The Australian Light Horse
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and a special episode, this one dedicated to Adam Bloom, one of our loyal listeners who has been pestering me for quite a while to do something about the Australian Light Horse and I have neglected the topic. But all that changes today because I’m sitting here in the stunning Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park in Sydney with the director of Brad Manera and we’re going to have a bit of a chat about the Australian Light Horse, the iconic Australian Light Horse. So Brad thanks very much for joining us again on the podcast.
Brad: My pleasure, Mat. Nice to see you. And great topic. Interesting choice because it’s been the source of controversy for so many generations. I suppose it really captured the Australian imagination really since the creation of Australia’s military forces at the beginning of the 20th century, the decade after Federation.
Mat: Let’s talk, where did the idea of this, the Australian Light Horse, famous for the charge at the Nek in Gallipoli, the famous charge at Beersheba, as a World War 1 unit, very, very famous. Where did the concept come from? What were the beginnings of the Australian Light Horse?
Brad: I think we can trace it right back to the earliest colonial periods when mobility was essential and a man on a horse can move a hell of a lot faster than a man dismounted. And the Australian colonies were never received British cavalry. During the period from 1788 to 1870, there weren’t any British mounted units deployed here. Indeed, even the British artillery that came out sourced horses locally and because New South Wales ever since the 1840s had been a source of horses for the empire and horses from all of the Australian colonies, most of them were sold particularly to the British army in India, through brokers in New South Wales. And so clearly they became known in shorthand as Walers. And there was a bit of a mixed breed that was a fairly useful Australian stock horse, famed for endurance as a general purpose riding horse, ideal for flexible cavalry. Cavalry that could undertake a wide variety of roles.
In the 19th century, the British cavalry were divided into heavy and light cavalry. Light cavalry were mobile. They were very useful for scouting tasks, for liaison tasks, something that required mobility and speed. And they were not necessarily used primarily as shock troops. They were a mobile reconnaissance unit. Heavy cavalry on the other hand, did provide that shock element they rode physically larger horses. They were often armored cavalry. I guess the last elements of body armor dating to Knights in armor. They had bigger swords. They were and by and large, they tried to recruit bigger blokes. And so there was this division between heavy and light cavalry, heavy cavalry, shock troops, light cavalry, mobile reconnaissance, light cavalry, largely mounted on ponies, heavy cavalry on horses of 16, 17, 18 hands, big animals.
Some of them crossbred shire horses, they weren’t that quick. But by G you could hear them coming. And if you’re an infantry in square soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with bayonets fixed and you’ve got a hundred, a thousand, two thousand of these people bearing down on you, the ground is shaking. It’s a terrifying spectacle is being charged by heavy cavalry. It really took very steady infantry to stand firm in front of heavy cavalry. So that was a really useful way of dividing and using the mobility that men on who horses provided. By the end of the 19th century, it became obvious when infantry, you’ve got breech loading rifles, they’ve got range, they’ve got fire power, and when things like lighter, more mobile field artillery and particularly machine guns start injuring the battlefield, the man on a horse is presenting a very large target.
And so the traditional mounted arm of armies that the cavalry start to think about reorganizing how they are used on a battlefield. The thought of a mounted cavalry charge is suddenly becoming a specialist task that is used rarely rather than the natural use of cavalry. And so, what you tend to find is that cavalry both heavy and light, undertaking the same tasks by the late 19th century. They’re losing their traditional tasks and becoming blended. And they’re providing soldiers who can move, use the mobility of men on horses, but engage the enemy dismounted, which was traditionally the role of dragoons, an armored cavalry that gave a mounted soldier fire power with mobility move from battle to battle, but going to action dismounted. So you’ve got this very complex, branch of the army that can do a whole range of tasks, but they specialize in certain aspects.
