The secret weapon in the Desert War, 1916-1918

'Every man could speak of a moment when their trusty mount saved their lives.’ Roland Perry, author, explains the crucial role of the mighty Waler in the Middle East during World War 1.

Australian Light HorseAustralian General Sir Harry Chauvel (KCB, Gazette issue 31395), Commander of the British Desert Mounted Column, and his 33,000 strong cavalry, defeated two Turkish armies from Cairo to Damascus and beyond in the Middle East War of 1916 to 1918.

At the same time, T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, CB, Gazette supplement 30222) and the Arabs held and harassed one Turkish army in their forts on the Hejaz Railway, running from Arabia to Syria. Having defeated these two enemy armies, Chauvel and his horsemen swept across the Jordan Valley and helped Lawrence and company put that third Turkish army asunder.

The hardy Waler

Chauvel’s secret weapon was the ancient vehicle of battle going back thousands of years: the horse. In particular, it was the Waler, a term derived from New South Wales, when the breed was scattered and developed all over Australia. The Waler stood from 12 to 19 hands, usually in the range 14 to 16 hands, and weighed between 300kg and 750kg, sometimes more. They were originally sired by English thoroughbreds from breeding mares that were often partly draught horse.

Over the generations, from about the 1820s, the Waler had the benefit of genetic input from the Welsh pony, Timor pony and Brumby. Arab stallions were in there, too, from the middle of the 19th century. Veterinary scientist and breeding expert, Dr Ian Parsonson, described the breed as ‘strong-boned, with fine, clean legs and neck, short backs, long barrels and broad head’. 

Walers were versatile, hardy animals, developed to withstand the rigours of Australia’s vast, semi-desert regions. Stockmen could muster cattle or round up sheep all day and then turn the horse loose at night to do its own thing. There was no need to corral or stable them against predators or the elements. They could live rough by night and do civilised rural jobs by day. As long as the Waler was looked after with food and water, its stamina was near limitless. What the breed lacked aesthetics it made up for it in spirit, courage, sharpness and dependability.  

Since 1830, the British army in India had provided a substantial export market for the Waler. Thousands had been used in the Boer War in 1899 to 1901. In that conflict the troopers had to bring their own mounts. Many did in the Great War also, but most (more than 150,000) were rounded up and branded by the army and then ‘broken’ (although not made actually battle ready) before being sent to the Middle East.

Only packhorses were used on Gallipoli in 1915, because the terrain was impossible for any battle horse . But when the troopers returned to Egypt after that ignominious campaign, and regained the use of their steeds, the entire complexion of the war against the Turks changed.

The Walers could travel with 130 kilograms up to 80 kilometres in a day, and they could last as much as 65 hours without water. By comparison, the British army soldiers on foot could manage only 8 kilometres, and even then the heat was too much for many of them. From 1916, the Anzac so-called Light Horse Regiments (troopers with rifles and bayonets) became the dominant force, and made up 75 per cent of the Desert Mounted Column, which took on the Turkish Armies. They were ably supported by British cavalry 15 per cent, and various other horse forces, such as Indian Lancers and a Jewish cavalry.

The prime example of how effective the horses were came late in the war, in September 1918, when the Desert Column swept across the plains of Northern Palestine and Syria, catching armies, opposition cavalry and car convoys alike by surprise and beating them in scores of battles and charges. Previously, on 4 August 1916, under the brilliant command of Chauvel, 1,500 Lighthorsemen took on an advancing Turkish Army of 25,000 at Romani on the Sinai desert’s Mediterranean coast. The general’s masterful deployment of trooper and horse held the Turks back. Had the enemy broken through at Romani, Egypt, then under British control, would have fallen. Instead, the Turks retreated and were pursued by the Anzacs out of Sinai and into Palestine.

Major Shanahan and 'Bill the Bastard'

The Romani Battle was notable for the single most heroic performance of both trooper and horse in the entire war. In the heat of the fighting, four Tasmanians had their mounts shot from beneath them. Major Michael Shanahan (DSO, Gazette supplement 29837) galloped in on the big, brave horse, nicknamed ‘Bill the Bastard’. Shanahan ordered all the stranded troopers up and on to Bill, who then carried the five men out of the danger zone under fire. 

After dropping off the four troopers, Shanahan took his mount back into the fray. The major was shot in the thigh, but kept on fighting the Turks with Bill until dawn, when Shanahan collapsed. This mighty mount then carried his trooper back to Romani for medical treatment. Shanahan soon afterwards had the injured leg amputated. Bill’s reward for gallantry was to be retired from battle forever.

Another notable instance of many triumphs was the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917, when 800 Light Horse charged the guns of 4,500 entrenched Turks and achieved an overwhelming victory (General Sir Edmund Allenby’s despatch, Gazette supplement 30492).

A key to the highly successful predominantly Mounted Column was the strong bond between trooper and horse. Every man could speak of a moment when their trusty mount saved their lives. There were many occasions when horses stopped in their tracks, literally, when danger lay ahead. It may have been a deep ravine that troopers could not see in the dark. There may have been an ambush of enemy soldiers hidden ahead. Then there were heroic examples of the horse trotting (but not galloping) wounded and unconscious troopers, back to base (as with Shanahan and Bill), again saving their lives.

About the author

Roland Perry is a bestselling author and recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to literature. He was awarded the Fellowship of Australian Writers' Melbourne University Publishing Award in 2004 and is a fellow and professor at Monash University, Melbourne.

(Image: Australian War Memorial)