‘News from the Nile’

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In 1915 Private Tom Dalton sent two letters to the Leader, a newspaper published in Orange, New South Wales. In the first, dated four days before Christmas Day he wrote about his arrival and first impressions of life in Cairo:

“I received a letter of yours dated October 19. It is lovely weather here, nice warm days, and cool nights. We are about 12 miles out of Cairo. The train runs right past the camp, and it only takes about 25 minutes to run to the capital. We can see the Pyramids from here. I was out there last Sunday, and had a grand time. I saw young Lane, of Orange, who is encamped there with the infantry. All the light horse, except the New Zealanders, are encamped here, the men from the Dominion being out at the Pyramids. The Pyramids afford a great panorama of the camps, troops and horses down on the flat, with wire entanglements everywhere.

We left Alexandria by train in the morning at 11 a.m., and reached Cairo at 5 p.m. We got to eat a cup of cocoa, a bun, and a lump of cheese, and then we led our horses through Cairo out to here. I will never forget the walk—the horses were all mad with excitement, and being on the boat so long were very nervous. As we went through the streets of Cairo donkeys, Egyptians, cabs and motor cars made all the horses plunge all over us. When we got into the middle of Cairo the crowds started to cheer and throw flowers, flags, and in fact anything at all, at us. Our horses nearly went mad. The reception made a great sight, crowds swarming about the most beautiful buildings that one might ever see.

Sheppard’s Hotel is a magnificent building, and has a beautiful garden, with tables, running right into the street. When we passed the hotel the territorial band struck up “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” The people all sprang from their garden seats and rushed into the streets. The horses went in every direction. We got out to Maadi at 11.30 p.m., and then we had to picket the horses, put down lines, and put in heel pegs, which we finished by about 1 a.m. Then I had to go on duty for about two hours with another chap to mind the horses. We never had so much trouble with the horses before, for when a horse lay down to roll he would pull up his heel peg, and during the two hours we were replacing these in the ground. When we came off I was very tired. Then I curled up in my blankets on the sands for the tents weren’t pitched. I was no sooner asleep than a rain cloud broke, but while it rained I never woke. It was the first rain for three months. My luck was plainly out. Now there are about 32 of us in a tent which was made to hold about 20 men. My word, there are some pretty lively nights in it.

The Australians have taken Cairo. Everywhere you go the places are packed with them, and no place closes before 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Sunday is the same as any other day. We have great fun when on guard, keeping the natives out of the lines. They are not so persistent now since a few of them got a prick in the back with a bayonet point. Baba-Louk is another town very close to us, and at this place are two of the prettiest sights I have seen. We have rides on the camels here every day, and races on the donkeys. The white people here are mostly French, but there are a lot of English too. Carriage horses are the best I have seen’

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‘These Kings of the Feathers, they steal your bread’

While most of Australia’s Imperial Force went to France in 1916, the bulk of Australia’s mounted forces remained in Egypt to counter to Turkish threat at Suez. After 1916  when the threat to the canal was over and victory at Romani had been secured the Light Horse advanced into Turkish territory. In 1917 they entered Palestine and by 1918 had advanced into Jordan and Syria. The campaign ended on 31st October 1918 – a few weeks after the capture of Damascus.

With the main focus on operations along the Western front the campaign in the Middle East was regarded as somewhat of a side show. Despite this, the campaign had an undoubted air of romance due to the terrain which helped to create the legend of the Australian Light Horse. These men, dubbed the ‘Kings of the Feathers’ by the Arabs or the ‘White Gurkha’s’ by Turkish troops – a reference to their deadly skill with a bayonet  had proven themselves to be expert rough-riding horsemen and good shots. Bush life had hardened them to go for long periods with little food or available water. They also showed remarkable ability to find their way over strange terrain and were able to use its features for cover, both in attack and defence.

Horses have always played a special role in the story of Australia.  The Light Horse favoured a breed of horse named ‘Walers’ – a New South Wales stockhorse type which were strong, great-hearted animals with the strains of both thoroughbred and semi-draught characteristics to give them speed, strength and stamina. Everything the Light Horse trooper needed for living and fighting had to be carried by him and his horse. 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.

The men were easily identifiable – the slouch hat with its emu plume, jokingly called ‘kangaroo feathers’ became a symbol of the style and romance of the Light Horse.

Image Source: The Australian War Memorial 

Fighting in the desert brought many challenges for the men. Being able to find food and water was essential for the well-being of the men and their animals. Both horses and mules played a crucial role in maintaining the advance. Troops and their mounts travelled long distances in extremes of heat and cold, often hungry with little protection from scorching winds or driving rains.

Trooper Edward Cleaver, 4th Light Horse Regiment, 1917

“Enclosed you will see what has been my home for months, but it won’t be any good when the rain comes … at present the dust is awful … I laid down one night to sleep and had to dig myself out in the morning…”

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Image Source: The Australian War Memorial 

Trooper Ion Idriess, 5th Light Horse Regiment, 1917 

‘The flies are here in millions, they fly, flop onto your food whether you like it or not. As I am writing this note I have to keep them off with one hand and write with the other. Our horses suffer worse than we do. They have to stand in the sun and hot sand for there is no shelter. We have to scrape the top sand away before we can sit down and enjoy a nice stew full of sand and flies’

There is much to be written on the role of the Light Horse and their operations in the desert which I may cover in further blog posts however I’d like to share a tribute to the Light Horse penned by General Allenby at the cessation of operations in the Middle East.

“The Australian lighthorseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind. This mental quality renders him somewhat impatient of rigid and formal discipline, but it confers upon him the gift of adaptability, and this is the secret of much of his success mounted or on foot. In this dual role . . . The Australian lighthorseman has proved himself equal to the best. He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world.”