By the 19th century, that specialization is starting to disappear. At the same time the British army have pulled out of the Australian colonies in 1870 and in the decade that immediately followed the Australian colonies started to think about the potential for a threat. The British have gone, we’re lucky to have an occasional visit from a British warship in the Australian station, but is that really going to help us in the event that the enemy get a contingent ashore? How are we going to deal with that? And so the Australian colonies in their own way started to think about creating their own little armies, if you like. They were never going to be able to have the infrastructure for a major army. So they tended to call these defenders, defense force or military force. So they’re forces because there’s a cavalry force or an infantry force or an artillery force. Some are volunteer forces, some are militia. Some are permanent force, usually Brits on exchange. And so when the Australian Commonwealth is created in 1901, and we have a defense act in 1903, we don’t have a standing Australian army. We have Australian Commonwealth military forces. And that’s what the Australian general service badge reads.
What that meant was that each of the colonial defense forces or the colonial military forces are amalgamated and they’ve got to work out how these units that have evolved quite separately are going to work together. Of course, they don’t really get tested until 1914, but that gives them a decade. And what they’ve been developing is defense forces that are based on a British model, but it’s something that the colony can afford. So some of the wealthier colonies developed quite complicated units of artillery, siege artillery, coastal artillery and field artillery, they develop infantry units that are modeled on line regimens. Others are locally modeled on British rifle units. And when it comes to mounted units, they start to look around at the British model and some colonies choose to go down the cavalry route. But what sort of cavalry do we want heavy cavalry? Do we want light cavalry? Do we want dragoons? What’s happening in Britain? And they’re watching this transition from cavalry specially armed for specific purposes to a much more flexible mounted arm that maximizes its mobility. And so the Australian colonies each individually come up with the idea of men who can shoot and ride to create the mobility. But by and large, with the intent of going into action dismounted, because that’s what the British cavalry is doing at this stage. They’ve given away the idea of mass horse charges. That’s just going to provide a big target for a bloke with a machine gun.
So let’s think about a mounted unit that can combine the mobility and the scouting ability of light cavalry with the shop of heavy cavalry. But essentially on a modern battlefield, what you need is a highly mobile gun platform. And so they come up with what they end up calling mounted rifles or mounted infantry. And by 1903, this evolves into the Australian Light Horse. New South Wales persists in cavalry. And so you get in the late 1890’s, the development of the Australian horse. Politician named Mackay started at Harden Murrumburrah and raised this, what he’d hope would become a national unit of cavalry. And they were classically armed swords. They always thought that given the opportunity, they would love to charge with swords drawn standing in the stirrups classic cavalry stuff. The reality was that when their soldiers actually went into action they performed very much in the role of Australian Light Horse.
The same was with the Lancers in Parramatta that grew out of the Australian or the New South Wales experience in the Sudan in 1885 operating alongside British infantry and mounted units in the Sudan. And so when the Sudan contingent came home, they identified a need for cavalry. And eventually from those discussions the New South Wales Lancers evolved. But the real test of Australia’s mounted arm came even before Federation when Australian contingents volunteered to declare war on the Boer Republics in October of 1899 alongside the British when the Boers decided to reject a British ultimatum to become part of the empire. And what evolved was the second Anglo-Boer war of October, 1899 to May of 1902.
The first Australian contingents were dismounted apart from a handful of New South Wales Lancers. All of the other contingents were dismounted. The British discovered very early in the war that the Boers most of their army were dismounted infantry style, local volunteers operating in commando. And they were men who could shoot very well. By and large they went into action dismounted, but they had the mobility of mounted soldiers. And so the British put Australian colonial troops and indeed colonial troops from all around the empire that had started to arrive in South Africa on the horseback. Initially that led to some very amusing situations because from my home state in Western Australia, the first WAMI the first Western Australian Infantry that arrived were stuck on horses and they go into action on the 9th of February, 1900. And these were all railway men from Midland or office workers from Perth, they couldn’t ride. And so when they bumped into 500 Boers coming towards the Eastern Cape and they’re on patrol with the Inniskilling Dragoons who are very fine horsemen and the Inniskillings realize if they’ve got a shoot-and-scoot, if they’ve got to engage the enemy and then run, the Western Australians aren’t going to keep up with them. So they say you blokes hold the Hill and we’ll go for help. And so 27 Western Australians on the horses ran for a little feature near Colesberg and they defended that. It became known as West Australia Hill, but operating in a mounted infantry role. And that was the task that Australian Mountain troops became very adept at in South Africa.
