The Light Horse in France 1916 - 1918
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The 1st and 15th Light Horse Regiments did not fight in France during the Great War 1914-1918. The 13th and elements of the 4th, however, did. This short piece was prepared for those who are interested in what the Light Horse did in the theatre of war where Australian troops had their greatest impact on the course of history.
The architects of the new corps had recently returned from service in the Boer War. They were well aware how changes in battlefield technology limited the employment of cavalry. No longer could mounted troops approach to almost 50 metres of an enemy without fear of being hit by a musket ball. Smokeless powder meant a volley of shots did not leave the battlefield clouded in smoke enabling mounted soldiers to burst on their foes from 5 metres away striking fear and making the sword an effective shock weapon. Infantry had no reason to form the square broken so easily by the extended reach of the lance. A line of men mounted high on horses, made a perfect target for a machine gunner’s cone of fire.
However, in this time before effective mechanisation, horses could still provide mobility. Horses could deliver soldiers quickly to the point of battle; with their riders fresh and ready to fight. Tactics involved a section of four men and horses. One of these men was a horseholder.
On patrol, scouting forward of a defensive position or in an advance or flank guard, the troopers would either all remain mounted, or depending on the terrain, one might cover the advance of others, the dismounted soldier’s horse reins held by the horseholder. When the enemy was detected, the riders would move to a covered position, three would dismount and fire from available cover, the horseholder taking the reins of the others, ready for his comrades to quickly mount and move to the next position.
In the withdrawal, the light horse would use similar tactics to delay and stay in contact with an advancing enemy. The dismounted troopers bringing fire to bear on the enemy, with the horseholder bringing the mounts forward so that the section could readily re-deploy when the position became untenable.
In the attack, the horsemen would stay mounted until they approached the enemy defensive position, then at a suitable point, preferably in dead ground, they would dismount, the horseholders galloping the horses to safety, the dismounted horsemen proceeding to attack with the low silhouette of an infantryman.
In the defence, lighthorsemen would dig-in like infantry, however, their horses would be held in rear enabling swift redeployment.
The light horse were armed with the .303 rifle, the standard infantry weapon. Their packs were carried on their horses making for a lighter soldier, able to carry more ammunition, strung in bandoliers across their chests.
Being mounted, the light horse could also be used as despatch riders and for traffic control. The horses were able to carry heavier machine-guns than the light weapons of the infantry. They could also carry more machine-gun ammunition.
Armed with the Hotchkiss Medium Machine Gun, the light horse could be very effectively deployed to provide anti-aircraft fire.
In 1914, Australia initially sent an independent Light Horse Brigade, and a Regiment (the 4th) to work under command of the 1st Infantry Division. By the end of 1914, a further Light Horse Brigade was on its way. In 1915, all of the now 13 Light Horse (LH) Regiments had been sucked into the Gallipoli fighting as Infantry. That last Regiment, the 13th had been formed to provide divisional cavalry squadrons to the 2nd 4th and 5th Infantry Division, the 4 LH providing squadrons to the 1st and 3rd Divisions. The 4 LH and 13 LH were units recruited in Victoria.
After the last troops left Gallipoli in December 1915, most of the light horse were ordered to stay and defend Egypt from the forces of the Turkish Empire. Fresh from their victory at Gallipoli, and now sweeping down from Palestine. Open plains warfare was seen as suiting the light horse. The infantry, by contrast after a short stint in defence of the Suez Canal, was to be sent to France to help break the line of trenches that now stretched from Switzerland to the Sea in Belgium. The Light Horse divisional cavalry squadrons went with their divisions.
Thus June 1916 saw 2 squadrons of the 4 LH and all 3 squadrons of the 13 LH in France. On arrival, the squadrons were brigaded into corps mounted regiments. The two 4 LH squadrons with a squadron of the Otago Mounted Rifles formed the 2nd Anzac Corps Mounted Regiment (later called the 22 Corps Mounted Regiment, when it served 22 Corps), the 13 LH became the mounted regiment for the 1st Anzac Corps and later the Australian Corps.
As our infantry moved into the defensive lines relieving British units, our mounted troops took over the duties of the British cavalry. Initially this involved traffic control, provision of orderlies and grooms to headquarters, escorting prisoners of war, and providing work parties. The mounted troopers wore steel helmets; gas masks were carried for men and horses. No romantic emu feathers here; though from the surviving photos not all of the horsemen wore the regulation helmets all of the time.
By comparison with the infantry, light horse casualties were light.
