Saturday, August 20, 2022


The following commentary about the poem had been intended to be a few introductory paragraphs but, like Topsy, "just growed".

Some background:
  • The Second Boer War, also known as the Boer War, the Anglo–Boer War, or the South African War, was a conflict fought between the British Empire and the two Boer Republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State) over the Empire's influence in Southern Africa from 1899 to 1902.
  • From 1899 to 1901 the six separate self-governing colonies in Australia sent their own contingents to serve in the Boer War. That much of the population of the colonies had originated from Great Britain explains a general desire to support Britain during the conflict. After the colonies formed the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, the new Government of Australia sent "Commonwealth" contingents to the war. The Boer War was thus the first war in which the Commonwealth of Australia fought.
  • Around 15,000 Australian men and women, most of whom were born between 1870 and 1880, served in the Second Boer War in South Africa between October 1899 and May 1902. Approximately 600 Australian soldiers died in the Boer War; about half from military action and half from disease.
  • Approximately 16,000 horses were shipped to the Boer War from Australia, in approximate alignment to the number of Australian troops.
  • Over 300,000 horses in total died during the Boer war.
  • Horses died not only in battle, they also died of disease, starvation and some were eaten by soldiers needing food.
  • Australia’s strict quarantine laws prevented horses being returned Australia, a cause of great sadness to the Australian horsemen soldiers who were attached to their horses. Some were sold, many were shot.
  • The pattern repeated in World War 1 in dealing at war’s end with Australian horses that had been shipped overseas. Australia sent more than 120,000 horses overseas in WW1, and of these, 82,000 went to India (although different figures are sometimes offered). Another 10,000 went to France with the infantry in 1916. The rest, 29,348 horses, were shipped to the Middle East to “horse” the AIF or other parts of Britain’s imperial armies between 1914 and late 1916. At the end of the war the Australians in Egypt, Palestine and Syria had 9,751 horses of all types and their fate quickly became an important consideration in the AIF’s demobilisation. Returning the horses to Australia was quickly ruled out, partly because of the disease threat they posed to Australia’s livestock industry. More fundamentally, returning them would cost more than the horses were worth.
  • It is a mistaken belief, although common, that WW1 light horsemen shot their horses in significant numbers so they would be spared a hard and cruel postwar existence.
  • In France, Belgium and Britain, it was quickly decided to sell the horses to locals. The sales would recoup some money for the AIF and would assist with postwar reconstruction. Sales proceeded throughout 1919 – but only after assurances had been attained that French and Belgian butchers would not take the horses for their meat.
  • Similar sales seemed a less likely option in Egypt, where camels and donkeys were more desirable work animals, and also because, as Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel informed AIF Headquarters, there was strong opposition to the horses being sold to those of an “Eastern nationality” because Middle Eastern standards of animal treatment affronted Australian sensibilities.
  • In early 1919 the Australian government decided that the older and unfit horses would be destroyed. Their manes and tails were shorn (horse hair was valuable) and their shoes removed, then they were shot. They were gutted and the skins salted (these were valuable too). In all, 3,059 of the AIF’s horses were destroyed in this way by members of Australian or British military forces.
  • Many light horsemen felt aggrieved that the horses would not be returned to Australia. Soldier-poets, Major Oliver Hogue (“Trooper Bluegum”), expressed what may have been a common sentiment in Palestine in 1919: that it would be better to see the mounts of the light horse shot rather than sold to the local population:
I don’t think I could stand the thought of my old fancy hack
Just crawling round old Cairo with a ’Gyppo on his back.
Perhaps some English tourist out in Palestine may find
My broken hearted waler with a wooden plough behind.
No, I think I’d better shoot him and tell a little lie:–
“He floundered in a wombat hole and then lay down to die.”
Maybe I’ll get court martialled; but I’m damned if I’m inclined
To go back to Australia and leave my horse behind.
  • So how did the idea that so many light horsemen secretly shot their horses come about?
  • In 1946 one of the AIF’s other literary figures, Ion Idriess – never one to duck an opportunity for literary licence – wrote that many light horsemen shot their “faithful friends” rather than see then go to the “fellaheen and the Arab”. But he had been sent home in 1918, so he certainly had no firsthand experience of these events.
  • Family lore has no doubt played its part and claims in the Duchess of Hamilton’s First to Damascus (2002) about her father taking his horse away from camp, tying a handkerchief around its eyes and shooting it seem to fit into this category.
  • One light horseman, J.L. Grey (writing under the pseudonym Donald Black), recalled in his memoir Red dust (1931) how he took his horse, Blackboy, from camp one morning and they spent a few quiet last hours together, but then returned to camp where Blackboy joined the other horses being taken away to be shot. The only clear case of a light horseman shooting his own horse is that of Henry Bostock, who recalled the experience in his book The great ride (1982); he was detailed to work on the destruction parties and he shot his horse quite officially.
Above: Australian Light Horse attacking Boer soldiers

Men from the 2nd South Australian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent, who fought in the Boer War. Third from left is Trooper Harry "The Breaker" Morant. South Africa, c. 1900.

