The Royal New South Wales Lancers

John Gorrell A Lancer's Story

Trooper John Wesley Roy Gorrell 3538 1st Australian Light Horse

On Wednesday, 1 November 2017, the day after Australia held commemoration ceremonies to mark the centenary of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba "The Australian" newspaper published a timely letter from Richard Gorrell of Killara in tribute to his father, John, who was in the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment in the supporting action which would help clear the way for the Beersheba attack. The charge was made by the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments, its success vital in the strategy of the day and bravely won. It has been said that many Australians had never heard of Beersheba before this. Then what do they really know of the Light Horse Regiments?

Where were the other Light Horse Regiments on that day, especially the 1st Light Horse, our own? As John Gorrell told his father the 1st Light Horse with New Zealand mounted had taken high ground at Tel el Saba which was a necessary preliminary to the attack on Beersheba. 1st and 3rd Light Horse Brigades had been called into the action during the afternoon of 31 October 1917.

In correspondence after the publication of his letter, Richard Gorrell said, "My father did not talk much about the fighting and battles he would have seen, but he told us a lot of anecdotes I have tried to recall and record. I have a bee in my bonnet about the importance of the battle of Romani fought on 4 August 1916, as I think it was a brilliant use of terrain and the desert sun to gain a great advantage over an enemy force of Turks. It is remarkable that it occurred on the anniversary of the Boer War battle of Elands River also fought on 4 August. My father used to recite the poem 'Elands River' composed by George Essex Evans."

Elands River by George Evans

It was on the fourth of August, as five hundred of us lay In the camp at Eland's River, came a shell from De La Rey - We were dreaming of home faces, Of the old familiar places, And the gum-trees and the sunny plains five thousand miles away - But the challenge woke and found us With four thousand rifles round us; And Death stood laughing at us at the breaking of the day.

Hell belched upon our borders, and the battle had begun.
Our Maxims jammed: we faced them with one muzzle-loading gun.
East, south and west and nor'ward
Their shells came screaming forward
As we threw the sconces round us in the first light of the sun.
The thin air shook with thunder
As they raked us fore and under,
And the cordon closed around us, as they held us - eight to one.

We got the Maxims going, and the field-gun into place
(She stilled the growling of a Krupp upon our southern face);
Round the crimson ring of battle
Swiftly ran the deadly rattle
As our rifles searched their fore-lines with a desperate menace;
Who would wish himself away
Fighting in our ranks that day
For the glory of Australia and our honour?

But our horse-lines soon were shambles, and our cattle lying dead
(When twelve guns rake two acres there is little room to tread)
All day long we heard the drumming
Of the Mauser bullets humming,
And at night their guns, day-sighted, rained fierce havoc overhead.
Twelve long days and nights together,
Through cold and bitter weather,
We lay grim behind the sconces and returned them lead for lead.

They called us to surrender and they let their cannon lag;
They offered us our freedom for the striking of the flag -
Army stores were there in mounds,
Worth a hundred thousand pounds,
And we lay battered round them behind trench and sconce and crag.
But we sent the answer in,
They could take what they could win -
We hadn't come five thousand miles to fly the coward's rag.

We saw the guns of Carrington come on and fall away;
We saw the ranks of Kitchener across the kopje grey -
For the sun was shining then
Upon twenty thousand men -
And we laughed, because we knew, in spite of hell-fire and delay,
On Australia's page for ever
We had written Eland's River -
We had written it for ever and a day.

In a piece headed "Decoy Horses - Prelude to Beersheba" Richard Gorrell writes: "The Allies pushed back the Turks from the Suez Canal slowly at first, not surprising as the Turks had better supply lines and the Sinai Desert formed a secure barrier to protect them, making supply lines across the barren desert difficult for the Allies. General Allenby steadily improved supply running both a pipeline for water and a railway across the desert. One innovation was to lay down wire netting (more usually employed as rabbit proof fencing) to stop vehicles being bogged in the sand to quickly form serviceable roads across the soft dunes.

In preparation for the great push to Damascus Allenby took great pains to imply that he was planning to attack northwards up the coastal plain. The Turkish High Command would be very aware that course would provide the easiest going for an army. In addition the supremacy of the British Navy on the Mediterranean Sea would make it simple to supply a successful Allied advance along the Mediterranean coast.

General Allenby realised that the Turks had erected strong defences against such an assault along the coast and so planned to attack the less defended eastern front line (through Beersheba) but needed to make many diversions to add to the Turks' conviction that he would make the expected attack up the coast. Both sides were using aircraft surveillance. Initially, Allenby concentrated his forces near the coast but followed three chief strategies to mislead the enemy air crews.

