New South Walers in the Great War

With ancestors from South Africa, England, the Arabian Peninsula, Scotland and France, The Waler, although not an official breed, is a type of horse unlike any other. With the speed of a Thoroughbred, endurance of an Arab, intelligence of a Percheron and hardiness of a Timor Pony; the Waler’s contribution in the Great War has become the stuff of equine legend.

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Australian troopers resting against a Waler

The Waler was bred in New South Wales, Australia, using breeds brought to the country by European settlers. They were bred for use in the tough Australian outback, to undertake strenuous work over great distances and in extreme heat. Due to their intelligence and willing nature, they were quickly adopted by the British Army in India and their first major use as cavalry horses by the Australian Mounted Division came in the Second Boer War. At the turn of the century, horses were an every day part of life in Australia. In the vast, sparsely populated landscapes it was near impossible to get anywhere if you couldn’t ride and, in a nation where cattle farming was so important, both man and horse were well conditioned to spending many hours together at work. When the Australian Light Horse regiment engaged in their first battles in South Africa, it quickly became apparent that they were in many ways, far superior to the prestigious British Army Cavalry regiments. Although rough around the edges, the horsemanship and endurance of the ALH could not be bettered.

In the years running up to the Great War Australia’s military had undergone some what of a transformation following recommendations made by Lord Kitchener in 1910 that the forces were ‘inadequate in numbers, training, organisation and munitions of war’. A reform programme was hastily put in place which included compulsory service for men between the ages of 18-26 (the ‘Universal Training Scheme’) and compulsory cadet training for Australian boys. By 1914 the militia was some 45,000 men strong and the infantry was drastically reorganised to accommodate these new recruits. The ALH however was made up mostly from volunteers, since the Australian government could not afford to provide horses so relied on recruits who could provide their own. This saw many men from rural areas who had been exempt from the UTS due to geographical challenges, now joining up and bringing their Waler horses with them. Anyone who knows anything about horses will tell you that the importance of the bond between horse and rider cannot be over estimated. It is this distinct advantage that the ALH had over many other cavalry regiments. With the majority of the soldiers taking their own horses to war, there existed a far superior relationship between many of them, and unlike many other cavalry forces who believed the whip, spur and firm hand to be the making of a war horse, a different culture existed within the ALH – one of partnership between man and beast.

Nothing demonstrated the level of horsemanship in the ALH better than the story of Major Michael Shanahan and a scruffy Waler called Bill. Bill was sent from Australia to the Great War along with 136,000 other horses, he was larger than the average and heavily built, but there was one big problem with Bill – despite many men trying, he would not tolerate being ridden. He was known for his aggression and utter contempt at having anyone on his back and his reputation as the horse with a bad temper that would throw any prospective rider grew among the ALH, where he quickly became known as ‘Bill the Bastard’.

Bill became a celebrity, with men keen to chase the odds on who could stick on Bill the longest – the record was only two minutes and thirteen seconds, made by an accomplished British jockey. At ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli, where the ALH had suffered so greatly, the men bet on whether the best cavalry man in the regiment and Bill could make it across the beach to deliver their mail in the face of the Turkish snipers. This macabre sport saw the soldier shot dead and Bill take several bullets as he reared up whilst zigzagging across the sand trying to dismount his rider. It was here, that Major Shanahan first saw Bill. Shanahan was an exceptional horseman, he has often been described as a horse whisperer, such was his gentle and understanding manner and it was with this approach (armed with Liquorice Allsorts as rewards) that gradually enabled him to earn Bill’s trust and allow him, but only him, to take to his saddle.

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Shanahan on Bill, 1915

On the 3rd and 4th of August 1916 Bill’s first real test with Shanahan as part of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade began, at the Battle of Romani. German and Ottoman forces attacked the town of Romani in an effort to gain control of the areas to the north of the Suez Canal, thereby disrupting vital logistics routes for the Allies. British and ANZAC forces had been based at Romani for a number of months, and the ALH had been advancing on the massing Central Powers forces since July. On the night of the 3rd August, the German and Ottoman troops launched their attack on Romani from the nearby town of Katia. The 1st Light Horse Brigade quickly formed a screen (a cavalry tactic used to defend infantry) and were engaged by the attacking troops in brutal close combat fighting. The 1st LHB were gradually forced to retire as they could not hold back the advancing infantry but, in the early hours of the 4th, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which included Shanahan and Bill the Bastard, reinforced the line.

Major Shanahan rode up and down the front line in an effort to encourage and protect his men, it was in doing so that he discovered four injured troopers who were stranded, having had their horses shot out from beneath them. It was in this moment that Shanahan asked something monumental of Bill. Knowing his strength and endurance far outstripped that of the average horse, Shanahan loaded two of the injured soldiers onto Bills back, and the other two over his flanks, each with a foot in one stirrup. Combined with the kit he was already carrying, Bill now carried over 400kg. Whilst most horses would struggle to even stand with this weight, Shanahan cantered Bill for a kilometre through a hail of bullets over the sandy landscape, to a first aid post.  This is surely one of the most heroic efforts of horse and rider that the Great War saw. After dropping off the injured men, Shanahan and Bill returned to the heat of the battle. The Major was shot in the thigh but continued fighting until dawn, when he collapsed, slumping forwards over Bill’s neck. It was at this point, that Bill took the lead, safely taking his friend back behind the lines for medical treatment. Shanahan’s injury was so bad, that his leg was amputed but Bill unquestionably saved his life. This bond between horse and rider was something found across the Australian Mounted Division, with most men being able to recount at least one occasion where their faithful stead had saved them from death.

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Major Shanahan recovering from his leg surgery

Whilst horse casualty figures in general during the Great War were huge, and those that did survive were often completely spent, the Walers had a higher survival rate. They were so tough that many were in good enough shape to be used as remounts for the British Army in India after the war. Only 1 horse, out of the 130,000 or so sent from Australia ever returned home. Sandy was the horse of Major General Sir William Bridges, who was killed at Gallipoli on 18th May 1915. The story goes, that it was Bridges’ dying wish that his gentle horse be returned home. And so, in May 1918 the horse was sent from the Australian Veterinary Hospital at Calais to a Remount Depot in England. After a few months in quarantine, Sandy was declared healthy and was free to begin his long journey back to Oz, where he arrived November 1918. Sandy spent his retirement at Maribyrnong, where he was finally put to sleep in 1923 due to increasing health problems. The interesting parallel in Sandy’s story is that Major General Bridges was the only identified soldier to have his body repatriated to be buried on Australian soil. The unique circumstances of both Sandy and Bridges’ return home, meant that in some way the bond which they formed in life, continued in death and in this they will be linked forever more.

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Major General Bridges and his brick hauler turned cavalry charger, Sandy.

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