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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-Tour. – Lt. Jonathan Boniface


Colonial Australia

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.


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, originally purchased for use by the mounted police. Between 1899 and 1902 the demand for horses was high resulting from 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:




Great Britain



South America






Australia/New Zealand






United States of America



South Africa


















       Total                             469,690     133,305

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.


Pre WW1 Lighthorse

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) comprised 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 and paid an allowance for the horse. All members of Light Horse Regiments had to provide their own horse and paid 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.

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. Four 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 1st 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.

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, 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 (4th and 13th) went with the Infantry Divisions to France and had a name change to Corp Mounted Troops, 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.

From 1916 the war in Palestine 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 under British officers, 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. In contrast 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 (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)

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:



Great Britain

Horses: 468,323

Australia/New Zealand

Horses: 110,000

North America

Horses & Mules: 1,000,000

South America

Horses & Mules: 175,000


Mules: 20,000


Horses & Mules: 17,5000

      Total                                                  1,790,823

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 war’s end

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 directly 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; British occupation forces in Palestine
Class C animals Made available to the Indian Army
Class D animals Destroyed


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.

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. Alhough the total numbers never again reached their pre WW1 levels, 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. 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.

World War 2

With the advent of War in September 1939 the 2nd AIF was raised. Right from the start the decision was made that no horse mounted units would be raised for overseas service, 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 which 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 requests was the lease or purchase of horses. About 600 were obtained. The NAOU operated until 1944 and removed from the order of battle in March 1945. By 1943 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 other than small, 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 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 predominantly 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.

  • The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918

  • Volumes 1 to 7 Vets at War by Ian M. Parsonn

  • 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

The Last Parade

by Banjo Patterson

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 wind-swept 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 — 
Carried them p’raps 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.

by Henry Chappell


(This description is of an actual incident on the,
road to a battery position in southern Flanders)


Only a dying horse! Pull off the gear,
And slip the needless bit from the frothing jaws,
Drag it aside there, leave the roadway clear –
The battery thunders on the scarce a pause.


Prone by the shell-swept highway there it lies
With quivering limbs, as fast the life tide fails,
Dark films are closing o'er the faithful eyes
That mutely plead for aid where none avails.


Onward the battery rolls, but one there speeds,
Heedless of comrade’s voice or bursting shell, 
Back to the wounded friend who lonely bleeds
Beside the stony highway where it fell.


Only a dying horse! He swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh
Kisses his friend, while down his cheek there steals
Sweet pity’s tear; “Goodbye, old man, goodbye”.


No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,
Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;
He bears within his breast, more precious far
Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.

The Soldier's Kiss

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