Australian (& New Zealand) Light Horse

The Australian and New Zealand Light Horse are ‘mounted’ troops who have served during the Second Boer War, World War I, World War II and later conflicts, originally they combined characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry, before converting to motorised transport as mechanised infantry.

History and Evolution

The Light Horse is a product of a doctrinal debate in Australian military circles that started in the late 19th century and continued into the 1940’s, concerning the future of mounted troops. The core of this debate lay between the increasing power of modern weaponry and the negative impact that had on mounted troops on one hand, and the ability of mounted forces to operate over long distances away from roads on the other. This was of particular relevance in Australia where distances are vast, roads few and mechanical transport largely imported and expensive.

In that they generally fought dismounted, the Light Horse resembled conventional Mounted Infantry, using their horses as a means of reaching the battlefield and leaving it with equal facility if required. Although there are numerous exceptions to this rule where the Light Horse have fought mounted, such as the famous charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. This led to some Light Horse regiments being provided with sabres during Allenby’s advance on Damascus in 1918. The other aspect to the Light Horse is that unlike Mounted Infantry they also performed as cavalry in reconnaissance and screening on horseback.

The Light Horse have always been organised on a compromise between Cavalry and Infantry lines. Divided into Regiments, Squadrons and Troops like Cavalry, a Light Horse Regiment had as much in common with an Infantry Battalion, although usually of about 60 to 75% the size of the regular Battalion in ‘bayonet strength’. While still mounted on horses a Light Horse Regiment fielded 4 Squadrons (A, B and C), each of which had four Troops. Roughly equivalent to a platoon, each Troop (of about 42 men) was further subdivided into 4 man sections, of which one man was designated the ‘Horse Holder.’ The Horse Holder took care of his companion’s horses after the troop dismounted to fight, usually taking the horses back to some sheltered position just behind the firing line. This represented the Light Horse’s greatest weakness as an effective combat unit, the Horse Holders represented 25% of the units potential fighting strength. Although in practice it was quite normal for one man to take up to six horses, for a unit that was already under strength in comparison to an Infantry Battalion, losing ¼ to 1/8 of its soldiers before battle even commenced was a serious concern.

In some compensation for this the Light Horse received the same allocation of the Machineguns as a (British) Infantry Battalion before WWI (2 Maxim’s later 2 Vickers). By 1915 2 Vickers had proven inadequate for the Infantry and the Vickers were withdrawn to the newly raised Machine Gun Corps, replaced with a wider issue of light Lewis Machineguns. In the Light Horse they kept their Vickers guns, gaining another 10 guns to field a Machinegun Troop and they received light machineguns too (mostly Hotchkiss M1909). This generous allocation of firepower in the Light Horse is a something that has been retained to this day along with 40 man Troops. An Australian Infantry platoon in 1985 was allocated between 3 and 9 machineguns and a light mortar depending on their role; a Light Horse Troop of the same date never had less than 8 with 4 mortars.

However in 1915 all these machineguns could not flatten barbed wire or provide a shield against shrapnel. So as in South Africa where the Light Horse had turned to beating the Boer’s at their own game, in the long campaign from Suez to Damascus the Light Horse adapted their tactics to suit their situation. Taking advantage of their uncommon mobility and endurance; the Light Horse avoided the hard defensive targets they lacked the strength to overcome, and aimed to unhinge the Turkish defence by striking at lightly held strategic points behind the front and then hanging on until relived with all the tools of modern war turned to their advantage. They fought much as Wellington had done a hundred years before, manoeuvring offensively and fighting defensively.

Although it ended with a charge that defied both common sense and (this) tactical doctrine, the attack on Beersheba was a classic example of this policy. The overall Turkish defensive position was strong enough to have defeated all previous attempts to crack it, but without the wells at Beersheba, the inland portion of their line was untenable for lack of water. Yet the position at Beersheba was a relatively weak one. Partly this was due to a most successful deception campaign by (the then) Major Richard Meinertzhagen, General Allenby’s Intelligence Officer, who had persuaded the Turkish Command to reinforce their seaward flank at the expense of Beersheba. But in the main, Beersheba was thought safe because conventional military wisdom held it was beyond the reach of any serious attack due to a lack of water along the approach routes. So by defying these expectations and reaching Beersheba in force, the Light Horse gained both tactical and strategic surprise, and still found the defence a bit too strong, but it’s the miscalculations that prove the rule.

The mobility that the Light Horse came to depend upon came mostly from the strength and endurance of their mounts. The Australian ‘Whaler’ stockhorse has been recognised as one of the finest cavalry and general service breeds of the modern era. Breed from a catholic bloodline that includes Arab, Clydesdale, Cape Horse, Thoroughbred, Percheron and Timor Pony amongst others; the Whaler is said to rely more on blood than bone and shows its best under harsh conditions. Light Horse mounts in Palestine often went up to 36 hours without water and covered up to 200 miles on 9 1/2lb of indifferent gain a day with no bulk fodder. This performance was helped by the animals have had plenty of time to acclimatize during the Gallipoli Campaign where the Light Horse fought dismounted as regular infantry and by the devoted husbandry of their riders.

Between the Wars

The Light Horse ended World War I with an enviable record of service and achievement, but found this did not translate well into a post war Army dominated by Infantrymen who had served on the Western Front. By the late 1930’s the Light Horse was seen to have outlived its usefulness, and although retained as part of the Militia, the Second AIF raised in 1939 contained no Light Horse units, and only a single ‘Divisional Cavalry Regiment’ for each Infantry Division.

World War II

The 7th Light Horse Brigade 2nd AIF was raised in 1941 from regularised Militiamen and Cadre for one simple reason. In taking over much of the Garrison role in Palestine, the Australian 7th Division found itself committed to controlling a huge area noted equally for its rugged terrain, lack of roads and fractious locals. As an Infantry Division the 7th did not have sufficient transport to mount motorised patrols, and to cover such an area with foot patrols was impractical. At this particular point in time Australia was importing its motor vehicles from North America, mostly the excellent Canadian CMP range, and motorising the 7th Division promised to be an expensive exercise. However livestock and tack was something Australia had no trouble providing from her own resources; and so the 2/1th, 2/2th and 2/3th LH Regiments were raised as a substitute. In due course the 8th (2/4th, 2/5th and 2/6th) and 9th (2/7th, 2/8th and 2/9th) Brigades were raised in 1942 as the experiment proved successful and Australia’s responsibilities grew with the invasions of Syria and Persia.

This rebirth of the Light Horse did not suit everyone in the Australian Army, in particular the Infantry and the newly raised Australian Armoured Corp, who were having a nice little squabble over who should control Australia’s budding tank force.

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