And they came back from South Africa with an extraordinary reputation for being able to adapt to a changing battlefield environment and to put men on horseback. That became very, very useful, highly mobile force. And so after the defense act of 1903, there was this enthusiasm for defense forces. And a big portion of that was going to be, or as big a portion as anyone could afford, were going to be mounted units. And rather than have each colony calling themselves variously mounted infantry or mounted rifles or light cavalry, they were all told to arm themselves in a uniform fashion and they became known as regiments of Australian Light Horse.
And so there’s always been this discussion about were they mounted infantry, were they cavalry. I think that that discussion is largely ignorant of or ignoring the fact that conventional mounted tactics had changed because battlefield environment in the 20th century had changed. And so I think, that these Australian mounted soldiers, the Australian Light Horse, fulfilling the role of cavalry in the early 20th century, they’re fighting dismounted, admittedly fighting the way mounted infantry are, however, they’re using their horses for scouting, they’re using their horses for mobility. And from time to time they use those horses in shock tactics. We chose our mounted soldiers as if they were prepared to fight on foot. So the Australian Light Horse were not issued with swords and lances they were intentionally armed to fight dismounted. And I think that that’s probably triggered some of the debate about whether they were mounted infantry or cavalry or not. But you look at the structure and they’re clearly squadrons and regiments. They’re not companies and battalions. And, so they’re very much modeled on a British cavalry structure,
Mat: Brad. Fast forwarding to the First World War, which was obviously when the Australian Light Horse performed their most famous acts. Tell me about who were the men who were enlisting in the Light Horse? There’s a huge romanticism about the Light Horse now. It’s seen as a very sexy part of the story. Was it like that in the day? Was a young bloke joining the Light Horse seen as quite a distinguished option compared to just running off and joining the infantry?
Brad: Joining the Australian Light Horse was very clearly a romantic direction for a volunteer to take the Light Horse had prior to the war, always tried to create a degree of mystique about themselves. The Queenslanders were wearing Emu plumes in their hats. The Western Australians were wearing black swan’s feathers. The Australian horses in New South Wales were wearing black cocks’ feathers. So they were identifiably different. They wore, unlike the infantry, they wore leather leggings. They wore leather 1903 bandolier equipment, whereas the infantry was wearing the 1908 webbing equipment. So, a Light Horseman stood out and any bloke with an ego wants to stand out. So there was a real attraction when the AIF was created to join the Light Horse.
And initially it was going to be the smallest component of our overseas expeditionary force. Initially the plan was to create an entire division of infantry soldiers up to 18,000 strong, accompanied by one single brigade of Australian Light Horse. This will over 20 regiments of these guys in our militia army in 1914. So everybody wants to join, but there are only four regiments for them to do that. And so there’s this great competition to get into the Light Horse. What that meant was they could be very, very choosy. And so they were the sons of pastoralists. They were the sons of politicians. It was quite a privilege. And indeed Western Australia for example, was initially not invited to create an AIF Light Horse unit. And there was an enormous outcry and there was a strong local sentiment that if I can’t ride to war, I’m not going; I’d rather stay with my horse back in Western Australia.
And so it took several months before Western Australia was finally allowed to raise a Light horse Regiment, AIF. So yes, absolutely. There was a very, very strong mystique about the Light Horse. Look, perhaps it was a hangover from the war or perhaps it was a hangover from the days when our politicians said that, there was this inducement to enlist and the government only wants men who can shoot and ride. Perhaps it was a hangover from some of the industrial disputes in the late 19th and early 20th century where the Light Horse had played a significant role in the united the civil power in strike breaking and that sort of thing. Probably these days we’d question the role of the military in united the civil power, but it certainly was a resource to be used, in colonial and early 20th century Australia. But yeah, absolute mystique about the Light Horse. They look different indeed they look fabulous when they’re riding down George Street in Sydney or down the Terrace in Perth. People saw them and that was a unit that you wanted to join.
