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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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Wednesday, 4 November 2009
Remount Section, AIF, Happy Dispatches, Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack” by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson
Topic: AIF - DMC - Remounts

Remount Section, AIF

Happy Dispatches, Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack”

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson


General Royston (with the walking stick) known as “Hell-Fire Jack”


The following is an extract from Happy Dispatches, Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack” written by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. During the Great War, Paterson served with the Remount Section in Egypt and penned this entertaining story of his service. It must be viewed as a "soldier's tale" rather than taken as historically accurate. However, regardless of the exaggerated history, the setting is precise in detailing the running of a Remount Depot. 


Happy Dispatches

Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack”

A man who feared nothing—“He’s gone after two Turks”—Had to try a sniff of gas—Remounts and rough-riders—A general chooses a charger—But selects an Australian buckjumper—Australian admiration for South African.

It is usual on the stage to begin by introducing some minor characters with a view to providing an effective entrance for the star. These minor characters are supposed to stand about in sycophantic attitudes, or to wave their hats with enthusiasm, as the star approaches; and then the audience starts to cheer. It is perhaps as well, therefore, before introducing Lord Allenby, to prepare for his entrance by saying something about “Hell-fire Jack,” otherwise General Royston, by instinct a bandit chief and by temperament a hero, whose name is well known in South Africa, England, and Australia.

But even a Brigadier-General, unimportant as he may be in comparison with a Field-Marshal, is entitled to have some sort of an entrance worked up for him. Let us begin, then, by setting the scene and saying something about the lesser lights (known on the films as “atmosphere”) so that we may get the principals into due perspective.

From a military point of view a remount unit is very much “atmosphere.” So it is opportune to introduce the sixth squadron of the Second Australian Remount Unit, better known as “Methusaliers,” the “Horsehold Cavalry,” and the “Horse-dung Hussars.” Their activities may serve as a foil for those of General Royston. In its un-military appearance and in its efficiency it rivalled the Australian hospital.

At Sea – En route for Egypt.

“W’ere the ’ell wos it we wos?”

Two of the troopers of the sixth squadron of our Australian remount unit had been wandering about the transport, down an alley-way and up a flight of stairs, down another alley-way and up another flight of stairs, until they were hopelessly lost. One was a little jockey enlisted as a rough-rider, and wearing a suit of uniform that fitted him all over and touched him nowhere. The other was an over-age man enlisted as a groom and bearing himself with all the smartness and dignity of a tired shearer.

For truth to tell, our remount unit in appearance, at any rate was about Australia’s last hope.

The country had been combed for efficient fighting men to make up the losses on Gallipoli and the Western front. Then it was discovered that about a quarter of the Light Horse regiments who were fighting on Gallipoli had been left behind in Egypt to look after the horses; and it was decided to organize a couple of hundred rough-riders, possibly the best lot of men that ever were got together to deal with rough horses. Horse-breakers from the back-blocks; steeplechase riders; men who had got their living by riding outlaw horses in shows—a lot of them had hung back from enlisting for fear that they would never be able to learn the drill. But when they heard that they only had to ride buck-jumpers they decided “to give the war a fly.”

All our officers were over age or unable to pass the doctor for fighting units. Not more than two or three of us knew anything about drill; the rest did not even know a sergeant-major from any other major.

November 1915—At Sea. En route for Egypt. Once we are at sea the march of the inextinguishables commences. These men may be old, but they don’t know it. A harassed little Irish non-com. comes up, salutes smartly and says:

“Trooper Whittin’ham wishes to see ye sor.”

Trooper Whittingham, a grizzled veteran from the cattle country with the marks of the scurvy still on the backs of his hands, gives a salute like a man brushing away a fly, and leans his elbows on the table.

Non-com.: “Shun! Stand at attention!”

Straightening up with the weary air of a man playing a child’s game in which he is not interested, Trooper Whittingham starts off in the unhurried style of a man who has a long day’s riding before him and must make his conversation go as far as possible.

“I was jest thinkin’ major,” he says, “that when we git over there I’d like to exchange into one of them fightin’ regiments. I was thinkin’ I’d like to go into the flyin’ corps. I never been up in an airyplane but if a man can sit a horse I suppose he could sit one of them things. I see they gets lost sometimes, and I’ll swear I’d never get lost. I can stick a knife into a tree in a scrub and let ’em lead me about blindfold for ten minutes, and when they take the blindfold off I can go straight back to that tree. Gimme one look at a mob o’ cattle and I’ll tell yer within ten head what there is in ’em so I reckon I could count a mob of Turks even if I was goin’ over ’em at a hundred miles an hour.”

