The waler’s tale touched a nation, but the facts are coloured by wistful fiction…
By Chris Coulthard-Clark
When the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) departed Australia’s shores in November 1914, it took with it nearly 15,000 horses among its artillery, infantry and light horse brigades, and various supporting units. Another 121,000 “walers” (the general name applied to Australian horses broad) went with later contingents, or as remounts, before it was decided in January 1917 that no more horses needed to be sent. Only 28,000 of these later departures were destined for AIF units; the remainder had been purchased for the British and Indian governments (mostly the latter).
As soon as the war ended, many Australian light horsemen learnt with dismay that their mounts would not be returned home with them. Lack of shipping and the high cost of transportation, as well as fears about introducing exotic diseases which might threaten the nation’s livestock, meant that those walers serving with AIF units were either to be sold off, transferred to other armies, or – if age and condition did not warrant either of these courses – humanely destroyed. The same policy had applied to the 224 horses sent with the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan in 1885, and the more than 37,000 walers used in the South African War of 1899—1902.
Just one horse out of 136,000 sent away to the First World War was brought back. According to Professor Ernest Scott, author of the volume of the official history dealing with the Australian home front, the sole exception was said to have been “the charger of General Bridges, which followed the gun-carriage at his funeral”.
Major General Sir William Bridges, commander of the AIF and the 1st Australian Division, had died at sea on 18 May 1915 from a wound sustained at Gallipoli. Two days later he was buried in the Chatby Military Cemetery at Alexandria, Egypt. His remains were exhumed later in July and returned to Australia, where after a memorial service in Melbourne on 2 September they were reburied the next day overlooking the Royal Military College (RMC), Duntroon, at Canberra (an establishment which Bridges had founded before the war).
Photographs of Bridges’ funeral procession through Melbourne streets certainly show a horse walking behind the casket. Official records make clear, however, that this could not have been an animal sent back from overseas for that purpose. In fact, moves to bring back a horse said to have been Bridges’ mount did not get underway for another two years. It was not until October 1917 that Senator George Pearce, Minister for Defence throughout the war, expressed his desire to have a 10-year-old bay gelding called “Sandy” returned and put out to pasture at Duntroon.
There is no doubt whatever that Sandy did eventually arrive back in Australia, thereby qualifying for the distinction of having been the only horse to return. Perhaps the belief that he had taken part in his master’s funeral related to the general’s initial burial in Egypt. This was entirely possible. Although contemporary accounts refer to a “quiet but impressive ceremony” that was notable for its “simplicity”, the conventions usual for the burial of such a senior military officer were followed – such as the playing of the Last Post. And certainly Sandy would have been available for that occasion.
When the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) sailed for the Turkish coast in preparation for the landing at Ari Burnu planned for 25 April 1915, 6,100 horses were in the 30 transport ships carrying the Corps’ two divisions. Very few of these animals were put ashore at what became known as ANZAC Cove before the ANZAC commander, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, decided there was neither room nor requirement for horses on the crowded beachhead which his troops had gained in the rugged hills a short distance inland. On 5 May Birdwood sought approval to send the horses back to Alexandria.
Records held in the Australian War Memorial state that Sandy had been among the animals embarked for Gallipoli (it is most unlikely that he was one of those actually landed), but from 1 August 1915 he was in the care of Captain Leslie Whitfeld, an Australian Army Veterinary Corps officer in Egypt. On 6 August General Bridges’ remains were loaded onto the ship bringing them home to Australia, but Sandy stayed in Egypt until both he and Whitfeld were transferred to France during Mach 1916.
A complication in the story of Sandy is the fact that he was evidently not Bridges’ sole charger. General officers had an entitlement to more than one mount, and there is photographic evidence that during the AIF’s time in Egypt in 1914—15 there were at least two other horses which were also described as “General Bridges’ charger”. Significantly, the markings on these animals show conclusively that neither could have been the charger that walked behind Bridges’ coffin in Melbourne, thereby eliminating that as a possible origin of the legend regarding Sandy.
What seems to be more important is that Sandy was Bridges’ favourite horse. Why this was so may be a mystery, since some were of the opinion that he was not a particularly handsome-looking animal. He was also not a mount to which Bridges could claim long attachment, since it appears that Sandy was only donated to the Commonwealth Government soon after the war began – a patriotic gesture by O’Donnell Bros, a brickmaking firm in the Victorian country town of Tallangatta. Presumably the horse exhibited other qualities – temperament perhaps – which endeared him to the general.
After Senator Pearce made his wishes known, Sandy was sent in May 1918 from the Australian Veterinary Hospital at Calais (which Whitfeld was then commanding as a lieutenant colonel) to the Remount Depot at Swaythling, England. Accompanying him was a groom, 38-year-old Private Archibald Jordan from Ferntree Gully, Victoria, who had been with the hospital since April 1917 after being classed as permanently unfit for further active service on medical grounds. Once three months of veterinary observation had established that the horse was free of disease, passage was arranged for Sandy – still in the care of Jordan, who reportedly had come to understand him well – in the freighter Booral, when it sailed from Liverpool in September. On arrival in Melbourne in November, Sandy was turned out to graze at the Central Remount Depot, Maribyrnong, on the western outskirts of the city.
While the original intention had been to pension off the horse at Duntroon, it is clear that Sandy saw out the rest of his days at the Remount Depot – despite later claims by Canberra locals that he was a familiar sight in paddocks near the RMC. By August 1922 increasing blindness and the onset of debility prompted a decision to have him put down, “as a humane action”. Before this was done, however, the War Museum (later to become the Australian War Memorial) was asked if it would like to preserve his skeleton. The War Museum Committee explored having Sandy stuffed whole, but baulked at this idea because of the expected cost (£400) when he had never actually been ridden in action, and the fact that he was now in poor condition due to old age. Instead, in April 1923, it adopted the proposal by Major General Sir Brudenell White, the Army’s Chief of the General Staff (who was also a member of the Committee), to only have the horse’s head and neck mounted at an estimated cost of £75. The hoofs would be preserved too, polished and mounted as trophies for presentation (at White’s suggestion) to the Minister for Defence, the RMC, and the offices of the Inspector-General and the Chief of the General Staff.
As a result of these deliberations, a taxidermist from the Australian Museum in Sydney travelled with an assistant to Melbourne. The pair spent a fortnight at the Remount Depot, photographing and measuring the horse in life before supervising his destruction and skinning. The unwanted remains were presumably buried at Maribyrnong. The work of mounting the head was carried out at the Museum in Sydney, and culminated in the fitting of a bridle which Lady Bridges provided as being one which her late husband had used before leaving Australia. In September the exhibit was sent to Melbourne for delivery to the War Museum. The hooves followed a month later, and were distributed as planned.
For many years Sandy’s head remained on display at the War Museum and later the Memorial in Canberra, forming a fitting tribute to the thousands of horses which formed such a proud part of the AIF story. It is still in the collection, though not on exhibition owing to deterioration through age. In 1959 the Memorial also became the recipient of one of Sandy’s hooves, returned as a donation from the Department of Defence (although which of the three originally put around the department is unknown). RMC retains its hoof, displaying it in the Officers’ Mess in Duntroon House. These relics remain as tangible links with the one waler that made it home from the war.
Chris Coulthard-Clark was a historian in the Military History section of the Australian War Memorial.