From: The Duntroon Society Newsletter 1/2020 (April), pp.3-6. Reprinted with permission.

The Way of the Horse—Duntroon

by Richard (R.J.) Lamb (1966)

Now almost forgotten, the horse was a central part of cadets’ lives for over three decades after the RMC commenced in 1911. Some cadets may have entered the College already knowing horses but most would not. All graduated with adequate riding skills, some better than others. They would have gained a solid appreciation of cavalry and mounted infantry, especially those destined for horse units in India as well as Australia.

Although mechanisation was underway during the 1920s, the RMC curriculum continued to give significant time to Cavalry and Riding as two separate subjects, especially third and second classes. By 1939 the writing was on the wall at Duntroon although it was only in 1941 that Cavalry as a subject was withdrawn.

The fifty-four RMC Journals from 1913 to 1968, all now completely digitised and accessible on NLA Trove, give some detailed insights as to how important the horse was. For example, these images from the 1925 Journal indicate the uncertainties that lay ahead by featuring both old ways—the horse—and the new—motor and air.

First, a close look at two unusual RMC cavalry expeditions uncovered by the Journals in 1921 and 1926.

From 1921 a tradition developed for cadets to experience a ‘long distance cavalry treks in rough terrain’ as Major General Legge had put it. Legge, the new RMC Commandant who arrived in June 1920, brought a change in attitude to cadets and horses. The year before, after a bad riding accident, the previous commandant had ordered that cadets could not exceed trotting pace. Legge, a horse squadron commander in the Boer War and with three sons of his own, saw things differently. Along with a more relaxed style with cadets, he brought in the annual cavalry trek which stayed on as a tradition until 1939. Within a few months of his arrival, the annual November 1920 infantry exercise became a horse trek for senior classes.

The next year’s cavalry exercise—November 1921 and nearly a century ago—was a much more adventurous affair and certainly reinforced the horse tradition. After Legge’s abrupt departure in July 1922, the RMC Journal December 1922 says, “... the General will be remembered for his interest in geology and the sporting way in which he organised and led the First Class expedition to Bimberi in 1921 with the object of giving them experience in riding in rough country. This trip was voted the event of the year by those who took part.”

At 58 years old the General led the trek as well. Legge was a unique and private individual, ‘clever but difficult’. He knew young men though—his eldest son was killed on the Western front in 1918, his second son, S.F. Legge (1917), had graduated from the RMC the year before (and characteristically) he brought his third son Eric, aged 18, along with him to Bimberi.

The trek by horse was made in five days through Tharwa, Gudgenby, Orroral, Cotter Gap, the original Oldfields House in upper Cotter, Murrays Gap to the top of Bimberi, probably following the newly marked border and a similar return to the RMC.

Major Nimmo [1] was in charge and there were two groups—a military-civilian staff group and a first class cadet group in cavalry column of about 15 riders, officially on exercise and probably happy to be separated from Commandant Legge. That year five graduated into Light Horse and ten graduated into Infantry. The staff group is shown here in this rare photograph on the Bimberi summit and Legge would have certainly carried his rock pick and sample bag.

Good maps were few with the western ACT border having been surveyed by Mouat only a few years before. A major factor in Territory siting had been the Upper Cotter water catchment. An assessment made in 1910 by the eminent geographer and geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor said, “It is so rugged and far from all settlements that only one or two people have traversed it and the map simply indicates it by a broken line in a perfectly blank strip of territory”. Legge had used Taylor’s expertise for military reports prior to his RMC posting and had invited Griffith Taylor to speak at the RMC three times on geology matters during his short tenure. Legge himself had given a geology lecture to cadets. As a serious amateur geologist, Legge later presented a scientific paper to ANZAAS in 1937 titled The Physiography and Geology of the Federal Capital Territory.

In 1921, while it may have been too early for Bimberi to be a major focal point for the new Territory, it is probable that Legge had this summit in mind with his wider geographic interests. It is some irony that in 1984 the official naming of Namadgi National Park was on Bimberi summit by a helicoptered politician.

