Peace at last – Christmas 1918
by John Boyce
How were the troops occupying their time now?
The Great War was over, so during November and December 1918 the 1914 Originals, who had been awarded “Anzac leave”, were now repatriated home to Australia (Note 1). But the rest of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), including the Light Horse, were still overseas for yet another Christmas, awaiting shipping home some time later next year……
The Australian Light Horse had moved to the coastal camps of Palestine, at Tripoli and on the Philistine plains (Note 2). There, they would rest and recover from the exertions of the Great Ride to Damascus. Worn out, and therefore more susceptible to disease, they would also have to battle against bouts of malaria contracted in the Jordan valley and during that famous sweep across Palestine and beyond, and – even worse – they would now battle the onset of the Influenza epidemic (a terrible worldwide problem that was first encountered by these Lighthorsemen amongst Turkish soldiers in the Damascus hospitals). It was later to become known as the Spanish Flu pandemic. There were frequent medical reports of Australian troops hospitalised at year’s end for repeated bouts of malaria, as well as the dreaded bronchio-pneumonia (which hospitalized Major Rankin of 4th LH Regt for a full week, and killed the CO of 8th LH Regiment Lieutenant Colonel McLaurin on 23 Nov - Note 3). During the conflict, many troopers had made light of their injuries and carried on despite illnesses, so that they would not let their mates down. Now it was over, they came forward to seek delayed medical treatment (Note 4).
The weather had turned In late November……some Australian Mounted Division’s camps at Tripoli were moved to higher ground, after the onset of heavy winter rains and bitter winds blowing from the mountains (Note 5).
How were the troops occupying their time now?
There was always the daily need for watering, grooming and exercising the horses. Reinforcements were arriving still (for example 9 officers and 140 men arrived at 8th LH Regiment on 23 November – Note 6) helping boost the manpower for tasks around the camps. Proper cookhouse were constructed. Captured weapons and equipment were sorted and returned. Fitness and military training continued, including sword handling exercises. There were inspections by senior officers, requiring special attention to saddlery and metalwork (Note 7).
Photographer Frank Hurley recorded for posterity each unit in turn, squadron by squadron (Note 8).
Well-deserved promotions and the award of medals and decorations began to flow through in mid-November. The officers and staff had been busy completing considerable amounts of paperwork.
Private (Reverend) A S Taylor, of the Field Ambulance, 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade, who was assistant priest at the Brigade service on Christmas morning, 1918, standing next to the altar covered in the Union Jack, in the ruins of the old Christian Basilica.
For Christmas 1918, the 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade held their Christmas morning church service in an ancient basilica at Baalbek in Lebanon. The steps once led to the Temple of Baal, and later were used for the Apse of the Christian Basilica. The men stood on the old Pantheon court floor level, facing the site of the Christian altar, of the 4th century. This service was the first held there for at least one thousand three hundred years.
To help occupy the troops, there were sports events and a football ground was laid out. For example, a combined 9th/10th LH Regiments team played the rest of 3rd Brigade on 17 Dec, and on 20 Dec the Other Ranks of 8th LH Regiment defeated the Officers & Sergeants team (Note 9). Classes were held (in leatherwork, farrier skills, rope-splicing, book-keeping, languages) and lectures about local history and culture were conducted (Note 10). Troops were granted local leave - and some suffered medically after visiting the “fleshpots” of Tripoli. Some participated in organised six-day sightseeing tours on horseback up to the famous ancient Cedars of Lebanon.
As Christmas approached, the censorship restrictions upon mail were lifted. Those with sufficient credit in their paybooks were also able to draw 500 piastres in cash to purchase gifts at local markets (Note 11). Mail from home was highly valued…..the Base Post Office at Kantara posted armed guards at large piles of mailbags, and handled over 32,000 parcels from home as well as sacks of Australian newspapers, sent by relatives and friends for leisure-time reading to catch up on local matters (Note 12).
The horses to be left behind
In November the Light Horse had been aghast to hear that their faithful horses would not be returning with them to Australia. The quarantine problems after the Boer War, plus perhaps the transport shortages and expense, would prohibit this. The resultant very
emotional protests triggered in the Kia-ora Coo-ee were widely reflected across Palestine and Egypt. Unrest about this would continue until an announcement in February the following year that most of the fit horses would pass to the Indian cavalry, while the old and sick ones would be identified and put down under the supervision of the veterinary officers (Note 13).
