Horses in Australian Service by jSa9s5



Horses in Australian Service

 “No machine of steam and steel, of cog or cam, no vapor-fed motor, no craft
 propelled by batteries or boilers can successfully succeed the Percheron at the
 plough, the Hackney at the carriage, the Patchen in light harness, or the
 Denmarks or Thoroughbreds for all saddle purposes, lazily cantering to my
 lady’s hand, or fiercely charging as at Balaklava, Winchester, and Mars-la-
                                                                      Lt. Jonathan Boniface
                                                           “The Cavalry Horse and his Pack”

“Once an historical fiction, misinterpretation, or flat-out mistake
has attained the status of legend, most people will cling to it
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is easier to
ignore or misinterpret evidence, than to shed a cherished belief.”

In the early days of Australia’s colonization there was not a great need for horses by
the military. By 1816 there were only about 3,000 horses in the entire colony and
these would include riding and draught animals for farming and moving goods. In
1816 the first shipment of horses to India left New South Wales, by the 1860’s to
1870’s approximately 40,000 horses a year were being sold to the British Army in
India. By the 1880’s this figure had risen to 50,000 and large numbers continued to
be sold overseas – India, Japan, Philippines, and Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia)
– until the 1930’s. The large majority of these would have been draught animals for
pulling guns and supply wagons as well as pack animals. Cobb and Co. bred what
were called coachers, a cross between a standard bred or trotter and a draught horse
with possibly some thoroughbred in the strain as well. These horses were between
14.5 and 16 hands tall, wide chested strong and muscular, well known for their speed
and stamina. These horses proved so successful that they were in great demand by the
British Army in India and thousands upon thousands of surplus Cobb and Co. horses
were exported to the Indian remount service. The British Army in India considered
these New South Wales horses (it did not matter from which state they came from)
the best they could get and always demanded “Walers” for their best Troops. Riding
horses, gun horses, light draught, heavy draught, packhorses and polo ponies were all
known as Walers.
In the years after the British Army left Australia and transportation of convicts ended
the different states were responsible for their own defence. The greatest fears were
attack from the sea so defensive forts were built to defend the approaches to our
major cities. These were staffed with Volunteers, both Artillery and Infantry.
The need for cavalry was considered very low in defence requirements and very
little effort was put into raising units in the colonies. Until approximately 1885
cavalry/light horse volunteers in all states were unpaid and on top of that had to
provide their own horse, saddle, rifle and uniform and as well they had to purchase a
prescribed military standard bridle and bit. After 1885, cavalry/light horse volunteers
were paid and had their uniforms, saddlery and rifles supplied however they had to
provide their own horses a situation that remained until the Light Horse mounted on
horses was disbanded in 1943.

Pack Train in Palestine

Boer War.

In 1899 with the start of the Boer war the colonies offered troops for service in South
Africa. The British request was for infantry to be dispersed among the British
Regiments. Very quickly however it was realized mounted troops were the greater
need and subsequently all state draughts after the first one were basically mounted
infantry [the fore runner of the light horse]. There was now for the first time a
demand for horses to be purchased by Australian Governments for their military, as
before this time, horses were provided by the members of the units or hired from
local suppliers. Horses were purchased in 2 categories those for issue to state troops

going to South Africa and those for the British Army. The horses used by the
Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen actually came from the police paddocks, they were
horses originally purchased for use by the mounted police. Between 1899 and 1902
the demand for horses was high due to an appalling attrition rate due to disease and
poor horse management. The British Army purchased horses and mules from all over
the world for service in South Africa these equines came from:

Great Britain                          87,000 horses
South America                          26,544 horses
Canada                                 14,621 horses
Australia/New Zealand                  23,028 horses
Austria/Hungary                        64,517 horses
United States of America             109,878 horses            90,524 mules
South Africa                         160,000 horses
India                                   3,062 horses            1,114 mules
Spain                                                          15,229 mules
Italy                                                           7,004 mules
Cyprus                                                            128 mules
Uganda                                                             306 mules

Total Animals                                                      602,955

Sir Fredrick Smith’s book “A Veterinary History of the War in South Africa 1899 to
1902” gives figures for casualties of horses as a daily loss of 336 and a total loss of
326,000 for the war. The 6th Inniskilling Dragoons lost 1 horse for every 3 miles the
Regiment traveled, a total of 3,800 horses; the regiment started the campaign with
about 680 horses the average size of a mounted unit at that time. Because of this
horrific loss of horses during the Boer War the British Army totally reorganized its
Veterinary and Remount services which were small haphazard and generally unit
controlled so were anywhere from very good to extremely poor.

