The Horse’s Mouth


Oz Sports History



The ‘walers’ as per our previous article gave as magnificent service in later wartime as they gave to the early settlers.
Despite some belief that the standards of the Australian horse was deteriorating, the various colonies (soon-to-be states) contributed nearly 16,500 horses to mount the Mounted Rifles, Lancers, Bushmen and Commonwealth Horse Brigades in the Boer or South African War of 1899-1902, the first conflict in which Australian horses were involved.
The type of horse that the colonies sought were those of sound conformation and capable of carrying between sixteen and twenty stone in weight, day after day.
The standards for each colony differed - but perhaps those of South Australia were typical - no greys or horses of mixed colour (they were considered to susceptible to sunburn in the harsh African climate), under 16 hands as taller horses were though likely to develop back problems with the weight they were likely to carry, and no unbroken youngsters, authorities considering the five or six weeks required in training them up to a manageable standard not worthwhile.
Generally the Australian troops earned a reputation for indiscipline and recklessness, but the horses were considered the finest in the conflict, one unit travelling an estimated 4,000 miles - including a forced night march of 75 miles - with little loss or impact on their horses.
It was the First World War (we should use the term ‘Great War’ as no-one at the time considered that should a blood-bath could ever be repeated) that the ‘whaler’ proved its immeasurable worth in conflict.
Some 330,000 servicemen and women embarked for overseas and (almost) invariably had their names recorded on nominal and embarkation rolls.
Sadly, no one recorded the names of around 120,000 horses that were sent overseas, some 39,000 to the A.I.F., and the rest primarily to the Indian Calvary. (Note these figures are based on the Official History of the War - parts of the Australia War Memorial history section suggests 136,000).
Many of those men that enlisted in the early Horse Regiments brought their own horses, for which they were paid an average £16, or just over two months' pay for a Private), and both they and others that were allocated other horses formed strong bonds with their animals - horseman that had found a brave and reliable mount were reluctant to have their horse removed from service and perhaps re-allocated to another serviceman and went to extreme lengths to ensure the best of care - others, unfortunate to draw a bad-tempered steed perhaps did their best to unload their burden onto some other unfortunate!
Soon after the outbreak of war, the British and Indian governments requested Australia place an embargo on the export of horses suitable for military use - the ban was dutifully imposed, but when it became known that the King of Siam had purchased 126 horses which were awaiting shipment, the Indians requested the ban be lifter, but Australian authorities stood firm and the horses remained in Australia.
Thousands of horses accompanied the first troops embarking from Australia in 1914 - originally both men and animals were bound for France and Belgium, but with the British decision to attack the soft under-belly of Turkey through the Dardanelles Peninsular and particularly at Gallipoli, few horses were actually engaged in areas of war until early 1916 when Australian, British and Indian troops went into action in Palestine and the Sinai Valley to protect the Suez Canal from a perceived threat from the Turkish and German forces.
From that point, many of the Australian forces remained in service without more than a day or twos break until the end of hostilities in November, 1918.
Most horse and men were carried overseas on converted passenger liners requisitioned by the Australian Government, and these ships had to be completely re-fitted; horse stalls provided, hospital wards and latrines, troop decks, sleeping quarters canteens, ammunition magazines all installed.
In many cases, the entire passenger accommodation had to be ripped out, but with a well-planned and high level of standardisation combined with experience on the first ships the conversion became a stream-lined process - the liner Desmontheses was prepared to carry 1,500 troops in just 60 hours, the smaller Palermo 400 horses and 100 men in 53 hours.
Given the crowded conditions on board and an environment totally foreign to most animals, there were surprisingly few losses in transporting horses 6 until May,1915 when HMAT Palermo carrying reinforcements for the 7 Light Horse Regiment ran into a storm and 120 horses died.  The Department of Defence ordered other ships in transit to India and suspended shipments to Egypt for the duration of the monsoon season, anticipated to be November.
In fact, no further horses were transported to Egypt until early 1916 when British authorities requested another 8,800 be sent.
The first shipment of just over 3,000 arrived in May, but to the consternation of the Defence Department, concerns were raised over the quality of the animals and the remaining horses were again sent to India.
This was the last major shipment to Egypt, authorities deciding that the horse transports would contribute more to the war effort by shipping wheat to England. Because of the distance and resultant extended travelling time, no Australian horses were ever sent to England.
One could be excused for thinking that horses subjected to the rigours of desert warfare and restricted care would have been at the end of their tether - but in fact, the extreme opposite proved true!
Race meetings continued in Cairo during the war - mainly contested by local thoroughbreds and a few English horses that for various reasons been withdrawn from the field of battle.  
The first “”open” meeting was a Victory celebration in May, 1919 - and the supposedly war-torn and burnt-out Australian horses won five f the six races, and were then “”relegated”” to a class of their own as the local and English dignitaries realised their somewhat
Old War Horses