Australian Light Horse in World War I
The Australian Light Horse was a skilled formation of mounted infantry of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The men fought at Gallipoli (without their horses) and mostly served in Egypt and the Middle East. The unit contributed to the Allied victory against the Ottoman Empire in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.
Before the war
Mounted troops had been part of Australia's home defence scheme since the 1890s, mostly as volunteers in rifle clubs.
The Australian Light Horse served in the South African War from 1899 to 1902. After the war, Britain wanted to use fewer mounted troops and restructured its force around a style of combat that needed more infantry. But the defence of Australia still relied on mounted military units. They were more mobile than infantry and could travel faster over long distances.
When World War I started in 1914, Australia's Citizen Forces (part-time army reserves) included 9000 men in 23 Light Horse regiments from:
- New South Wales (6)
- Queensland (5)
- South Australia (3)
- Tasmania (1)
- Victoria (7)
- Western Australia (1)
The regiments had formed in 1911. That's when the Australian Government introduced the Universal Service Scheme based on advice in the Kitchener Report 1910.
Men and their horses
Soldiers who joined the Light Horse
Light Horse brigades in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) mostly contained recruits who served in the Light Horse regiments of the Citizen Forces.
Many young men from rural areas of Australia volunteered for the Light Horse regiments. They had to pass a riding test to join. The test was easier for men from the bush because horses were still the main method of transport on farms and in country towns.
The army did not officially accept First Australians into the AIF until May 1917, when enlistment standards were relaxed to include 'half-castes' with a parent of European origin. Indigenous soldiers served as valuable members of the Light Horse. Many possessed excellent horse handling skills and specialist tracking knowledge.
Horses in the army
Australia shipped over 120,000 horses overseas during the war. Only about 29,000 served with Australians and other Allied troops in Egypt and the Middle East. Most were sold to the Indian Army.
During the war, Commonwealth purchasing officers bought many horses from breeders and graziers. The Army preferred Waler horses because they were well suited to the desert conditions in Egypt and Palestine. Walers had been used by stockmen and mounted units in Australia for many years. They had also been exported from Australia and sold to the British Indian Army as mounts.
Sometimes, Light Horse recruits brought along their own horses, and the Government would purchase them.
All AIF horses received the Government hide brand. They also got a hoof brand, until the practice was stopped in early 1917.
Light horsemen camped in bell tents close to their horses. Each tent would fit eight men with their feet towards the centre like the spokes of a wheel.
Light horsemen in combat
Light horsemen mostly fought dismounted. They were considered to be 'mounted infantry' instead of 'cavalry'. The soldiers rode horses to a battlefield where they engaged with the enemy on foot and then left quickly on horseback when disengaging. The use of horses made the force more mobile and faster than infantry units and horse-drawn artillery.
During combat, they rode in sections of four light horsemen. One soldier held the reins of all four horses. The other three men in his section dismounted and went forward to fight on foot. The horse handler had a dangerous job because enemy aircraft could target him.
Sometimes the light horsemen fought from horseback, like cavalry. In the Battle of Beersheba, the light horsemen rode in with their bayonets. Their rifles were slung over their backs. In 1918, some regiments were issued with sabres so they act like cavalry, but mostly they dismounted to fight.
The Australians served alongside British and Indian cavalry units in many operations. Cavalry roles, such as scouting and screening, were particularly useful in the Middle East landscape. Australians were also part of the Imperial Camel Corps.
The British Royal Horse Artillery provided artillery support to the light horsemen in many battles. Military historian Henry Gullet wrote:
These Territorial gunners from the outset provided a high standard of efficiency. Their work throughout the (Sinai and Palestine) campaign was distinguished by bold driving and straight shooting, and very soon there were established between them and the mounted men from Australia and New Zealand strong and warm ties of friendship. In a hundred fights they proved gallant and dependable allies of the light horsemen.
Camps in Egypt
The Light Horse brigades stayed in Egypt before and after the Gallipoli Campaign. The men and their horses camped at Mena, near Giza, and at Maadi (sometimes spelt 'Meadi'), on the edge of the desert south of Cairo.
A reporter from the Egyptian Gazette captured the scene at Camp Maadi on 18 December 1914:
The many lines of beautiful and much loved horses strike the onlooker immediately; they have practically constant attention night and day. Being packed on the boats as they were the whole time from Australia, standing for seven or eight weeks has for the time weakened and stiffened their legs and joints and at present not one of them is being ridden. They are exercised daily, at first gently, increasing to 10 mile exercises and training they are now undergoing.
Service in Gallipoli
The light horsemen were sent as reinforcements to fight in the Gallipoli Campaign.
The 3rd Light Horse Brigade landed at Gallipoli in May 1915. Its regiments served in a dismounted role (on foot). They suffered catastrophic losses in August 1915, at the Battle of the Nek and the Battle of Hill 60.
The AIF did transport 6100 horses to Gallipoli, but only a few disembarked before the rest were sent back to Egypt. The hills and gullies at Gallipoli were too steep and rough for the horses.
The Light Horse brigades were mostly involved in defensive actions at Gallipoli. However, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade lost many men at the Battle of the Nek.