At the end of the Boer War and with the Federation of the Colonies military matters
became the responsibility of the Federal Government and the Army was reorganized.
Between 1901 and 1914 the huge bulk of the Australian Army 45,000 strong was
made up of volunteers and men undergoing compulsory military training. The
members of the permanent Army at the time of federation were known as the Staff
Corp and numbered about 1000 men by 1914 this number had grown to about 3,500.

Officers had to supply their own horses at their own expense but were then paid an
allowance for the horse, and all members of Light Horse Regiments had to provide
their own horse and then had an allowance paid when they attended parades and
camps, all Light Horse Regiments in the Australian Army were Militia that is part
time soldiers. Any other units that had a requirement for horses hired or requisitioned
them from local sources e.g. Livery stables, farmers or coaching services. The
Principal Veterinary Officer appointed in every state purchased the few horses
needed at the time by the permanent forces. In 1910 it was decided to establish
permanent units of Field Artillery, Engineers and Transport and the largest number of
horses purchased by the army was a total of 900 between 1910 and the declaration of
war in 1914.

Horses drawn transport

World War 1 (The Great War)

With the outbreak of the 1st World War on 4 August 1914 Australia offered 20,000
troops to Britain, 4 Lighthorse Regiments of 600 men were raised and one of the
requirements to join was to provide your own horse which if deemed suitable was
purchased from you by the army. The army now had a dilemma, draught and pack
animals were needed to make up the requirements for the new field artillery,
engineer, signal and transport units. These draught and pack animals were now
purchased from the same sources as they had in previous years been hired from
(Livery stables, Farmers and Coaching services). When the 1 st Division and the 4
Lighthorse Regiments sailed for Egypt 5,000 horses went with them. During 1915
another 9 Light Horse Regiments were raised bringing the total to 13 Regiments. It
was during 1915 that the AIF’s first remount units were formed and sent overseas,
purchasing and training of horses in Australia was done by local buyers under the
control of the Principal Veterinary Officer in each state.

Watering at a desert oasis.

Basically buyers were looking for horses that were 8 years of age and sound the
demand in order of precedence was Light draught, heavy draught and pack and riding
animals. When the Australians arrived in Egypt the provision of horses to Australian
units came under the British Indian Army Remount Service and it is now that the
term Waler for all Australian horses (light and heavy draught, pack and riding horses)
became a term familiar to Australians. After the Gallipoli campaign where very few
horses were needed the AIF returned to Egypt where it was reorganized into 5
Infantry divisions and 4 brigades of Light Horse. During 1916 the Infantry Divisions
were sent to France and the Light Horse Brigades remained in the Middle East to
form the backbone of the Desert Mounted Corp. Two Light Horse Regiments the 4 th
and 13th went with the Infantry Divisions to France and had a name change to Corp
Mounted Troops or were also known as Divisional Cavalry. These light horsemen in
France spent most of their time carrying out security tasks behind the trenches and
escorting prisoners to P.O.W. camps and never gained the recognition that their
mounted compatriots in Palestine did.

Heavy draught horses for transport and artillery.

The war in Palestine from 1916 became very mobile and though there was some
motor transport all movement away from the railway lines was by horse and camel.
All supplies needed were transported by huge numbers of camels (approx. 80,000 to
100,000) of the Camel Transport Corp manned by Egyptians and British Officered
and the Army Service Corp (British and Australian) general service wagons. British
wagons were generally pulled by 6 horses under the control of postillion riders where
as Australians tended to have a single driver mounted on the wagon seat. Another
unusual feature of Australian wagons was the tendency to use the Cobb & Co hitch of
5 horses that is 3 leaders and 2 wheelers. In Palestine the British Army, made up of
British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian Soldiers, had on strength about 180,000
horses mules and donkeys yet only 35,000 of these were riding horses available to the
Desert Mounted Corp, all the rest were draught or pack animals. The Desert Mounted
Corp contained 14 Australian Lighthorse Regiments of nominally 600 men each and
approximately 650 animals (Total for all Regiments 9,100 horses).

