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Military History Tours          About the Campaign East of the Mediterranean 1916-1918

Australia in The Campaign East of the
Mediterranean 1916-1918

The Light Horse

The organisation of the First Light Horse Brigade to be formed in 1914 was on the basis of a regiment from each of the States of New South Wales, and Queensland; a regiment from South Australia and Tasmania and, as Divisional Troops, a further regiment from Victoria. Regimental identities were as follows:

2 LH Qld
3 LH SA and Tas
4 LH Vic Divisional Cavalry Regiment

However, by 3 Sept 1914, the rush of enthusiastic horsemen was far in excess of that needed by the First Australian Light Horse Brigade and the Second Light Horse Brigade was then formed as follows:

5 LH Qld

At this stage, Western Australia had been overlooked after two major formations and the belated approval to raise a squadron for the 7th Regiment did little to calm the ruffled pride of the militiamen of the 25 LH (WAMI), nor satisfy the expectations of the ardent Western Australian horsemen. Honour was restored with the raising of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade consisting of:

8 LH Vic
10 LH WA

After consultation with the two Governments, Lord Kitchener decided to form the Australian and New Zealand contingents into an improvised Army Corps. To lead this corps, Lieutenant General William Riddell Birdwood, a British Cavalry Officer, was appointed Commander in late December 1914. 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were to form part of the New Zealand and Australian Division (NZ and A Division). The 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades were to be attached to what was soon to be known as the ANZAC Corps, as corps troops.

The 4LH was later expanded and split, two squadrons serving on the western front as Divisional Cavalry Squadrons for the 1st and 3rd Divisions, whilst the regiment back at full strength served as part of the 4th Light Horse brigade. In 1917, the two 4 LH squadrons on the western front along with a squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles formed the II ANZAC (XXII Corps) Mounted Regiment.

On 11 February 1915, the 4th Light Horse Brigade was formed, it consisted of:

4 LH Vic
11 LH Qld and SA

The 13 LH Vic, was raised in March 1915 deployed to the western front as Divisional Cavalry Squadrons for the 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions. On the Western Front, terrain and the nature of the war there limited the roles mounted troops could fulfil, but they were still heavily employed. The 13th Light Horse carried out traffic control, rear area security and prisoner escort tasks, and, when the tactical situation permitted, the more traditional cavalry role of reconnaissance.

Deployed North of the Suez Canal

After every Light Horse Regiment raised to that point had served in Gallipoli, in March 1916, the ANZAC Mounted Division was formed in Egypt from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. It was commanded by Major General Harry Chauvel. In August, the Division helped defeat the Turkish Advance to Romani and, by March 1917, had forced the enemy back to the line Gaza-Beersheba.

Participation in the initial battles of Gaza then followed. In August 1917, the Desert Mounted Corps was formed, consisting of the ANZAC Mounted Division (3rd and 4th Light Horse and 5th Yeomanry Brigades) and the Yeomanry Division. The strategic town of Beersheba was captured on 31 October 1917 by the Light Horse in what is popularly, but erroneously, believed to be one of the last great cavalry charges in history, with the Lighthorsemen armed only with rifles and bayonets.

The Corps also played a prominent part in the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. Many of the British troops, including the Yeomanry Division, were withdrawn and redeployed to France to shore up Allied resistance to the German Spring Offensive in March 1918. Despite the loss of many experienced troops, the Corps defeated a determined attack by the German Asia Corps at Abu Tellul in April 1918. In September, the Corps played a significant role in the advance to Heifa and Semakh, entering Damascus on 1 October. Turkey signed an armistice at the end of that month, by which time Corps units had reached Aleppo.

The total battle casualties for the Australian Imperial Force in this campaign were 416 officers and 4435 other ranks, with 96 officers and 1278 enlisted men dying from wounds and disease.

The story of this great mounted army has been told in detail in Volume VII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 by H. S. Gullett. Every student of the Light Horse history should read this volume. It is sufficient here to touch upon three episodes in this campaign to show the light horseman in the role that becomes him most in narrative, even if history records more sober and valuable instances.

H. S. Gullett in Vol VIII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, records a delightful story concerning the commander of 3 ALH Brigade, Brigadier ("Galloping Jack") J. R. Royston, during the operations at Magdhaba in December 1916.

Riding about with his accustomed gusto in the thick of everything, Royston, his sword sheathed, charged up to a Turkish trench and found himself covered by five enemy rifles. Not at all taken aback by the situation, Royston brandished his cane in the air and barked at the Turks in Zulu (knowing no Turkish). This demonstration so impressed the enemy that they dropped their rifles and joined the 722 prisoners subsequently collected by 10 Light Horse that day.

The Capture of Beersheba 31 October 1917

The initial manoeuvres for the assault of the town having been made by Chauvel, it became apparent that the methodical progress shown hitherto would not result in the completion of the operation within the limits imposed by Allenby. A bold stroke was called for, so a direct mounted attack on the town was ordered and 4 ALH Brigade was called upon to perform this task.

