Australian Light Horse

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Australian light horsemen on Walers prior to their departure from Australia

Australian Light Horse were mounted troops with characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. They served in the Second Boer War and World War I.

A number of Australian light horse units are still in existence today, most notably of the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry), now a light armoured unit equipped with an Australian version of the LAV-25.

History[edit]

The Australian Light Horse were mounted troops who served in the Second Boer War and World War I that combined characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. This was the outcome of doctrinal debate in military circles in Australia in the late 19th century concerning the future of mounted troops. The example of the Franco-Prussian War illustrated that the battlefield had become dominated by massed land armies supported by artillery. For Australia the reality was vast spaces with sparse populations making it difficult to consider anything that remotely looked like the European model. The 1890s were wracked by drought and depression ensuring that none of the states were able to afford anything but the most token of armies supported by a large contingent of volunteers.

The Second Boer War provided the short term answer. While Australian forces fought against the Boers in South Africa, the Boer methodology of conducting war was considered to be the answer for Australian defence. Volunteer Light Horse Regiments were established around Australia supported by the Rifle Club movement which provided semi trained reinforcements for the various formations. Should these formations be called upon to defend Australia, the local commander was charged with maintaining resistance through the use of the Commando formation which envisaged a large scale guerrilla war. The prospect of an endless and strength sapping guerrilla war was the key deterrent factor which relied heavily upon mobile soldiers. The mounted infantry remained the key to the Australian defence posture until the Kitchener Report of 1910 which envisaged formations that could be slotted directly into an Imperial expeditionary force. The plan envisaged two mounted divisions.

Light horse were like mounted infantry in that they usually fought dismounted, using their horses as transport to the battlefield and as a means of swift disengagement when retreating or retiring. A famous exception to this rule though was the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. In 1918 some light horse regiments were equipped with sabres, enabling them to fight in a conventional cavalry role in the advance on Damascus. However, unlike mounted infantry, the light horse also performed certain roles, such as scouting and screening, while mounted.

The light horse were organised along cavalry rather than infantry lines. A light horse regiment was roughly equivalent to a battalion, but containing only about 600 men (an infantry battalion would contain about 1000 men). Around a quarter of this nominal strength (or one man in each section of 4) could be allotted to horse-holding duties when the regiment entered combat. A regiment was divided into three squadrons, designated "A", "B" and "C", (equivalent to a company) and a squadron divided into four troops (equivalent to but smaller than a platoon). Each troop was divided into about ten 4-man sections. When dismounting for combat, one man from each section would take the reins of the other three men's horses and lead them out of the firing line where he would remain until called upon.

"Specially Sighted Telescopic Rifles will be issued, stated in Routine Order No. 112 by Major G.M.M.Onslow, 7th Light Horse A.I.F., dated 2nd October, 1915. In this, is the extract from Operation Memo. 73 where the specially sighted telescopic rifle issued at the rate of four to each Brigade of the Division, 'for use at sniping posts by SPECIALLY SELECTED MARKSMEN ONLY" (ref: AWM4-10-12-4.pdf page 9).

Each regiment had a troop of two Maxim guns. At Gallipoli, where the light horse served dismounted, this was increased to four guns. In 1916, these were consolidated into light horse machine gun squadrons, each with 12 Vickers machine guns. In turn, the troops received the Lewis Gun. This was replaced by the Hotchkiss M1909 Benet-Mercie machine gun in April 1917. Eventually they arrived in such numbers as to allow each troop to have a Hotchkiss gun, which considerably added to the mobile firepower of a regiment and considerably altered their combat tasking and activities.

WWI military saddle as used by the Australian Lighthorsemen.

The Australian Waler horse was the common mount for the light horsemen, as it was strong and hardy, which was needed in the harsh desert climate. This was facilitated by the horses being left behind in Egypt while the light horsemen went to Gallipoli, allowing them to gradually acclimatise.

Light Horse Brigades[edit]

Light Horse Brigades served at Gallipoli, against the Senussi in Libya, and in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade at the Battle of Beersheba in 1917 made a successful cavalry charge.

Anzac Mounted Division[edit]

The Australian Light Horse Regiments that served in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign were organised into five Australian Light Horse Brigades. In February 1916 the Australian mounted troops of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were placed together in the Anzac Mounted Division. A reorganisation of the mounted troops was ordered in February 1917 leading to the formation of the Anzac Mounted Division (1st, 2nd Light Horse Brigades, New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and British 22nd Mounted Brigade).

