Topic: AIF - Lighthorse
Moving the Light Horse
The following article is extracted from Dennis, P. et. al., The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd Edition, OUP, Melbourne, 2008, p. 562.
WALERS was a term coined in India in the 1840s to describe horses from New South Wales, and was later applied more generally to Australian horses abroad. Though it has now been established as a breed proper, historically this was not the case and the term was used to describe almost all Australian - sourced horses despite the fact military horses varied greatly in size and characteristics depending on their intended use (artillery horses were a light draught type, for example, whilst cavalry mounts were lighter).
Australian horses were sold to the Indian Army from 1834 until just before the Second World War. The first Walers to be used in war by Australian troops were the 224 horses which went from Australia to the Sudan. The British and Australians used 37,245 Walers in the Boer War, but they, like almost all large horses brought to South Africa for the war, did not perform particularly well. This was due to a number of factors including undiscerning purchasing standards in Australia, an overstretched remount service which meant the horses were poorly acclimatised or prepared for military service once they arrived in Africa, virulent African horse diseases, poor unit standards of horse-mastership, an overworked veterinary service, an inadequate logistic service which precluded the supply of enough fodder, and finally a fundamental operational demand to keep the horses continually on the move without adequate rest. By the end of the war the Australian horses thought most suitable in South Africa were small mounts, known locally as nuggets, which were not dissimilar to the small horses the Boers used.
The Walers used by various armies in the First World War were more effective. Australian horses were not directly shipped to Europe due to the distances involved and it is the mastership, an overworked veterinary service, an inadequate logistic service which precluded the supply of enough fodder, and finally a fundamental operational demand to keep the horses continually on the move without adequate rest. By the end of the war the Australian horses thought most suitable in South Africa were small mounts, known locally as nuggets, which were not dissimilar to the small horses the Boers used.
The Walers used by various armies in the First World War were more effective. Australian horses were not directly shipped to Europe due to the distances involved and it is the performance of Walers in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns (see Palestine campaign), which has gained most attention.
Despite a popular notion that Walers outperformed all other horses in the Middle East this was not necessarily the case. Walers did perform very well, but so did the horses of nearly every cavalry, supply and artillery unit in Palestine Australian, New Zealand, British and Indian. Many Australian mounts benefited from their long period of acclimatisation while their riders were at Gallipoli, but perhaps more important for the campaign as a whole was the establishment of good standards of unit horse-mastership, thorough veterinary services, an operational tempo that permitted rest for the mounted units, and a well-organised logistical system that generally kept the horses well-fed and watered.
The work of purchasers in Australia and of the Australian Remount Unit in Egypt was also of notable benefit. At the end of the war most Australian Walers were sold on to the Indian Army. Older and otherwise unsuitable horses were destroyed (often by soldiers working under veterinary or remount unit supervision) but, despite the persistence of the myth, it seems very few, if any, were taken to a quiet spot near a camp and shot by their riders to save them being sold to local Arabs.
Australia sent 31,348 horses for overseas service with the AIF during the war and another 81,967 were sent to India. Shipments to Egypt ceased by mid 1916 mainly due to severe shipping shortages, though there were also complaints from Egypt about the quality of the horses being sent by this stage.
Of the horses used in these three wars only one, General W. T. Bridges' Sandy, was returned to Australia in 1918 far too late for Bridges' funeral in 1915, despite common belief.
With expanding industrialisation and urbanisation during the interwar period Walers became an ever-scarcer commodity and by the late 1920s it was proving difficult for the military to find enough mounts, especially for the militia light horse (whose riders provided their own horses). It was this factor, as much as a desire to modernise, which was behind the spasmodic efforts to mechanise the Army before the Second World War.
Citation: The Waler, Moving the Light Horse