David Holloway’s Speech
ANZAC Day 2017 – Queenscliff
About this time one hundred years ago, things were pretty grim. The Gallipoli campaign had finished. More than 8000 Australian boys would never return from there. Most who survived had been sent to the Western Front. By the middle of 1917 thousands of them had also been killed or wounded.
Where, when, would a victory come? How would it come about?
[It would come at a place called Beersheba.]
Only the Light Horse remained in Egypt where they continued the boring work of defending the Suez Canal.
Many Light Horsemen, fearing they would miss out on real fighting, volunteered for service in France. For example, the 4th Light Horse Regiment’s Rupert “Mickey” Moon transferred to the 58th Battalion. For his bravery near Bullecourt, France, in May 1917 he was awarded a Victoria Cross. After the war, he lived down this way, first at Mt Duneed, then later at Barwon Heads. He died in 1986 and is buried in the Mt Duneed cemetery. Others joined the artillery or transferred into the Australian Flying Corps.
Most of those horsemen who remained in Egypt gradually began the slow push eastward across Egypt’s unforgiving Sinai Desert.
In August 1916 Turks near Romani, about thirty kilometres east of the Canal, were surprised by the 1st Light Horse Brigade. Despite their superior numbers they were defeated as more Australians arrived.
Later in the year, Major General Harry Chauvel was given command of the newly created Desert Column as it continued its eastward push beyond El Arish to Magdhaba, near the Palestine border. Early in 1917 the enemy stronghold at Rafa was also taken.
By now it was obvious that more mounted troops were needed. The 11th and 12th regiments were joined by the 4th regiment to form the 4th Light Horse Brigade.
The next target was Gaza, on the coast just over the border. The Desert Column would encircle the town while British infantry attacked from the south.
As it turned out enemy trenches and thick cactus hedges slowed the infantry. The commander of the attacking force, Englishman, Lieutenant-General Sir Phillip Chetwode, ordered mounted troops from the screening force to attack from the north.
These horsemen were also held up, although by nightfall they had achieved their objectives. Ottoman reinforcements from the north were beginning to make their presence felt. Chetwode called for a withdrawal, to the disgust of the horsemen who believed they had taken the town. They blamed poor British understanding at command level for turning virtual success into undeserved defeat; incidentally at the cost of 3000 infantry casualties.
Enthused by their apparent victory the Turks strengthened and widened their defences. Meanwhile, the commander of all Allied Forces in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Murray, had sent a misleading telegram to London suggesting that advances had been made. He was therefore encouraged to order another attack.
Three British infantry divisions would make that attack. Mounted troops would guard the approaches from the east. Tanks would be employed, although in the event they were all quickly knocked out. The attack that began on 18th April 1917, was a complete failure.
Murray was replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby, “The Bull”, renowned for his quick temper. He moved the headquarters from Cairo to much nearer Gaza, dissolved the old formation, created two infantry Corps, and made the Desert Column entirely mounted – it was now renamed the Desert Mounted Corps.
Importantly, Allenby went out to visit his troops. One 4th Light Horseman I knew well recalled that although they had never seen Murray, they saw the new General often.
Allenby decided against a third Gaza, instead focussing on Beersheba, 50 kilometres inland to the east. It would not be a quick thrust, but a carefully prepared attack following a build-up of supplies, and with sufficient water points along the way.
After a diversionary bombardment of Gaza an infantry attack on Beersheba and its wells went in from the west on the night of the 30th October. At the same time, mounted troops made a swift encircling advance from the east. By mid-afternoon on the 31st the infantry had achieved its objectives despite suffering 1100 casualties.
Meanwhile, after a long approach march, New Zealand Mounted Rifles and Australian Light Horse were in position early on the 31st, given the important task of clearing Tel el Saba, a feature dominating the south-eastern approaches. With only limited support available from the British Horse Artillery these horsemen were involved in a slow slog that only cleared the hill by about 3.00 pm.
Now only the 4th Light Horse Brigade and a British mounted brigade further away were available for any new attack. All Chauvel’s other troops, were busy encircling the enemy defences.
It was too late in the day for a dismounted attack, but since it was known that the trenches to the south-east were incomplete and had no barbed wire, Chauvel, after consultation with a number of senior officers, ordered Brigadier-General William Grant’s 4th Light Horse Brigade to charge.
With his regiments scattered to prevent casualties from air attack, it took Grant some time to gather the 4th and the 12th. The 11th was too far away to take part. With the “W” Road as the centre line, the 4th on its right and the 12th on its left, from a distance of perhaps four kilometres the advance began: a walk, a trot, then, with rifles slung over their shoulders, bayonets in hand; at last a gallop.
