The Waler Horse Society of Australia
Horses first arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. They were picked up in Cape Town, South Africa together with other livestock and supplies needed for the new Colony. It is believed the breed of horse was the Cape Horse or Barb, they consisted of one stallion, a colt, three mares and two fillies which travelled to Australia on the ship “Lady Penrhyn”.
Over the next years, horses arrived on many of the ships coming to the colony of New South Wales as it was soon realized the importance horses were going to have in the development of this remote and vast continent.
Some of the breeds to arrive over the years included Thoroughbred, Arab, Suffolk Punch, Clydesdale, Shire, Cleveland Bay, Welsh Cob, Coaching breeds, Hackney, Percheron, Timor Pony and many of the British native ponies.
Horse owners began mixing many of the breeds in an attempt to come up with a strong versatile horse that could fill the bill as a riding horse, cart horse, coach horse and to be put into the plough when needed. A wonderful uniquely Australian horse, which became known as The Waler, evolved - a horse capable of fulfilling all these roles and soon to be sought around the country and subsequently in many other parts of the world.
Because horse breeding was widely successful it was soon realized there was a ready market available with the British army in India , always in need of remounts for their Calvary and for private use. The first shipment of Australian horses left Sydney Cove in 1816 for a private sale to a British family in India . This trade of horses to private owners continued until it became noted around the mid 1830’s by the British army that these horses had the attributes needed for remounts; strong bone, athleticism, courage, intelligence, versatility, excellent temperament, a good riding horse. The lucrative remount trade to India began.
By mid-1840 there was a steady flow of horses leaving our shores for the British Army in India as remounts and eventually into countries of South East Asia and the Pacific. This trade would continue up until the 1960’s and would see well over half a million horses leaving this country as remounts for armies around the world.
The four types of remount horses sought from Australia included:
§ Artillery horse – heavy type with more draft influence used for pulling the gun carriage and carrying ammunition;
§ Officers horse - light type with more Thoroughbred influence;
§ Troopers horse - stocky type, versatile, strong and fast with some draft influence used for carrying a Trooper and his equipment, often weighing upwards of 130kg; and
§ Scout horse – agile pony type used for relaying messages, polo and sporting.
When this Australian utility horse, or bush horse, left Australian shores for India around the 1840’s they became known in India as the "Waler horse” a nickname given to horses arriving from the Colony of New South Wales.
Many of the local princes in India began to seek them for their own private armies, also as sporting and carriage horses. By the 1860’s they were known as the finest Cavalry horses in the world with their courage and stamina unsurpassed.
During the time of the “Great War” 1914-18, once again Australia 's finest men and horses were to prove themselves in the desert sands of Northern Africa against the German and Turkish war machine, this time as the Australian Light Horse. The Australian Light Horse with their New Zealand counter-parts, formed a mounted Infantry Brigade which became known as the famous "Desert Column" - a fighting force that was to become a legend for its courage and horsemanship where it fought the Turkish army in its own playing field and triumphed.
Poems, books and feature films have been made and written about these men and their wonderful Waler horses that stir our national pride. None greater than the last great cavalry charge in history when the Australian Light Horse, after riding in the hot desert sand for two days and a night, was given the order by Lieutenant-General Chauvel to take the wells of Beersheba. To do that, they had to charge over an open plain of three miles (5 km) against the Turkish cannons, machine guns and the German bombs being dropped from overhead planes.
All day the allies had tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the enemy lines. At this time close to sunset, as a last resort the Australian Light Horse Regiment was called upon to try something so out of the ordinary that the Turks were taken by surprise. The Australian Light Horse was mounted infantry. Normally they rode in sections of four, three dismounting to become foot soldiers and take the fight to the enemy and the fourth taking the reigns of the three horses and leading them back to safety, ready to bring them up for the men to mount when needed.
Just before sunset on the 31st October, 1917 the surprise order was given by Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel to mount a cavalry charge against the enemy lines, and take the wells of Beersheba.
