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"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess

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Saturday, 30 May 2009
The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Light Horse
Topic: Militia - LH

Light Horse

The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History


The following is an extract is an excellent summary detailing the history of the Australian light horse movement. It comes from Dennis, P., et al, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd Ed, OUP 2008, pp. 317 - 320.


Light Horse were formed in 1903 from the various mounted units of the colonial forces. These being previously organised and styled variously as cavalry, mounted rifles or mounted infantry depending on the inclinations o the colonial authorities. The first mounted unit formed fore the purposes of defence had been raised in South Australia in 1840 but it was not until the mid-1880s that such corps became an established part of the Australian military land scape. Even then, however, it was only in the eastern mainland colonies and South Australia that generally successful units could be found. Corps raised in Western Australia and Tasmania, drawing on small populations with few suitable horse owners, rarely lasted more than a few years before collapsing.

Both before and after Federation most units were raised in rural and suburban areas where there were sufficient horse owners willing to sacrifice their spare time and resources to pursue mounted soldiering. City corps were frequently raised during the various war scares of the nineteenth century but the costs associated with maintaining a horse in the city meant that few lasted long. Most militia light horsemen were relatively prosperous farmers, suburban or small-town professionals, skilled artisans or their offspring, rather than the rough and ready stockmen of popular memory. Blue collar rural workers often found that, if for no other reason than the unsympathetic attitude of their employers, mounted soldiering required more resources than they could give.

The rural character of most units meant that the then current idea that hardy bushmen could be quickly and easily turned into unconventional but effective soldiers was an often-heard refrain. The notion had old roots but the successes of Boer farmers against British regulars in the First Boer War of 1880-81 had given it new life and many Australian and British officers subscribed to the idea in varying degrees. Private views were often more restrained than public utterances, however, and most thoughtful officers were more interested in training than mythology, particularly after the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 had highlighted the problems of campaigning with neophyte officers and under trained men.

Despite the problems that some colonies faced in maintaining mounted units, heightened interest as a result of the Boer War, where mounted troops had dominated, had dramatically boosted the numbers serving in such corps and every colony was able to provide the new federation with a mounted element for the establishment (see Citizen Military Forces). The numbers clearly reflected the resources of each particular state, however; New South Wales provided just over 1,700 men, Queensland and Victoria nearly 1,200 each, but Tasmania could offer just 137. The GOC of the Commonwealth Military Forces, Major-General Sir Edward Hutton, who had a long and keen interest in the development of mounted troops, moved quickly to ensure that the mounted arm was established along lines that he had been advocating in professional military circles since the early 1880s. The light horse would be created as mounted rifles (as opposed to the mounted infantry they are often misrepresented as). That is they were organised along cavalry lines and were intended to fulfil the traditional functions of cavalry, but do it with firepower alone rather than with the added functions that came with bladed cavalry weapons and shock action. Such a model was not unique to Australia and reflected both a stream of contemporary military thought about the future of mounted troops and also the belief that it was too difficult for part-time soldiers to master the full range of cavalry skills.

Hutton's changes were not received without opposition.

Pre-Federation cavalrymen objected to losing their weapons and the supposed status that came with them. The loss of old unit identities and the splitting of existing regiments to facilitate expansion caused more complaints, as did attempts to convert rural infantry units into light horse. Others with a background as mounted infantry had to grapple with, in Hutton's words, `the enlarged scope of their duty as cavalry'.

As with all defence matters the need for economy limited the progress that could be made, but by the time of Hutton's departure the essential reorganisation had taken place and the training direction as mounted rifles had been given a start.

Restrictions on unit establishments tended to limit the quality of training during this period, as did the minimal training time allowed by tight defence budgets. The militia habit of brief night and weekend parades proved to be useless to the widely dispersed, country-based light horse and the annual eight-day camp provided little opportunity to correct this deficiency.

Accordingly in the years before the First World War; camps were made longer at the expense of `home training', but the introduction of the Training scheme and the soldier pay cut that came with it resulted in a manning crisis in the mounted arm. Light horse service, which required men to provide their own suitable horse, was remunerated with a paltry 4s. per day for a private under the new scheme (it had previously been 8s.) and this, even adding the token 1s. of annual horse allowance, was not widely considered sufficient compensation for meeting the costs of horse ownership. Contrary to what is often written Universal Trainees did serve in the light horse (only after volunteering their horses), but even the 1,000-odd men that found their way into the mounted ranks this way in 1912-13 (out of a total strength of about 6,500) could not compensate for the men who were lost or turned off by poor pay. Horse allowance was increased in early 1914 but by then the light horse was nearly 3,000 men short of its authorised establishment, and instead of the planned 31 regiments there were only 23.