In 1926, probably the most ambitious and arduous of all the cadet treks into the mountains, was made over five days in late November. It is described in detail in the RMC Journal 1927 pp. 38–40 with six photos p.18.

It was 28 horses for 19 cadets, being the entire first and second classes, four staff and five packhorses. Day 1 was RMC to Naas, day 2 Orroral to upper Cotter below Bimberi at Cotter (Oldfields) House, day 3 on the upper Cotter to Kangaroo Creek (now Corin Dam wall), day 4 to Smokers Gap and along Gibraltar Creek, Paddys River to Cotter junction, day 5 return to the RMC. The total distance was over 160 km.

Lieutenant Irving, a trek staff member, later Adjutant RMC, reported in the 1927 Journal, “53 miles in the first two days out with each man carrying marching order complete with rifle and sword”. Day 3 was not easy, “… we forded the Cotter 14 times in eight miles” Day 4 was much the same, “… a night march down Paddy’s creek until 2am when the column camped for the night, tired out after 33 miles of going in the roughest of country most of the time making our own trail”. Finally Irving notes, “… under the most trying circumstances, in the most difficult country and in extremely hot weather, there was never a murmur.”

More Journal recollections illustrate the rich variety of cadets activities with horses. For example, the annual RMC Gymkhana was a highly competitive affair including staff with individual and company events such as artillery team driving, tent pegging and jumping. The 1925 Journal records, “In the Balaclava melee Mr Chumleigh headed the Staff team and struck such alarm and dismay into his opponents that his team won without loss ... everyone thought the day a great affair and a very pleasant tea party complete with band was held on the lawns of Duntroon House” (1925).

The Journals observe over many years the activities of hares, hounds and hunts which reinforced cadets’ riding skills. The 1927 RMC Journal for example has a few cadets as hares along Majura Lane followed by a larger hounds pack, “… with the music of the pack in their ears the run across the creek and the fence into the road near the Oval brought the run to an end ... the only hound to catch the hares was George by disobeying the whips and disregarding hunting etiquette”.

The long distance recreational use of the horse is also to be found in various Journals. The RMC Journal 1925 article ‘Canberra’s Seasides’ discusses best ways of getting to the coast and advises “For wet weather and by motor go via Bungendore Braidwood but for those to whom rougher country and change of scenery appeal, horse through Captains Flat is recommended”. The 1929 Journal has an article on a four day Easter Ride by several first class cadets on a circuit of over 160 km. RMC to Carwoola, Foxlow, Captains Flat, across the Tinderry range arriving at Colonel Ryrie’s Micalago at midnight then returning via Tharwa. The author advised “A pack horse was not necessary and the whole show is extraordinarily interesting to a potential cavalryman”.

All horses since 1911 took the initial letter of their name from the surname of the Commandant of the day. So Peter was from Parnell’s time, Hotspur from Colonel Heritage’s time and so on. But numbers were more commonly used. The 1923 Journal in the official College record says, “On 18 August there occurred the tragic end of one of the most faithful of College servants. Though getting on in years he was still very lively and as handsome as ever. He died, as he probably would have wished, suddenly, and in the performance of his duties. There was no post mortem and the body was cremated. We refer to Blackie RMC Horse No 3.” So Blackie was an original from General Bridges’ time.

Graduates have also used the Duntroon Society Newsletter to remember their horse days. An example is R.R. McNicoll (1926) in Newsletter 2/1993 who wrote, “I recall that No 26 had a particularly hard mouth. Not all of us relished our training in horsemanship. I, for one, looked askance at the riding school, where the instructor would give the dreaded order, Quit your stirrups ... then Tar-rot. One had to rise in the saddle as if the feet were in stirrups, using sheer power of thigh muscles. The alternative was an undignified jog, with grave risk of falling off.

Bimberi trig November 1921. General Legge and his son Eric are probably second and far right; Doc Robinson is also in this group. RMC Archives.

First class cadet cavalry group Bimberi trek November 1921. RMC Archives. L. Barham (1921).