How Aus­tralia’s horse­men found glory on the bat­tle­fields of WWI


The Aus­tralian Light Horse formed at the out­break of World War I as part of the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force des­tined to fight in Europe. The ma­jor­ity of the light horse­men came from the vast, hot and arid ru­ral re­gions in Aus­tralia. Horse­man­ship, and of­ten marks­man­ship, was learned from child­hood and was for many an es­sen­tial skill for their daily lives and work.

Two of the coun­try’s official his­to­ri­ans, Charles Bean and Henry Gul­lett, en­thused about the light horse­men, one de­scrib­ing them as, “the ro­man­tic, quixotic, ad­ven­tur­ous flot­sam that ed­died on the sur­face of the Aus­tralian peo­ple”. The other noted that nearly all were of Bri­tish de­scent and were “the chil­dren of the most rest­less, ad­ven­tur­ous and vir­ile in­di­vid­u­als of that stock”. Even al­low­ing for the ten­dency of na­tions to ro­man­ti­cise their World War I sol­diers, the light horse­men were spir­ited, hard­ened and usu­ally young men with a dash­ing rep­u­ta­tion. With a leav­en­ing of Boer War vet­er­ans, they had the mak­ings of for­mi­da­ble troops.

Their bap­tism of fire came at

Gal­lipoli. After train­ing in Egypt, they were com­mit­ted in May 1915 as re­in­force­ments to the land­ings that were meant to open the way to Con­stantino­ple and knock the Ot­toman Em­pire out of the war. In­stead, the light horse faced seven months of hard ser­vice in squalid trenches un­der ap­palling con­di­tions, fight­ing sev­eral costly ac­tions – most fa­mously the at­tack on ‘The Nek’ on 7 Au­gust 1915 (see page 32).

As the cam­paign ended, they were with­drawn to Egypt to be joy­ously re­u­nited with their horses. The light horse­men prized their mounts: many had brought their own horses with them when join­ing up. The bonds were close, and these re­la­tion­ships would be the source of com­fort and dis­may in the years ahead as both riders and mounts suf­fered in a va­ri­ety of in­hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ments.

While the Aus­tralian in­fantry were sent to France after Gal­lipoli, the three light horse brigades joined the Egyp­tian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (EEF). Their task was to de­fend the Suez Canal, the vi­tal strate­gic water­way link­ing the raw re­sources of the east with Britain’s fac­to­ries.

This was im­por­tant work and vi­tal to the war ef­fort. The Ot­tomans had tried to cut the canal in Fe­bru­ary 1915 and would doubt­less try again, but for the men and an­i­mals spend­ing weary, monotonous months in desert out­posts the task slowly dulled their spir­its. Some light horse­men attempted to get to France where the ‘real’ war was, but those who stayed would soon find all the ac­tion they could wish for.

Si­nai Desert

In April 1916 the Ot­tomans again at­tacked the Suez Canal. After their de­feat, the Aus­tralian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Ri­fles (NZMR) led the EEF into the desert. The Bri­tish dug in around Ro­mani, while a rail­way and pipe­line were slowly built east­wards to keep them sup­plied. From here, two brigades of light horse and NZMR pa­trolled deeply and ag­gres­sively into the desert, where a much larger Ot­toman force was gath­er­ing for a third at­tempt on the Suez Canal.

The Aus­tralians were al­ready par­tially con­di­tioned to the en­vi­ron­ment and proved adept at this small war of scout­ing, skir­mish­ing and am­bush­ing. They main­tained a pun­ish­ing rou­tine, with each brigade spend­ing a long day out on pa­trol, fol­lowed by a day on picket duty in the sand dunes south of Ro­mani. With pre­cious lit­tle rest be­tween du­ties, strictly lim­ited water and the burn­ing Si­nai sum­mer, it was re­lent­less work un­der the most dif­fi­cult of con­di­tions.

The Ot­toman at­tack on Ro­mani on 3

Au­gust 1916 ran straight into a care­fully pre­pared Bri­tish trap. The Aus­tralians held a picket line with no pre­pared po­si­tions or barbed wire that might warn the en­emy of their pres­ence, and when the Ot­tomans stum­bled into them they con­ducted a fight­ing re­treat at night while in close con­tact with vastly su­pe­rior num­bers. The Aus­tralians had earned a wild and dis­or­derly rep­u­ta­tion in Egypt, but their per­for­mance that night was an in­cred­i­ble dis­play of dis­ci­plined fight­ing ef­fi­ciency. Although con­fu­sion was in­evitable, con­trol was never lost and the re­treat was a com­plete suc­cess as it drew the en­emy in. Hav­ing fought all night, the Aus­tralians (and New Zealan­ders) then held a new line through the day, be­fore a coun­ter­at­tack of Bri­tish and New Zealand mounted troops swept in on the Ot­tomans’ ex­posed flank.

The EEF pushed the Ot­tomans back across the Si­nai, with the mounted troops lead­ing the way. At the end of the year the Aus­tralian Light Horse, Bri­tish Yeo­manry, NZMR and Im­pe­rial Camel Corps (ICC) mounted large-scale raids against the last


A halt in the desert for the Aus­tralian Light Horse taken by Capt. F. Hur­ley

An Aus­tralian light horse­man in Pales­tine

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