Care of horses in the Sinai campaign[edit]

  1. The importance of early clipping in the autumn.
  2. Identifying defects in forage and implementing appropriate remedies.
  3. The importance of supervised watering.
  4. Improvements in the sanitation of the horse lines.
  5. Identifying shortage of head collars and grooming equipment.
  6. Identifying overwork in some units due to insufficient numbers of horses.
  7. Identifying faulty shoes and shoeing and shortages of shoeing tools.
  8. Advice to prevent collar galls.
  9. Advice to prevent wastage of horses due to debility by : -
Periodical rest and change of food and water after prolonged work in the desert.
The systematic evacuation of all debility cases that did not improve after a week’s rest.
The necessity of extra forage for mounted troops doing strenuous work when the nutritional value of the forage ration was reduced.
The importance of night feeding.
The prevention of waste in forage by the use of feeding sacks and nosebags.[1]

Together with orders issued when serious faults were identified and as reminders, this information formed the basis for a small brochure on horse management in Egypt, which was issued to all units in the field.[1]

In 1916 the average loss of sick horses and mules from the Sinai front was approximately 640 per week. They were transported in train loads of thirty trucks, each holding eight horses. Animals which died or were destroyed while on active service were buried 2 miles (3.2 km) from the nearest camp unless this was not practicable. In this case the carcasses were transported to a suitable sites away from troops, where they were disemboweled and left to disintegrate in the dry desert air and high temperatures. Animals which died or were destroyed in veterinary units at Kantara, Ismalia, Bilbeis, and Quesna were dealt with in this way and after four days’ drying in the sun, the carcases were stuffed with straw and burnt, after the skins were salved. These were sold to local contractors.[2]

Imperial Mounted Division / Australian Mounted Division[edit]

A wide angle view of an encampment on a hill, there are horses in the foreground and light coloured tents
An Australian light horse encampment on Mount Olivet and Mount Scopus near Jerusalem, 1918.

The Imperial Mounted Division was formed from the 3rd and 4th Light Horse Brigades and the British Yeomanry 5th and 6th Mounted Brigades. The Imperial Mounted Division's name was soon changed to the Australian Mounted Division at the request of the Australian government. The arrival of more yeomanry from Salonika prompted the raising of the Yeomanry Mounted Division (6th, 8th and 22nd Yeomanry Brigades) in June 1917. The three mounted divisions and the Imperial Camel Brigade formed the Desert Mounted Corps under the command of Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel. With the removal of most of the Yeomanry to France and the breakup of the Imperial Camel Corps, the newly formed 5th Light Horse Brigade took its place with the Australian Mounted Division. Two Indian cavalry divisions replaced the Yeomanry Division in the Desert Mounted Corps.

Western Front[edit]

The 13th Light Horse Regiment and one squadron of the 4th Light Horse Regiment served on the Western Front, first as divisional cavalry squadrons for the 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions, and then as the I ANZAC Corps Mounted Regiment. A squadron of the 4th provided the divisional cavalry squadron for the 1st Division and one of the 14th Light Horse Regiment for the 3rd Division. In combination with New Zealand mounted troops, the squadron of the 4th became part of the II ANZAC Corps Mounted Regiment. After the Australian Corps was formed in November 1917, the I Anzac Corps Mounted Regiment became known as the 13th Light Horse Regiment again!

Post World War I[edit]

The winner of the 10th Light Horse Regiment's "Best turned out light horseman" competition at the unit's annual sports day in 1943

After the war, the light horse regiments were distributed as follows:

  • 1st Cavalry Brigade (Toowoomba, Queensland): 2nd, 5th, 11th, 14th Light Horse Regiments
  • 2nd Cavalry Brigade (Maitland, New South Wales): 12th, 15th, 16th Light Horse Regiments
  • 3rd Cavalry Brigade (Melbourne): 8th, 13th, 20th Light Horse Regiments
  • 4th Cavalry Brigade (Paddington, New South Wales): 1st, 6th, 7th, 21st Light Horse Regiments
  • 5th Cavalry Brigade (Melbourne) (disbanded 1936): 4th, 17th, 19th Light Horse Regiments
  • 6th Cavalry Brigade (Adelaide): 3rd, 9th, 18th, 23rd Light Horse Regiments

Most Light Horse Regiments were converted to motorised infantry, armoured car or armoured regiments in World War II (See: Australian Armoured Units of World War II). The 20th Light Horse Regiment, as the 20th Motor Regiment, served overseas, at Merauke. The 1st Light Horse Regiment became the 1st Tank Battalion, and as such fought in New Guinea and Borneo.

Legacy[edit]

  • The Memorial to the Australian Light Horse at Tamworth was unveiled by Major General W.B. Digger James AC MBE MC on 29 October 2005.
  • The Australian Light Horse are commemorated by the Light Horse Interchange and sculptural installations along the M4 motorway where it is crossed by the M7 [1] at Eastern Creek in Western Sydney.
  • On 28 April 2008, Australia's Governor-General Major General (ret) Michael Jeffery and Israeli President Shimon Peres unveiled a monument to the Light Horse in Beersheba, Israel. It was made by Australian sculptor Peter Corlett and was an initiative of the Melbourne-based Pratt Foundation in cooperation with the Beersheba City Council.
2012 - 95th anniversary parade
  • Commemorations of the Battle of Beersheba typically occur at the memorial in Canberra every year on 31 October, with bigger gatherings on the 5-year dates.

Popular culture[edit]

Literature[edit]

The Wells of Beersheba (1933) by Frank Dalby Davison

The Desert Column (1932) by Ion L. Idriess The only known published account by a participant who was not an Officer.

Film[edit]

Several films include the charge at Beersheba in 1917:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Blenkinsop & Rainey 1925, pp. 170–171.
  2. ^ Blenkinsop & Rainey 1925, p. 171.

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]