Mat: That mystique came crashing down a little bit with the Gallipoli campaign when the Light Horse were deployed to Gallipoli unmounted left their horses behind. We all know the story. I don’t think we have to spend too much time delving into the history of the Nek, etc. But talk to me about what was the relationship like between the infantry and the Light Horse at Gallipoli, for example, in a place where everyone is jammed in living amongst their own filth and it was a great equalizer. The killing fields of Gallipoli. What was the relationship like between the infantry and the Light Horse in that environment?
Brad: I think the Gallipoli campaign is a really fascinating study for exactly the, examining the relationship between the mounted and dismounted arms within the AIF. Obviously the campaign began with an infantry assault that bogged down on the second line of ridges by 10:30 in the morning of the first day. And then as the Turkish counter attacks continued through May there were calls for reinforcements and the AIF decided that the Light Horse regiments would be broken up and sent as batches of reinforcements to the infantry. The Light Horse absolutely jacked up, said no, we will go. But we’ll go as identified bodies; we will not be absorbed into the infantry. And so the situation was so desperate that they clearly needed the units to deploy. And so the Light Horse left about 20 to 25% of every regimen stayed in Egypt to keep the horses healthy, keep the horses fit.
They hoped that when the breakout of the beachhead at Anzac was achieved, then they could suddenly whip their horses over the peninsula, the boys would get back onto the end of the saddle and ride to Constantinople. Of course, as we know, that didn’t happen. What ended up happening was that these reduced Light Horse regiments came to Anzac and fail in to fill the gaps in the line left by the cavalry, by the infantry casualties. And, so it created a difficult situation because commanders in the field had infantry battalions that were hopefully at full strength, a thousand strong and beside them were Light Horse regiments that were five to six hundred strong and they were allocating tasks and having to sort of manage how that was going to work. You couldn’t obviously give a battalion task to a Light Horse regiment because it just hasn’t got the number of soldiers.
Nevertheless, it worked. The Light Horse fell into the line. The infantry didn’t seem to have a problem with them at all. They preserved the first, second and third Light Horse brigades. Preserved their brigade structure. And so the fourth Light Horse brigade was broken up and used as reinforcements to other Light Horse regiments not to the infantry. And so that was the way that campaign was managed. And it doesn’t seem to be any evidence of animosity, but when you look at the photographs, notionally the Light Horse was supposed to have been reissued with infantry equipment so that they were not identifiably different. Enemy intelligence couldn’t pick up exactly who was operating opposite them. They were told to leave the most distinctive aspects of the Light Horse uniform behind. And yet the photographic evidence would suggest that enough of the Light Horsemen smuggled their leather bandoliers and even from time to time, Emu plumes assure at Gallipoli have leather leggings and so on. And you see photographs of Light Horsemen and they’re very obviously Light Horsemen using their 1903 mounted pattern equipment rather than the infantry kit,
Mat: The charge of the Nek in August, 1915, obviously one of the darkest chapters of the whole Gallipoli story and for the Light Horse, which participated that the exact opposite of what they were designed to be doing. You talked about mobility, you talked about prestige, charging against machine guns and losing hundreds of men in that tiny little patch of ground was I’m sure something that the Light Horse never even dreamed of. What effect did the Nek have on the Light Horse from that point going forward?
Brad: The charge at the Nek is an interesting study because it was part of a grander strategy to break out of the Anzac, beachhead. They were just the unlucky unit that was chosen to do that particular charge. The fourth infantry brigade was given an equally unlucky task in that they had to traverse the gullies and ridges to the North of Anzac and then launch an assault on Hill 971 they failed in that, like the Light Horse failed in their attack on the Nek. So, it wasn’t necessarily that there was a difference between the Light Horse and the infantry at that stage. They’re all doing exactly the same task. I suppose the big problem was that a Light Horse regiment is smaller than an infantry battalion. And so when the Victorians of the 8th Light Horse and the Western Australians of the 9th Light Horse suffer 80% plus casualties, it really affects the unit morale.
