Yesterday Today | Light Horses

TENDER CARE: Early each morning, the light horsemen fed, watered and groomed their horses.
TENDER CARE: Early each morning, the light horsemen fed, watered and groomed their horses.

OUR photo this week is of troopers of the Australian Light Horse watering their mounts in the River Jordan in Palestine towards the end of the Great War, 1914-1918.

They were involved in fighting against the Ottoman forces. The image was taken by Chaplain Captain Maitland Woods, who took hundreds of images while serving in the Middle East. Most of the Australians were part of the ANZAC Mounted Division.

In the early 1900s and prior to the outbreak of World War I, Australia had 23 Light Horse Regiments within our nation’s part-time military forces. They had some 9000 personnel between them and underwent training.

In 1914, the Australian Light Horse regiments were mounted infantry and usually fought dismounted. Their horses were their transportation to the battlefield or for further advances, or retreating. Each regiment usually consisted of 25 officers and 400 men.

A regiment was divided into three squadrons - designated A, B and C - and each squadron was divided into four troops (like an infantry platoon). Each troop was usually divided into 10 four-man sections. Each squadron had a Light Horse Machine Gun platoon, with the number of machine guns varying through the period of the Great War. These were mostly equipped with Vickers and Lewis guns. Most of the men were, by this time, expert horsemen and riflemen, coming from the country.

Prospective volunteers were required to pass a very meticulous medical examination before being accepted. Their uniforms consisted of an AIF jacket, cord riding breeches and leather leggings which were bound by a spiral strap. These were known as puttees. Each man received the famous Australian slouch hat. The troopers were also issued with a distinguishing brown leather bandolier used to carry 90 rounds of .303 ammunition.

After the Light Horse units returned from Gallipoli, where they served as infantry, their horses were still in Egypt, so it was around March 1916 before the Light Horse got underway in the Middle East. It wasn’t long before they realised that estimates of livestock losses were underestimated. For example, the average loss of sick horses and mules on the Sinai front later in 1916 was around 650 each week.

To replace horses on the front, the Transport Department usually loaded them on the train if possible. Depending on the line, a steam engine could pull 30 stock trucks and each truck held eight horses. If a horse was killed in battle or died from sickness, its body was buried at least two miles from the nearest camp. If multiple animals died, their carcasses were conveyed to a nominated area away from troops, where they were allowed to disintegrate in the hot and dry desert air.

Many volunteers arrived with their own horse, known as walers - a common stock horse used in NSW. They were fast, strong and had lots of stamina. In their breeding, there were thoroughbreds and semi-draught horses. If their horse met the army’s criteria, the volunteer was paid £30 by the government. The horse was then branded with the Australian Government’s broad arrow and initials of the officer purchasing the horse. The horse also received its army number on one hoof. In the Middle East camps, each horse was tethered by head and heel ropes before being placed between long ropes known as picket lines.

In early 1918, some Australian Light Horse Regiments participated in the advance to Jaffa before they were tasked to seek out the enemy and occupy the west bank of the Jordan River. In mid-July, many were involved in repulsing a major attack by the German and Turkish forces. By mid-September 1918, the horsemen were involved in their final campaign, which took place along the Mediterranean coast. Their opposition were struggling. On October 30, 1918, Turkey surrendered.

Alan McRae is with the Bathurst District Historical Society