‘Farm boys’ honour fallen
As girth straps are tightened and khaki-clad troopers swing into the saddle, bits jingle and leather boots creak, and emu feathers gently froth from the hat bands of felt slouch hats worn proudly by the riders: members of the 10th Light Horse — Esperance Troop.
They are preparing to take part in a ritual that occurs all around Australia on April 25: the Anzac Day Parade.
The Esperance Troop is one of at least 13 re-enactment units established around Australia, and probably the youngest.
Formed in 2016 in time to take part in that year’s Anzac Day Parade, it is no coincidence that most of its members and riding “troopers” are from a farming background.
Like their predecessors in the Middle East in World War I, these farm horses have adapted to their new role as light horse mounts with ease, and the popularity of their inclusion in parades is obvious by the throngs of people around them after the ceremony, keen to take a closer look at the horses and their riders in their authentic Light Horse regalia.
The 10th Light Horse was a WA-based specialised squadron of the armed services, and the Esperance re-enactment group’s members are proud to commemorate its history.
Group president Scott Lawrence said his wife Bianca was the descendent of two light horsemen, with her great-grandfather and great-uncle both members of British regiments, so this aspect of history was “a bit deep to the heart”.
The link to the armed forces was strengthened by the fact that Mr Lawrence’s own grandfather served in the air, as a member of the Royal Air Force.
Mr Lawrence said that farm horses were still ideal light horse mounts. “They are exposed to a lot of different situations on farms; just like the original light horse mounts,” he said. “Their riders often came from farms or worked with horses on the land.”
Mr Lawrence said that like other members of the Esperance troop, he did a lot of cattle work and sheep work with his horses on his family’s property east of Esperance.
According to writer Paul Daley, the light horsemen of Australia were mostly farm boys who had a fantastic ability with horses.
“They understood the land, how to live off it, how to find water. Only the best and brightest and most able physical specimens made the Light Horse,” he wrote.
It is hard for anyone with any association with horses, or any connection with those who served in the Gallipoli campaign where members of the Light Horse fought without their equine partners, to not feel a lump in their throats as they watch the horses and riders walking in memory of those who fought valiantly more than 100 years ago.
This year is a particularly significant year for anyone with an interest in the light horse units from Australia and New Zealand, and those from Britain that also took part in the campaigns in the Middle East in the Great War.
It marks the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, regarded by historians as one of the most significant cavalry charges in history, captured on film in movies like Forty Thousand Horseman.
The Beersheba Charge was the result, according to the Australian Light Horse Association, of an order given to Lt-Gen Sir Harry Chauvel, who commanded the Desert Mounted Corps. He was to capture Beersheba as part of a move intended to breach a line of defence extending inland from Gaza.
During the action, 32 Australians and more than 70 of their horses were killed in the charge, with many casualties subject to attack by a German aircraft.
But the charge was a success in military terms, with Beersheba taken and the light horsemen riding, as they say, into history.
However, it seems that it is only in recent years that the significance of the charge has been appreciated by many Australians.
In his book Beersheba: A Journey Through Australia’s Forgotten War, Daley argues this great victory deserves to be more than a mere footnote to the Anzac legend, and he has explained that the lack of recognition of the bravery of the horsemen at Beersheba can be attributed to a “dark postscript” to the charge itself — the massacre of Arabs and the burning of the village of Surafend, in revenge for the murder of a New Zealand sergeant by an Arab.
While there is never any excuse for such an incident, which involved the death of 137 Arabs, Daley noted the Bedouin had been murdering the Anzacs and spying for the Turks.
After this incident, General Sir Edmond Allenby branded the Australian Light Horsemen cowards and murderers and Daley said the British commander condemned the Australians specifically for this terrible incident and said he'd have no more to do with them.
He also denied them citations and medals on the basis of bad acts by a few men.
According to Daley’s work, the men of the Anzac Mounted Division closed ranks.
No soldiers were ever charged with the murders, the the Australian and New Zealand governments paid the British compensation to rebuild Surafend, and the order was given for the Light Horsemen to remain silent with regard to the incident.
The 2016 Anzac Day ceremonies included the unveiling of a mural in Esperance depicting the Beersheba charge, exposing people walking in Esperance’s main street to a glimpse of one of the “farm boys” and their horses charging, complete with the lone German bomber that inflicted casualties on the 10th Light Horse.
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