War Memoir of Robert Ellwood

Of course we had responsibilities too, I think, which made us different [as soldiers] That old saying, you’ve heard it, that gentlemen of the Light Horse and men of the Infantry. You’ve heard that. Well that was brought about only because of the responsibilities we had and that was our horses. Our horses were the first thing that we considered the moment we got up and the moment we went to bed at night time. They were the whole of our life, they had to come first with the result that when we came into camp after a hard day’s fight or a hard day’s work or something else, the first thing we did was not look after our horses which took a lot of our spare time whereas with the Infantryman when he came in he threw down his haversack or his pack, he put his hat on and he went to sleep but we didn’t, we weren’t able to do that. Our time was taken up looking after horses, and they repaid us.

Turnbull: Some contemporary account have said that this business of looking after the horses, that one of the problems with Queensland members of the Light Horse was that they were rather inexperienced in looking after horses and they had to be taught to look after them.

That only happened as we grew older in the latter part of the war, we used to get those who weren’t from the country, sort of business. I enlisted from Kingaroy. My father was in business up here and some of my ancestors were from the land and I always had a liking for animals and I always had a liking for the free life of the person on the land, but if you take the first contingent, the first crowd that you have records of, they were all from the country and they all knew their horses. There would have been, probably, a small percentage, like signallers, and other specialist groups, that didn’t know much about but you believe me they knew their horses.

Let me tell how we took our horses over. Our horses were all collected at the Ringmount depot somewhere in Rifle Range I think they called it or somewhere about there. This is in Enoggera. And a team was sent over experienced, what they called experienced horsemen, were sent over; one man to lead three horses and bring all our horses back and our lines were set up and they were sent over and they came back riding between them 510 horses. One man riding one and leading three and those horses were then tied up on to our horse lines – follow? And then the Regiment was formed up into squadrons and troops opposite the – the squadron had four troops in it and the lines of horses were in fours and they were lined up at the end of these lines the troops in line with the horses and then they were right turn and quick march and stop when you get to the end of the line where the last horse was. Then you were told to turn and face your horse and that horse that you faced was yours.

That’s the way we took over our horses and then we were told to saddle them and mount them and there were very few that didn’t do it in a workmanlike manner. I’ll admit we had a couple of outstanding horsemen and there were one or two nasty type of horses – our horses were mostly donated by squatters and a lot of them weren’t as – what shall I say – as honourable as they could have been and they put in some of their dirtiest horses an there were a few dirty horses which had to be handled by these particularly clever men with that experience. But nobody could ever say that the original Light Horseman wasn’t a man of outstanding qualifications, there’s no doubt about that, he was a good horseman. Oh no, I won’t have that for a moment, maybe some of our reinforcements were wishy-washy, some of them, very very few of them, but they soon licked into shape and they soon followed the example set down by those in the Regiment and as I say, like myself, they profited by their association. But never let them get away with that because they were good horsemen, they were fine types of men too.

Ellwood: We went into camp at the Flemington showgrounds, and our horses were stalled and fed and exercised there for six weeks. You can talk about horsemanship, after six weeks in stalls and groomed three times a day exercised on foot not horseback and fed up to the back teeth. The morning we were supposed to we went away we were told to told about the whole thing and got out it was cold, one of those cold winter mornings you know and I can remember quite plainly when mounting our horses we were given the order to mount I can still see some in the air, some lying on the ground, some picking themselves up and all sorts of positions because of the freshness of the horses you see and the fact that they were six weeks stall fed without anyone on their backs. But never let anybody say that the people in the first in the regiment were ever bad horsemen, they certainly weren’t. could have been one or two I didn’t see but no I wouldn’t believe that even.

Turnbull: I suppose that the men must have got very bored there being in the showgrounds for so long.

Ellwood: Well you don’t get bored, if you got horses. Because your life is made up excepting your sleeping hours and occasional break on some sort of recreational leave, they are made up by attention to your horses. The responsibility of them. You see you get up in the morning your called up and you go out in what they call stables which means that the horses are taken off the lines and the lines have to be cleaned up all manure taken off them and the horses have to be walked around and exercised until all that work is done all the cleaning up is done you see. And then they are brought back placed in the lines and everybody gets to work and he’s got to groom his horse or a certain period. And then there are fed up and then after that of course you have to have your breakfast. And then after that there is a little bit we had a little bit of training like musketry or drill or something, but no spare time at all when you got horses doctor. Never let anybody tell you that. And that is I think what helped to stabilise and mould into a responsible person the light horsemen. The fact that he did not have time to get into mischief or to you know what I mean. He was responsible all the time, and the horse and the man became almost as one they were that attached to each other.