In France 1916 –1918, the II ANZAC (XXII Corps) Mounted Regiment had only 45 killed and 126 wounded.
The 13th Light Horse 57 killed, 328 wounded.
It is of interest to compare these casualties with Light Horse Regiments that fought in Palestine, there the 1st had 222 killed, 679 wounded including Gallipoli casualties, the 12th 53 killed, 401 wounded.
It would therefore be fair to say in general terms that Light Horse when working as light horse, and not as infantry suffered far fewer casualties than their infantry comrades.
The Honours and awards bestowed on the members for the Light Horse in France attest to the value of the work they did.
Members of the II ANZAC (XXII Corps) Mounted Regiment won: 3 MC; 1 DCM; 12 MM; 6 MID; 2 MSM; and 5 foreign awards.
Members of the 13 Light Horse won: 2 DSO; 5 MC, 1 bar; 3 DCM; 30 MM; 4 MSM; 10 MID; and 5 foreign awards.
In support of the 5th Australian Division at Fromelles, in July 1916 was the 2 ANZAC Mounted Regiment. Deployment of a troop on traffic control, others deployed as runners, and at least two troops joining the fight as infantry is noted in the 4 LH history.
In March 1917 the German army moved back from their positions North East of Albert to the Hindenburg Line for the first time. The Anzac Corps followed up the withdrawal, and the light horse assumed the role of “special patrol duty” ahead of the advancing troops. Elation at being given the opportunity for effective mounted combat, was, however, short lived. The German withdrawal was definitely a fighting one, requiring more firepower that could be mustered by the small mounted forces.
It was during the advance to Baupame that the only recorded engagement between Australian and German mounted troops occurred:
“One advance troop engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand fight with a stronger party of Uhlans, both sides suffering. The Australians were armed with rifles and bayonets, the Uhlans with lances and sabres. At first the Australians were cut up but the fight finished with honours even.” (13th Light Horse Regiment Association Annual Report 1964.)
By 14 March 1917, the 2nd and 5th Infantry Divisions had forced the Germans back to the village of Baupame, here the country was open; the light horse were again called forward, B and C squadrons of the 13th Light Horse patrolled ahead. Lance Corporal Geoff Gilbert recalled the experience many years later:
“Out in front … riding over at the walk to draw enemy fire – rotten shots the Fritz must have been for any of us to survive.” (13th Light Horse Regiment Association Annual Report 1976.)
Geoff Gilbert gives another graphic description of an action on 20 March 1917.
“We were to ride over the rise where we would be in full view of the enemy between Bertincourt and Vulu Wood and draw fire. … We rode over at the walk and right away succeeded in drawing fire in plenty. … On the retire signal … we galloped back over the rise and handed our horses over to the No 3s who smartly galloped away to cover with the led horses. Surprisingly we had few casualties in men and horses.
We ran in dismounted, and assumed the super prone position. Fritz made it pretty warm for us as we must have been good targets. We gave them all we had with machine gun and rifle fire.” (13th Light Horse Regiment Association Annual Report 1976.)
By early April 1917 as the Hindenberg Line was approached, the infantry again were called upon to pressure the German rear guard, and the light horse withdrawn.
The ill feted battle at Bullecourt where over enthusiastic officers of the new Tank corps were able to sell the advantages of this new weapon system to unsuspecting General officers; advantages that in early 1917 was theory, unmatched by the available technology. Two attempts were made to attack into a re-entrant of barbed wire and machine-gun posts. On both occasions the tanks either failed to arrive at the start line, or were soon failing to proceed in the open ground before the wire they were meant to flatten, and pill-boxes they were meant to destroy.
On 8 April 1917, C Squadron 13 LH was ordered to move out as the advance guard for the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade attack. When the tanks did not arrive the squadron was withdrawn and saved from destruction.
This first attempt was followed by a German counter-attack. Communications between brigade and battalion HQ was by “galloper”. Gallopers were light horsemen seconded to work as despatch riders, and a bit of a misnomer, there was no galloping. The rider had to hold his nerve; a horse needed to be allowed to choose its footing on the broken ground. A racing horse soon became terrified. A terrified horse would soon be down a muddy shell hole, or tangled by wire. Troopers FJ Barry and HF Pillow were both awarded the Military Medal for their work as gallopers on the Bullecourt front.
An interesting use of the light horse occurred before the second attempt to crack the line at Bullecourt. The attack was to follow a creeping artillery barrage, and it was rehearsed short distance behind the front. The light horse were required to move forward with torches during the rehearsal to simulate the movement of the barrage.
