CHARGE OF THE LIGHT HORSE
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As the campaign ended, they were withdrawn to Egypt to be joyously reunited with their horses.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.
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
“THE LIGHT HORSEMEN PRIZED THEIR MOUNTS: MANY HAD BROUGHT THEIR OWN HORSES WITH THEM WHEN JOINING UP”
A halt in the desert for the Australian Light Horse taken by Capt. F. Hurley
An Australian light horseman in Palestine