Australian Mounted soldiers, South Africa c 1900

Members of the 5th Victorian Mountain Regiment cross the Pongola River, South Africa, 1901

Boer troops in the field, c 1900

  • The Australian War Memorial records that 136,000 horses were sent overseas in WW 1 and that only one horse made it back home: Sandy.
  • Sandy belonged to Major General Sir William Bridges, who was killed at Gallipoli. He was one of 6,100 horses that had embarked for Gallipoli. However, very few of the animals were put ashore, as Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood decided there was not room or requirement on Anzac Cove. On 5 May Birdwood sought approval to send the horses back to Alexandria.
  • From 1 August 1915 Sandy was in the care of Captain Leslie Whitfield, an Australian Army Veterinary Corps officer in Egypt. Sandy remained in Egypt until he and Whitfield were transferred to France during March 1916.
  • In October 1917 Senator George Pearce, Minister for Defence, called for Sandy to be returned to Australia for pasture at Duntroon. In May 1918 the horse was sent from the Australian Veterinary Hospital at Calais to the Remount Depot at Swaythling in England. After three months of veterinary observation, Sandy was declared free of disease and arrived in Melbourne in November. Sandy was turned out to graze at the Central Remount Depot at Maribyrnong.
  • Sandy saw out the rest of his days at the Remount Depot. Although he was originally intended to go to Duntroon, his increasing blindness and debility prompted the decision to have him put down, “as a humane action”, in May 1923. His head and neck were mounted and became part of the Memorial's collection. Sandy was displayed for many years, although is currently not on exhibition owing to deterioration through age.

By the way, the horses sent overseas were known as “Walers”, an Australian breed of riding horse developed from horses that were brought to the Australian colonies in the 19th century. The name comes from their breeding origins in New South Wales; they were originally known as "New South Walers".

Australian light horsemen riding Walers, WW1

Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson was himself a horseman, the pseudonym "The Banjo" being the name of his favourite horse.

Paterson became a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age during the Second Boer War, sailing for South Africa in October 1899. There he met fellow war correspondents Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling as well as British army leaders Kitchener, Roberts and Haig.

Paterson had to leave his horse behind when he left South Africa in 1900. He had travelled on campaign through much of the Orange Free State and into the Transvaal, to Johannesburg and Pretoria, sending photographs and dispatches from the front.

The Last Parade was written by Banjo Paterson in 1902. It appeared in Paterson’s collection Rio Grande’s Last Race and Other Verses after his return home.

The Last Parade

- A B (Banjo) Paterson

With never a sound of trumpet,
With never a flag displayed,
The last of the old campaigners
Lined up for the last parade.

Weary they were and battered,
Shoeless, and knocked about;
From under their ragged forelocks
Their hungry eyes looked out.

And they watched as the old commander
Read out to the cheering men
The Nation's thanks, and the orders
To carry them home again.

And the last of the old campaigners,
Sinewy, lean, and spare ⁠—
He spoke for his hungry comrades:
"Have we not done our share?

"Starving and tired and thirsty
We limped on the blazing plain;
And after a long night's picket
You saddled us up again.

"We froze on the windswept kopjes
When the frost lay snowy-white,
Never a halt in the daytime,
Never a rest at night!

"We knew when the rifles rattled
From the hillside bare and brown,
And over our weary shoulders
We felt warm blood run down,

"As we turned for the stretching gallop,
Crushed to the earth with weight;
But we carried our riders through it ⁠—
Sometimes, perhaps, too late.

"Steel! We were steel to stand it ⁠—
We that have lasted through,
We that are old campaigners
Pitiful, poor, and few.

"Over the sea you brought us,
Over the leagues of foam:
Now we have served you fairly
Will you not take us home?

"Home to the Hunter River,
To the flats where the lucerne grows;
Home where the Murrumbidgee
Runs white with the melted snows.

"This is a small thing, surely!
Will not you give command
That the last of the old campaigners
Go back to their native land?"

They looked at the grim commander,
But never a sign he made.
"Dismiss!" and the old campaigners
Moved off from their last parade.

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