Reviewed by Donald Lawie
Commemorations of the centenary of the First World War have so far, in Australia, concentrated on Gallipoli and Fromelles/Pozieres. The war against Turkey that continued after Gallipoli has been largely ignored. Phillip Bradley’s Australian Light Horse will go a long way to correct that omission and turn the spotlight on the heroic, epic campaign fought by Anzac and British troops in a desert battleground vastly unlike the mud and slush of the Western Front.
The exploits of the Light Horse at Gallipoli are well known; their desert experiences were told by a participant, Ion Idriess, in The Desert Column in 1932 and generations of young Australians, this reviewer included, rode vicariously with Idriess through the heat, dust, thirst and flies.
Bradley’s style is not the racy raconteuring of Idriess. He is an historian, explaining the strategy and tactics, the defeats and victories, and the intolerable conditions that were endured by both friend and foe as the field of battle moved from the Suez Canal to Palestine and Syria. Bradley intersperses his history with diary excerpts from the men themselves, including Idriess. Instead of the standard Imperial War Museum photos, Australian Light Horse is prolifically illustrated with amateur photographs taken by the men themselves. “The Kodak appears to be part of their equipment” (xi). The ubiquitous Box Brownie recorded men, horses and camels in an intimacy and innocence that is rarely captured by a professional photographer.
“The light horsemen were not cavalrymen, though they acted in a similar way”(3). Bradley points out the role of light horse and, importantly for those familiar with infantry formations, the structure of the various units – regiment, squadron, troop – and section. He makes the easily remembered comparison that a Light Horse Brigade had, in battle, an equivalent number of men to an infantry battalion of about 800. Basic logistics such as the water requirements of men, horses and camels are discussed and full credit is accorded to the men who enabled the fighting troops to have vital food, water and ammunition. Horses were worked beyond normal endurance, as were the men, and farriers were constantly in the forefront of the action.
The strategy of the Ottoman/Turkish army command was to capture the Suez Canal so as to strangle the flow of men and materiel from India and the Pacific to Europe. They attacked in force in February, 1915, but were repulsed, and the alerted British command set about preparing a defence forward of the canal. A renewed thrust by the Turks in 1916 resulted in disaster for defending British infantry but galvanised the British command. Major General Harry Chauvel, commanding the Anzac Mounted Division was given responsibility for forward defence of the town of Romani.
The Battle of Romani was fought from 3 to 13 August, 1916, involving a determined attack by 9,000 Turks and a spirited defence by the British, spearheaded by the mounted Anzacs. In a “close-run thing” the Turks were repulsed, never to make another serious attempt to take the canal. Romani was the first significant British victory of the war to date, largely due to the Australians and New Zealanders, but the battle’s centenary was lost in the deserved lamentations of The Somme. Bradley describes the battle of Romani in vivid detail, breaking the narrative to insert short quotes from the men that bring the battle to life for the reader.
The Turkish infantry and cavalry were stiffened by a large contingent of Austro-Hungarian artillery (15), which fought determinedly and well, at first in attack and later in the campaign when they protected retreating Turkish infantry. British artillery were at first outgunned but eventually enough guns and ammunition was supplied, augmented at times by naval gunfire from monitors stationed close inshore in the vicinity of Romani and Gaza.
The air war over the desert followed a similar pattern of initial German aerial superiority which was later lost to the British airmen. The Australian Flying Corps was prominent, and the only Australian Victoria Cross of the campaign was awarded to Lieutenant Frank McNamara on 20 March 1917 after he carried out a daring rescue of a downed comrade (61).
Equipment arrived from the Western Front; tanks and gas both made an unwelcome appearance (71). Gas helmets had to be worn by attackers and were extremely uncomfortable in the extreme heat of the desert which ranged from 40 to 50 plus degrees. Tank crews suffered even more : the interior of a tank was very hot in any circumstance and in the desert it was even worse. The tanks were not welcomed by the infantry since they drew instant attention from the deadly Austrian gunners. “Curse the tank” (76). The combination of tanks, gas and frontal assaults are described as “straight from the Western Front”.
General Allenby assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force on June 27, 1917, and immediately moved his headquarters from the Savoy Hotel in Cairo to Rafa in the Sinai Desert where he endured the same conditions as his men (87). The Turkish command also changed, with German General von Falkenhayn relegated to the desert “sideshow” after his failure to capture Verdun on the French-German frontier (89).
Australian Light Horse provides interesting details such as a facet of the celebrated charge at Beersheba on October 10,1917, (87). The Light Horse did not carry sabres so they charged with their bayonets aloft, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight and instilling terror in the entrenched Turks as the horsemen galloped over their positions and into the town to capture the precious wells.
After the desert was crossed, the horsemen, cameleers and infantry entered the rocky and inhospitable country of the Jordan Valley and the Judean hills. The Jordan valley, below sea level, was “a concentrated hell”, with sandflies in the daytime, mosquitoes at night and lurking Bedouins always ready to murder any straggler from either side.
The manpower losses of firstly the Somme Battle in France then the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium resulted in Allenby having to send most of his British infantry to France in 1917,(148). They were replaced by Indian soldiers and also by a detachment of British West Indian soldiers, and both of these groups fought tenaciously and well.
The army engineers are praised by Bradley for their indefatigable labours. The Engineers motto was Fractimus et Frangibus (we break and we make) when I was a recruit sapper in 1959, and the motto is repeatedly demonstrated in Australian Light Horse. Precious wells were destroyed by both Turks and British when in retreat and the Engineers performed near miracles in restoring them to use. Railways and pipelines were constructed in record time, enabling a forward flow of supplies and a return of the wounded and the many sick soldiers. Swamps in the Jordan Valley were drained as an anti-malarial move and roads replaced donkey trails.
Towns and villages in the Holy Land, familiar names to Australians from Sunday School days, were taken by the advancing British; Jericho is described as squalid and dirty by the men and Bethlehem becomes a minor battleground. The road to Jericho crosses a barren, jagged range and the men of the Light Horse must have felt sympathy for the biblical Samaritan lying wounded beside that road.
Lt.Colonel Lawrence and his Arab Army rates approval in Australian Light Horse but Arabs in general behave like feral animals. An extreme event occurred toward the end of the campaign when a depleted Turkish army was prepared to surrender to a Light Horse unit of inferior numbers. The Turkish Commander was afraid to surrender their weapons for fear of a large, lurking Arab mob that would have slaughtered the Turks (160). The Australian commander placed a protective screen of his troopers around the Turks until he could be reinforced and allowed the Turks to retain their arms.
Australian Light Horse is well written and a fascinating read. Maps are good but could be improved by being concentrated and accompanied by a full page key map. The action proceeds rapidly and a Timeline in the book’s beginning would make back-checking of dates and incidents easier. The book fills a need in telling the story of our ancestors’ deeds of a hundred years ago; any Australian with any connection to those heroes can feel justly proud of their history, so ably told by Phillip Bradley.
By Phillip Bradley
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76011 189 2
196pp. AU$ 39.99