Return to Gallipoli
One Light Horse group was spending Christmas in a special way: they were part of the contingent to occupy Turkish territory at Gallipoli for three months, to scour the old battlefields and improve the cemeteries (Note 14). Many had volunteered, but this great honour went to the 7th LH Regiment and the NZ Canterbury Mounted Rifles. They went to great lengths to obtain new uniforms, hats and equipment, including utilising twenty pounds from regimental funds for “boot polish and metal polish to brighten up the service-worn gear”(Note 15). Sadly, some troops suffered in the cold winter there, and died of illness as a result. While acknowledging its importance, some Lighthorsemen felt that “it was a sad mistake to take worn-out men there in such a season” (Note 16).
Christmastime reading - 509 bags of newspapers from home (note this glass photographic plate was cracked). Parcels addressed for 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment. (Note one of the parcels has been decorated ornately with holly and the words 'Xmas Greetings).
Christmas parcels from Australia at the Base Post Office. The dump comprises 2,247 bags containing 31,458 parcels. Note the soldier with his bayonet-fixed rifle on guard between piles of sacks.
A week before Christmas, the 17th December was declared a General Holiday for the entire Eastern Expeditionary Force in the Middle East.
A Best Troop competition in one regiment, judged by the Brigadier, resulted in the presentation of 48 plum puddings as the prize (Note 17).
On Christmas Day, voluntary church services were held in Tripoli at the Catholic convent of the Sisters of Charity and at the Protestant Church. The day included a fine dinner, beer sales at cheaper canteen prices and some considerable rowdiness amongst the troops in camp. Twenty reinforcements arrived at the 4th LH Regiment camp just in time to participate (note 18)! His Majesty King George V had sent a Christmas message to the troops.
Boxing Day was also a holiday, with plenty of football matches held. Then it was time to try out for a place in the teams for the New Year’s Sports Carnival, and to attend the performance of a touring concert party, while thinking of home …...
Christmas dinner tables set for 35th Company of the Aust Mounted Division Train - Tripoli 1918
Members of the 7th Light Horse Regiment eat their Christmas dinner whilst seated on the ground at the opening of their tent. Christmas, 1918
C Sqn 14 LH at Homs, Christmas 1918
All images: Australian War Memorial
1. For example, a party of 30 under the command of the Quartermaster left on 11 November from 4 LH Regiment (D. Holloway “Endure and Fight’ 4 LH Memorial Association, Melb, 2011, pp.317, 318)
2. Except for the 13th Light Horse Regiment in Belgium of course (which had now also absorbed the remnants of the XXII Corps Mounted Regiment – the other half of the old 4th LH Regiment and a NZ Squadron) and were wintering in the town of Labuissiere near Mons, Belgium (Holloway, p.489.)
3. M. Emery ‘They rode into History’ 8 LH Regiment, Slouch Hat publications, McRae Vic, 2009, p.160
4. Holloway p 313
5. K. Hollis ‘Thunder of the Hooves’ 12 LH Regiment, Aust Military History Publications, Loftus NSW 2008, p.89
6. Emery, p.160
7. General Sir Harry Chauvel himself inspected 8th LH Regiment on 24 Nov and 4th LH Regt on 25 Nov (Emery p.160 and Holloway p.321)
8. I. Jones ‘The Australian Light Horse’ Time-Life Books, Sydney, 1987, p 160
9. Emery p.161
10. Baly p.311, Emery p.161, Holloway pp 321-5, Hollis p.310
11. Holloway p.370
12. Australian War Memorial photographs and captions B00174, B00175, B00188
13. The AIF had 9,751 horses at war’s end, of which 3,059 were destroyed in Feb 1919 and the rest were passed to the Imperial authorities ( J. Bou ‘ Light Horse’ Cambridge Uni Press, Melb, 2010, p.201, p.317)
14. H. S. Gullett, ‘The AIF in Sinai and Palestine’, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Vol VII pp.786, 787
15. Baly p.311
16. Including Lieutenant J Dalton, of whom it was said: “One of our best officers who had never been sick a day in his life but died almost as soon as he got over there” – quoted in L. Baly ‘Horseman, Pass By’ Simon & Schuster Kangaroo Press 2003, p.311
17. Holloway p.324
18. Holloway p.325