Farriers played important role with Australian Light Horse

Name: HaroldĀ Mertin
Date: 1914-1919
Unit: 9th Australian Light Horse
Location: Middle East

Farriers were in great demand by the Australian Light Horse so when Harold Arthur Mertin joined up 1914 he was welcomed with open arms.

He had learned his trade in the blacksmith shop at Eden Valley where he worked the forge, shoed the horses and fitted steel rims to wagon wheels.

The Australian Government had promised it would provide four regiments of Light Horse to 'fight in the British cause', but by the end of the war 16 Regiments were in action. Of these, the 9th Light Horse, one of the first to be formed, was made up entirely of South Australian volunteers.

Harold Mertin sailed through the training period during which recruits had to prove their ability on horseback. Those who failed were transferred to other units.

Having signed up for the duration, Harold met a young lady, Jessie Kendrick, who was working in a photographer's shop in Adelaide. It was obviously love at first sight but there was a war to be fought and Harold was soon on his way to the Middle East.

But before he left, he twice went AWL to visit Jessie and suffered terms of detention as a result.

Apart from a photograph or two of his sweetheart, Harold had one other memento to take with him on his travels - a camera. He soon became adept at using the camera and managed to record many historic moments throughout his war experiences.

With fellow members of the 9th Light Horse Regiment, along with a regiment from Western Australia and another from Victoria, they formed the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. It was sent to defend Egypt from the Turks and Germans, along with the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. They became the Anzac Mounted Division.

Whilst most of his regiment went to fight at Gallipoli, Harold was ordered to stay with the horses but soon found himself caught up in fighting in Egypt.

Over the next few years, he fought in many battles including Romani, El Arish, Gaza and Beersheba.

In his book Farrier Sgt Mertin - the 9th Light Horse Regiment in the Middle East, Harold's son Ron has provided a history of the movements of the Regiment during World War I.

The first big battle was Romani.

"In August 1915 a massive Turkish force was preparing for a second attack on the Suez Canal," Ron wrote. "Intelligence reports indicated that a strong body of Turks was to make an attempt on the Allied forces at the Canal and that they were assembled near Bir El Abd.

"It was necessary for the British forces to head out into the Sinai desert to block the Turks from Romani - a crucial group of oases and cisterns in a great waste of sand dunes.

"Orders were issued for the 3rd Brigade to march out in one hour's time and be prepared to travel as light as possible. At the stated time the regiment was on parade with a strength of 21 officers and 415 other ranks plus 459 horses. All wheeled transport was left behind.

"The Turks, who had 20,000 men and heavy guns, attacked and tried to seize the railhead at Romani. Between 19 July and 12 August the brunt of the battle fell on the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

"The 3rd Light Horse were forced back by sheer numbers. Near Bir Nagid the enemy opened up heavy fire on A Squadron of the 9th Regiment which was then joined by B Squadron and between them they were able to push forward. By the end of the day they had taken over 400 prisoners."

Conditions for the men and horses were extreme to say the least. Water was extremely scarce. "They were under the tropical sun without shelter and the white glare of the sand seemed to scorch the skin and blind the eyes," Ron wrote. "The temperature was frequently over 120 degrees [49 degrees C] in the shade, the men only had water bottles filled once daily. Horses could only be watered when suitable wells were found and at the most got a small drink every 24 hours."

By now, Brigadier-General J R Royston had taken over command of the 3rd Brigade. Harold obviously admired the man and wrote:

'He is one of the best we have ever had or are likely to have and as game as you can get him. He could ride all day with the best of them and be just as good for a man of his age.'

In December 1916, the 3rd Brigade took part in the general advance on El Arish, a large mud brick town close to the sea. The 9th Regiment camped in full view of the town for a day, extra rations were drawn and all surplus gear disposed of.

"Then, at 6pm, they joined up with other convoys and all were to be in position by daybreak," Ron wrote.

"The enemy opened fire with heavy and accurate shelling at ranges of 1000 yards [900m] and 2000 yards [1800m]. The ground around the town was quite flat and by 2pm the line had advanced to within 500 yards [460m]. When it reached 25 yards [20m] there was a rush forward. Many of the Turks were bayoneted before surrendering.

"The Air Service gave support and skimmed the enemy trenches dropping light bombs and the Lewis machine gun teams had their first taste of action. The regiment handed over nearly 160 enemy taken from the trenches. Next day they started on the long journey to Maghdaba where the prisoners were held, before returning to El Arish.

"The enemy still held the fortified palace of Maghdaba with about 2000 men, 23 miles [37 km] up the Wadi Arish," Ron wrote. "At 8pm on 22 December the forces assembled and marched on, reaching the enemy lines at dawn, taking up positions under the protection of sandhills.

"The Light Horse, moving at a fast trot, came under heavy fire while riding across the front. The attack progressed well but slowly, with the ground favouring the enemy. At 3pm the enemy was intensely bombarded. A rush was made at 4pm and the Turkish resistance collapsed. There were 1200 prisoners taken and a large number of Turkish to be buried."

Ron Mertin said the young Australian Light Horsemen who now rode into Palestine along the desert battle paths of Napoleon and the Crusaders, were very different figures from the eager young men who had flocked to the muddy training camps of winter Australia.

