Guns and Horses and Camels... Oh My!

12 July 2013 by Miranda Cookman

Last month saw the removal of collection items, large and small, from the Western Front and Sinai–Palestine galleries in preparation for major building works in the space. All of these objects will be moved into storage, with the larger ones going into the Treloar Technology Centre at Mitchell, a large purpose-built shed that houses some of Australia’s national treasures.

Among these items were four special relics: two field guns, a horse, and a camel.  Just before ANZAC Day 2013 the two field guns were removed from the galleries using special trolleys and lifted onto large flatbed trucks for transportation to Mitchell.

The 1,160 kg French 75 mm field gun was a gift to the Australian War Memorial from the French government and represents the standard French and American field gun of the First World War. A revolutionary weapon when it was introduced, this was the first artillery piece to combine an effective recoil system, automatic fuze setter, quick-operating breech, and cased ammunition. By the end of the war, 12,000 of these guns had been made.

The German 77 mm field gun has been on display in the Memorials since the 1970s.  The muzzle of this gun is shattered – most likely this was done to prevent its being captured intact. This particular gun has a unique history as it was captured by Major Blair Anderson Wark near Bellicourt, on the Hindenburg Line, in 1918. Wark received the Victoria Cross for his outstanding bravery and initiative over a three-day period during which he led the 32nd Battalion, AIF, as it seized a battery of field artillery, silenced many machine-guns and took a large number of prisoners.

German 77 mm RELAWM05023

A camel and a horse were also removed from the Sinai–Palestine Gallery. These two animals represent two modes of transports used by Australian soldiers to cross arid landscape of the Sinai desert and parts of northern Palestine.

Camels were used by the Imperial Camel Corps, which was formed in January 1916 in response to the revolt of pro-Turkish Senussi tribesman in Egypt’s Western Desert. In late 1916 the Camel Corps was transferred to the Sinai desert to take part in operations against the Turkish army. Here the Camel Corps battalions fought alongside Australian light horsemen at Romani, Magdhaba, and Rafa.

The bulk of the Camel Corps was disbanded in June 1918 due to the growing impracticality of using camels in the rugged and mountainous country of northern Palestine. From the disbandment of the Australian companies, the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments were formed.

Horses were used by the Australian mounted units throughout the First World War. The light horse combined the mobility of cavalry with the fighting skills of infantry. Typically, they fought dismounted, with rifles and bayonets; however, on occasion they attacked on horseback, notably at Magdhaba and Beersheba.

The horse from the Palestine gallery is a chestnut gelding. Its mane has been “hogged” (cut off with clippers), which was fashionable from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Similarly, the horse’s tail has been “banged” (cut off in a straight line just below the line of the hocks – a peacetime military and civil fashion) and “pulled” (removing the long hairs along each side of the tail to give a neat, elegant line when the horse moves).

For many decades these collection items have helped tell the Australian experience of the First World War. They will now be placed in storage while new First World War galleries, due to open at the end of 2014, are being developed.