In each regiment the leading squadrons charged in line abreast. English Horse Artillery here provided wonderful support. As the first Australians cleared the trench line, spurred on by the jabbing, thrusting bayonets of the enemy beneath them, each then dismounted and set to work with their own bayonets. The following squadrons joined them before surging into the town itself, saving the wells from enemy destruction and capturing many fleeing Turks.
The attack was a complete success, very much helped by fading light, dust and poor enemy fire discipline that gave way to panic as the horsemen did not dismount in their usual way, but galloped on. Above all the charge succeeded because there was no enemy wire.
Casualties were few. The 4th lost only nine killed and two others who died later, whilst the 12th lost just over twenty.
Amongst those who were lost, some should never have ridden that day.
The 4th’s Randolph Cleaver, a 1914 original, had applied for compassionate leave to return home to see his seriously ill father. He included a letter from his sister about his father’s condition. Unfortunately, her letter also referred to a comment Randolph had made earlier about suspicions that one or two officers were intercepting parcels intended for the men and keeping them for themselves. His request for leave was turned down!
Those of you who found an Anzac Day flyer in your letter box will have seen in it a photo of Randolph, the suave-looking young butcher from Sale.
There is no glory in war. Amongst those who died in those trenches some were probably shot by enemy soldiers who had already surrendered. The 12th regiment’s Trooper “Tibby” Cotter, a stretcher bearer better known as an Australian test cricket fast bowler, the Dennis Lillee of his day, was shot at close range while attending to the wounded, apparently by a Turk who had previously surrendered,
Sad also was the death of a great Light Horse leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Maygar, VC, former second in command of the 4th, and now Commanding Officer of the 8th, who was struck by an enemy bomb dropped from an aeroplane, that severely wounded him and caused his horse to bolt. He was found that night covered in blood and died from that loss next day, mourned by many, including the men from his old regiment.
That night Beersheba was in Allied hands. The enormity of the success could be measured by the decorations awarded. There were three DSOs, two MCs, two DCMs and seven MMs; as historian Ian Jones dryly remarked: “Not the sort of gongs you get for just being there”.
After Beersheba, a renewed attack quickly took Gaza and by Christmas, Jerusalem had fallen. From now on infantry and mounted troops pushed northward. Broadly speaking, success followed success, with occasional delays and minor setbacks. For example, raids across the river Jordan towards Es Salt and Amman were largely unsuccessful.
During March, 1918, British infantry was withdrawn and sent to France, replaced by relatively inexperienced Indian cavalry. The Camel Corps was disbanded and from amongst its men the 14th and 15th Light Horse regiments were created.
Allenby now planned for a new offensive. That push northward was held up by all this reorganizing. On 19th September, the advance did begin, and with great success. Semakh on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee fell on the 25th. By the end of the month, Damascus was in Allied hands, the 10th Light Horse having been first to accept its surrender.
A day or two afterwards Hejaz Arabs had arrived. At about that time, according to family folklore, a young 4th Light Horseman, Les Langtip from Port Albert, observed a strangely dressed British officer haranguing and mistreating Turkish prisoners who were clearly unwell and unable to protect themselves. Calling on the officer to stop, Les was ignored, so he took matters into his own hands and promptly punched the Englishman on the nose; after all, Les had never heard of Lawrence of Arabia!
Within a few weeks, the war in the Middle East was at an end and following a delay in Egypt to put down a brief uprising, the Australians were on their way home.
Before concluding I must mention the horses, those uncomplaining steeds that carried the men we have heard about across those miles and miles of demanding country. Contrary to popular belief most were not shot by their riders. Rather, the Veterinary Corps, so often responsible for their well-being, was now called upon to grade them according to their condition – A, B. C, & D. The Cs and Ds were destroyed as unfit for further use. The As and Bs were sold to Indian and British cavalry units for continuing service. The one point all were adamant about was that the beloved Walers were not to fall into Egyptian hands that had so often been observed to maltreat animals of all sorts, particularly horses.
In conclusion, might I quote historian Bill Gammage:
The fierce individualism with which he fought Turks, Arabs and English staff officers lay close to the heart of the Australian light horseman. He lived under few restraints, and was equally careless of man, God, and nature. Yet he stood by his own standards firmly, remaining brave in battle, loyal to his mates, generous to the Turks, and pledged to his King and country. His speech betrayed few of his enthusiasms, and he accepted success and failure equally without demonstration, but the confident dash of the horseman combined with the practical resource and equanimity of the bushman in him, and moved him alike over the wilderness of Sinai and the hills of the Holy Land. Probably his kind will not be seen again, for the conditions of war and peace and romance that produced him have almost entirely disappeared.