And it has a devastating effect on the people at home because these people by and large have enlisted together. They’ve grown up together. They’re from small communities in rural Victoria, from small communities, rural Western Australia, like all of the Light Horse units. These are people that went to school together they were mates before they enlisted. And, so, you know, devastating 80% casualties are going to have a huge effect on the morale of the regiment and of the brigade, but also of the communities that produced them back home in Australia. Some have argued that the third Light Horse brigade wore the ghosts of the charge of the Nek on their shoulder for the risks of the Sinai Palestine campaign. They were a constant presence that these regiments had suffered very heavily.
I don’t know, the post and populist historians have made that claim, I don’t know, by 1916, the casualties from Gallipoli have been replaced by a massive recruitment drive and a very, very enthusiastic home population that have volunteered. So, you’re not getting many Gallipoli survivors amongst the Australian Light Horse regiments by the end of the Sinai campaign. And that’s a devastating campaign. So the guys come back from Gallipoli. The Light Horsemen came back from Gallipoli; they’re reunited with their horses. I can only imagine how heart-breaking it was for the blokes to recognize that there are a lot more horses here than there are men to ride them. I think that’s something that very little has been written about. It’d be fascinating to try and find people that have written, whether there are diaries, whether there are letters home seeing a mate’s horse when you know that bloke is dead at the Nek and his body was not recovered until 1919 or his remains were not recovered until 1919. You get back and you discover that your horse is still alive and fit as is his, but he’s dead. But soon there’s somebody else in that saddle and they recognize that the canal is under threat.
Australians by this stage are wise enough to realize they are citizens of the world. The AIF is a particularly literate army and they’re only on a great adventure and they see Gallipoli as a setback, but they feel that victory is still what they’re fighting for and the reinforcements are bubbling with enthusiasm and so that just breathes life into these regiments and they realize the infantry are going off to the Western Front. Some Light Horsemen do go to the Western Front as core cavalry, and they serve and fight in a very, very different war to the bulk of the Australian mounted soldiers who are kept behind in the Middle East, as a mobile force to protect the Suez Canal because the Turks foolishly believing that they can field a very credible army after the victory of Gallipoli decide to go on the offensive and they launch an army across the desert of Sinai to capture the Suez Canal.
The British have infantry units in the canal, but they also have these reinforced regiments of Australian Light Horse with a smattering of veterans amongst them from the Gallipoli campaign, highly mobile accomplished soldiers. And I guess to a degree, vengeful soldiers because they have lost so many of their mates on the peninsula. And that’s a pretty deadly combination for any Turkish army to come up against when they march across Sinai. And that’s when we see the real test of the Australian Light Horse is in the Sinai campaign because there the enemy isn’t just the Ottoman invader, it’s the countryside. It’s the deserts that extend over the horizon. It’s the lack of potable water. We create the Imperial Camel Corps at this stage to take on the desert, but the Australian Light Horse nevertheless ventures into Sinai, and that’s a real test of man and horse, long rides without water in brutal temperatures.
I think that’s really a campaign that needs much greater study is just how skilled those people were to keep their horses fit in those conditions. And they fight remarkable battles, bloody battles against mass Turkish infantry and indeed mounted Turkey soldiers. They win. They win at Romani; they charge mountain third Light Horse brigade gets on their horses at Madaba just before Christmas, 1916. And they charge the Ottomans who have taken position around the wells and they drive them out. So a big part of the success of the Sinai campaign is down to the Australian Light Horse and they are fighting as mobile Scouts, as mounted infantry, being able to, particularly at places like Romani where the Turks are coming on in massive numbers and an Australian Light Horse regimen can mount up and relocate and deliver mass rifle fire at a moment’s notice much more quickly than infantry possibly could.
