Horsezone News

Tales of Real War Horses from Australia and New Zealand

Published on Friday, April 24, 2015 in General
Light Horse Training C1910 (www.lancers.org.au/site/light_horse.asp)

This article was originally written when the movie War Horse was released in Australia, however, it is mostly about ANZAC War Horses.

War Horse, the much anticipated movie, is opening across cinemas in Australia today.

All reviews agree the movie is visually stunning, however, some have accused War Horse of being too sentimental. I think everyone needs to make their own judgement when they see it, however, as far as being too sentimental, there is only one word to describe how I would feel if my beloved horse was taken away to fight in a war on the other side of the world - devastated!

With the release of this film, we can't help but think of the thousands of horses, in World War I approximately 136 000 from Australia alone, who lost their lives fighting our battles. 

Australia's War Horses

There are many amazing true stories about Australian horses who have been caught up in the tumult of war...  

A World War I equine hero of one such story, was a big chestnut gelding named Bill the Bastard. This 16hh gelding earned his not-so-illustrious name because he was famous for bucking and had never been fully broken in as a result. Only the best riders would take on this game beast.  Despite his far from salubrious reputation, Bill's spirit became hugely important during a crisis in the battle of Romani. A pitched battle was raging between the Turks and Australians, with the two sides just 35 metres apart, warring in the dark.  The right flank was under fierce assault. One group of five troopers saw their horses shot or lost - all except Bill the Bastard - he had not cut and run with the other horses.  Bill stood his ground, almost as if he knew he was this quintet's last hope of escape, which he was.  Three troopers hurried across the sand and scrambled on board Bill, praying he would not buck, which he always did when mounted, however, instead of complaining about his load Bill stood firm.  The remaining two troopers balanced on a stirrup on either side of the big horse and hung on as best they could.  The mighty Waler dug his hooves into the soft sand, snorted and sweated in a lumbering gallop for just over a kilometre, while under fire and carrying the massive load of five men to safety.  Any other horse would have collapsed, but not Bill!  This gallant favourite of the campaign was rewarded by never again having to put up with a trooper on his back. He had a much gentler time as an officer's packhorse from then on ('The Australian Light Horse' by Roland Perry).

modern day Waler

There is a Light Horse Memorial in Albury Street, Murrumburrah (pictured above right), which commemorates the birthplace of the First Australian Light Horse at Murrumburrah in 1897 and features a bronze sculpture of the 'Retreat at Romani' which features Bill the Bastard carrying five men along with other memorial sculptures and plaques.

Walers were the type of horse used by light horsemen in the campaign in the Middle East during the First World War. The light horse combined the mobility of cavalry with the fighting skills of infantry. They fought dismounted, with rifles and bayonets. However, sometimes they charged on horseback, notably at Magdhaba and Beersheba (follow link to find out more about this amazing cavalry charge). The smallest unit of a light horse regiment was the four-man section: one holding the horses while the other three fought.

The horses were called Walers because, although they came from all parts of Australia, they were originally sold through New South Wales. They were sturdy, hardy horses, able to travel long distances in hot weather with little water.

Horses usually need to drink about 30 litres of water a day. However, during the campaign they often went for up to 60 hours without water, while carrying a load of almost 130 kilograms, comprising rider, saddle, equipment, food, and water. (www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/horses)

At the end of World War I, 11,000 surplus horses in the Middle East were sold to the British Army as remounts for Egypt and India. Some horses that were categorised as being unfit were destroyed. Also, some light horsemen chose to destroy their horses rather than part with them, but this was an exception, despite the popular myth that portrays it as the fate of all the war horses. Parting with their Walers was one of the hardest events the light horsemen had to endure. A poem by "Trooper Bluegum" sums up the men's sentiment:

I don't think I could stand the thought of my old fancy hack
Just crawling round old
Cairo with a 'Gyppo on his back.
Perhaps some English tourist out in
Palestine may find
My broken-hearted Waler with a wooden plough behind.

No: I think I'd better shoot him and tell a little lie
"He floundered in a wombat hole and then lay down to die."
May be I'll get court-martialled; but I'm damned if I'm inclined
To go back to
and leave my horse behind.

From Australia in Palestine, 1919


One Came Home...

Of all the thousands of horses from Australia that travelled to distant lands to fight alongside our soldiers, only one came home - Sandy.

Sandy had belonged to Major General Sir William Bridges, who was killed at Gallipoli. From 1 August 1915 Sandy was in the care of Captain Leslie Whitfield, an Australian Army Veterinary Corps officer in Egypt. Sandy remained in Egypt until he and Whitfield were transferred to France during March 1916.

In October 1917 Senator George Pearce, Minister for Defence, called for Sandy to be returned to Australia for pasture at Duntroon. In May 1918 the horse was sent from the Australian Veterinary Hospital at Calais to the Remount Depot at Swaythling in England. He was accompanied by Private Archibald Jordon, who had been at the hospital since April 1917 and classed as permanently unfit for further active service.

After three months of veterinary observation, Sandy was declared free of disease. In September 1918 he was boarded on the freighter Booral, sailing from Liverpool and arriving in Melbourne in November. Sandy was turned out to graze at the Central Remount Depot at Maribyrnong, where he saw out the rest of his days. Following his passing, Sandy's head and neck were on display at the Australian War Memorial for many years.(www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/horses/sandy.asp)

New Zealand Horses Played Their Part Too!

Of the 18,000 New Zealand horses that were involved in the South African War and the First World War, only two came home. Major, belonging to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Porter, returned to New Zealand after serving all over South Africa. Colonel CG Powles’ horse Bess served in the First World War, and a memorial to her stands near Flock House in Manawatu.

Another World War I horse story, which has been handed down verbally through the generations, this time of a New Zealand life saving horse - was when a Kiwi trooper and a long lost equine friend were reunited.  The location of the battle is unclear - probably somewhere in Africa - a soldier had lost his horse and been cut off from his troop, so it was looking like he was doomed, when a lone horse came galloping up.  He caught the horse, vaulted on board and managed to bolt to safety. Once they were out of harms way, the trooper dismounted, praising the horse ecstatically for saving his life - it was then he saw the horse's brand.  It was a wine glass shaped brand and this made the soldier stop and stare open mouthed, because he knew the brand well and when he looked at the horse more closely, recognising his noble roman nose, he knew him too!  You see, prior to the horror of war tearing apart the young man's life, he had worked at a sheep and cattle station on the East Coast of New Zealand and was involved with breaking in their young horses.  The brand, featured on all horses from that stud, was a wine glass - the trooper's rescuer was a horse he had previously broken in!

There is no doubt that horses have stood beside us in most major upheavals throughout history, from discovering new lands to conquering old ones, and we need to always remember the thousands that have lost their lives to man's folly.

Not that I think war is particularly civilised but this quote says it all:

"Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it."  John Moore.

There is so much more to learn about horses and their history in war, so if you have a moment and would like to delve further, check out the sources below.

by: Jo Johnson/Horsezone


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