Black and white photograph of soldiers and horses from the 2/14th Light Horse jumping over hurdles at Chermside Remount Depot.2/14th Light Horse over hurdles (Chermside Remount Depot), War horses: hoof prints in time, pg. 2

Australian Walers were used overseas as cavalry and artillery horses, and as carriage and sport horses for the British Army and the Raj in India. By 1867, the Waler had developed a reputation as one of the finest cavalry horses in the world.

The term ‘Waler’ was first used by the British in India referring to those horses that were bred in the colony of New South Wales. Walers became legendary with the Australian Light Horse for their feats of endurance and bravery on the battle field during WWI. The courageous charge at Beersheba on 31 October 1917 by the 4th and 12th Regiments earned international recognition. After marching all night and fighting all day with no water, ‘they galloped across a burning plain at the entrenched and heavily armed Turks, winning the day and the water wells of Beersheba.’ (Waler Horse Society of Australia Inc.)

Walers were originally bred to be stock horses that could withstand the extreme conditions of the Australian outback. They can go without water for prolonged periods. This is clearly illustrated in the book The Desert Mounted Corps, by English cavalry officer Lieutenant Colonel RMP Preston DSO. ‘One of the batteries of the Australian Mounted Division had only been able to water its horses three times in the last nine days – the actual intervals being 68, 72, and 76 hours respectively.’ (Cited in War Horses: hoof prints in time, pg. 40). In the blistering heat of the desert, it was not uncommon for soldiers to find some relief from the sun by resting in the shade of the shadows cast by their faithfull mounts.

Oil on canvas depicting Private George Shelton Lambert, a groom with 11th Light Horse Regiment, holding a troop horse. The horse and rider are in a desert landscape.

A favourite charger with groom, Anzac Mounted Division, Australian War Memorial

Cavalry horses often tend to get much of the glory but the artillery horses, the pushers and pullers, are the unsung heroes of the battle ground. Daisy and Belle were a pair of Walers fondly referred to as the ‘two beauties’ and were reknowned for their ability to pull anything anywhere. They were ‘low, thickset stocky bays, each with a white star on the forehead. They were round-barrelled, short necked and had that calm dependable temperament’. The pair were trained to move on command and were experts at ‘hooking a carriage out of a rut, pulling a skewed vehicle straight.’

They carried ammunition in large canvas envelopes and delivered them to the front line. Their skills came in handy when their driver, a man named Banks, fell into a shell-hole and became stuck in the mud.  No one was around so Banks called out to his two trusty horses. ‘Here Daisy…here Belle…’ Then ‘Left Daisy…Back girl, back!’ Daisy came to the rescue by turning her rear towards her master until he could grab a hold of her tail.  Using all her strength, she gently pulled Banks free. (Forgotten heroes: the Australian Waler Horse, pp. 49-50).

The Great War significantly depleted Australia and New Zealand of horse stocks. Australia committed around 130,000 horses and New Zealand over 8,000.  Most of the horses that went to war died – from exhaustion, disease and battle wounds.  Many that survived were quarantined and prevented from coming home to stop the spread of disease. Only one Waler returned home after WWI. The horse, named Sandy, belonged to Major General William Bridges who was killed at Gallipoli.  After the war Sandy spent the rest of his days out to graze at the Central Remount Depot at Maribyrnong.

Black and white photograph of two soldiers in the desert propped up against a sitting horse. The soldiers are taking advantage of the shade provided by the horse's shadow.

From War horses: hoof prints in time, pg. 36

The Australian army used Walers in other conflicts apart from WWI. They were deployed during the Boer War and were used again in WWII, but on a much smaller scale. During this time mechanisation began to supplant horses in the army and in general usage back home in Australia. Commercial breeding of Walers declined sharply. By the 1960s, the Waler had practically vanished. Today, Walers compete in a variety of equestrian events and are also used recreationally for activities such as trail riding.  They are considered a rare breed, with just over 700 Waler and part bred Waler horses recorded with the Waler Horse Society of Australia in 2012.

Bibliography

Mather, J 2007, Forgotten heroes : the Australian Waler horse, Jill Mather
Mather, J 2012, War horses : hoof prints in time : amazing true stories of heroic Australian Walers and New Zealand horses 1914-1918, Jill Mather
The Waler Horse Society of Australia

Written by Sarah Ryan, Librarian, Victorian and Australian Published Collections

This article has 2 comments

  1. I’ve read a book like that called Loyal Creatures by Morris Gleitzman. Sad how only one horse came back. Maybe you could get Morris to have a talk at the library because he’s Aussie.

    • Hi Nick, thanks for your comment and suggestion. It’s very sad that only one horse made it back. A tragic end for such magnificent and valiant creatures. It would have been devastating for servicemen to be parted from their trusty steeds after all they had been through together. Morris Gleitzman visited the Library last year to promote his book ‘Loyal Creatures’. There was a special stage performance followed by a question and answer session with the author. You might like to keep up with all the latest books for young people by visiting the State Library Victoria website ‘Inside A Dog’.

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