Like the rest of the militia the existing light horse units were restricted from serving outside Australia by the Defence Act but new units were raised as part of the expeditionary AIF in 1914. Four regiments were raised initially with three of them making up the 1st Light Horse Brigade and the fourth allocated as divisional mounted troops. These were quickly added to and by early 1915 a total of three brigades and two divisional regiments had been formed and despatched to Egypt. These units drew on the men and officers of their militia forebears but many of the blue collar men who would not have served previously now found their way into the ranks and gave the light horse, and its long-term popular image, a more egalitarian flavour than hitherto. Infantry casualties during the first weeks at Gallipoli meant that eyes were soon cast upon the mounted men as reinforcements for the peninsula. Efforts to have them broken up were successfully resisted and the light horse was soon despatched to Anzac as complete units (though brigade identities were not so assured, the 2nd being initially broken up and its regiments reallocated to needy sectors while the nascent 4th Brigade did not finish its formation before it was broken up). Using light horse as infantry was an expedient only, but it was not a unique one as many cavalry men on the Western Front were discovering at the same time. Light horse regiments were just over half the size of an infantry battalion and this restricted their employment to some extent, though intakes of reinforcements just prior to embarkation to replace the horse-holders left in Egypt minimised the manpower problem. Regardless, the broken nature of the Anzac position and the weakened state of the infantry meant their arrival was welcomed. Like the infantry they too suffered heavy casualties with the slaughter of the 8th and 10th Regiments in a few minutes at the Nek during the August offensive being the most notorious episode. More drawn-out fighting, like that done by the 2nd Regiment at Quinn's Post over a long period, was also costly. All the regiments were withdrawn in November-December and were back in Egypt in early 1916.

The return to Egypt found the horses in good condition after their lengthy, if unintended, period of acclimatisation.

This factor, along with the maintenance of good unit horse mastership, a well-organised remount service, generally good logistical arrangements and appropriate veterinary services did much to ensure that the light horse's mounts performed extremely well in the coming years. Such performance was not restricted to Waler stock, however, as these factors benefited every horse in the theatre and the mounts of British and Indian formations would often do just as well in the coming campaign.

The 1st Brigade was quickly brought up to strength and remounted to undertake uneventful patrolling against Senussi tribesmen west of the Nile. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades took on masses of reinforcements before the reorganisation and expansion of the AIF in early 1916. The 13th Regiment went to France as the mounted troops of I Anzac Corps (and was retitled 1st Anzac Mounted Regiment). Two squadrons of the 4th Regiment were also sent and joined to a squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles to become the 2nd Anzac Mounted Regiment (eventually retitled XXII Corps Mounted Troops). The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades, along with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, were combined with British Territorial horse artillery to form the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (usually abbreviated as Anzac Mounted Division) in 1916. Under the Command of Major-General Harry Chauvel this division played a prominent part in the defeat of a Turkish advance on the Suez Canal at Romani in August of that year. The light horse, as part of the Desert Column, subsequently played a leading part in clearing the Turks from the Sinai Peninsula into the early part of 1917.

Reorganisations through 1917 saw a fourth light horse brigade re-raised using regiments that had previously been unallotted, and eventually the formation of an Australian Mounted Division in mid-1917 (following a reorganisation of the Imperial Mounted Division formed a few months earlier). Both formations were part of the new Desert Mounted Corps, which the now knighted and promoted Chauvel had been given command of. So organised, the light horse took part in the operations of 1917-18 that started at Beersheba and which culminated in the decisive defeat of the Turkish armies at Megiddo in late 1918. The campaign proved a contrast to that on the Western Front and the lack of complex Turkish defensive systems meant that cavalry mobility still played an important, but by no means dominant, part in the operations.

It should be noted that, particularly after mid-1917, Western Front artillery and infantry techniques played an increasingly important role in the theatre. The decisive cavalry victory at Megiddo would have proved impossible had not the gunners and infantry blasted a hole in the Turkish line through which the horsemen poured.