Lieutenant Colonel Noel Brazier, commander of the 10th Light Horse Regiment, tried in vain to cancel the third wave of the attack. He had seen the first two waves slaughtered before they could reach the enemy trench and said:
the whole thing was nothing but bloody murder
Middle East battles
After the evacuation from Gallipoli, British concerns about the safety of the Suez Canal and its protectorate, the Sultanate of Egypt, were justified.
Elements of the Ottoman Army crossed the Sinai Desert to raid the Suez Canal in January 1915. Their unsuccessful campaign to capture and disable the shipping route was led by a German officer. Bavarian Colonel Kress von Kressenstein was chief of staff to Djemal Pasha's army in Palestine.
The Turks kept their troops and outposts on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with forces at Gaza and Beersheba in Palestine. The British defeated a major Turkish attempt on the Suez at Romani in August 1916, and then went on the offensive. Their actions became known as the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.
The Allies pushed the Turks back 1000km between 1915 and 1918. The British forces were continuously supported by Australian mounted troops.
Success and sacrifice in Beersheba
Success in the Sinai campaign by February 1917 led the British commander General Archibald Murray to invade Palestine. But his attacks on Gaza in March and April failed. Murray was replaced by General Edmund Allenby as commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
During the stalemate from April to October, Allenby estimated the Ottoman Army's resources. He spent a long time planning the logistics for a stronger British offensive. Allenby was very concerned about the availability of water and access to good medical treatment.
Lieutenant-General Henry Chauvel commanded the newly formed Desert Mounted Corps in the Palestine campaign. He was very experienced, having led the 1st Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli and the ANZAC Mounted Brigade during the Sinai campaign.
Under Chauvel's command, the Light Horse played a crucial role in the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917.
The men rode up to 56km to circle the town of Beersheba. Fighting continued throughout the day before the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments were ordered to attack the town at sunset.
In a fearsome move under enemy fire, the 4th Light Horse Regiment charged through a gap in the Ottoman defences. Then men were led by Brigadier General William Grant. With sharpened bayonets in hand, they quickly overran the Turkish positions. The men saved 15 of the town's 17 water wells before they could be destroyed by the retreating Turks.
The capture of Beersheba enabled the British to break the enemy line near Gaza and advance into Palestine.
Brave acts — and death in the field
Many brave acts were recorded that day. Staff Sergeant Arthur Cox from the 4th Light Horse Regiment single-handedly — under very heavy fire — captured a machine gun and its five-man crew in a redoubt (a temporary defence structure in a fortification).
During the charge on Beersheba, 31 light horsemen were killed and 36 were wounded. About 70 horses died. Many Turks were killed and up to 1000 captured.
Trooper Ernest Craggs of the 12th Light Horse Regiment, aged 19, was killed during the charge at Beersheba. In a letter to Craggs' mother, his commanding officer Lieutenant Edward Ralston wrote:
the day before the fight, he was laughing and joking as usual and full of spirit all through the long night ride. He rode into action just behind me and the last I saw of him, he was standing in his stirrups and cheering.
Later, Ralston recalled Craggs' death:
He and I were wounded at the same time, he was hit in the head and chest. I helped him under the cover of his horse which was killed. I held the poor boy's hands while he passed away. He only lived about ten minutes after he was wounded and did not have any pain, Thank God.
Craggs was re-buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery in 1919.
Organisation in the Middle East
The structure of Australia's military forces changed significantly during the war as it accommodated growing numbers and different styles of warfare.
The Desert Column was a corps formed in Egypt in December 1916, which included:
- Anzac Mounted Division of three Light Horse brigades
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade
The Australian Mounted Division, was originally formed under Desert Column as the Imperial Mounted Division in February 1917. The unit included two Light Horse brigades and two British Mounted brigades.
Brigadier General Robert Anderson, the commandant of AIF Administrative Headquarters in London, was sent to Egypt to negotiate the composition of the division with the British authorities. As a result, the Imperial Mounted Division was renamed the 'Australian Mounted Division' on 20 June 1917.
The Desert Column was renamed 'Desert Mounted Corps' for the Palestine campaign in 1918.
In 1917 and 1918, the Desert Mounted Corps comprised two divisions:
Anzac Mounted Division
- 1st Regiment (NSW)
- 2nd Regiment (Qld)
- 3rd Regiment (SA, Tas.)
- 5th Regiment (Qld)
- 6th Regiment (NSW)
- 7th Regiment (NSW)
Australian Mounted Division
- 8th Regiment (Vic.)
- 9th Regiment (SA, Vic.)
- 10th Regiment (WA)
- 4th Regiment (Vic.)
- 11th Regiment (Qld, SA)
- 12th Regiment (NSW)
- 14th Regiment
- 15th Regiment
Each regiment contained 25 officers and 400 men, of whom around 100 performed horse-holding duties during combat. The regiment was organised into three squadrons (A, B, C), each with four troops that had 10 four-person sections.
Commemorating the light horsemen
Veterans of the Australian Light Horse felt proud of their service and connected to each other. Some rode on horseback in Anzac Day parades for many years after the war.
Today, you can see the head of 'Sandy' the Light Horse exhibited at the Australian War Memorial. Light Horse re-enactments are performed at exhibitions and shows around Australia.