Stories abound of how Australia’s Light Horse units came to be wearing emu plumes in their hats, but now one of the stories has been confirmed and it features one of Australia’s greatest military commanders, General Sir Harry Chauvel.
The story goes that Major Percy Ricardo and Captain Harry Chauvel began to wear the feathers when they were serving in the West Moreton Mounted infantry, thanks to a weekend socialising together at Franklyn Vale station, at Grandchester in the Lockyer Valley.
The property was being managed by Ricardo for Henry Mort, and according to the legend, a pet emu had died and its hide had been nailed to the saddle shed by some of the stockmen.
The two men are supposed to have picked up some of the feathers and placed them in their hats, which Mrs Ricardo said looked smart and so it began.
People have tried to pick holes in this story, saying the two men served in different units, and that Percy Ricardo was working in Brisbane as the manager of the Brisbane Ice Works at the time of the story, not managing Franklyn Vale, but the Mort family disagrees.
Harry Mort, the current owner of the property, has passed down his family’s recollections to Arthur DeMain of Boonah, who is working as a military advisor for the Australian Light Horse Association’s Beersheba centenary tour in Israel at present.
“The story goes that Harry Chauvel and Dudley White were visiting Franklyn Vale where there was an emu pelt hung out to dry on the saddle room wall,” Harry wrote.
“With Ricardo, they plucked some feathers and stuck them in their hats. When they walked back to the homestead, Mrs Ricardo remarked how good they looked.
“Ricardo left Franklyn Vale and in 1891 at the government’s behest, was sent with a detachment of mounted infantry to quell the shearers’ strike around Barcaldine.
“While camped there, Colonel Ricardo encouraged his men to chase down the odd emu and put the feathers in their hats.”
Arthur backed that up with the copy of a letter written from Percy Ricardo’s daughter, Bobs, to Henry Mort’s wife, Nell.
In it, Bobs says she remembers the incident well.
“Father had been given the present of an emu by some man, and as he was out when he arrived, he put it in one of the loose boxes with its legs tied together.
“The upshot was that it broke one of its legs and had to be destroyed.
“The yard boy skinned it and tacked the hide up on the stable door to season.
“I remember the smell of it well, as I had to collect the eggs!
“On Daddy’s return, he and Dudley White and Henry Chauvel stuck some plumes in their hats, and as far as I know the QMI have worn them ever since.”
Arthur said these statements gave the story authenticity.
“In the first instance, Harry Chauvel, with his experience and military background, would want to follow the lines of the British cavalry, who like to fluff themselves up.
“Harry was brought up at Kings School, was from a family with a military background, and did officer training.
“I think the opportunity arose at Franklyn Vale to experiment and it went from there.”
Arthur went on to say that while there may not be a finite starting point, General Harry Chauvel, the man who led thousands of men as part of the Desert Mounted Corps and who oversaw the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, should be attributed with starting the tradition.
“This is a great time in our history to bring this out,” he said.
“Every country has a unit that people identify with – the Marines, the Cossacks, the Household Cavalry.
“For Australia, it’s the man with the feather in his hat.
“It’s an iconic symbol of our soldiers’ bravery.”