I say: “They only take young men in the flying corps. You want nerves like a goat to go flying. I suppose you want to go as an observer. What would happen to you if the pilot got killed.”

“Cripes, yes, it’d be pretty tough if he got killed and I was left up there and couldn’t come down. I reckon I’d better go for the artillery.”

Enter another of the ageless men, a prospector this time, his hands all calloused from the pick and the drill.

“I suppose, major,” he says, “that a man could get off now and again to do a bit of prospectin’?”

“Prospecting! What do you want to prospect for? There’s no gold in Egypt.”

“No. But them tombs of the Pharoahs, they’re full of golden images and the like of that. If a man could strike one or two of them tombs! I’d get them Egyptians to show me a likely place, and I’d put down a shaft.”

“Put down a shaft. They’re buried under millions of tons of loose sand. You couldn’t put down a shaft.”

“Couldn’t I timber it?”

“No. There’s no timber in Egypt, except the government plantations. If you got cutting down trees there you’d get six months.”

“Well perhaps I could turn a crick (creek) on to it and wash the stuff away. Me an’ my mate we got good gold down near Tumut washin’ twenty feet of alluvial off the top of the pay dirt. What about that?”

“There isn’t a creek in Egypt that’d wash the dirt off a flea. There’s a war on, and you’ve got to look after horses. When it’s over, you can go after the Pharoahs if you like.”

The work of the Remount Depot is to take over the rough uncivilized horses that are bought all over the world by the army buyers; to quieten them and condition them and get them accustomed to being heel-roped; and finally to issue them in such a state of efficiency that a heavily-accoutred trooper can get on and off them under fire if need be.

We had fifty thousand horses and about ten thousand mules through the depot, in lots of a couple of thousand at a time. All these horses and mules had to be fed three times and watered twice every day; groomed thoroughly; the manure carted away and burnt, and each animal had to be exercised every day including Sundays and holidays. His Majesty’s Methusaliers had a perpetual motion job.

Hardly had we got our first shipment of Australian horses—very wild characters some of them— than brigadier-generals began to drop in. Every one of them wanted horses, and each general wanted the best horse; any other general could go and eat coke so far as he was concerned, for every man has to fight for his own hand in the army. Highly placed staff-officers looked in to pass their latest remarks on the war and incidentally to grab a good horse or two for themselves, their friends, or their subordinates. But Allenby’s orders were very strict. No officer, not even a staff popinjay or a brigadier, should be allowed to select a horse for himself. We had to issue the horses. The best had to go to the fighting men; the next best to the staff; and the culls and rejects to the men on lines of communication, camp-commandants, doctors, water-supply officers, and such-like cattle.

Among the first brigadier-generals who made for our depot, as Chinese junks make for port at the first smell of a typhoon, was General Royston who had made a name for himself in South Africa as Commander of Royston’s Horse. He was a square-built energetic man always doing something, a sort of prototype of “Teddy” Roosevelt when the latter was the colonel of the rough-riders.

It is said that there were sixty generals at one time quartered in Shepheard’s Hotel. But Royston was not the Shepheard’s Hotel brand of general—far from it. He had been given command of a brigade of Australian light horse. While it is altogether an admirable thing for a general to set his troops a good example by showing a contempt for danger, it must be admitted that Royston rather overdid it; and his troops alternately admired him and cursed him. It was not that he wanted to show off—he was not that sort of man—but when he got anywhere near a fight, a sort of exaltation seemed to seize him, and he took no more account of bullets than of so many house flies.

“When I’m running a show, Paterson,” he said to me. “I stick my lance in the ground; leave Dangar (his brigade major) in charge, and I go off to see how the boys are getting on.”

He would ride up behind a row of dismounted men firing for their lives and exhort them:

“That’s it boys. Pump it into ’em!” This to the accompaniment of a sotto-voce chorus from the firing line:

“Get out of that you old b——d. You’re drawing the fire on us!” The General Officer Commanding once rode up in a terrific hurry, all sweat and lather to make some alteration in the positions, shouting as he came:

“Where’s General Royston? Where’s General Royston?” An army signaller, who was eating his dinner out of a tin of bully-beef in the shade of his horse, stopped chewing for a moment and pointed to the Turkish lines:

“I last seen him (bite) gallopin’ up that gully (chew) after two Turks (swallow).”

Small wonder then that this thruster was about our first caller when the new lot of Australian horses came in. He rode up all unannounced and said that as he was passing by he had just dropped in to pick out a few horses for his brigade. When he was told that this was forbidden, he said:

“Well at any rate I’ll pick out a horse for myself. You must do the best you can to keep him for me.”