In mid-1918 the Australian Mounted Division came to believe that the mounted rifle model that Hutton had introduced had its limitations and after some debate this formation re-equipped with the sword and finished the war as full cavalry, using the weapon and its tactics to good effect on the advance to Damascus. The Anzac Mounted Division stayed mounted rifles until the end of the war, though there is some evidence that they too asked for the sword just before the armistice.

Awaiting repatriation the bulk of the light horse (except the 1st Brigade which had departed) was called upon to act as an enforcer of empire during the Egyptian Revolt of 1919 (see Egypt, Australians in). The light horse used harsh methods and these have been criticised over the years.

It seems likely that long war service and racial antagonism towards Egyptians and Arabs were a significant factor in this, but the way that they were used was not exceptional by contemporary imperial standards.

The militia light horse regiments had continued to exist throughout the war (and there had indeed been a hollow and pointless expansion of the number of regiments), but by 1917 they were an undermanned, resource-starved shadow of their former selves. The units had been renumbered (the third such reorganisation since Federation) in an attempt to transmit some of the élan of the AIF to the militia but this token decision could not overcome the problems and showed a certain disregard for militia unit traditions. Little effort was made to improve things until a 1920 conference of senior officers, headed by Chauvel, had their recommendations adopted by the government in 1921. The militia light horse were reorganised into two cavalry divisions (one each in Victoria and New South Wales) plus a number of separate regiments in the smaller States. The decision was also taken to re-role the mounted branch as full cavalry, though in the event the swords would not arrive until later in the 1920s.

In an attempt to keep costs down regiments and formations were established largely on a reduced ‘cadre' basis, which would facilitate expansion when required.

As it was for all the forces in the interwar years, the light horse was severely limited by economies and force reductions.

Exacerbating this was the fact that many ex-AIF officers and men, who the authorities hoped would stiffen and drastically improve the forces, found militia service frustrating or other wise difficult and by the mid-1920s only the most dedicated remained. The limited peace establishments again made unit training difficult and the restriction of Universal Training to urban areas had obvious implications for rural mounted units. The 1921 changes had seen a reduction in the number of regiments and two more were disbanded in 1929. For most of the 1920s, regiments had been organised with a peace establishment of two sabre squadrons of three troops (one a Hotchkiss Gun Troop), plus a headquarters element to which the signals and Vickers machine gun sections were attached. Following British practice this was altered in 1928 to a headquarters, one sabre squadron and a machine gun squadron. This did not prove successful in either Britain or Australia and a modified version of the old establishment was reverted to in the early 1930s.

In 1929 Chauvel tried to have the British cavalry divisional organisation, which replaced one mounted brigade with two armoured car regiments, introduced, but being proposed at a time of renewed defence retrenchments the idea went nowhere. Efforts aimed at modernising the light horse during the 1930s were spasmodic, severely limited by finances and ultimately half-hearted. Light car troops were added to the regimental establishment in 1936 but the 1st Armoured Car Regiment, raised in 1933-34 from a light horse unit, used privately owned trucks to train with and remained the only such unit until 1939. In 1937 four regiments were converted to truck-mounted Machine Gun Regiments but this only brought the mounted formations up to 1918 firepower standards, not those of the late 1930s. More serious was a rapidly urbanising and industrialising society, which meant that the level of horse ownership in the civilian economy was declining. The inevitable consequence was that the light horse recruiting pool was rapidly drying up.

Upon the outbreak of war it was obvious that the light horse, largely neglected and ignored for much of the previous decade, had been overtaken by military events. The militia units were brought up to full strength but ways were hastily being investigated to make them into something more useful. As resources allowed, most regiments found themselves reorganised as motor, reconnaissance or armoured units. As the threat of Japanese invasion passed these reformed units were generally disbanded and the men further reallocated. Despite some consideration of the possibility in 1939 and early 1940, no light horse were sent overseas with the 2nd AIF and only a few small expedient mounted units served for short periods in Syria and New Guinea. The last horse-mounted unit, Western Australia's 10th Light Horse Regiment (once militia, but by then an AIF unit), was disbanded in early 1944. Some unit titles and numbers have continued in the post-war period with units of the CMF.



Further Reading:

Australian Light Horse Militia

Militia 1899 - 1920


Citation: The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Light Horse

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Monday, 19 October 2009 10:10 PM EADT

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