The men and horses of the Australian Light Horse lined up in formation of three long lines with their Officers in front, 800 men and horses in total, stretched across the plain facing the enemy in trenches guarding the town of Beersheba. The Light Horse began at a walk, men feeling the moment of battle upon them, itching to get into it and mix it up with old Johnny Turk. Horses were champing at the bit buzzing with anticipation and sensing the excitement of their riders. Down the line came the order to trot still holding formation, the nerves built at what they were about to do dawned on them. The formation reached the point where the Turks expected the order for dismount, holding their fire until the last. Instead, the order was given, “Charge” at the gallop, bayonets drawn, men screaming like banshees with the blood lust of battle. Charging down on an enemy caught so off guard they did not adjust the sight of their rifles or lower the guns. The Light Horse were out numbered 3 to 1, the order had been to secure the wells before nightfall so that the allied army, men and horses could have the water they needed to continue, without these wells the allied army would know defeat.
Against all odds these brave men and horses secured the wells, over 100,000 allied men and horses quenched their thirst that night. This is the legend of Beersheba and the men of the Australian Light Horse and their much-loved Walers.
For three long years the battles raged in the desert and the Light Horse was there when the allied forces triumphed and the battle in northern Africa was won. Many of the Light Horsemen and their courageous horses continued on, going with the men to the battle fields of France where the allied army were battling the Germans in mud and slush, their job to carry supplies, the wounded, the big artillery guns, and ammunition to our allied forces in this dreadful war.
At the end of the war when we were celebrating our victory and there was much jubilation the order was given that the horses would not be returning to Australian shores. The reason being the expense was too great to bring them home as well as our quarantine restrictions in Australia made it virtually impossible. Australia being a continent surrounded by water was free from many of the equine diseases found in many other countries, it was felt the chance could not be taken to bring them back from the Middle East. This was very distressing to the men who had come to know their beloved horses as mates, they had fought this war together, relying on each other. There were 12,000 Waler horses left at the end of the War of the 160,000 that had left Australia . Some horses were too old and battle weary and the order was to shoot them for humane reasons. The soldiers were heart broken to leave their horses behind on foreign shores to a life of hardship in Egypt and felt this was not on, so many of the men defied orders and quietly shot their horse, the officers sympathetic to the action turned a blind eye. Others were bought by the Indian army and would return to India , some were bought by the British army and British Officers and taken back to the British Isles.
The Last Parade
Andrew Barton "Banjo"Paterson
With never a sound of trumpet,
With never a flag displayed,
The last of the old campaigners
Lined up for the last parade.
Weary they were and battered,
Shoeless, and knocked about;
From under their ragged forelocks
Their hungry eyes looked out.
And they watched as the old commander
Read out to the cheering men
The Nation's thanks, and the orders
To carry them home again.
And the last of the old campaigners,
Sinewy, lean, and spare --
He spoke for his hungry comrades:
"Have we not done our share?
"Starving and tired and thirsty
We limped on the blazing plain;
And after a long night's picket
You saddled us up again.
"We froze on the windswept kopjes
When the frost lay snowy-white,
Never a halt in the daytime,
Never a rest at night!
"We knew when the rifles rattled
From the hillside bare and brown,
And over our weary shoulders
We felt warm blood run down,
"As we turned for the stretching gallop,
Crushed to the earth with weight;
But we carried our riders through it --
Sometimes, perhaps, too late.
"Steel! We were steel to stand it --
We that have lasted through,
We that are old campaigners
Pitiful, poor, and few.
"Over the sea you brought us,
Over the leagues of foam:
Now we have served you fairly
Will you not take us home?
"Home to the Hunter River,
To the flats where the lucerne grows;
Home where the Murrumbidgee
Runs white with the melted snows.
"This is a small thing, surely!
Will not you give command
That the last of the old campaigners
Go back to their native land?"
They looked at the grim commander,
But never a sign he made.
"Dismiss!" and the old campaigners
Moved off from their last parade.
Lest we forget those who also served.