The approaching World War 1 centenary commemorations will likely focus on Gallipoli and the major battles of 1916 -18 on the Western Front. This is appropriate because these were significant achievements for Australia’s developing military forces. However, there is one theatre, and one arm of the AIF, which may not get the attention that is deserved. The theatre is the deserts of the Sinai and Palestine, and the arm is the Australian Light Horse (ALH).
Originally a brigade and a regiment raised as part of the initial Australian offer of forces to Britain on the declaration of war, the ALH expanded along with the rest of the AIF as a result of the surge of volunteers in 1914. When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was formed for service at Gallipoli, there was no role for mounted troops so the ALH, now three brigades strong, and the two divisional mounted regiments remained in Egypt. However, the high casualty rate in the early days of the campaign soon required their first sacrifice; to leave their horses, re-equip and fight in the unfamiliar infantry role. The further blow, of units being broken up to provide individual replacements, was avoided when the British commander in Egypt, General Maxwell, ordered the three ALH brigades to deploy to Gallipoli as complete formations.
The brigades began arriving in the ANZAC perimeter within weeks of the landings. Although smaller units, ALH regiments were expected to carry out the duties of the much larger infantry battalions. We will look in some detail at their performance during the August battles when, in coming occasional Highlights, we follow the course of the August Offensive. It is enough to say here that they earned their place as Anzacs.
Following the withdrawal to Egypt in December 1915 the ALH units were greatly depleted. The 10th Regiment, which had fought at The Nek as part of the 3rd Brigade, deployed with 520 all ranks but returned 285 strong. Re-equipment and training became the priority. The mounted troops were expecting to be incorporated into the new, larger AIF then being formed and to accompany the infantry to any new theatre. However, Egypt was being stripped of infantry divisions to feed the huge demand for reinforcements in France, and the static nature of the war there did not provide employment for mounted formations. So the ALH would be left behind, part of the Anzac Mounted Division destined for the defence of Egypt and the Suez Canal.
The ALH, with one exception, would serve out the war in the desert. The exception was the 13th Regiment which, with two squadrons of the 4th Regiment, did go to France. They served in a variety of roles, in support of AIF and other allied formations, until 1918. Meanwhile the ALH soldiered on in their remote theatre. Major actions occurred at Romani and Maghdaba in 1916 and at Gaza and Beersheba in 1917. On 1 October 1918 the 10th Light Horse Regiment was the first unit to enter Damascus, and the Australian Mounted Division was enroute to Aleppo at the time of the final Turkish surrender.
In the immediate post-war period the 7th Light Horse Regiment returned, briefly, to Gallipoli as part of the occupation force and the 3rd Brigade was involved in suppressing civil unrest in Egypt. By Mid-1919 the ALH was returning home. Their war had been fought in a harsh environment, lacking many of the facilities of other theatres. Their achievements are equally worthy of recognition in the World War 1 centenary commemorations.
Image Top Left:
The battle rages . . . men on horseback raced across six kilometres of open ground during the Charge of Beersheba. The Australian War Memorial believes this photograph, its authenticity debated for 60 years, was taken during a re-enactment of the charge staged about five months after the event. Photo: Australian War Memorial.
Image Bottom Right:
Watering horses from a large reservoir after Beersheba was captured
Article written by Rod Margetts
- who is a battlefield tour guide for Boronia Travel Centre.