The Australian Light Horse has a unique place within the wider ANZAC legend. The mounted regiments of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the First World War became renowned for their hard-riding and courage in battle. Many considered them the military embodiment of the best characteristics of the Australian bushmen. But the light horse had existed for more than a decade before that. Regiments had been created following Federation, and most of these had their roots in the colonial part-time mounted units, with colourful names like New South Wales Lancers, Queensland Mounted Infantry, Victorian Mounted Rifles, or Western Australian Mounted Infantry, that had fought in the Boer War.
Australians saw their light horsemen as an elite. Even in drab wartime dress there was an air of dash and glamour about them. In stereotype at least, they combined the qualities of the rural pioneer with those of the natural soldier. There was perhaps some substance to this romantic view. Drawn heavily from the country towns and properties, where ownership of a horse and the ability to ride demonstrated that a man was both fit and solvent, light horsemen were considered to possess hardiness, independence, and initiative.
The slouch hat adorned with emu plumes became the symbol of the light horse. Most regiments wore it
that way. One trooper later wrote in Egypt in 1918: “On leave the Light Horseman is smartly dressed;
but even in Cairo he has a wonderful love of his trusty hat, which never looks new, and is never by any
chance turned up at the side.”1 In other respects the uniform was not much different from what the infantry wore. What made them distinctive, beyond the emu feathers, was their spurs, polished leather leggings, belts, and accoutrements, including a bandolier.
The light horse was not meant to fight from horseback with sword or lance as cavalry did. The light horseman’s mount gave him mobility, but in action he would dismount to fight on foot; in battle one man in four was usually required to be a horseholder. A light horse regiment was not nearly as strong as a battalion of infantry, and a troop had nothing like the firepower of a platoon. On the other hand, it was a highly mobile and flexible force, could travel distances, and also do some of the work traditionally given to cavalry, including patrolling, reconnaissance, and screening the main force.
By war’s end the light horse had grown to a formidable force. In 1914 Australia had offered troops to assist Britain. This included a division of infantry and one brigade of light horse, all specially raised from volunteers. Within weeks it was announced that the contribution would be expanded and a further mounted brigade was formed as well as a third one by October. Eventually there were five AIF light horse brigades forming the larger part of two mounted divisions; the infantry meanwhile was expanded to five divisions.
Colonel Harry Chauvel was given command of the original 1st Light Horse Brigade. He would soon become the most famous light horseman of all. Chauvel had a long association with the bush and the military. As a young man he was an officer in a part-time mounted unit raised by his father at Tabulam, New South Wales. Later, when the family moved to Queensland, he took up a commission in the Queensland Mounted Infantry. In 1896 he transferred to the permanent forces. A few years later he went with the first troops of the Queensland Mounted Infantry to the Boer War, and in 1902 he commanded a battalion of the Australian
Chauvel was small and wiry, and possessed strong powers of command. He was also without vanity
or any flamboyance. In contrast, some of the other leaders of the light horse brigades were noted for
their colour and unorthodoxy. Their nicknames reveal something of the characters of men like Charles Cox
(“Fighting Charlie”), Granville Ryrie (“Bull”) and the popular South African, Jack Royston (“Galloping
Jack”). These were not text-book generals, and they left a lot of work to their staff and regimental leaders.
But mostly they combined good horsemanship, with courage under fire, dash, and leadership. Some became
heroes to their men.
The first-raised light horse regiments had expected to be sent to Europe but got no further than Egypt. They did not accompany the infantry to take part in the famous Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. For a while they thought they had been side-lined. They were soon needed, however, so they went without their horses to serve in the trenches. When, after the Gallipoli campaign the infantry went off to the Western Front, it seemed once again that the light horse had been left behind. But in the forthcoming Middle East operations across desert, mountains, and plains, endurance and mobility became essential. The light horse soon proved invaluable in the Sinai and in the later advance into Palestine and Syria.
In 1916 the three light horse brigades (each of three regiments) were placed with the brigade of New Zealand Mounted Rifles to form the ANZAC Mounted Division and put under Chauvel. Next year a further division, the Imperial Mounted Division, was formed by taking the 3rd Brigade and adding the reformed 4th Brigade. In June it was renamed the Australian Mounted Division. When the 5th Brigade was created in 1918, largely from Australians from the former Imperial Camel Corps, it too was included.
While the Gallipoli veterans among them could well call themselves “ANZACs”, the light horse generally did not use the more popular Australian soldiers’ description of “digger” that belonged to the troops fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. Instead they often called each other by the everyman’s sobriquet, “billjim”. Unlike the other names, this did not survive long into peacetime.
The Australians fought their first big mounted action at Romani; then they advanced beyond the desert of the Sinai. By mid-1917 the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was anxious for success in Palestine. He appointed General Sir Edmund “Bull” Allenby to take over from General Murray, who had suffered two reverses at Gaza. Allenby, a cavalryman, had earlier worked with some of the Australians in the Boer War. Shifting reluctantly to the Middle East, from June 1917 he took over the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and quickly stamped his authority on it.