Running his eye over the compound where the horses were walking about stretching their legs, he picked out a magnificent black horse, one of the best-looking officers’ chargers that ever came out of Australia:

“My horses get a lot of work,” he said (which was true beyond any doubt) “and that fellow will just suit me.”

Then came the day when we started on the first mob of horses. General Royston must have had some kind of second sight for he turned up that morning to see the performance:

“There’s no harm in my looking at ’em,” he said. “I’m always up early (it was just on four o’clock in the morning) so I thought I’d ride round to have a look at ’em. Are you going to allot them their horses?”

“No,” I said. “I’ll let Sergeant-major Dempsey do that. He got his living riding buckjumpers in shows in Australia, and he can tell an outlaw through a galvanized-iron fence. A lot of these are old Queensland horses that have been ridden once and then turned out for two or three years.”

“Do you think they’ll buck at all?”

“Well, they’ll surprise me greatly if they don’t. I knew one big supplier in Australia who had shipped all his broken-in horses—about six hundred—and he got a rush order for a hundred more to fill up another ship. He hadn’t a broken-in horse nearer than five hundred miles, so he ran in a hundred unbroken horses and put the Barcoo polish on ’em.”

“Put the what, on ’em? The Barcoo polish. Some drug or other?”

“No. He and his boy ran them into a yard and forced them through a race, one after another, and the two, between them, caught and rode a hundred unbroken horses in two days. That’s a Barcoo polish. They could swear that every horse had been ridden. These men here would rather have one of those horses that knows nothing, than one of these old outlaws that has been ridden till he got a sore back and was then turned out for a couple of years.”

The depot was on the edge of the desert with the waters of the Nile in the background, and beyond the river the pyramids stood clear against the skyline. The General jerked his thumb towards the pyramids”

“From their summits forty centuries look down on us, but I don’t think the pyramids ever saw anything like this. What an outfit!”

The rough-riders had come out carrying their saddles and dressed for action. Field service uniform for a rough-rider consists of a shirt and riding-breeches; no leggings or puttees, and their socks were pulled up outside the ends of their breeches. They wore elastic-sided boots specially made in Australia, with smooth tops so that there would be nothing to catch a rider’s foot in the stirrup. Their saddles, also specially made, had high pommels and cantles with big knee and thigh-pads. Dust rose in clouds from the quiet horses going out to exercise; and as for the flies—there are five elements in Egypt: earth, air, flies, fire, and water, in the order of seniority.

Sergeant-major Dempsey, a six-foot-two Australian, straight as a stringy-bark sapling and equally as tough, took charge of the rough-riding. He had not yet acquired the military method of command. He said:

“Now, you, Bill, get hold of that bay horse,” instead of barking out his orders as a sergeant-major should. Men do not get on rough horses by word of command, they get on when they can.

“Charley, you take that big chestnut fellow. George, you take that black horse with the Battle Abbey brand. We’ll rub some stickfast on your saddle, for they’ll all buck. I was breakin’ in there once, and I never struck such a lot of snakes in me life.”

Having allotted the worst-looking horses to the best riders the sergeant-major says, “Now boys, grab your horses. Get to ’em.” There is a charming lack of formality about the proceedings. One rider begins to croon a song:

’Tis of a brave old squatter, boys, his name was William Binn.
He had two gallant sons was known both near and far,
He had some outlaw horses and none could break them in,
Bo I went down, rough-riding, on old Bulginbar.

“Tiger” Richards, a strapping young horse-breaker from the Riverina, says:

“This is my lucky day: look what I’ve got.” And he drags out a sleepy old bay horse that looks more like a ration-carrier’s hack than an outlaw. But Dempsey is seldom wrong. As soon as the old horse sees the saddle he tries to pull away and drags Tiger and the saddle all over the compound.

“Come on, you silly Queensland cow,” says the Tiger. “Do you think I’m an alligator?”

“Watch him, Tiger,” says Dempsey. “That cove threw Billy Waite (a celebrated rider) in our show in Queensland.”

“He’s struck something better than Billy Waite this time then. Hit him over the rump so as I can get him in the corner and have a few words with him.”

In a moment the compound was full of trouble. Horses were bucking all over the place. A big chestnut horse, as soon as he was mounted, threw himself straight over backwards and narrowly missed pinning his rider to the ground.

A waspish little bay mare refused to move at all when mounted, and crouched right down till her chest nearly touched the ground. It appeared that she was going to roll over, and her rider kicked his feet out of the stirrups. As he did so, she unleashed a terrible spring that shot him out of the saddle and sent him soaring in the air, high enough to see over the pyramids—or at any rate so he said. Some unmouthed brutes bolted back into the compound and fell over the ropes, while others set sail out into the desert as though they were going back to Australia.

