Only two came home
The 4 men photographed: Gerald Digby, Gordon Abbott, Rex Coley and Colin Bull, all charged with the 12th Australian Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba, now marking its 100th anniversary. Only 2 came home.
Trooper Idriess (5th LHR) observed the spectacular charge4
Time rolled on. The outer defences were ours but Bersheeba still held out. Then someone shouted, pointing through the sunset. There at a steady trot was regiment after regiment, squadron after squadron, coming, coming, coming! It was just half light. The Turkish guns blazed at those hazy horsemen but they came steadily on. At 2 miles distance they emerged from clouds of dust, squadrons of men and horses taking shape. All the Turkish guns must have directed at the menace then.
At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man – knee to knee and horse to horse – the dying sun glittering on bayonet points. Machine-gun and rifle fire roared but the 4th Brigade galloped on. We heard shouts among the thundering hooves, saw balls of flame amongst those hooves – horse after horse crashed but the squadrons thundered on. We laughed in delight when the shells began bursting behind them telling that the gunners could not find their range, then suddenly the men ceased to fall and we knew instinctively the Turkish infantry, wild with excitement and fear, had forgotten to lower their rifle sights and bullets were flying overhead.
The last half-mile was a berserk gallop with the squadrons in a magnificent line, a heart-throbbing sight as they plunged up the slope, the horses jumping the redoubt trenches – my glasses showed me the Turkish bayonets thrusting up for the bodies of the horses – one regiment flung themselves from the saddle – we heard the mad shouts as the men jumped down into the trenches, a following regiment thundered over another redoubt and to a triumphant roar of voices and hooves was galloping down the half-mile slope right into town.
Then came a whirlwind of movement from all over the field, galloping batteries – dense dust from mounting regiments – a rush as troops poured for the opening in the gathering dark – mad, mad excitement – terrific explosions from down in the town. Beersheba had fallen.
The 4th and 12th Light Horse captured the town, its water supplies and over 700 Turkish soldiers. The Australians suffered 69 casualties1 in the ‘last great cavalry charge in military history’. 70 of their faithful mounts also fell to machine-gun, rifle, and artillery fire.
Among the 31 Lighthorse casualties were Colin Bull and Rex Coley.
Harry Rex George Coley, aged 20 of ‘Truro’, (109 Raglan Street) Mosman, enlisted in 1915. He had come to Australia from England aged 16, and worked on the Cowra Experimental Farm.
Rex is described in his Red Cross files as ‘likeable’, ‘popular’, ‘a very fine fellow, very brave.’ According to eye witness reports he was shot through the stomach, dying a few hours later at a clearing station. He is buried at Beersheba War Cemetery. His effects were forwarded to his parents new home,“Holly”, Raglan St. Mosman.
Only one came home
Major Oliver Hogue of Moruben Rd., Mosman, served in the Middle East. A journalist before the war, he wrote several books and poems under the name of ‘Trooper Bluegum.’
One of his best known poems conveys the bond between light-horsemen and their ‘walers,’ and the cruel fate of their hardworking companions.2
THE HORSES STAY BEHIND by ‘Trooper Bluegum’
In days to come we’ll wander west and cross the range again;
We’ll hear the bush birds singing in the green trees after rain:
We’ll canter through the Mitchell grass and breast the bracing wind:
But we’ll have other horses. Our chargers stay behind.
Around the fire at night we’ll yarn about old Sinai;
We’ll fight our battles o’er again; and as the days go by
There’ll be old mates to greet us. The bush girls will be kind.
Still our thoughts will often wander to the horses left behind.
I don’t think I could stand the thought of my old fancy hack
Just crawling around Cairo with a Gyppo on his back.
Perhaps some English tourist out in Palestine may find
My broken-hearted waler with a wooden plough behind.
No; I think I’d better shoot him and tell a little lie:
“He floundered in a wombat hole and then lay down to die.”
Maybe I’ll get court-martialled; but I’m dammed if I’m inclined
To go back to Australia and leave my horse behind.3
Only 1 war horse of over 136,000 returned to Australia. ‘Sandy’ a 16-hand chestnut, was 1 of 3 assigned to the Australian 1st Division commander, Major General Sir William Bridges. (Maj. Gen Bridges spent time before the war commanding the coastal batteries at Middle Head, Mosman).
Maj. Gen Bridges was killed by sniper fire at Gallipolli on May 15th, 1915. Sandy followed Bridges gun carriage when he was buried among his soldiers at Alexandria, Egypt. After a tour of 3 fronts, Sandy returned home (as Bridges had requested before his death.)
Gen. Birdwood requsted Sandy be sent to Duntroon military college. Bridges set up Duntroon before the war. He was re-buried there following a solemn state funeral in Sept, 1915. Sandy was instead sent to Maribyrnong Remount Depot, Victoria, and turned out to graze. Blind and unwell, he was put down in 1923.
1 The XX Corps captured 419 prisoners while Desert Mounted Corps captured 1,528 Ottoman soldiers.Ottoman casualties were believed to be about half that number,while around 500 dead were found on the battlefield.
The heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry of XX Corps (which lost 116 killed in action), although the total number of the British force killed during the battle was 171. The 4th Light Horse Brigade suffered a total of 35 killed and 39 wounded; of these, the 12th Light Horse Regiment suffered 20 killed and 19 wounded.Most of the wounded light horsemen fell during the charge, with the high percentage of killed-to-wounded occurring during hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. Source: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Beersheba_(1917)
2 Jason McGregor http://www.mhhv.org.au/?p=830 records
In the First World War between 136,000 and 169,000 “Walers” (the name generally applied to Australia’s sturdy horses) were sent overseas for use by the Australian Imperial Force and the British and Indian governments; 6,100 of those horses embarked for Gallipoli. The Anzacs’ Walers performed their difficult carrying tasks magnificently despite the stress of gunfire and lack of water at Gallipoli, and were the beloved mounts of the famous Light Horse regiments. Soldiers slept with their horse to stay warm on freezing nights in the desert and their steeds were often hungry enough to eat each other’s tails. But they were mostly killed or passed on to other military units abroad at the end of the war because of the costs and quarantine difficulties involved in repatriation.
Some historians have fuelled the belief that almost all of the 9000 horses left behind in Palestine by the Australian Light Horse were either shot or ‘sold into slavery.’ Those mounts aged over 12 or in poor health were certainly destroyed, many by their own troopers. Yet veterinary returns filed at the AWM suggest that approximately two-thirds of the horses were transferred to Imperial, mainly Indian Army cavalry to continue their working lives. Perhaps their fate was not as dreadful as commonly supposed. One horse from them all made it back to Australia.
3 Franki, George Their name liveth for evermore : Mosman’s dead in the Great War 1914-1918. [Waverton, N.S.W.] George Franki, 2014.
4 Hollis, Kenneth Thunder of the hooves : a history of 12 Light Horse Regiment 1915-1919. Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, [N.S.W.], 2008.
Links to Beersheba videos:
Excerpt from The Lighthorsemen, Australia, 1987: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7dm_nbjNjE