First, he had the troops build long lines of dummy horses - four timber legs and a crude frame over which was thrown a blanket. These were primitive shapes. Close photographs reveal it was very easy to see they were decoys from even nearby, but entirely effective in misleading unsuspecting spotter planes - if they did not come too close.

Second, Allenby had teams drag logs fastened at both ends by traces back to a single horse. The logs acted like a grader blade on the gravel roads and raised large clouds of dust which at a distance appeared similar to the billows of choking dust raised by columns of Light Horse regiments on the march. Thus, a very small number of horses could emulate an army.

Third, at the last minute, he moved the highly mobile Light Horse regiments by night from near the coast inland to the eastern flank where they would attack on arrival. In the meantime the road making teams remained behind to continue creating misleading dust clouds giving the impression of major troop movements threatening the west just where the Turks expected to be attacked along the coast. Old camp fires were kept alight.

In the midst of all this preparation John, who was also known as Wes, had his photo taken while he was riding a donkey. He wrote in pencil on the back of the photo "Ready for a donkey ride. I wonder could he buck or bolt?" Wes was a highly experienced rider having learnt as a child on his father's dairy farm, riding his pony to school, then, along with his brothers, competing and winning prizes in the local agricultural shows. His enlistment form notes he had two years experience as a "weekend warrior" with the 28th Australian Light Horse where a local unit met on a parade ground in nearby Unanderra before entering the training camp at Ingleburn for intensive training for active service in Palestine. Wes was such a good shot with a .303 rifle that he was promoted to train other light horsemen in "musketry", a quaint term still used by the military in the early 1900s.

Mules are said to be more surefooted than horses. The regiment had a wireless for communication, a fragile device in the first world war, and for safe keeping this was packed on a mule when they marched. In one particular attack made by the light horse at night (it may have been the Es Salt raid) they had to traverse a narrow track on the steep side of a hill in the dark. At some stages the track became so treacherous they were forced to dismount and lead the horses. If any slipped they would go over the edge and be killed. It showed just how dangerous the track was when the mule carrying the wireless was lost over the side into the dark abyss."

Richard recounts some of the hardship of the desert war: "The Allies under General Allenby fought the Turks from where they had first threatened the Suez Canal forcing their army back across the Sinai Desert to the northern rim of the Jordan Valley. The summer descended turning the valley into a simmering hell. In the hottest months of the year it was just too hot to support troops fighting in Jordan. Even the heat tolerant Arabs left. Heat, dust, flies and disease become the common enemies for both sides and the (mainly British) High Command were considering retreating out of the valley hoping that the Turks would not re-occupy the ground.

The Australians had already fought twice for Gaza and prepared to face the terrible rigours of surviving three months of hell in a dusty cauldron than the worse option of having to dislodge the Turks yet again. After the first, almost successful battle for Gaza the Turks stiffened their defences reinforcing the weak points revealed by the first fight making the second battle more costly. The Australians did not want to make that mistake again. That was how the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment came to sizzle and burn in the Jordan Valley in the summer of 1917. Despite the acknowledged expertise of the regimental doctors many of the occupying troops came down with malaria including Trooper Gorrell. The medical officer appraised him unfit to fight but fit enough to ride his horse back to the hospital possibly the 14th AGH located on the Suez Canal, a considerable distance away. There was another trooper from the same regiment who was given the same assessment. The medical officer asked Trooper Gorrell to look out for the other chap as they rode together as the other man was the most ill. Could he care for him?

Wes recalled it was a dreadful ride. He was delirious, swaying dangerously in the saddle, almost toppling off many times. However, his sense of responsibility for his compatriot kept him going. If he was feeling so atrocious then he must make the effort to look after that other chap who must be faring even worse. How did that fellow continue on?

When the two ill and exhausted horsemen eventually got to the hospital the doctor was amazed that Dad had completed the journey on horseback at all. He was by far the most ill of the two. I wonder whether he would have made it through without that sense of commitment for the other rider."

In his book "The Desert Column" published in 1932 the writer Ion Idriess drew on notes he recorded constantly during his service as a sniper in the 5th Light Horse. Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel described the book as "viewed entirely from the private soldier's point of view." Idriess vividly described the action of the time: "Away to the west the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were having a hard fight to take the Tel el Saba redoubts. The machine gun fire just roared, our artillery all all along the line were thundering at the German machine gun nests. As the afternoon wore on the 1st Light Horse Brigade were fighting their way around the flank of a redoubt - Taubes (German aircraft) were roaring all over the fortifications, the plain, the wadi and the ridges, their heavy bombs exploding we saw that grim work would soon be doing on Tel el Saba as the 3rd Brigade came galloping up to support the New Zealanders."

Bert Castellari 2018, Photos Wikipedia Commons

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