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A leg at each corner

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

Bill the Bastard: the story of Australia’s greatest war horse Roland Perry

Angus & Robertson, pp.288, $27.99

It would be wrong to say the Australian Light Horse campaign in the Middle East against the Turks in the first world war has been ignored, but it is a heroic and romantic aspect of Australian history that has had less than its fair share of attention.

It was the last great cavalry (technically mounted infantry) campaign. It was also the first major British victory in the war, apart from a walk-over in West Africa. It was also an anachronism fought with tactics and methods that had already become obsolete: an odd mixture of 19th- and 20th-century military technology. It seems typical of Anglo-Saxon war mythologising that the desert cavalry campaign has received so much less attention than the almost useless disaster of Gallipoli.

Bill the Bastard was a horse with a pronounced individual personality. The description of him here reminds one of Kipling’s ‘Raw rough dun’: ‘With the mouth of a bell and a heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.’

He was a sturdy and obedient pack-horse, in one case carrying on when hit by two bullets, but for some reason would allow only one man to ride him — Major Michael Shanahan.

His greatest feat was to save the lives of his master and four other men who clambered on him to escape at the battle of Romani in the Sinai on 4 August 1916. After cantering, under fire, several miles to Australian lines (and using his hooves to cave in the chests of two Turks who tried to shoot him) he took a drink and pawed the ground, indicating he wanted to return to the action. The Turks were massacring prisoners and he undoubtedly saved the five men.

When Shanahan was unconscious with one leg smashed by a bullet, Bill carried him gently and without directions several miles to an aid post. Galloping through the Sinai in a black night, he was somehow able to stop just before leading his troop over an invisible 80-metre precipice.

The book is also interesting in reminding readers of the important, but often forgotten, war service of the poet Banjo Paterson, who went to the Middle East as an expert on horses, eventually wangling the rank of major after service as an ambulance-driver despite being overage and having a deformed arm. He played a vital role in the campaign.

Few men knew more about horses, though he was not himself a great horseman. Eight thousand horses went on the first troop convoy (and it is another little-known footnote to history that the convoy included women veterinarians). There would be a total of 200,000 horses sent from Australia before the end. Paterson’s role in the war was no small one.

However, for a history, the book has too much ‘colour’ which is of no historical significance.

For example, long conversations between General Allenby and Paterson are set down, with no sources or referencing. Computers have made pedantic over-footnoting a risk but it is certainly possible to go too far the other way. Further, there is no index.

It is impossible to imagine how these conversations could have been accurately produced word-for-word, and anecdotes and alleged conversations cannot be regarded as reliable history.

A great deal of personal detail recounted here could not possibly have been recorded. If well-brought-up ladies made intimate remarks at all in those days, no one except for a rank cad would have written them down.

There was the lady whose ‘big sensual mouth and eyes seemed’ [for Paterson] ‘to become larger and more alluring as the dinner wore on’. I doubt the poet recorded that in any journal. There is a description of a ‘landowning British Count’ at Gallipoli. The fact there was no such thing does not increase reader confidence in the accuracy of the research.

Bill does seem to have been an exceptional horse, however. He first came into his own at Gallipoli, where, though allowing none but Shanahan to ride him, he carried mail and other heavy loads under fire. He also carried wounded on stretchers, including the legendary John Simpson, apparently unfazed by bombs and shell fire. Shanahan, incidently, was one of the few to survive the hopeless uphill charge against machine gun fire at the Nek.

It was, however, after the Light Horse were evacuated from Gallipoli (and from a role for which they had never been trained or intended) that they came into their own in Sinai and what was, to give it its Roman name, Palestine. After the hopeless deathtrap of the ravines of Gallpoli, the Light Horsemen, mounted again, were able to ride and fight on a heroic scale, and as they had been meant to be used, a last magnificent curtain call for the war horse in history.

The author could have paid more attention to the complex politics of the area, and in particular the first interaction between the Australians and the Jews, with the first dreams of the recreation of Israel.

Allenby is portrayed as a foul-tempered, ignorant Blimp, quite at variance with the verdict of most military historians who have held that he was an exceptionally competent officer. A plausible criticism of Allenby was that he was too good, and, like Rommel in the second world war, achieved victories which led to resources being diverted from the main theatre.

There is a limit to the interest one can take in the behavioural problems of a horse, however distinguished, that lived in 1915. To most Australians today, a horse is a horse, something with a leg at each corner, arousing popular interest once a year with the Melbourne Cup. This book tells of a time, not all that long ago, when they were among the main focuses of public interest. Some Jeremiahs might well suggest that it is better to be obsessed with horses than with some of our present cultural heroes.

Despite various shortcomings, this book does succeed in drawing a picture of a vanished world, both military and social, that will interest many.

Hal G.P. Colebatch’s latest book is The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly.

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