“Expert horsemen differed as to the best type of horse disclosed by the
miscellaneous Australian remounts in the campaign. Some good judges expressed a
preference for the stocky, powerful pony types to be found among both the Australian
and New Zealand regiments. But although these small animals, many of which
possessed Welsh pony blood, had many admirers, the lesson of the war was that,
provided a horse had bone and substance, and was not too eager and fretful, the
closer it was to the English thoroughbred racing strain the more valuable it was for
active service. The horses of a light horse regiment were not uniform. They included
every kind of animal; large sturdy ponies, crossbreds from draught Clydesdale
mares, three-quarter thoroughbreds, and many qualified for the racing studbooks.
As a consequence of such mixed breeding, they frequently offended the horse-lover’s
eye by their faulty parts. But one quality they all possessed which made them
superior to the horses from other lands: they were all, or nearly all, got by
thoroughbred sires. This quality, reflected throughout in their spirit and their
stamina, was their distinguishing character. During sustained operations, on very
short rations of pure grain and no water over periods, which extended up to seventy
hours – when horses of baser breeds lost their courage and then their strength - the
Waler, though famished and wasted, continued alert and brave and dependable. The
vital spark of the thoroughbred never failed to respond. As long as these horses had
strength to stand they carried their great twenty stone loads jauntily and proudly.”
(Page 39 Vol. VII The official history of Australia in the war of 1914 – 1918)

A soldier’s mount from the Desert Mounted Corp

In France, all the horses needed by the ANZAC’s were supplied by Britain which
also supplied horses to Belgium and 6,000 to the American’s when they arrived in
1917. Where did all these horses come from that were needed to prosecute the War
in France and Palestine?

The following list is only a generalization,
Australia/New Zealand                               110,000
Great Britain                                       468,323
North America                                       1,000,000 (horses and mules)
South America                                       175,000 (horses and mules)
China                                               20,000 (mules)
Spain                                               17,500 (mules and some horses)
Total                                               1,790,823 Horses/Mules

Horses/Mules were lost at an alarming rate during the 4 years of the war, British
Commonwealth Forces lost about 550,000 animals in France and Palestine and the
French lost about 900,000 in France alone. In the history of the 3rd Light Horse
Regiment (C Squadron was all Tasmanian) at the end of campaigning the Regiment
still had on strength about ¼ of the horses it left with in 1914? Of all the horses from
Australia/New Zealand about 50,000 were purchased by the Australian Government
and sent straight to the AIF the rest were bought by British Military Purchasing
Commission’s and sent to South Africa (20,000 approx.) India and Mesopotamia
(present day Iraq). The last horses to leave Australia went in May/June of 1917 as the
lack of suitable transports and cost of shipping made it non viable. At the end of the
war quarantine and cost determined that no horses would be officially returned to
Australia so horses were categorized and disposed of in the most cost effective way.
In France horses belonging to Australia were categorized as X, Y and Z in addition
there was a class D. In reality due to such large numbers of horses available to the
British Army virtually all of the Australian horses were classified Y, Z and D.
Class X animals                  Transferred to British Army
Class Y animals         11,539 Sent to remount depot for sale to farmers in England
Class Z animals          8,194 Sold direct to farmers in France/Belgium
Class D animals          1,543 Sold to Butchers in France/Belgium

In Palestine horses were classified as A, B, C and D.
Class A animals                  Transferred to the British Army
Class B animals                  Sent to remount depot for use of British occupation
                                 forces in Palestine

Class C animals                      Made            available to the Indian Army
Class D animals                      Destroyed.

‘D’ class horses destroyed at the end of the war.

