In memory of Bill of the Sixth Light Horse Regiment 

1914 – 24  Aged  21: One of the Best

by Anne Flood

This is the epitaph engraved on a headstone surmounting a lonely grave under the shadow of Walker’s Ridge at Gallipoli. “Bill” was a horse – just not an ‘ordinary’ horse but quite extraordinary and the ‘stuff’ that legends are made of. 

Roland Perry tells the story of this fractious Waler – one of Australia’s greatest war horses – in his book “Bill the Bastard”. Bill left Sydney on board a troop ship: his minder was Banjo Paterson who served as an honorary vet on the troopship and even Banjo, who was an experienced horseman, was cautious of Bill. On reaching Alexandria the horses were unloaded and entrained to Maadi East of the Nile River near Cairo. After a spell, the troopers were reunited with their horses – not that Bill would belong to any one trooper – he unceremoniously bucked off any man who attempted to ride him.

 

“On 17 April it was announced that the Infantry forces would be going into action on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Light Horse Brigades were not included as the rugged terrain was deemed unsuitable for mounted infantry. It was bitter news for the Light Horse Brigade. Chauvel and Godley immediately organized manoeuvres - they did not want to allow their men time to dwell on their disappointment.

 

Within a week of the Gallipoli landing the 1st Australian Division had lost over half of their numbers. Reinforcements were urgently required. Lieutenant–General Sir William Birdwood requested a force of 1000 volunteers from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles that were located in Egypt. Colonel Chauvel and Colonel H.R. Russell, (C.O. New Zealand Mounted Rifles) strongly opposed asking for volunteers. Chauvel had witnessed firsthand the effect of the breakup of Australian units in the Boer War and was determined not to allow it to happen again. Chauvel consulted with Lieutenant General Sir John Maxwell who countermanded the order. The Light Horsemen were headed for long-awaited action, fighting not as mounted riflemen, but as Infantry on the now bloody slopes of Gallipoli.” [1]

 

Serving dismounted as back-up infantry the Light Horse and NZ Mounted Rifles landed at Gallipoli from 12th May onwards. Chauvel had organised a small group of horses and mules that could serve as packhorses and to carry injured men. Bill’s strength and endurance and ability to be cool amid constant shell and rifle fire meant that he was ideal for these duties.  

 

Perry relates: “Bill worked tirelessly carrying loads up and wounded or fallen soldiers down the steep and twisting tracks ... men and animals showing as much courage as they moved up the [Monash] valley retrieving the fallen ... everybody noticed Bill in particular, along with a gritty yet always cheery Englishman John Simpson and his small donkey. But ... on the day Simpson’s luck ran out ... a spray of shrapnel hit Simpson and his animal. Without a second thought, his limp body was placed on Bill and hurried away ... This wonderful and inspiring combination of fearless man and beast would no longer come to the aid of hurt comrades ” [2]   

 

A strategic gain in the August offensive was the capture of the lower slopes of Sazli Beit Dere by the New Zealand Battalions, more than tripling the ground held by the ANZACS.  The British Line now extended from Suvla Bay at the North to Gaba Tepe and Anzac Cove.

 

Each day a rider would carry mail and urgent dispatches from Suvla seven kilometres to British Headquarters. Turkish snipers on the ridges overlooking the beach would snipe at the riders. “It [the mail delivery] had to be done at a gallop” Chauvel wrote to his wife.  “The rider was fired at from the moment he left the shelter at Lala Baba until he reached the wide communication trench near Anzac. All the Australian Light horsemen, New Zealand Mounted Riflemen and the British Yeomanry [cavalry] were tumbling over each other to get the job.” [3]