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.
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 by the Australian Mounted Division, came in the Second Boer War. It is here, that some contend the ‘natural horsemanship’ of the Aussies would be demonstrated, but criticism was also rife. Though skilful riders, the Australian’s were used to being able to draw on a large pool of horses, so care for their partners was not always a priority, and equine wastage as a whole during the conflict was incredibly high. It is true that at the turn of the century, horses were an important part of life in Australia. In the vast, sparsely populated landscapes they were, for some, the only form of transport and in a nation where cattle farming was so important, both man and horse were well conditioned to spending many hours together at work. But this did not always mean that horses were well cared for with ‘quantity over quality’ reflecting the fact that obtaining good horses in Australia at this time, was not easy.
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, and by 1914 the militia was some 45,000 men strong with the infantry drastically reorganised to accommodate new recruits. On the outbreak of war the Light Horse regiments contained many men from rural areas who had volunteered for service, sometimes bringing their own horses with them. The difficulties faced by Remount services and The Australian Army Veterinary Corps during this mobilisation period have been well explored by Michael Tyquin. Certainly, the popular idea that all Walers and riders were paired together in happy bonds for the duration of the war, elevating them above all other mounted forces is a romanticised view, embedded in the wider Anzac Legend.
I do wonder however, if the differences in the horse culture in Australia (vs Britain) permeated through to the ALH, impacting the bonds between horse and rider, an area that would greatly benefit from further academic study. The truth is no doubt far more nuanced than to suggest that central to the ALH was a unique form of horsemanship as is often stated, but individual tales based around the bond between man and horse are plentiful. It is perhaps the story of Major Michael Shanahan and a scruffy Waler called Bill on which many of the Waler legends rest. The details are sketchy – equine stories are subject to myth making of the highest degree – but it is if nothing else, representative of the important place that the horse-soldier relationship has in our culture.
Bill was sent from Australia to play his part in the Great War along with 136,000 other horses. He was larger than average and heavily built, but there was one big problem with Bill – 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 reportedly 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 him. 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, and only him, to take to his saddle.
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 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.
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, and in doing so, saving his life.
How much truth there is the story of Bill the Bastard is perhaps questionable, but it has come to sum up the popular perception that a unique relationship existed between man and horse in the ALH. It is something that I am keen to explore further, with the hope of better understanding the stories that circulate and indeed, how much truth to this legend there really is.