The Desert Column - dust jacket of the 1951 2nd edition
One of the more significant contributions to the legend of the Light Horse comes from the literature of Ion Idriess. A prolific and well loved author, whose books sold in the millions, Idriess is perhaps most famous for his stories set in the outback and Northern Australia. The Desert Column is based on the diaries that he kept throughout the war. Published in 1932, it is one of Idriess’ earliest works. Harry Chauvel noted in the foreword that it was the only book of the campaign that to his knowledge was “viewed entirely from the private soldier’s point of view”.
Idriess served as a sniper with the 5th Australian Light Horse. Enlisting in 1914, he began his diary “as we crowded the decks off Gallipoli” and he continued writing until returning to Australia unfit for further active service in March 1918. He mentions in his introduction to The Desert Column that “I would whip out the little book and note, immediately, anything exciting that was happening. As the years dragged on, my haversack became full of little note books.” The diaries cover his experience of some of the war’s major events from life in the trenches at Gallipoli to the battles at Romani and Beersheba. One of Idriess’ strengths as a writer is his ability to place the reader at the scene of the action. In his original diaries you can almost hear the “bang” then “whizz zzz zzzzz Bang” of a shrapnel shell bursting or feel the agony of his bone rattling ambulance ride to an Australian Casualty Clearing Station. The diaries reveal a keenness of observation and a descriptive and pacey style that Idriess would develop further in The Desert Column.
His diary account of the action at Beersheba on 31 October 1917 reads as matter of fact but also includes an element of humour.
. . . at last we are in for it, in deadly earnest . . . old jacko has just woken up to it that there is something doing away out on this flank. Straight north of us in old Beersheba . . . one road went the 7th Regiment, to tackle a Turkish outpost at Bin Arand. A New Zealand Regiment went up the other road, to tackle another outpost the rest of the brigades followed on behind. Both roads junctioned again near Beersheba, and the whole force was to join up at the junction.
So far as we troops knew our objective was to get behind Beersheba and stop the Turks from escaping, while the other Brigades on our left, with the infantry on their left, made a frontal attack on Beersheba itself.All our troops got into artillery formation as we were crossing a big flat in full view of the Turkish guns…Jacko shelled us all the way. . . We got to cover and waited a while. . . The seventh were already in action. We could see the Turkish machine gun bullets splattering. Then it came our turn to give the 7th a hand. We had to gallop across a mile of flat country to where the 7th had their horses in a deep wadi under cover and dismounted for action. But for some reason or other we did not come into action. . . we watched them for some hours and they watched us . . . presently along came one of our armoured cars, spinning merrily along the old Hebron road. They got in nice range of old Jacko but he never said a word. We were just in time to gallop a man down to warn them that there were Turkish guns straight ahead…when those cars knew what was waiting for them they just turned tail, and in ten seconds time only a faint cloud of distant dust marked where those armoured cars were.
The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beesheba on the first day of battle is as legendary as the Light Horse itself. Idriess, writes about this charge in The Desert Column:
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. Machine guns and rifle-fire just roared but the 4th Brigade galloped on. We heard shouts among the thundering hooves, saw balls of flame amongst those hooves - horse after horse crashed, but the massed squadrons thundered on. We laughed in delight when the shells began bursting behind them telling that the gunners could not keep their range, then suddenly the men ceased to fall and we knew instinctively that the Turkish infantry, wild with excitement and fear, had forgotten to lower their rifle sights and the bullets were flying overhead. The Turks did the same to us at El Quatia. The last half mile was a berserk gallop with the squadrons in magnificent line, a heart-throbbing sight as they plunged up the slope, the horses leaping the redoubt trenches - my glasses showed me the Turkish bayonets thrusting up for the bellies of the horses - one regiment flung themselves from the saddle - we heard the mad shouts as the men jumped down into the trenches, a following regiment thundered over another redoubt, and to a triumphant roar of voices and hooves was galloping down the half mile slope right into the town. Then came a whirlwind of movement from all over the field, galloping batteries - dense dust from mounting regiments - a rush as troops poured for the opening in the gathering dark - mad, mad excitement - terrific explosions from down in the town.Beersheba had fallen.
This heroic account of thundering hooves, horse's bellies and raised bayonets is echoed a few years later by Charles Chauvel in the scenes of the charge in the dramatic climax of the film 40,000 Horsemen.
We don't have a photo of Ion Idriess and we'd like to use one in our exhibition, so please get in touch if you can help us out.
The diaries of Ion Idriess are held in the Research Centre's collections 1DRL/0373
Ion L. Idriess, The desert column: leaves from the diary of an Australian trooper in Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1951)
William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, Barry Andrews. The Oxford companion to Australian literature (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.)