"They were maturing and quickly developed their own style," he wrote. "As they moved around with a slouching gait of the Australian countryman at home, an observer described them as 'tired looking' but when ready for action, the observer noted, the same men could show 'an almost miraculous note of expectant eagerness'."

For the first time, the Australians entered enemy territory, passing across the border between Egypt and Palestine. The enemy had their main position at Rafa with an estimated 3000 men and a field of fire on all sides.

After a tough day of fighting, Rafa was taken with small losses to the Brigade and before 2000 Turkish reinforcements could arrive.

The next battle was for Gaza but this ended in withdrawal after the infantry was badly mauled by the Turks. Then new planes arrived, followed by the long-awaited tanks but in the meantime, the Turks had increased their fortifications and boosted the number of troops along the Gaza-Beersheeba line.

Once again the Turks defended stoutly and the Allies suffered heavy casualties, bringing about important changes in General Headquarters staff.

"Minor operations then took place and continued from April to October 1917," Ron Mertin wrote. "The duties of the 9th Regiment in this period were to carry out regular reconnaissance, patrolling on horseback, in the Gaza area and around Atawinch.

"During this period many skirmishes with the enemy took place. To shelter the men from the fierce heat, large square pits were dug and roofed with timber and grass matting, being large enough to accommodate eight men. The presence of large black scorpions and tarantula spiders proved a source of annoyance, but the men took advantage of this and waging scorpion and tarantula fights by placing one of each in a biscuit tin."

Finally, the decision was made to attack Beersheeba and the 9th Regiment marched out over a very rough track. Two days later the signal for the attack to start was given. The 9th Regiment was heavily shelled but reached Tel-El-Saba, about 3 miles west of Beersheeba without casualties.

"Just before sunset, the 4th Brigade was seen to make a magnificent charge against the enemy trenches," Ron Mertin wrote. "Although mounted and armed with only a rifle and bayonet, they galloped clean over the enemy positions causing the utmost consternation amongst the Turks and this charge can be said to have decided the day."

The men of the 9th Regiment were then involved in a number of operations and even managed a short spell of rest and recreation, including time off to visit the town of Jaffa and its huge orange groves.

Once Amman had been captured the troops moved on to take Damascus.

"By 5am the Regiment had crossed the river by the bridge at Dumar and the main road into the city was found to be almost completely blocked with dead or dying men, animals and disabled transport vehicles, the terrible execution of the previous day," Ron Mertin wrote. "The wounded were carried to the grassy banks to await our ambulances and the dead to await burial. The road was eventually cleared."

After more mopping up operations, the Regiment headed back through Damascus, Kuteife and Hom. During this journey word came through that the Turks had asked for and been granted an armistice and hostilities would cease on 31 October 1918. The Regiment continued on to Tripoli and camped in the olive groves on the edge of the city of Mwejdelaya.

"On 11 November, the Germans were also granted an armistice," Ron Mertin wrote. "In the harbour, ships let off red, white and green flares and screeched their sirens until the boilers ran out of steam."

With the end of the war, many of the Light Horsemen were disappointed to learn they would not be able to take their mounts home with them. Because of quarantine regulations it would have been impossible to take tens of thousands of horses back to Australia.

The horses were divided into four categories, A, B, C and D with the first two transferred to the 5th Cavalry and the other two groups due to be shot. It was felt they would not be well treated if sold to the locals and it would be more merciful to shoot them.

Just as it seemed the 9th Regiment would be departing for Australia, they were sent back to Egypt to help control the huge uprising known as the Egyptian Rebellion. The local Moslem population rioted against the British, tearing up railway lines, cutting telephone lines and attacking and killing British and other Europeans.

"The 9th Regiment was detailed to proceed to Zig Zag and Tel-El-Kebir for the guarding of the railway line," Ron Mertin wrote. "The Regiment was also required to guard the aerodrome. When trouble was encountered, a few shots would soon put all ideas of resistance out of their minds. Many of the locals were arrested on charges of murder and pillage."

At last the 9th Regiment boarded the Oxfordshire and headed for home, stopping briefly at Colombo and arriving at Fremantle on 4 August, exactly five years to the date of the declaration of war.

When Harold Mertin returned to his home in the Eden Valley of South Australia, he was one of only 38 of the original 400 men who left in February 1915 with the 9th Light Horse Regiment.

He soon became engaged to Jessie Kendrick but nearly didn't make it to the altar. During a visit by Jessie to Eden Valley, the couple were out in a buggy when a double barrel shotgun resting between the seats, discharged. Having survived all the fighting in the Middle East with nothing more than severe malaria and some shrapnel wounds to his hands, Harold Mertin received the full blast of the shotgun in his chest.

Jessie, a city girl, had the presence of mind to control the horse and made the return journey 20 miles [32 km] to the hospital at Mount Pleasant. Harold lost two or three of his ribs but was made of stern stuff and recovered to marry Jessie a few months later.

The material for this article was supplied by Ron Mertin of the Australian Capital Territory
8/01/2002 10:47:48 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Farriers played important role with Australian Light Horse, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/farriers-played-important-role-australian-light-horse
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