For a long time I’ve been meaning to do a series of paintings honouring Australian horses (both ‘types’ and breeds).
Thanks to the Morpurgo book War Horse and the stage adaptation and now film adaptation, the war horse is taking centre stage at the moment. Although many types of horse fitting cavalry specifications for height and colouration were sent over from Australia during the First World War (and to also to India), the dominant type became known as the ‘Waler’ (the original stock came from New South Wales).
'Waler' permanent artist's ink on watercolour paper
Much like the Australian Stockhorse (which it had a large influence on) the Waler was a mixture of Thoroughbred, Arab and draught breeds, resulting in a very tough and reliable horse, much as the stock horse is described in Patterson’s Man from Snowy River:
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast / He was something like a racehorse undersized / With a touch of Timor pony - three parts thoroughbred at least - And such as are by mountain horsemen prized. / He was hard and tough and wiry - just the sort that won't say die / There was courage in his quick impatient tread / And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye/ And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
An English cavalry officer described the Australian horses’ suitability for harsh conditions:
“… The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world…. They have got types of compact, well-built, saddle and harness horses that no other part of the world can show. Rather on the light side according to our ideas, but hard as nails and with beautiful clean legs and feet ... Their records in this war place them far above the Cavalry horse of any other nation.”
Lt Col RMP Preston DSO, The Desert Mounted Corps
The Charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba, George Lambert
Beersheba (1917) was probably one of the most famous moments for the Australian cavalry. After going for days without water through the Sinai Desert, the Australian Light Horse charged the Turkish guns at a lengthy gallop and successfully took Beersheba (and its essential water supplies). It was one of the last great cavalry charges as increasingly mechanised forms of warfare saw the increasing (fortunate) removal of horses from the front line of battle.
Sadly, despite their impressive service, no adequate provision was made for the return of the Australian or British horses to their country of origin. Many heartbroken soldiers were forced to abandon their horses, or to shoot them (amidst fears they would be mistreated).
Australian troop horse, full marching order 1918, George Lambert
In 1931, Dorothy Brooke (the wife of an English cavalry officer) wrote an appeal to the Morning Post regarding British cavalry mounts:
“There have been several references lately in the columns of The Morning Post as to the possibility of raising a memorial to horses killed in the War. May I make a suggestion?
Out here, in Egypt, there are still many hundreds of old Army Horses sold of necessity at the cessation of the War. They are all over twenty years of age by now, and to say that the majority of them have fallen on hard times is to express it very mildly … If those who truly love horses – who realise what it can mean to be very old, very hungry and thirsty, and very tired, in a country where hard, ceaseless work has to be done in great heat – will send contributions to help in giving a merciful end to our poor old war heroes, we shall be extremely grateful; and we venture to think that, in many ways, this may be as fitting (though unspectacular) part of a War Memorial as any other that could be devised.”
Her appeal soon raised enough funds to rescue five thousand horses and gave rise to The Brooke, a charity still providing welfare support for working donkeys, horses and mules whose owners often cannot afford to treat them.
Given that Australian cavalry mounts did not return to their country, the breeding of Waler horses has relied on the use of the original stock that remained in Australia. Waler horse breeders seek to preserve the tough and reliable characteristics of those famous Australian cavalry horses.
Speaking of tough, next week (my imminent baby allowing) will be no. 2 in the Australian Horses Series – the Colonial Arabian.
Read about The Brooke:
The Desert Mounted Corps quote accessed at:
Waler Horse Society of Australia: http://www.walerhorse.com/whsa/
The Waler Horse Owners & Breeders Association Australia: http://walerhorses.com/