top of page

Who, with his horse, is our best and brightest?

Below is an extract reproduced with permission from The Last Charge of the Australian Light Horse, by Peter FitzSimons. An insight into how the Aussie troops cared for their horses...

And so a renewal of the heavy training for the Australian Light Horse begins – more long route marches, more short rote drill, more tactics enacted until each routine becomes as natural as breathing. It is for a minimum of eight hours a day and the only day off is Sunday.

While the men are not yet sure exactly what their next military challenges will entail, beyond patrolling and defending the Canal, the good news is that it will be astride their blessed steeds and so they must get both themselves and their mounts in condition. None is more keen to get at the Turks than the survivors of the shattered 8th and 10th Regiments, who sustained 372 casualties at the Battle of the Nek. It will take some time to again get up to strength with ‘reinstoushments’, but there is a heavy account to be settled and they

want to work hard towards it.

Over coming weeks the training goes on, the Light Horse glorying in the open space, in being away from the wretched trenches at Gallipoli and once more united with their Walers – who they really do look after like silkworms, with all the grooming skills most of them had been raised on back in Australia. And sure enough, beneath the desert sun, their magnificent beasts start to regain condition, lustre and stamina.Of course the men are constantly monitoring their steeds’ shape and adjusting the Australian-designed ‘swivel tree’ saddle accordingly so that no saddle sores develop.

Three unidentified troopers of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment on patrol at Gererat in the Sinai. ...
Three unidentified troopers of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment on patrol at Gererat in the Sinai. c1917

By contrast, the Australian Troopers note with disdain and distress just how many of the English horses from neighbouring squadrons develop exactly those and other conditions for want of the right kind of care.

It is the surest sign of either neglect or ignorance. Don’t these bastards know how to set your saddle so it is perfectly balanced, so there is no chafe, so the sand doesn’t get in? Don’t they know how to check with the eye, and know at the touch that something is wrong? Too many fancy lads used to a quick trot in the cold English ‘sun’, don’t know, as every Australian does, how the heat can beat you and a horse into submission and out of use if you are not careful. On the general subject of horsemanship, don’t they know how to tie down their quart pots and water bottles so they don’t rattle?

No, they bloody well don’t, but at least the wild colonial boys are more than happy to share their knowledge, spiced with some strong language. Sometimes the Poms listen, more often it just makes British upper lips as stiff as their saddles.

All up, when it comes to relations between Australians and the Poms, there is a strange dynamic at play. For yes, on the one hand, as the Australian flag effectively proclaims, most Australians see themselves as a British outpost in the South Seas. And, as demonstrated by both the Boer War and this Great War, ‘Mother England’ only has to call and Australia will send her most loyal sons across the waves to her aid. But the instant that relationship moves into the sporting domain, all such bets are off and, as a matter of fact, we bet you bastards we can beat you motherless!

Will you take the bet, as to who is best? Ye olde English? Or the wild colonial boys?

The issue is to be decided in what will become known as ‘The Desert Olympics’.

To settle the score, a competition day is arranged between the two armies. Who can represent the Australian Light Horse in the caper? Who, with his horse, is our best and brightest?

There is no discussion.

Member of the Australian 2nd Light Horse on active duty in the Middle East ca. 1917 (Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland)
Member of the Australian 2nd Light Horse on active duty in the Middle East ca. 1917 (Image of State Library of QLD)

It is, of course, Lieutenant Guy Haydon on Midnight to represent the pride of Australia and the competition takes place just a few weeks after their return from Gallipoli. There are three events designed to test the ability of the horse, the rider, and the skills of the horse and

rider combined.

As the Troopers from two nations gather, bets are laid, the English counting it as easy money. They still think it preposterous to imagine that a colonial could beat an Englishman on an English thoroughbred.

With the English lining up on one side, and the Australians on the other, the first event is a straight-out race on the sand over a quarter of a mile, a race known in the Hunter Valley as a ‘Bridle Spurt’. Is there anything more thrilling than seeing such magnificent horses

racing each other close-up? The thunder of their hooves, and the way every stride throws up clods of desert! Their foaming flanks! Their manes flying as muzzles strain for mastery!

The way their riders lean forward on their haunches, moving their bodies in perfect synchronicity with their mighty steeds. The way, as the two steeds round the turn for the final sprint to the line, their every muscle strains as they go neck and neck at break-neck speed, the two jockeys leaning in tight, urging their surging mounts to go faster still!

Both riders look like they were born in the saddle – it’s just that the Englishman was clearly born a little late, for, after the first 200 yards, Lieutenant Haydon and Midnight are at least 50 yards ahead. Now, just as he has learnt to do in countless such races in Australia, Haydon eases back, allowing the marvellous Midnight to do only what is necessary to win, so she has as much energy as possible for the contests to come.

Oh how the Australians cheer, and throw their hats in the air as Midnight crosses the line, 20 yards clear!

Australia 1 England 0.

The next thing is a ‘utility flags’ event, sometimes known as tent- pegging, which sees both riders, at full gallop, using their lances to remove tent-pegs from the ground, exactly as they might if charging into an enemy camp at dawn and wreaking havoc by causing the tents\ of the enemy to collapse upon them before they can get out to fight. Not only must they be extraordinarily precise, but they are also in a race against the clock. Again, the Troopers of both nations crowd close as both riders put their steeds through their paces, swirling through dust, twirling about the flags and changing directions as if their mounts were dragonflies, before whirling away once more, but it is no more of a match than last time. Guy Haydon and Midnight had been born for this event.

Australia 2 England 0.

Lieutenant Haydon and Midnight
Lieutenant Haydon and Midnight

Can the English at least salvage some honour by winning the event involving an ‘equestrian test’ of precise dressage movements, which the British thought they had cornered as this at least is a classic English event, and a staple of English riding school training. In this event the

test is less speed, and more starch, as they must put their horses through a series of formal equine movements.

This time, at least, the English pair are impressive, as they move through a series of dressage manoeuvres including collected gaits, extensions, half passes, flying changes, shoulder-in, pirouettes, halts and rein backs. Lieutenant Haydon and Midnight both watch closely, and with interest, never having participated in these kinds of contests in Australia. On the other hand, what they do have is perfect communi- cation, with Midnight able to read Haydon’s desires simply by gentle pressure from her master’s legs and from his faultless feel and signals on the reins.

So yes, it is a close-run thing but as the soldiers roar Haydon is able to take her through it with aplomb – and again they have their measure!

Australia 3 England 0.

Friends? It is all over, and the Australians are the clear winners of the Cavalry Desert Olympics. Guy and Midnight are the heroes of the Australian Light Horse. Beyond everything else, the Poms come to see more than ever that the Walers are quite possibly the best cavalry horses ever bred, and most of the Australians who ride them have superior

skills to those of the Englishmen.

In the meantime, in these hell-hot days of the approaching summer on the sands of the Sinai, the Turks and the British forces resemble two boxers in the early rounds, each probing the other for a sign of weakness – and intent.

Is the Ottoman Empire still trying to get through to the Suez, or are they content to hold on to what they still have, and dig in where they are?

For their part, are the British intent on pushing the Ottoman Empire completely out of the Sinai and even further? Or are they content to just protect the Suez?

The only way for each side to find out is to send out constant patrols, testing the other out.

‘Reproduced with permission from The Last Charge of the Australian Light Horse, by Peter FitzSimons. Published by Hachette Australia. Available now in all bookshops and online.’



They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.



117 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page