Tiger Richards having mounted his horse said:

“He’s mine.” But the next moment he passed us at full gallop, the old horse boring his head down with no more mouth than the Bull of Bashan. “I’m his,” he added as the bolter tore away towards the Nile, where he fell head over heels into an Egyptian grave that had sunk below the level of the surrounding desert. As Richards got up and spat the sand out of his mouth he said:

“That’s the cove to win the war. A million b——y Turks wouldn’t stop him.”

General Royston watched all this without saying anything. But at last he burst out:

“Where’s my black horse, the one I picked for myself?”

“I’ve kept him for the last, sir,” said Dempsey. “I think he’ll show us some style. Bob Adams is going to ride him. He’s an old rider but good. How are you feeling on it, Bob? Would you like me to put one of the boys on him?”

“Not on your life, Jack. I’m just as likely to get hurt off a quiet old cuddy that’d fall down and break my neck. It’s all in the game. If this cove throws me, the saddle and the hide’ll come too.”

They were not shrinking violets, those rough-riders—not so that you would notice it.

The General’s choice was led out and gave little trouble while being handled.

“There you are,” said the General. “What did I tell you. Quiet as a lamb. Best horse I’ve seen in Egypt. Best horse I’ve ever seen anywhere. You must keep him for me.”

They lunged the black horse round for a bit, but he refused to take anything out of himself. Then Adams mounted. Whoof! Away he went arching himself almost into a circle like a watch-spring with his head right in under his girths. Straight ahead, sideways, round and round, backwards, he went in great bounds roaring with rage all the time and shaking and wrenching his rider at every prop and every spring. He wound up by landing, rider and all in an irrigation canal with a splash like the launching of a battleship. Adams could hardly walk when he got off him.

“There you are, sir,” said Dempsey. “He’ll never make a general’s charger. Best thing we can do with him is to sell him to the Turks. He’s an old hand at the game, that fellow; no matter how quiet you get him you couldn’t trust him the length of a whip. He’d be always watching you, and when he got his chance he’d set into it and he’d throw any man in the world out of one of those patent self-emptiers—those slippery army saddles.”

But Royston, like Teddy Roosevelt, did not know the meaning of the words “inferiority complex.”

“I can ride him,” he said. “I can ride anything. I’ll be very hurt, Paterson, if you don’t keep him for me.”

It seemed a good chance to say that he would be very hurt if we did keep him for him; but one doesn’t say these things to a general and off he went followed by admiring comments from the rough-riders:

“That’s Hell-fire Jack. He’d ha’ been shot fifty times, only he won’t keep still long enough for the Turks to hit him.”

We kept the black horse in the depot to give buck-jumping exhibitions which were very popular among the visiting English aristocracy, and created a good impression that we were doing our job. One titled lady asked:

“Do you ride many of the outlaws, Major Paterson?”

“Only those that the men can’t ride.”

Modesty gets no one anywhere in the army.

The gallant General’s inability to keep out of a fight might have landed him in the equivalent of Stellenbosch, or might have earned him the command of a light horse division. On one occasion he arrived at a fight in the desert (I think it was Romani) and found our forces enclosing the Turks on three sides, and apparently awaiting orders to attack. Riding up to one regiment that was waiting the return of its colonel from a conference, Royston called out: “Come on, boys.” The regiment, with howls of exultation, at once followed him. The other regiments, seeing these go in, thought that orders had arrived for an attack, and in half a minute they were all over the Turks. The victory went down to the credit of the man in charge of operations. But Royston had, at any rate, hurried things up. He was in line for a high command when his optimism proved his downfall.

Poison gas had been used by the Germans and experiments were being made with it on the Palestine front. Nothing would do Royston but that he must have a sniff of it. He was one of those men who would try anything once. He was warned against it, but no, he must have just one sniff of it so that he might be able to recognize it if it should ever be used against his troops. The result was that I found him in a hospital, a badly shaken man, passing green urine, and ordered away for long leave. But nothing would daunt him and he spoke most cheerfully of the day he would come back.

So far as I know he never got back. Thus one of the most picturesque personalities in the British army dropped out of active service.


Further Reading:

Remount Section, AIF

The Light Horse

Australian Light Horse Militia

Militia 1899 - 1920

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920


Citation: Remount Section, AIF, Happy Dispatches, Chapter XV. “Hell-Fire Jack” by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EAST
Updated: Friday, 11 December 2009 3:37 PM EAST

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