Each man of course had to look after his own horse and fed him and we’d have pickets you would be responsible in off duty hours for seeing those horses were didn’t get into trouble or you know that sort of business untangle them if they did. and they would have access to the fed lot. and they would often stuff they nose bags with a lot more feed then they were entitled to. Just looking after their horses you see. and I can remember on one occasion we were given the order to fed up and the nosebag was that full of food for the horse that this fellow had pinched for himself that it couldn’t breathe when the nosebag was put on it and it just went mad. Mad you know its head was buried in the food and it couldn’t breathe and I can remember it performed and kicked the place and reared and did all sorts of things until somebody went in with a knife and just ripped the bottom of the bag and the whole thing emptied itself and he was right as rain again. Just an instance, may be of interest.

Turnbull: One particular horse, figures in the folklore of the light horse and that was one whose name ‘billy the bastard’.

Ellwood: Yes that’s correct.

Turnbull: Can you tell me about him? How he got the name?

Ellwood: Well Billy the bastard was a horse about, he was ridden by Mick Shanahan too. He was about a best part of 15, 16, 14 15 hand horse and a light cross between a chestnut and a bray. He was the type of horse that he would be sitting be standing on the lines head roped and heal roped with his ears back and half asleep just waiting until somebody walked behind him close enough that he could reach him and then he would bash out and he’d give him a crack. He never once missed, he never once attempted to kick anybody unless they were within striking distance and he had a very nasty reputation Billy the bastard. And Mick Shanahan used to own or rode him and at I didn’t see this but at Romani in particular he what shall I say, he uh oh he covered himself with glory and he got a wonderful heroes reputation because they tell me that he had soldiers that ordinary he would have kicked to pieces, hanging onto his tail and onto his stirrups and even doubling on his back. He’d get them out of trouble in the firing line. And that’s how he really got covered with glory of Billy the bastard. He was a wonderful animal and no doubt about him he existed. That was Billy the Bastard.

Turnbull: I was hoping that you might remember him.

Ellwood: Oh sure nobody was in the second regiment in the early part of the show that they didn’t know Billy the bastard. It was like knowing Simpson and his donkey on Gallipoli.

A great deal of pleasure is the affection that grew between man and his horse and the almost understanding by the horse. I can remember, did I tell you about any time we were bombed how they’d perform?

Turnbull: No, not when they were bombed.

Ellwood: They almost seemed to know what the cross was on the German plane, because when the German planes would come over either reconnaissance or for bombing raids or strafing(?) they would, if they were on the lines, of course, they would get very very unsettled and very very agitated and whinny, and stamp and neigh and do all sorts of things until such time as the order was given to stand to your horses, and the moment you got to your horse and stood alongside of him the silence was almost.. you could almost cut it with a knife. They were that satisfied their boss was with them, their owners were with them, their protector was with them, they were right, you know what I mean, and they’d follow their owners anywhere… I can remember we lost one man, a horse became agitated crossing a canal, what do you call it, an irrigation canal, in some part of upper Egypt, it was only a narrow thing, probably two or three planks wide, I don’t think it was more than that. Anyhow it was wide enough for a horse to walk of course, and we simply walked our horses across that plank, planks of that description, well as you know, that’s an unusual thing, but on one occasion one horse became agitated or slipped or something and became frightened and dragged his owner with him, or drowned, both drowned, but they’d follow an owner everywhere just like a dog would follow their owners and a man’s affection for his horse I didn’t see it, but I can believe it and I know it to be true that we were ordered at the finish to hand our horses over to the Egyptians or the Arabs and they were cruel with animal flesh and a number of our people had that much affection for their horses, that sooner than do that they shot them.

The thing that was very pleasant in my memory is the affection of the man for the horse an vice versa. Of course, we had a lot of us, nearly all of us, you could say, had more than one horse, one horse didn’t see the whole campaign out. Another thing that is very very much impressed on the mind is the depth of a feeling of friendship that grew over there under the conditions that we lived in, its environment. It was almost unbelievable.