Images of the Light Horse (1)
My colleague Robyn Van Dyk and I have probably taken well over 1,200 people on guided tours of the Memorial's current special exhibition Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse. As ANZAC Day 2008 approaches it is interesting to reflect on which Light Horse images have resonated most profoundly with our visitors. This week, I also took some veterans from the Vietnam War through the exhibition. They had served in the battle for Fire Support Patrol Base Coral in May 1968 and I asked them which images had a special meaning for them.
So, I'd like to draw attention to several images, each of which has something to reveal about the ANZACs involved in the campaign from the defence of the Sinai in 1916 through to their great ride to Damascus in late 1918. (This will probably take at least two posts.)
Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel of the Light Horse
In 1916, after the Gallipoli campaign, the Australian Light Horse brigades remained in Egypt and, with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, were formed into the ANZAC Mounted Division under the command of Major General Harry Chauvel. Light Horsemen were hardy, self-reliant and independent minded. They could shoot straight and ride well. Harry Chauvel was no exception and his soldiers knew it.
He emerged from the First World War as one of Australia's most effective and widely respected generals. It was Chauvel who issued the order to charge at Beersheba in the third and successful attack on the Gaza defensive line of the Turks. His able and dynamic command spearheaded the British advance through Palestine in 1917 and 1918, and projected it through Damascus to the northern Syrian border and the final capitulation of the Turkish forces.
James McBey, a British official war artist, has captured this very candid image of Chauvel as the commander of the Desert Mounted Corps in Homs at the end of the campaign in mid-October 1918. He is shown proudly wearing his slouch hat and the emu plumes worn by many Light Horse regiments. Chauvel looks older than his 53 years, but appears very much to be a man in the moment. By this stage he was responsible for thousands of Turkish prisoners, hospitals over-flowing with wounded soldiers and others struck by serious diseases including typhoid and malaria, and for restoring order in the large cities like Damascus that were suffering from the chaos that followed the Turkish withdrawal. Chauvel was shocked by this portrait: I think he probably hadn't realised how much the war had aged him. He wrote to his wife in London that the painting was drying in his hotel room and he expected that it would give him night mares.
"New Crusaders", or young soldiers on an ancient battlefield?
A great deal has been written about the romantic and religious associations of Palestine, and the men of the Light Horse have often been described as the soldiers of a "New Crusade". Yet for most of them, although this may have added interest, there was no profound connection. They were practical men concerned with surviving the hostile environment in which they were living. When offered an opportunity to take time off and look around, they were happy to take it and become part of a wave of popular tourists visiting the sites and buying souvenirs. But at the end of the day, they knew they were there to fight, not sightsee. They were, however, practical men more concerned with surviving the hostile environment in which they were living and fighting. The official historian Henry Gullet described the use of the term as "pure literary extravagance". My colleague, historian and curator Peter Burness, prefers to describe the ANZACs in Palestine as young soldiers on an ancient battlefield. I think he is spot on.
This fascinating image of light horsemen resting outside Damascus, probably taken on 30 September 1918, tells us so much about them. They are from the Australian Mounted Division and by this stage of the campaign they've been re-trained and equipped as cavalry. We can't see any of their swords, but on the extreme left of the photograph we can see a rifle in the bucket used to stow it on the side of the saddle when they were riding. Also on the left, two horses a busily engaged at extracting all they can from their feedbags, using varying techniques. In the centre of the image you can see the two "numnah" pads that sat under the saddles leaving a channel up the centre above the horse's spine.
The group of soldiers are all wearing their fur felt hats with the brims down to ward off the shade and at least four can be seen with emu plumes. Most display the rising sun badge on the front of their hats and one of them also has his dust goggles mounted on top of the hat's brim. The faces are mostly those of young men, possibly reinforcements who arrived after 1916. One manages to smile. Although some of the clothing is worn out and two men wear bandages on their wrists, for the most part both men and their horses look to be lean but healthy.
We've enlarged this photograph in the exhibition and you can easily stand in front of it and pick out more details about the men, their horses and their kit. It is very near the end of their long campaign, but most a very long wait before their homecoming in 1919.
Quite often at the Memorial we see young soldiers coming through the museum after they had finished their recruit training, obviously wishing to familiarise themselves with the history of those who went before them. From my observation, the faces of these ANZACs and those serving today are much the same.
This huge painting by H. Septimus Power always captures the attention of our visitors, in part because of its sheer size (1.5 by 2.5 metres). More importantly, it also depicts a great story reflecting the work of the ANZAC Mounted Division in late September 1918.
A force of nearly 5,000 from the Turks' Maan garrison was encountered by Lieutenant Colonel Donald C. Cameron's 5th Light Horse Regiment at Ziza on 28 September 1918. Hopelessly cut off, they had been fleeing north towards Amman and sought Australian protection from the Beni Sakr tribes that had been circling them and threatening to strike against them. Together with the 7th Light Horse Regiment, this unlikely coupling of Australians and Turks held the position at Ziza overnight until the arrival of the New Zealand Brigade on 29 September. They then surrendered without a fight. You can read a more detailed post on this incident here.
Dominant in the centre of the image is Brigadier General Granville Ryrie, the commander of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, who had been called forward to provide reinforcements from his brigade by Major General Edward Chaytor, the New Zealander and commander of the ANZAC Mounted Division. Lieutenant Colonel Cameron is shown to Ryrie's immediate right. On a tour this week I heard from some horse experts that Power had nicely captured the difference between the Walers ridden by the Light Horse and the Arabians ridden by some of the Beni Sakr Arabs. Although they are much harder to identify in this online image, the original work clearly shows the blue-grey uniforms of the Turkish troops in their defensive position on the right hand side of the painting.
Visitors are always impressed by the humane and honourable actions taken by Ryrie, Cameron and their troops to avoid what may have turned into the slaughter of this large Turkish force, had the Beni Sakrs been allowed to have their way after the Turks had surrendered their arms.