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The Light Horse
What was the light horse? For starters they were mounted infantry, and they were born of a necessity of being able to deploy our armed forces with speed in an efficient manner before the Great War of 1914-18. There leaders came from some of our great family names throughout Australia, of the likes of Chauvel and Ryston.
The need for an armed force that could utilise the resources of the land, navigate and move at speed, they came to the fore during the shearers strike in Queensland at the end of the 19th century, for this they earnt the coveted Emu plumes so synonymous with the light horse.
During the Boer War they distinguished themselves by adopting tactics that mimicked the Boer commando units. This was to play a major factor in the way they were used in the Middle East during the Great War.
The commander who led them was Harry Chauvel who came to fame for his quick thinking and grasp of mounted tactics during the desert war in Palestine and Sinai.
The Light horseman was of a particular type and came from all walks of life, they could shoot and ride, navigate, live from the land, from everything from a shop keeper to a rouseabout, and they were the stuff that became the legend. Long of leg and loping of stride they had a mannerism that is still evident today with our armed forces. That larrikinism, the joke, quick with the wit, deadly with either bayonet or rifle, but not shy to show compassion to the foe. They would give their last fag or their shirt to their mate, or crawl through hell fire to save that mate.
The mount the Light Horse had were a mixture of Brumbies, Thoroughbreds, and station horses. They were a hardy type of horse that helped to make the Light Horse so effective, they could go for up to 48 hours without water, carry a large burden of man and kit of up to 230 pounds over soft sand for hours on end. They became the envy of many of the other forces that were also in the Middle East.
If not for the likes of Banjo Patterson who ran the remount unit in Palestine, he had learnt from experience during the Boer War of looking after the mounts, as they had lost up to 90% of the horses sent to the South African Veldt through either disease or over work and malnutrition to the point of mounted units having more men walking than riding. In WW1 before the horses could be issued to a trooper they had to be acclimatised, fed good food, and exercised back into fitness after their long journey from Australia, a strict discipline was instilled into the mounted troops of looking after their mounts, the horse came first and foremost.
The Light Horse had one thing that the regular infantry would never have and that is a bond with their mount. The horses came first, the horse got the water first, if the guys were dog tired, the horses still had to be fed and watered before they could sleep. Without their trusty mounts the Light Horse were little better than infantry, if they didn’t look after their “mate” they couldn’t get around the battle field. The Light Horse were a different breed, having to have the skills to not only look after their mount but fight from and be able to get the most from their “mate”. This bond many of the Light Horsemen would remember till their dying day’s, and could still bring a tear to the most hardened campaigner of them having to leave their mounts behind. Some of the Light Horse had had their horse for the better part of four years, that bond of living through blistering heat and bitter cold, through the deserts of the Sinai and across the gibber of Palestine.
Having to rely on each other for survival, of most extraordinary feats of going that extra mile for their “mate”, for example Bill The Bastard who carried five men at the same time, out of combat across soft sand for over 1200 meters to get them to safety with the Turks hot on their heals at Romani. And yet still going into combat afterwards with his officer rider, till the officer was shot in the leg and was teetering on the verge of unconsciousness, he carried him ever so gently back to a dressing station without dropping him so he could be treated. Of the charge of Beersheba and Shemakh, where it wouldn’t have mattered what the enemy threw at them they were going for water and you couldn’t have stopped them anyway.
To the Turks the Light Horse were a bunch of madmen that would come screaming and whooping across the plain of Beersheba to capture the all important wells that meant either success or failure. They earnt a healthy respect from Johnny Turk, which had carried on from their time on Gallipoli, to the Aussie the Turk was a fair fighter, a gentleman of combat. To this they would forever be regaled to the point of the likes of my grandfather and other men who had served against the Turk, if my grandfather heard there was a Turk in town he would go out of his way to find them and buy them a cuppa or a meal.
The Light Horse of the Great War only existed for four years and rode into legend; they are still remembered with pride of “my grandfather was in the Light Horse”, and some of the elder generation who’s parents served in the great war look on at our modern day re enactors in Light Horse uniform with a tear in their eye. For this those that choose to put on the uniform of the past and try to imitate some of the skills their forebears naturally did, is an honour in itself.
There are none of the originals left now the last passing in August 2002, they have joined . . . the silent company of men whose knowing innocence was and is our national character . . . their valour, good humour, comradeship, and tenacity in battle showed history what the best of Australia could do. It showed us what the best of Australia could be!
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