So, they’re doing exactly what cavalry of the period intended to do. And they’re keeping their horses alive at the same time. And they learn things. They learn about keeping their horses healthy in the desert. And they apply a lot of basic Australian experience from the home front. Everybody knows about spear pumps. They’re used to managing traveling stock up in the North. And so they can travel in easy stages. They establish horse lines in shade if it’s available. They develop systems of collapsible troughs so entire squadrons of horses can be watered at once from a single spear pump. They demonstrate that they are a very, very powerful part of what by this stage has been rebranded. The Egyptian expeditionary force, the British army operating across Sinai and they drive the Turks out because the Turks don’t have the infrastructure to sustain an army on campaign in the desert. And so the countryside and British infantry in Australian Light Horse defeats the Turks in Sinai, drive them back to the borders of the Ottoman Empire and the most distance province Palestine. And then the role changes again because what the Australians and the British, what the Egyptian expeditionary force encounters when they come up against that frontier of the Ottoman empire is a line of fortifications running from Gaza on the coast inland almost as far as the water wells of Beersheba and because the army is being led by British infantry by this stage they’ve got tanks. There’s a very active air war occurring over the Middle East. The British launched their offenses against Gaza.
Gaza is great if they can capture it. It means that they’ve got port facilities; they can land supplies and water. If they keep close to the coast, there’s a potential for Naval gunfire support or at least the Navy to provide extra communications, floating hospitals, all of those things that keep an army operational but at Gaza that they bogged down and through early 1917, the army butts its head up against very well considered Turkish and German defenses at Gaza first and second battle, first battle almost succeeds. The Australian Light Horse does this extraordinary flanking move, but because of the poor communications the fog of war, if you like, they’re withdrawn. So Gaza nearly falls in the first battle that the last minute, the hard one, advances by the Australian Light Horse and neutralized by a commander probably exercising more caution than he needed to.
So they withdraw to the start line and then a few weeks later launch the second battle of Gaza. And again, men on horses are shot to a standstill, the infantry grinding through the desert, shot to a standstill. It’s bogging down to the trench warfare that the British army is seeing on the Somme and in Belgium. At the same time, the British are encountering the Hindenburg line places like Bullecourt and Arras. And that’s just not what they need in the Middle East. And so the British receive a new commander after the second Battle of Gaza by a bloke name Edmund Allenby. Cavalry General doesn’t necessarily hold the highest regard for Australian troops, but he realizes that they’re a safe pair of hands for a major gamble. And he’s
He really does want to try and create a new battlefield of war of movement. And so he launches this extraordinary and it can only be described as a gamble an offensive where he marches an infantry, artillery and cavalry force out into the desert to outflank the Gaza Beersheba line. It’s a two day March into the desert and horses can’t go more than two days without water. So he knows that there’s no return ticket. They capture the water wells in Beersheba or they die in the desert. And that’s the brilliance but the frightening, frightening gamble that he takes with that operation. Allenby marches his army out into the desert they attack Beersheba. Infantry and artillery are grinding their way through the Turkish defenses but always in the back of their mind is we’ve got to take those wells.
The infantry are doing it too slowly. What’s going to happen? We’ve got this problem. The Light Horses used to be in a huge sweeping move around Beersheba. So the Australian Light Horse climbs Tel el Saba and so they’ve got the desert flank. More Australian Light Horsemen pour past Tel el Saba and cut the major supply route down from Nablus. So the Turks are surrounded, well almost they still think they can retreat, but they’re still happy shoe. They need that water and they realize that they really got to capture the wells and they’re aware that any engineer with half a brain is going to over wire the wells. If the infantry are do break through the Turks, the last thing the enemy are going to do is decide on scorched earth. They’re going to blow up those wells. And so Allenby realizes we’ve got to take those wells.
He gives the task to his mounted commander, Harry Chauvel. The Australian cavalry commander and he looks around for his reserves because his most experienced mounted soldiers are heavily committed on the Nablus road and on Tel el Saba. He’s only got the relatively inexperienced 4th Light Horse Brigade, commanded by Brigadier William Grant and he just says, we’ve got to solve this and we’ve got to solve it straight away. And he makes the famous command put Grant straight at it. And the 4th Light Horse Brigade performs brilliantly. This is the reserve team. This is the B-team and they charge six, maybe eight kilometers across open ground against a broken, but nevertheless still, entrenched Turkish positions with artillery and support. There were even a couple of German manned Ottoman aircraft overflying dropping bombs.