Ypres is noted for the use of light horse machine gunners in the anti-aircraft role, In July 1917 a detachment of 6 guns under Lieutenant Deegan of the 13 LH were tasked to protect an ammunition dump at Bailleul about 20 kilometres south west of Ypres. On the night of 23/24 July, this detachment expended 2430 rounds of ammunition against three raids, no planes were reported as hit, but the fire kept them well away from the dump.
Tactics allowed deployment of the light horse gunners with the infantry during the attack. The light horsemen would deploy their medium guns against aircraft allowing the infantry to consolidate their hold on enemy trenches. This must not have been easy, on 20 September, several crews lost contact with the infantry they were supporting and were late setting up their guns (Official History). Striving to do better, on 26 September they shot down three German Planes.
At Ypres a full squadron’s worth of men were sent as reinforcements to the infantry.
As in earlier battles the patrols moved forward of and covered the flanks of the infantry. One such patrol led by Sergeant O’Callaghan resulted in his award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation indicating that he had led his patrol through an artillery barrage and sent information back that the enemy were massing for an attack beyond it.
In the early morning of 20 September 1917, the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions advanced in muddy conditions to capture a low ridge running through the eastern edge of Polygon Wood. The attack succeeded and the ridge was in Australian hands by mid-day. Mounted patrols of the 13th Light Horse were active throughout the day.
Traffic control parties were also deployed along the Menin Road in the Passchendale – Zonnebeeke sector during September and October 1917. Posts were manned at intervals along the main traffic routes and it was the duty of a patrol leader to move constantly between posts to supervise his men. As in the case of reconnaissance work, the vital task of controlling and maintaining the flow of road traffic was also carried out under continuous heavy enemy shelling. Sergeant WGD Robertson was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal for his work on the Menin Road. His citation indicating that “Although this sector was subjected to a continuous shelling by the enemy, Sgt Robertson never failed to visit his posts and attend to the welfare of his men during the heaviest bombardment.”
In the early part of 1918, the Germans in France advanced, their army swelled with troops released from the eastern front, and using “storm trooper” tactics devised by the front line soldiers. This Advance “Operation Michael” ended on 25 April 1918. On 24th April, the British 8th Division holding the town of Villers-Bretoneux had been overwhelmed by the final German attack. The 8th, now a division of boy conscripts had recently taken over the line. In reserve nearby were two Australian brigades, the 15th commanded by Brigadier General HE (Pompey) Elliot, and the 13th by Brigadier General TW Glasgow. These brigades were placed under the British 8th Division to counterattack. The plan was hatched by Elliot, arguably the best tactician of the War, for a double envelopment from the North by the 15th and the South by the 13th; a night attack.
On 24 April 1918, a troop of the 13 LH under Lieutenant LV Reid was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel CV Watson appointed by Brigadier General Elliot as “special intelligence officer”. Lieutenant Reid established a patrol base, 5 kilometres north west of the town, not far from the advanced brigade headquarters where Colonel Watson had established a report centre.
Throughout the afternoon of the 24th the horsemen combed and probed the battlefield for information. The Chestnut Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery who supported the 15th Brigade during the operation noted in its war diary that the rapid issue of orders (Elliot had been hatching his plan well before the attack) made possible the use of the Australian Light Horse who quickly located enemy gun positions. As darkness fell the mounted patrolling became ineffective and ceased.
On the morning of the 25th, the light horse were again in action. The attack had enveloped the town and made the position of the German defenders untenable. The pincers, however, had not joined. A patrol was sent out from the 15th Brigade to find the flank of the 13th. It was commanded by Lance Corporal Frank Lanagan.
Four horsemen rode through the village. Spasmodic machine-gun and rifle fire sounded against a background of rumbling guns. Just north of the derelict railway station, the patrol encountered Australian Infantry firing at German troops, some of which were still in the village, others withdrawing. The troopers urged their horses eastward along the railway embankment. Immediately they came under fire from a machine gun post. The men dismounted and leaving one with the horses rushed the post and captured four prisoners, Corporal Lanagan then went forward on foot, alone returning soon after with another prisoner and information. The patrol remounted and returned to their headquarters with the information and prisoners. Frank Langlan was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions on 24 and 25 April 1918, the above account is based on his citation.
Brigade Headquarters continued to use the Light Horse throughout the 25th April, to establish the movements of the enemy and the exact disposition of their own troops on the battlefield.
