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The Great War (1914-18) was a truly terrible conflict. When hostilities came to a close, over 9 million lives had been lost, as well as those of over one million horses. For Australia, committed to supporting the Motherland “to the last man and the last shilling,” the Great War ironically marked its coming of age as a nation, experiencing an horrific ‘baptism by fire’ on the Gallipoli Peninsula, then the senseless carnage on the Western Front. This is the story of Australia’s war horses. The focus is not on the ‘butcher shop’ of the Western Front but on their role in serving the Australian Light Horse in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East. It was here
that Australia’s horses came into their own, and were able to perform a genuine and rightly celebrated role in the defence of the British Empire. As with all conflicts, legends arise, often perpetrating myths that permeate the national consciousness. The reality, extensively documented in the official and private records, is often at odds with the popular imagination. Drawing widely on these records, a compelling historical canvas is established that puts to rest some of the myths while serving to honour the role and mourn the fate Australia’s horses. What has been largely overlooked is the sheer logistical magnitude of getting Australia’s horses into the various theatres of war and looking after them once they were there. The heroes are not just our ‘Walers’ (and their Light Horsemen), but the members of the Veterinary Corps and those of the Remount Units who had direct responsibility for the health of the horses and their training. And then there are all those men in the various supply units who ensured that wherever our horses and troops were, they had the provisions to sustain life. Australians have an enduring love affair with their horses. They not only helped build the nation, carrying explorers and working the land, but their performances on racetracks at home and abroad are legendary. However, the story of Australia’s Great War horses, tens of thousands of which experienced ghastly deaths in service of the British Empire, will have a sobering effect. ﷯Significantly, the story of Australia’s war horses provides contrasts with that of Britain’s, so widely celebrated in recent years through stage and film productions. Australia’s horses were not ‘requisitioned’ by the government, as was the case in Britain. They were mostly purchased, with the Australian military spending £2,718,520 on buying 135,926 horses from breeders across the nation. These horses had to travel thousands of miles on ships, with voyages often taking up to seven weeks, to reach the various theatres of war. It is argued that they were better ‘designed’ for harsh and unforgiving conditions, having been bred to survive and thrive in Australia’s ‘wide brown land’ – they were considered hardy, versatile and smart. One British cavalry officer claimed that, “There is no doubt these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world”. It was at the Battle of Beersheba that Australia’s horses truly came into their own, gallantly performing one
of world’s last great cavalry charges. Not all survived. One black mare known as ‘Midnight’, ridden by Lieutenant Guy Haydon, succumbed to a bullet that passed through her and lodged near her master’s spine. Today the bullet is in possession of Haydon’s descendants who still control the famous breeding stud in the Hunter Valley (NSW) at which ‘Midnight’ was foaled and raised. Later, our horses were to carry our men into Damascus, claiming the city ahead of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). For all their service, at war’s end, the reward for the surviving horses was abandonment. Due to the costs and complications associated with sending such large numbers of horses back home, and putting them in quarantine on their arrival, they were variously shot, sent to slaughterhouses, sold off, or sent to serve with other Imperial forces in India and elsewhere. Some were to spend their final days in awful ‘servitude’ on the streets of Cairo.