ANZAC Day – a time for reflection. This year RDA (Riding for the Disabled) Daylesford laid a wreath at the cenotaph in Daylesford in memory of those who served and their horses.
It’s commonly believed that the Australian Light Horse shot all their horses at the end of World War 1 to prevent them falling into Egyptian hands. But…did that happen? Were the horses shot? Or is it a myth?
The Australian Light Horse was a skilled formation of mounted infantry of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who mostly served in Egypt and the Middle East during the First World War and consisted of many young men from rural areas who had the necessary skills to pass a riding test upon enlisting. Apparently the light horsemen generally fought dismounted. They rode their horses to a battlefield where they engaged the enemy on foot and then left on horseback when disengaging. They rode in sections of four, with one soldier holding the reins of all four horses whilst the other three in the section dismounted and went forward to fight on foot. An exception to this way of fighting was the Battle of Beersheba where the light horsemen rode in with their bayonets (DVA (Department of Veterans’ Affairs) (2021), Australian Light Horse in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 April 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/australian-imperial-force/australian-light-horse).
Over 120,000 horses were exported from Australia during World War 1. 82,000 were sold to the British Indian Army. 10,000 went to France with the infantry in 1916. 29,348 horses went to the Middle East to be used by the AIF and British Imperial Army. At the end of the war, Australians in the Middle East had 9,751 horses of all types including heavy draught horses and the Australian bred Walers.
Horses were unable to be returned to Australia after the War partly because of the risk of disease but primarily because the cost of returning them outweighed their value. (Horse welfare was probably also a factor in the decision as the Australians were well known for their love of their horses. On their arrival in Europe and the Middle East, many horses couldn’t be ridden for weeks because the six week trip in the hold of a transport ship had seriously weakened them.) The Australian horses that remained in Europe were sold to locals to recoup costs for the AIF. There was however, strong opposition to selling horses in the Middle East based on welfare issues.
In early 1919 the Australian government decided that horses in the Middle East would be classified according to age and fitness. The older or unfit horses were to be killed. Veterinary officers assessed the horses and in February 1919 all riding horses over 12 years old, all draught horses over 15 years old, all unsound horses and all those requiring more than two months treatment were to be shot. Their manes and tails were shorn (horse hair was valuable) shoes removed and the horses were taken to spots near their camps where working parties under the command of a veterinary officer shot them. The horses were then gutted and their skins salted (skins also had a monetary value). 3,059 horses were killed in this way. The younger fit horses of the Australian Mounted Division were given to the Indian 4th and 5th Calvary divisions and the remaining riding horses were given as remounts to other Imperial Army Units. The medium and heavy draught horses were shipped to France and sold (https://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/44/page54_bou)
Apparently only 250 horses were destroyed by their riders without permission. The riders feared that their horses would be mistreated if sold locally. Only one horse returned to Australia from World War 1 – Sandy who was owned Major General William Bridges, Commander of the Australian 1st Division who died of wounds received at Gallipoli. Sandy’s head is on display at the Australian War Memorial. Perhaps these horses are the origin of the myth that all horses were killed.
It is worth noting that the end for the horses that served in World War 1 mirrors the fate of other animals that have been used in wartime by Australia. Quarantine regulations mean that these animals are not returned home. At the end of World War 2 thousands of carrier pigeons used in New Guinea were euthanized. Tracker dogs used in Vietnam were also unable to return due to quarantine requirements and were rehomed in Vietnam (https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/horses-end-wwi#:~:text=Those%20not%20fit%20for%20further,Army%20and%20the%20Finnish%20Army.
Lesley Hewitt is a member of the RDA Daylesford Committee and a coach and life member of RDA Victoria. She is also a Councillor for Birch Ward.