They charged but didn't come home (Beersheba, 1917.)


Darragh Christie, 1 November 2017 · #

George Lambert’s painting depicts the impact of men and horses on the Turkish troops and trenches. A tangled mass of horses and soldiers is shown against a backdrop of barren and undulating landscape. The buildings of the town are just visible on the horizon at left. Source: AWM

Four men, Gerald Digby, Gordon Abbott, Rex Coley and Colin Bull, charged towards Beersheba. Only two came home. from the online archive of the Digby family. Mary Lou Byrne recently added this photo to Barry O’Keefe Library’s Trace image archive

Only two came home

The 4 men photographed: Gerald Digby, Gordon Abbott, Rex Coley and Colin Bullmen, all charged with the 12th Australian Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba, now marking its 100th anniversary. Only 2 came home.

Beersheba was a spectacularly successful gamble. 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 Light-horsemen killed 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.

Rex’s brother Carl Leslie Joseph Coley served at Gallipolli and died aged 78. Rex is remembered at the Australian War memorial and the west face of the Mosman War Memorial

A section of the Beersheba War Cemetery which contained 1239 graves including 173 members of the AIF. (Donor St Barnabas Pilgrimages) Source:AWM

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

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

Maadi, Egypt. 1915. 2nd Lieutenant Oliver Hogue, Camp Commandant 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade. (Donor A. Balland) Source: AWM

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.

In 2017 a memorial near the old Remount Depot was, finally, dedicated to Sandy and all the horses that never returned home.

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.

Links to Beersheba videos:

Excerpt from The Lighthorsemen, Australia, 1987: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7dm_nbjNjE

National geographic: http://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/videos/australian-war-horse/battle-of-beersheba-4186.aspx

‘Thunder of a light horse charge’. This photograph has been described as one of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on the 1917-10-31, taken by a Turk whose camera was captured later in the day. An enquiry undertaken with the object of establishing its authenticity revealed that it was probably taken when this brigade staged near Belah, in or about February 1918, a representation or reenactment of the charge for a cinematographer. This image contains three puffs of smoke in the sky which differentiates it slightly from A02684. Source: AWM


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