag out their lives under the whip of the fellaheen and the Arab.
Thus were our horses sacrificed when they had won the victory.

Vale! Old Mates!

From As You Were, 1946 by the AWM

Did Light Horsemen shoot their horses? Answer, No!

At the end of the First World War Australian Units had 13,000 surplus horses which could not return home for quarantine reasons. Of these 11,000 were sold, the majority as remounts for the British Army in India. Two thousand were cast (selected for disposal) for age or infirmity. About 200–250 were destroyed (without permission) by their Lighthorse owners.
Extensive research by Robert Thomas BA shows the following facts and figures.

The horses were categorised by veterinary officers by age and condition, into A B C & D. Those of no further use and those over 14 years of age were destroyed (although Bourne records in 2nd LH History that those over 8 years of age were destroyed, this is contradicted by the regimental war diary) Some smaller horses were sold locally or in some cases given away (100 horses were presented to the King of the Hejaz)

Generally the horses that were destroyed were destroyed at the Remounts by Brigade shooting parties thus making it unlikely that men shot their own horses. They were then skinned and buried. 7 pounds  (3kg approx) of salt was allowed for preserving the skins on the way to the tannery. The AWM reports a figure of 250 unauthorised destructions.


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