The Australian Light Horse
Horses have played a special role in the story of Australia. For the first hundred years of European settlement they were the only means of transport across most of our huge country. Outside the few cities, ability to ride a horse was almost as basic as the ability to walk. The Australian Light Horse’s role in Australian history was probably the most significant.
The Australian Light Horse Brigade, were instrumental during World War 1 from 1914-18. For those in the Light Horse Regiment much of the early action was “spit ‘n’ polish” and their introduction to the charms of Joseph Lyddy products was to shine and clean their tack and gear. The parade ground shine on leather boots and leggings, the gloss on a Sam Brown belt or the well-kept look of a trusted saddle more often than not came from a Joseph Lyddy product.
Joseph Lyddy are incredibly proud to be associated with Australia’s unique fighting force, the Australian Light Horse. While the Light Horse Regiment were protecting our country, we were protecting their tack and gear in harsh desert war zones.
Australian Light Horse were mounted troops with characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. They served during the Second Boer War and World War I.
Light horse were like mounted infantry in that they usually fought dismounted, using their horses as transport to the battlefield and as a means of swift disengagement when retreating or retiring. A famous exception to this rule though was the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. In 1918 some light horse regiments were equipped with sabres, enabling them to fight in a conventional cavalry role during the advance on Damascus. However, unlike mounted infantry, the light horse also performed certain roles, such as scouting and screening, while mounted.
The Light Horse were seen as the ‘national arm of Australia’s defence’ and young men, most from the country, flocked to join, many bringing their own horses.
The recruits took a riding test, which varied from place to place. At one camp they had to take a bareback army horse over a water jump and a sod wall. In another, they had to jump a log fence. Recruits had to pass a very strict medical test before they were accepted. They were then sworn in and issued with their uniforms — the normal AIF 9 (Australian Imperial Force) jacket, handsome cord riding breeches, and leather ‘puttee’ laggings bound by a spiral strap. They wore the famous Australian slouch hat and a distinctive leather bandolier that carried 90 rounds of ammunition.
If a man’s horse met army standards, it was bought by the Commonwealth for about £30 ($60). Many men were given remounts — army horses bought by Commonwealth purchasing officers from graziers and breeders. These were called ‘Walers’ because they were a New South Wales stock horse type — strong, great-hearted animals with the strains of the thoroughbred and semi-draught to give them speed, strength and stamina. Each horse was branded with the Government broad arrow and initials of the purchasing officer, and an army number on one hoof.
In camp, the horses were tethered by head and heel ropes between long ropes called picket lines. In front of each horse was placed its saddle and equipment. The men slept close by in bell tents — eight men to a tent, feet to the centre like the spokes of a wheel.
At the start of each day, the light horsemen watered, fed and groomed their horses and cleaned the horse lines before breakfast. Then they did their training. Most were already expert horsemen and riflemen. The rest was drill and mastery of the mounted infantry fighting technique.
Each regiment lived and fought as a series of four-man ‘sections’. When they went into action, three men would dismount to fight as infantry while the fourth man led the four horses to cover until they were needed for a further advance or withdrawal. The effectiveness of this fighting method had been shown in the Boer War.
Light Horse Equipment
Everything the Light Horse trooper needed for living and fighting had to be carried by him and his horse. His extra clothing, food and personal possessions were in a canvas haversack carried over the shoulder. Across the other shoulder hung a one-litre water bottle. As well as the 90 rounds of ammunition in his bandolier, he carried ten rounds in the .303 rifle slung over his shoulder and another 50 rounds in pouches on his belt, which also supported the bayonet and scabbard.
The horse was carefully fitted with the special military saddle, designed to carry a remarkable array of equipment with the least possible discomfort. The saddle was built on a pair of felt-padded wooden ‘bars’ which sat on either side of the horse’s spine. These were joined by steel arches with a shaped leather seat laced between them. The same basic design had been used by the British army for many hundreds of years. Each century had improved it. Now, when many experts believed that the day of the mounted soldier was past, this saddle would help men and horses achieve what had seemed impossible.
Across the front was strapped a rolled greatcoat and waterproof ground sheet. Mess tin, canvas water bucket and nosebag with a day’s grain ration, were slung at the back of the saddle. There was also a heel rope, removable length of picket line and a leather case with two horseshoes and nails. The man’s blanket was sometimes carried in a roll, more often spread under the saddle on top of the saddle blanket or ‘rug’. Most men added to this collection of equipment a billy and a tin or enamel plate.
Later in the war, troopers were issued with leather saddle wallets to strap at the front of the saddle. Some also received swords and leather rifle ‘buckets’ or scabbards. Often, the horse carried an extra bandolier of ammunition around its neck, a large grain sack (called a‘sandbag’) strapped across the saddle wallets, and an extra nosebag slung behind.
When fully loaded, Walers often carried between 130 and 150 kilos. And, in the years of war to come, they would have to carry these huge loads for long distances, in searing heat, sometimes at the gallop, sometimes without water for 60 and even 70 hours at a stretch. In the first days of the war, even men who had owned horses since early childhood could hardly imagine the bond that would grow between man and horse as each came to depend on the other for their very lives.
A number of Australian light horse units are still in existence today, most notably of the 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry).