The Desert Column

Australian Light Horse : This magnificent photograph of the ALH taken by world renown Australian photographer Frank Hurley. Reported to have been taken in Palestine just after the famous charge by the Light Horse at Beersheba. Hurley took many powerful photographs of the Light Horse during the middle east campaigns. Hurley became famous for his images and film footage of Shakleton's near tragic expedition to the Antarctic. Also included above, the well recognised "Rising Sun" hat bage of Australian troops and samples of the thousands of colourful patrotic cards sent by families in support of their men.

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Beersheva Memorial
2008

 

 

 


The Emu Plumed hat of the
Australian Light Horseman.


 



A photograph of an Australian Light Horseman adorns a patriotic button worn by the women and families back home in support of their men.
"Cheer-up, we're boxing on."

 

 

The Australian Light Horse.

Although New Zealand had more troops per head of population than any other nation involved during the conflict of WWI, Australia with its much larger population base was able to put more mounted regiments into the Middle Eastern campaigns than New Zealand. The ANZAC Mounted Division was made up of a core of three brigades: the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade, the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade and the NZMR Brigade.

The massive commitment by the Australian and New Zealand nations during the war can be seen by the enlistments of the two nations men. Australia sending 331,814 soldiers from a population of only 2,470,000 male population, relating to 13.43% of her manpower. New Zealand sending 112,223 soldiers from a population of a mere 580,000 male population, relating to 19.35% of her manpower. But as the enemy were soon to understand they were men who fought well above "their weight". (Statistical Abstract Information 1914-1920)

The Light Horse, like the NZMR, went into action first at Gallipoli as infantrymen and fought there until the abandonment of that campaign in December 1915.

Retreating back to Cairo the ANZAC forces were split into two distinct parts. The infantry and artillerymen ANZAC's were sent to Europe to continue the fight on the Western Front. The mounted troops were detailed to stay and defend the Suez Canal. Unfortunately a few of the mounted troops, including New Zealand's Otago Mounted Rifles, were also stripped from this mounted force and sent to fight, mostly as infantrymen, in Europe.

The New Zealanders had nothing but admiration for their fellow mounted soldiers of Australia. The camaraderie that had been born on Gallipoli now became a firm bond in the deserts of Sinai and Palestine. No New Zealand mounted rifleman ever forgot the support and daring of his ANZAC brother. Especially remembered was the occasion of the attack on Rafa when the Australians' ignored the order to retreat.

This account f rom the Official History of the AMR -"The Story of Two Campaigns."

"...For the New Zealanders, at least, a withdrawal would have been as costly as a charge, owing to the absence of cover. A little later an order was issued instructing all brigades to withdraw. It reached the Australians, the Camels, and the yeomanry, who immediately commenced to retire. It did not reach the New Zealand Brigade at the same time, and at 4.30 p.m. the New Zealanders, notwithstanding the fact that they saw the Australians on their left moving back, rose to the final charge with the bayonet.
It was magnificent. The last 200 or 300 yards were covered in two grand rushes, and cheering madly, the men were into the first trenches. The surviving Turks surrendered. After a short pause the line swept forward against the next position - Sandy Redoubt - but before the gleaming bayonets were within striking distance, the garrison stood up and surrendered. When the Australians saw the New Zealanders charge, they turned at once and rushed the trenches above them.

A little later the Camels and yeomanry also re-turned to the attack, but they met little opposition. The Turks had had enough, and everywhere they threw down their arms. Within a few minutes the whole of the position was in British hands. Victory had been snatched on the call of time with the sun going down. But for the good fortune which prevented the New Zealand commander getting the order to withdraw in time for him to stop, the day would have been lost. There are many veterans who argue that even if the order to retire had reached the line it could not have been obeyed because the men had reached the point when the last charge is inevitable and when soldiers become individualists..."

It is an interesting insight to read the pages of the "Official History of Australia in WWI" Volume VII- Chapter V, which in part reads:

"...The Anzac Mounted Division was formed early in March and on March 16th Major-General H. G. Chauvel was made appointed to its command. The new formation, which was able to achieve results unequalled by any other division of horse, Allied or enemy, engaged on any front in the war, was at the outset composed of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.
At a later date the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was withdrawn from the division, which during the rest of the campaign, except on a few occasions, was composed of the remaining three brigades. With the birth of the division there commenced the long association of the mounted men of Australia and New Zealand, an association which, strengthened by increasing reciprocal admiration and affection in the course of two and a half years of harsh and often bloody campaigning, must ever stand as an intimate bond between the two young Dominions.
The New Zealand Brigade, like the light horsemen, had served and shone upon Gallipoli. Its men, made up of the Auckland, Canterbury, and Wellington Regiments, possessed many of the qualities of the light horsemen, and some distinctively their own. Like the Australians, they were all pioneers, or the children of pioneers, born to and practiced in country life, natural horsemen and expert riflemen. Closer in physical type than the Australians to the big men of England's northern counties and to the Lowland Scotch, they perhaps lacked something of the almost aggressive independence of thought and individuality of action which marked the Australians. They represented in fact a younger dominion than the Australians ; they were more closely, although not more purely, bred to the parent British stock, more " colonial " and less " national " in their outlook than their Australian comrades in the division. But, if the two bodies of young men presented interesting differences, mental and physical, they were almost indistinguishable as fighters. All the qualities which their countrymen rejoiced to find in the Australians were to be found in the New Zealanders, with the exception of little incidental excellences which sidelights disclosed on either side. The New Zealand Brigade not only won much glory for its people; it reflected everlasting credit upon the great business qualities of the New Zealand Government during the war. Not only in its fighting capacity, but in its administration and economy, it was a model of what a mounted brigade should be; and Australian light horse officers of distinction were frequently heard to declare that the finest mounted brigade engaged in Sinai and Palestine was this splendid little body of New Zealanders. Between the Australians and the New Zealanders there was never in the long campaign a thought of jealousy or a moment of misunderstanding..."

But perhaps the Light Horse and their heroic exploits can be best described by one of its own: - here is an excerpt from the account of the first attack of Gaza by Trooper Ion Idriess of the 5th Australian Light Horse:

"...The section galloped into the haze to find the troop. We missed them but presently caught a glimpse of the regiment under heavy shellfire, riding out with bayonets all gleaming: we dug the spurs in and leaned over our horses’ necks— a New Zealand brigade thundered by as we flew after the tail of the regiment, they were charging into a park of big trees that ran right up into the town. We galloped in among the trees—it was madly exciting. Rifles crackled viciously from cactus hedges, machine-guns snarled from a village on our right. Then we gaped as we galloped straight towards massive walls of cactus hedges ten feet high that ran as lanes right across the park. To our right was only low hedge, and Turkish infantry were enfilading us from there. Lieutenant Waite swerved his troop and the horses jumped the hedge down on to the Turks: we only got a glimpse of that scrap - the lieutenant firing with his revolver, his men from their saddles, until the lieutenant was hit in five places, but what Turks were not killed, ran—while we thundered on and I wondered what calamity might happen when we struck those giant walls of prickly pear. The colonel threw up his hand —we reined up our horses with their noses rearing from the pear—we jumped off— all along the hedge from tiny holes were squirting rifle puffs, in other places the pear was spitting at us as the Turks standing behind simply fired through the juicy leaves. The horse holders grabbed the horses while each man slashed with his bayonet to cut a hole through those cactus walls. The colonel was firing with his revolver at the juice spots bursting through the leaves—the New Zealanders had galloped by to the left of us, the 7th Light Horse were fighting on our right. Then came the fiercest individual excitement—man after man tore through the cactus to be met by the bayonets of the Turks, six to one. It was just berserk slaughter. A man sprang at the closest Turk and thrust and sprang aside and thrust again and again—some men howled as they rushed, others cursed to the shivery feeling of steel on steel—the grunting breaths, the gritting teeth and the staring eyes of the lunging Turk, the sobbing scream as a bayonet ripped home. The Turkish battalion simply melted away: it was all over in minutes. Men lay horribly bloody and dead; others writhed on the stained grass, while all through the cactus lanes our men were chasing demented Turks. Amateur soldiers we are supposed to be but, by heavens, I saw the finest soldiers of Turkey go down that day..."



The Australian Film Commission has made this three minute clip available to view by clicking image above. The clip is from the 1940 movie "40,000 Horsemen" and gives a 1940's look at the charge by the ALH at Beersheba - the editing of the film at the time is first class and some of the men used here in the movie were veterans of the Light Horse of WWI.

Australian Light Horse Squadron Composition, 1916
Troop
A
B
C
D
.
Batman and Groom
2
4
4
2
12
Shoeing Smith
.
1
1
1
3
Drivers
2
2
1
2
7
Troopers
26
26
26
26
104
Trumpter
1
.
.
1
2
Signaler
.
1
1
.
2
Saddler
1
.
.
.
1
Corporals
2
2
2
2
8
Squadron Corporal
1
.
.
.
1
Signal Corporal
.
.
.
1
1
Farrier Sergeant
.
.
1
.
1
Sergeants
2
2
2
2
8
Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant
.
.
.
1
1
Squadron Sergeant Major
1
.
.
.
1
Subaltans
1
1
1
1
4
Captain
.
.
1
.
1
Major
.
1
.
.
1
Totals
39
40
40
39
158

Comprehensive web sites and historical societies relating to the Australian Light Horse are readily found on the Internet. Go to our Links page for some references.