It’s a remarkable thing. And they achieve it in minutes, like gallop walk initially in formation of squadron and then of regiment. And the 4th Light Horse and the 12th Light Horse with the 11th Light Horse and their ambulance in reserve and they break out into the plane and they ride to a trot. And then over, once they’ve got the Turks insight, it’s an open gallop and the men are standing in their stirrups. There’s 800 plus Australian Light Horsemen at full gallop bearing down on these Turks. This is a recreation of Balaclava. This is Australian Light Horsemen being used as cavalry shock troops and they achieve it. The first wave gallop over the Ottoman trenches and they ride straight into town. The second wave dismount and engage the Turks so that they neutralize the enemy, they’ve left behind the assault wave and they get there. And they find that two of the wells had been blown, but the other 17 are still intact and they’re able to secure them before they can be blown up. And that just makes the whole difference. The infantry, all of the mounted troops were able to march into Beersheba.
They’re able to water their horses. The Germans and the Ottomans realize the Gaza Beersheba line is now a waste of time. It’s been outflanked. And the rest of it, as we know, is history. You’ve then got this extraordinary war of movement up the Jordan Valley, along the Coastal Plains. It becomes a cavalryman’s war and the Australian Light Horse takes to it. The Camel Corps is dissolved and the Australian Light Horse takes a major role as I say, the campaign up in the Jordan Valley they ride into what’s now Jordan. They raid Es Salt, they ride towards Yemen. They sweep around behind the Turkish defenses. It’s an extraordinary campaign. They’re not alone. I don’t want to suggest that the Australian Light Horses are the only mounted soldiers in the area. There are British yeomanry. There are Indian cavalry, so it’s a mounted war. It’s the war that the generals on the Western Front are very jealous of. To the extent that by the final months of the war, they’re advancing faster than the Turks can retreat. And you get the extraordinary Battle of Megiddo, they’re fighting over the same ground as the Battle of Armageddon and then there’s a book of revelations, and again, I think Megiddo and the great ride is a demonstration that the Light Horse can’t win wars on their own. You need the threat of infantry with all of their infrastructure or artillery and so on.
So the Battle of Megiddo is very, very well organized and I think it’s Chauvel at his most brilliant where by this stage he’s got an entire corps and he’s able to use aircraft and use infantry and artillery to make the Turks believe that there’s going to be a drive along the coast, but also another drive up the Jordan Valley and beyond. And so the Turks split their army to face both of those threats. And that creates a gap and it’s into that gap that he thrusts all of his mounted soldiers. And the great ride to Damascus occurs in those final months of 1918, the Australian Light Horse and the British cavalry and an Indian cavalry ride between the Ottoman armies. And they just throw any attempt, any possibility that the Ottomans have of defense on its head. There were enemies coming at them from in front and behind. And you see footage of lines and lines, tens of thousands of Ottoman troops surrendering and being bought into British infantry regiments and Australian Light Horse and British cavalry leading the way. And there are still a few political issues of course. And out in the desert you’ve got fizzles desert army, the Hejaz army, the Arab army and there’s a need to include them in this great victory. And so they were earmarked for the taking of Damascus. The Australian Light Horse played a role. They were told were told to destroy the Ottoman retreat, route down the Barada Gorge. And to ride around Damascus, neutralize any threat to the Arab army so that it could march in victorious. And the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. The survivors of the charge of the Nek and their reinforcements are given the task of riding around the city.
And they’re led by a chap named Arthur Olden commanding the regimen at the time. He’s a dentist from Narrogin and in civilian life a very enthusiastic volunteer soldier. And he leads the 10th Light Horse into Damascus with the intention of riding around within the Arab city. There are narrow alleyways and there are slums and there are camps. And so taking a foreign body of armed men with the potential of an enemy down those narrow alleys just don’t work for him. And every time he finds it getting narrower and narrower, he diverts his soldiers to find a path where these soldiers can be working mutual support until he finds himself suddenly in the center of the town.
