Beersheba - a horse's tale

Australian Light Horsemen riding Waler horses, prior to their departure from Australia in November 1914. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Australian Light Horsemen riding Waler horses, prior to their departure from Australia in November 1914. Photo: Australian War Memorial

One minute I am rounding up cattle, swimming and drinking from cool alpine creeks and billabongs, dining out on the lush sweet grasses of the high country, the next I find myself incarcerated in a dank cell with vermin and hundreds of stinking beasts sailing across the oceans for months, only to disembark into hell on earth. Nothing but sand for miles and the heat is unbearable.

I am now part of the Light Horse Brigade in Beersheba.

Me old mate used to laugh and holler as we jumped fallen limbs and creeks through the valleys and high country chasing roos and rounding bullocks, with the echo of the odd whip crack to get the juices flowing: now I am parading up and down, day and night, carrying more weight than Carbine when he won the cup.

What’s this sabre rattling about?

I never got used to it: but just when I could accept being in this living purgatory, things changed.

I could sense old mate’s trepidation through the saddle and the way he pulled on me reins, “Steady on cobber,” I pulled back, reared and pig rooted throwing the bastard off, that’ll teach him I thought.

He remounted with a few deliberate nudges to me flanks, a pat on my neck, and an uneasy apology—I knew something was going on. We had been without water for 72 hours and friendships were strained. There was two miles of sand, a battery of artillery and rifles between us, the desert inn, and a long overdue thirst-quencher.

There we all were, hundreds of us all standing in a line. At first we walked then we started to trot, the sweat and adrenalin flowed like bullshit in a public bar, as leather saddle bridle and rein creaked and tightened with every step: if I were running in the cup I’d be 100-1.

It was late afternoon, stinking hot, the sun was setting and the flies … we started walking; cautiously, in silence, by the time we reached a canter the earth all around us trembled. “Sweet Mother of God—what have the bloody Poms got us into now,” old mate screamed above the explosions! We’ve had some good times but this wasn’t one of them.

Me mates were falling all round us but we kept riding: this is madness; we are defenseless against the bullets, you see nothing then another one falls. We seemed to be moving faster the closer we got to the trenches, bullets fizzed past, the screaming was getting louder as if it was some kind of shield. “Keep going!” old mate urged me onwards as he shifted back and forth in the saddle, my ears pinned back; we galloped from memory if not purpose. There was no stopping … no going back.

“Here we go fella,” old mate whispered.

I was no longer conscious of what I was doing. Hooves don’t fail me now…jump…jump now…jump over we sailed it was a leap of faith.

Old mate was waving his bayonet around like a mad man; carcasses, men and Waler littered the red soaked sand, as dust, the stench of terror and blood filled enraged nostrils, choking on every asthmatic breath. Eyes wide open; still you could see nothing as each grain of sand pitted your whites like the venom of a thousand bee stings.  We were as one, wild with rage, motivated through fear. Then as quickly as the bloodbath started, the chaos ended.

As the dust settled, an uneasy serenity shrouded us like a pall: we wandered through the carnage searching for familiar faces. There was confusion everywhere as life and limb became estranged. Water, where’s the bloody water–have we been through all this for nothing! I could sleep for a week; I’d kill for a biscuit of hay and a roll in the long paddock.

Through the haze with old mate walking beside me pointing: the intoxicating scent of water filled my nostrils. Nothing has ever tasted so sweet nor would again. They said we won, I am not so sure. We were alive!

I didn’t know then, but soon discovered I’d never ride the high country again. Shiver with the first snowfall of winter. I would never hear old mate or kookaburra laugh as we danced through the cuttings—smell the eucalypt or taste the sweet crisp tang of dew-covered spring grass.

I was destined to forever bake in the insufferable Levant sun till my bones turned to dust.

Lest We Forget