They suffered wounds, thirst, hunger and weariness almost beyond endurance. But never failed. They did not come home. We will never forget them.
You might be surprised to learn that this memorial inscription relates not to the men and women who fought in the war, but to the horses who battled alongside them.
The sturdy Australian stock horses of the Desert Mounted Corps are the subject of a new documentary airing on National Geographic Channel.
More than 130,000 horses, nicknamed “Walers”, served between 1914 – 1918, carrying Australian soldiers to victory and creating a legend.
Walers, a mix of breeds imported from overseas, were bred to be as hardy as possible, a vital attribute in the harsh Australian environment.
“For Australia’s first 150 years, the horse was crucial to our nation’s development, serving our farmers, pastoralists and explorers, as well as our more general transport and carrying needs, so it’s not surprising that horses had a special place in the hearts and minds of most Australians,” says Barry Strickland, writer and researcher for Australian War Horse.
Getting a horse ready for the challenge of war was not an easy task. Training camps across Australia prepared both man and beast for what was to come.
Strickland says specialist teams took them through exercises including jumping and charging, crucial skills for the unpredictable world of the battlefield.
Men and horses paired for battle built emotional bonds which were only heightened by the stress and brutality of war, making the loss of a horse an incredibly traumatic event.
“It was a terrible thing to lose your horse in battle. Not only did you lose a trusty mate who had served you well, but you then had to develop a new relationship with a new horse,” says Strickland.
“No doubt what affected many men most terribly was leaving battlefields behind that were strewn with the bloated corpses of slain horses, knowing their bones would soon be stripped bare by the hovering carrion birds.”
When it was time to come home, the Australian light horse regiments were devastated to learn their beloved horses would not return with them to Australia.
“The reason given was the enormous logistical exercise associated with transporting them and the prohibitive time and costs associated with the requisite quarantine procedures on their return,” says Strickland.
While machines have now taken over the crucial role in war once filled by horses, the Waler remains an integral part of Australia’s history. An animal that embodies so many characteristics of our national identity – mateship, loyalty, strength and bravery.