A nine-pocket bandolier, the woollen tunic, leggings, even braces – like the soldiers embarking on the troop ships for the Middle East in the first World War, I’ve packed my uniform as I prepare to follow in their footsteps.
As a young person, General Sir Harry Chauvel was a larger than life character to me, much like the soldiers he commanded.
As my mother’s great uncle and someone whose exploits were made into the movie, Forty Thousand Horsemen, by his nephew, Charles Chauvel, his military achievements and the efforts of the Australian Light Horsemen in the Middle East were something I always wanted to know more about.
When I was given the opportunity to travel to Israel to take part in the centenary commemorations of the famous Light Horse charge at Beersheba, and to re-enact the charge on October 31, I jumped at it.
Along with another 176 people, my parents, my brother and sister, Mum’s cousin, and our second cousin included, I’ve begun my own trip of a lifetime to Israel, albeit a lot more peacefully, organised by the Australian Light Horse Association in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some of the tour group has already visited important first World War sites in Turkey and Egypt – foremost among them Gallipoli, where Light Horse brigades fought without their horses – but also Egypt, where remount depots were located, and where the troops defended the Suez Canal and began the push north to repel the Turkish forces.
Among the sights we’ll be seeing when we arrive are Megiddo, a place of strategic importance throughout history and the place of a significant victory by a squadron of Light Horse against a superior enemy, and a Turkish railway station at Semakh.
We will be honouring Aboriginal Light Horsemen, visiting Jerusalem, where the keys of the city were surrendered to General Allenby, and acknowledging the New Zealand Mounted Rifles’ significant part in the war effort.
A key part will be a three-day ride in the Negev Desert by 100 riders, myself among them, remembering a similar trek under much more arduous conditions, by the Light Horse troops as they prepared to do battle for the city of Beersheba.
There won’t be any sunglasses, no accompanying coffee machine, or air-conditioned hotel rooms to check into at the end of the day – this will be much as the soldiers 100 years ago experienced things.
Everything we’ll need, we’ll be carrying on our horses – our tents, our bedrolls, and personal items in a haversack over our shoulder.
It will all culminate in important international ceremonies at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Beersheba, a city parade, and a heart-stopping recreation of the charge over the same piece of ground the brave Light Horsemen charged, yelling and brandishing their bayonets, 100 years earlier to the hour.
Seeking out the military uniform to wear at official functions – the slouch hat with plumes, a tent to camp in the desert in – has built my anticipation to understand what it was like for my great great-uncle Harry and his brother, Allan, my great-grandfather, and all the other soldiers who fought in the Great War.
Light Horse troops led by one of their own
On October 31, Australians and New Zealanders will pay tribute to an astonishing military manoeuvre in Palestine that helped change the course of World War I.
It will be 100 years since the 4th Light Horse brigade were given orders to saddle up, draw their bayonets and charge across an open stony plain towards the Turkish trenches at Beersheba, in an act of sheer courage.
Although the successful charge by 800 men against the odds isn’t as well-known as the events of Gallipoli or the Somme, it changed the course of the war in the Middle East, forcing the Turks to begin retreating, and it was seen as one of the war’s major strategic victories.
Its commander was Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, later recognised as one of Australia’s greatest wartime leaders and one of its greatest soldiers.
Brought up at Tabulum in northern New South Wales, 65km from Stanthorpe, Chauvel’s father had founded the Upper Clarence Light Horse, and Harry was gazetted a 2nd lieutenant in the troop before the family moved to Canning Downs South in the Warwick district, where they raised a troop for the Warwick Company of the Darling Downs Mounted Infantry.
Harry was ordered to Charleville in 1891 to help quell the Great Shearers’ Strike, before being posted to Clermont and the Longreach/Winton/Hughenden region in 1894 to cope with further strike action.
His first overseas military service was in the Boer War in South Africa, where he served as a major in the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry.
Despite the shocking hardships experienced by men and horses, of over 2900 Queenslanders who sailed for South Africa, only 22 were killed in action or died of other causes, and they were very highly regarded for their ability to ride and shoot.
In 1915 Harry commanded the 1st Light Horse brigade at Gallipoli and after evacuation was given command of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division.
He succeeded Sir Philip Chetwode to the command of the whole Desert Column in April 1917, later the Desert Army Mounted Corps of 180,000 men from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France and India, thought to be the largest body of cavalry ever to serve under one leader.
Chauvel was the first Australian to attain the ranks of Lieutenant General, then General, in 1929.
After his overwhelming successes in Palestine he continued in the army and retired as chief of general staff in 1930.
As well as serving his country through three major wars he set standards that had a large bearing on the Australian military tradition.