Advancing two regiments up (4 LH and 12 LH), with one regiment in reserve (11 LH), the sub units extended in three lines with three metres between individual horsemen. From the very commencement of the charge of 7,000 metres, the light horsemen were engaged by Turkish fire. With their long bayonet held as a sword, at full gallop the regiments bore down upon the enemy. Such a sight proved too unnerving for the amazed Turks and, in the final stages of the assault, the enemy fire passed over the heads of the Australians. This was later found to be caused by the Turks' failure to adjust the sights of their rifles and the Turkish gunners' inability to correct their fire with sufficient speed to match the furious pace of the charge.

The first wave of horsemen rode over the trenches and galloped on to Beersheba itself. The subsequent waves dismounted and took the trenches at the point of the bayonet. Despite the hand to hand fighting in which the brigade was engaged at the trenches, only 64 casualties were sustained.

The dramatic success of the charge was, in fact, the success of the light horse characteristics. Their speed, determination and tremendous zest for the job, outweighed their limitations of protection and weapons.

In April 1918 the Imperial Camel. Corps, formed prior to Magdhaba in December 1916, was disbanded. There were ten Australian companies numbering approximately 60 officers and 1,600 other ranks, and for a while their future was in doubt. The majority of the Australians had come from the infantry battalions. As the prospect of going to France was the current attraction at the time, there was considerable reluctance about joining the strange units. Consequently the time honoured method of "detailing" future cameleers resulted in the battalions "unloading" those soldiers who had not measured up to the qualities of an infantier. Misfits they may have been in the infantry, but valuable mounted troops they became. It was a suitable solution, therefore, when the Australian battalions if the Imperial Camel Corps were disbanded their members became Light Horse.

On 25 July 1918 the 5th Light Horse Brigade was formed consisting of:

14 LH formed from Australian battalions of the Camel Corps
15 LH (formed from Australian battalions of the Camel Corps
The French 1er Regiment Mixte de Marche Cavalerie du Levant, consisting of two squadrons of 1er Regiment Spahis and two of 4er Regiment de Marche Chausseurs d'Afrique.

The Capture of Damascus

During September 1918 Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel commanding the Desert Mounted Corps carried out one of the most outstanding Mounted operations in the history of warfare.

After the Infantry Corps had broken the advanced Turkish line of defence, two Mounted divisions less one Brigade advanced along the coast line and two other divisions along the Jordan flank, whilst the 5 LH Brigade (14 and 15 Light Horse) and a Free French Cavalry regiment advanced as an independent role in the centre and captured Tuzkerram.

Covering up to 500 kilometres in ten days and living "off the country" as the transport were not able to keep up with the fast-moving mounted troops, the Corps converged on Damascus in a "pincers" movement.

Brigadier General Wilson commanding the 3 LH Bde. (8, 9 and 10 Light Horse Regiments) was ordered to follow Brigadier Macarthur Onslow's 5th Bde. (14 and 15 Light Horse and the French Regiment) to cross the Barada Gorge and block the enemy escape route to the north.

Thus the stage was set for an engagement that was to prove worthy of the men of the Australian Light Horse and produce many examples of individual courage and initiative. Progress was slower than expected. Wilson conceived the bold plan of taking his horsemen through the city itself. The Turks were caught by surprise and made no effort to stop the Australians who rode on in pursuit of the fleeing Turks and Germans.

The Battle of Tzemach

Fourteen Light Horsemen, from the 11th Light Horse Regiment including three officers, were killed during and after a gallant moonlit charge that overwhelmed Turkish and German machine gun and artillery positions just before dawn on 25 September 1918. They were buried on the shores of the Sea of Galilee alongside the 98 enemy dead. The Australian casualties have since been reburied at the Haifa War Cemetery.

A small but intense and bloody affair, the battle resulted in the death or injury of more than a quarter of its estimated 692 combatants. Half the Australians had their horses shot out from under them during the initial assault. Further heavy losses were sustained on both sides when opposing troops engaged each other in the darkened rooms of the village railway station with swords, bayonets and hand grenades.

"At dawn the two (Australian) squadrons rushed in on the concealed enemy," Australian official war historian, H.S. Gullett, wrote. "The garrison, outnumbering the Australians by two to one, and made up largely of Germans, had, in addition to their extraordinary position and their machine guns, an ample store of hand grenades. They fought with exceptional boldness and stubbornness, their courage stimulated by an abundance of rum. But the Australians would not be denied."

The attack was the last cavalry-style charge by Australian troops during WWI and the only one during which the Light Horse used drawn swords. These had been issued following the success of the much better-known assault on Beersheba.

At the end of the conflict, Field Marshall Lord Allenby wrote to General Chauvel in commendation:

"I knew the New South Wales Lancers and the Australian Horse well in the Boer War, and I was glad to meet some of my old friends of those days when the Light Horse came under my command just two years ago ...

The Australian Light Horseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind... on every variety of ground - mountain, plain, desert, swamp or jungle - the Australian Light Horseman has proved himself equal to the best.

He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world."

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