A myth arose after WW1 and has persisted to this day that all the horses in Palestine
were shot at the end of the war. There are no figures I can find for the sale of horses
in Palestine but the sale of horses in France realized the Australian Government
₤235,520 this going to pay some of the huge war debt (₤900 million) accumulated by
Australia. As the animals in Palestine were the property of the Australian
Government, transferring them to Britain or India would have gained them a credit to
be applied to reducing our war debt owed to Britain.


Australian water cart

Between the wars
With the end of WW1 and demobilization of the AIF the Army returned to its pre
1914 form of a small regular component and larger volunteer Militia. As there were
horses still left in Australia from the purchasing commissions of the war and the
previous rules of militia supplying their own horses very few horses were purchased
by the Army over the next 10 years or so. The remount trade continued and large
numbers of horses were still sold overseas to India, Dutch East Indies(Indonesia),
Philippines and Japan though the total numbers never again reached their pre WW1
levels although as late as 1939 approximately 11,000 horses were sold to Japan.
The militia strengths in the years between the wars never reached their pre WW1
levels and until about 1932 nothing was done to modernize the Army so that
equipment in use at that time was basically left over from the war. During the early
thirties the decision was made to mechanize the army and move away from the
reliance on horses. A number of Light Horse Regiments were dismounted and
converted to Machine Gun Regiments and light car sections were added to the
remaining Light Horse Regiments.


Australian 18 pounder Gun Team

World War 2
With the advent of War in September 1939 the 2nd AIF was raised and right from the start the
decision was made that no horse mounted units would be raised for overseas service, this was based
on the fact that Britain had by 1937 relegated the horse to ceremonial service only. In Australia
however we still had Light Horse Militia units and they were used for patrolling and guarding our
coast lines around our capital cities as motor vehicles were in short supply and what we had was
needed by the 2nd AIF. In 1942 when a Japanese invasion of our north was still possible a
surveillance unit called ‘North Australia Observer Unit’ was raised to cover our northern areas and
one of its request was the lease or purchase of horses and about 600 were obtained. The NAOU
operated until 1944 and was removed from the order of battle in March 1945. By 1943 however
industry had caught up to our needs and the last horse units were effectively disbanded leaving only
a few minor units with a requirement for horses. During the New Guinea campaign some horses
and Light horsemen went to carry out transport duties with pack horses in areas that were too rough
for vehicles and some Australian ex Light horsemen were mounted on British supplied horses in
Palestine for action against the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria but in neither of these cases was
the intent to be other than small and local actions. With the end of the war in 1945 the Army moved
quickly to divest itself of any remaining horses.


Although large numbers of horses were sold to the remount trade for shipment overseas most of
these were bred for other purposes and were only sold as they were surplus to requirements, for
example Cobb & Co’s coachers, pastoral companies that bred for the remount trade bred horses to a
requirement put out by foreign armies. The Australian Army, during its history through the years
from the first fleet to the disbanding of horsed units in 1943, never made large regular purchases of
horses, it basically relied on its volunteers to supply their own horses for the job at hand (These
horses were the ones used in the normal daily life of the Militia Volunteer), those few horses
required by the permanent forces were purchased from local sources by the Principal Veterinary
Officers in each state.

3rd Lighthorse Regiment ‘D’ class horses minutes after being shot

The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918 Volumes 1 to 7
Vets at War by Ian M. Parsonson
Horses and Saddlery by Maj. G. Tylden
Walers: Australian Horses Abroad by A. T. Yarwood
The British Cavalry by Philip Warner
The Australian Lighthorse by Ian Jones
The History of Cobb & Co.
The Lights of Cobb & Co.
The Cavalry Horse and his Pack by Lt. Jonithan Boniface
My Corp Cavalry by Doug Hunter
The Boer war by Thomas Pakenham
Jan Smuts Memoirs of the Boer War edited by S. B. Spies and Gail Nattrass
North Australia Observer Unit by Dr Amoury Vane

Australian Pack Train

“Once an historical fiction, misinterpretation, or flat-out
mistake has attained the status of legend, most people will cling
to it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is easier
to ignore or misinterpret evidence, than to shed a cherished


To top