That’s not where he’s supposed to be. He knows he’s not supposed to be there, but the locals rush out because the town has collapsed. The Turkish army have their command structure evacuated. And so part of the town’s on fire, there’s rioting and looting going on. The local administration thinks we need somebody to restore order. They see this armed body of Australian Light Horsemen marching through the grand square and they grab, almost drag them out of the saddle, and bring them into the Grand Syria and surrender. The oldest city on earth surrenders to a dentist from Narrogin. It’s just an extraordinary moment where we’re old and knows he’s not supposed to be there. There’s a world of diplomacy that he is just completely subverted. And so he accepts the surrender, dusts himself off, walks in, he’s got his Webley revolver drawn accepts the surrender and says, yeah, thanks very much. But you know, my boys, we’ve got a task. They get back on their horses and carry on off after the Turks. And so David Lean would have us believe that Lawrence and his army beat the British into Damascus.
The reality is the Australian Light Horse was there several hours earlier making that safe passage a reality. But they really deserve a place in our history and have achieved that because they are one of the iconic figures in Australian culture. You can’t help but feel the infantry must be a little bit disappointed because they are losing mass numbers. They’re facing some of the most horrific killing fields on earth. And the Light Horses are the ones that the papers are trying to write about. So, history is a difficult master. And it’s interesting looking at the reflections of veterans coming back from the Great War and the Light Horsemen felt that the Sinai Palestine campaign was something that was ignored for the war on the Western Front. The infantry are coming back from the Western Front everybody just wants to see blokes on horses with plumes in their hats. I guess the reality lies somewhere in between but as a result of the Great War generations down the track, the Australian Light Horse has certainly ridden into our history.
Mat: Just finally, Brad, the Light Horse obviously changed and was mechanized, refitted and formed other parts of the army where indeed there’s still elements of it that remain today. What’s that legacy for the serving people today? Is the Light Horse still seen as a badge of honor to those units that have that connected history?
Brad: Oh, certainly. I think one of the great untold stories of World War II is the role of the Australian Light Horse in those early years. And at the beginning of the war because of the mistake of the Light Horse in World War 1, a lot of people join the AIF and go into Light Horse regiments, it’s extraordinary. Again, if I’ve been harping on about 10th Light Horse, but you’re seeing blokes with incredibly low WX numbers, two and three digit WX numbers indicating they’ve volunteered for service anywhere in the world in the second AIF, but they want to join the 10th Light Horse and they don’t go away. And they end up doing these remarkable long range patrols up and down the Western third of the country. It’s an untold story. They’re riding through the Murchison Desert. They’re riding up and down some of the most inhospitable country in Australia.
The same with our mounted units in the Northern territory when the Japanese threat closed on Australia. The Light Horse was seen as a valuable part of the AIF in the early years of the war. But soon it was demonstrated that World War II was going to be a mechanized war. And so mounted units traded in their horses by and large for vehicles, patrol vehicles. We got lots of American white scout cars. We eventually got the American light tanks and the British Matildas and used them very effectively in the jungles and in New Guinea and Borneo. So in answer to your question about the history and the legacy of the Light Horse within the current Australian army. Yes. It’s alive and well. Absolutely. Every Anzac day, you see blokes that have served with two corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, our second cavalry regiment very proudly wearing Light Horse blooms. Our armored units were very pleased initially to wear the black beret and the traditions of the British tankies. When it comes to ceremony, they don’t mind a slouch hat with EMU plumes and certainly the Australian army reserve. The mounted units of the Australian army reserve preserved many of the traditions created by the Light Horse in Sinai, Palestine.
Mat: Well, Brad, thank you so much. I’m sure we could continue for many more hours and we’ll probably do a follow-up podcast to cover other areas, but it’s just been absolutely fantastic. So like always, thank you so much for your time.