In the darkness before dawn on 30 August 1918, the 2nd Infantry Division crossed the Somme and thrust towards Mr St Quentin. At the same time the 3rd Division advanced to cover the 2nd’s flank. However in doing so it exposed its own left flank. At dawn, a troop of the 13th Light Horse under Lieutenant Reid was despatched north into the open flank, and by 05:00 had reached Fargny Wood. Here a base was established, and patrols sent out. One went north-east to establish if the enemy occupied Hill 150. Another to locate the enemy line to the East. Hill 150 was found to be unoccupied, the patrol established an OP and sent back a steady stream of information to HQ 3 Div using a succession of riders. Sergeant Drane the patrol commander received a Military Medal for his work at Hill 60 on that day. The patrol to the east located the enemy occupying defensive positions in Road Wood, North of Mount St Quentin.
As the attack began, the Light Horse continued to patrol the open flank and assist the British 58 Div advance guard; the 58 Div did not have its own cavalry. A troop of the 13th was attached to the 33rd Battalion during the assault, and as the battalion was down to 200 men, the light horse troop became the battalion reserve.
During the battle for Mt St Quentin, the Australian Corps acted with assurance and audacity. One factor allowing such boldness was the constant ant timely intelligence provided by the 13th Light Horse.
The Light horse continued to do its part protecting flanks and escorting prisoners during the battle of Hamel.
When the German army broke contact and withdrew to the Hindenberg line, Lieutenant General Monash deployed the 13 Light Horse ahead of the Australian Corps to maintain contact with the enemy. Major DD Buchanan led the left hand squadron ahead of the 3rd Division, Major GE Lydiard the centre ahead of the 5th Division and Captain JF Bagot the right ahead of the 32nd Division. All of these squadron commanders had fought at Gallipoli. The southern squadrons crossed the Somme River at Brie Bridge at 03:30 on 6 September 1918. As the mist lifted and the day became brighter, German aircraft swooped down on the horsemen. Major Lydiard’s squadron lost two men and two horses.
There was only minor resistance on 6 September. On 7 September, the day was clear, the horsemen probed forward. The enemy defended the village of Rosiel strongly, attempting to hold up the advance long enough for stores and guns to be withdrawn. The Light horse forced their way around the village and beyond allowing 41 Battalion to follow, 2 field guns, 11 machine guns and 60 wagons were bagged. On 8 September patrols ran into stiffening resistance, on the 9th movement by mounted patrol was impossible, the Hindenberg Outpost Line had been reached.
General Monash said of the performance of the light Horse: ”These troops more than justified their employment by bold forward reconnaissance, and energetic pressure upon the enemy rearguards.” (Monash – Australian Victories in France 1918).
Major T Williams of the 4th Light Horse (22 Corps Mounted Regiment) was awarded a DSO for his work and that of his squadron with 3 Corps. To quote his citation: “This officer with his squadron was continuously on duty during the last operations on the Somme up to and including the 12 September 1918 working with the centre division on the III Corps front. The manner in which he worked his patrols to harass the enemy and gain information showed excellent daring leadership. He was always able to keep his divisional HQ supplied with reliable and most valuable information and making numerous personal reconnaissances was able on several occasions to personally direct our artillery on to splendid targets. On one occasion the GOC division realising this important factor sent a battery of field guns to report to Major Williams who was at the time in front of our infantry and he made such good use of this battery that shortly afterwards a second battery was detailed to report to him and he continued to use both in conjunction with his squadron, with excellent results for some time. His work right through the organisation was of an excellent character and worthy of the highest praise.”
TThat was the last employment of the Light Horse on the Western Front. Demobilisation commenced, the 22 Corps Mounted Regiment was disbanded, the two 4th Light Horse squadrons amalgamating to form A Squadron the 13th Light Horse. On 30 April 1919, the remaining five officers and 73 other ranks of 13th Light Horse left France for England and home.
The observed mistreatment of livestock by locals in the Middle East that caused the soldiers shoot rather than abandon their mounts to a life of suffering had not been witnessed in France. The horses could not return home, but there were no objections to them being auctioned off to Frenchmen to use as replacements for their own farm animals that had been killed during the conflagration. The Light Horse mounts, however, were stock and race horses, not what the French farmers were used to. There were accounts of locals careering through the towns of northern France clinging to the backs of animals whose breeding was better than they were accustomed to. Incidents of carts out of control and ploughs bouncing across fields were also noted.
The honours won by the light horse in this far flung corner of the world are proudly borne by the units of the Australian Army that trace their history back to the 4th and 13th Light Horse: 4th/19th Prince of Wales’ Light Horse, 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment.
Prepared by John Howells, December 2007
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