Throughout history, mounted troops have been known as elite men of arms. The Australian Light Horse was no different and wore a decoration worthy of their distinction.
Apart from their well-recorded wartime exploits, folklore has endowed the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) light horsemen with a mystique and image that distinguishes them from their fellow diggers. Official historian, H. S. Gullet, described them as, “in body and spirit the true product of the Australian countryside … the very flower of their race”. Gullet went on to relate that light horsemen had been bestowed with a certain “native” quality, forged from Australia’s pioneering heritage. They traced a proud lineage back to the Australian mounted contingents that served in the South African War (Boer War), 1899-1902.
Apart from his imposing mount, the light horseman’s uniform differed only slightly from that of the common soldier’s drab khaki, namely, by the addition of polished leather accouterments and spurs. This was crowned with the Australian felt hat, so closely associated with the ethos of the digger. Yet in the light horseman’s case, the slouch hat was often adorned with what became the light horseman’s most distinctive embellishment – the emu feather plume. This plume became the symbol of the light horse, inseparable from its legend.
The most famous of the Lighthorse legend was the Charge of Beersheba and is a revered part of our National Military history, with a Grant playing a pivotal role.
Beersheba was a heavily fortified town 43 kilometres from the Turkish bastion of Gaza. It anchored the right end of a defensive line that stretched from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast.
The first two frontal attacks on Gaza, in March and April 1917, failed. The British Army re-organised before trying again. The capture of Beersheba would break the Gaza—Beersheba line and enable the British, Australian and New Zealand forces to outflank Gaza.
The British 20 Corps launched an attack on Beersheba at dawn on 31 October 1917. By late afternoon the corps had made little headway toward the town and its vital wells. Under mounting pressure and high risk Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, took the courageous strategy advice of Brigadier General William Grant he ordered the 4th Light Horse Brigade forward to attempt to secure the position. Now revered in Military folklore he famously said, “Send Grant in.”
Australian Light Horse charge was led by Brigadier General William Grant who responded by ordering light horsemen of the 4th and 12th Regiments to charge at the unwired Turkish trenches.
The light horsemen did not carry swords or lances, so they held their bayonets in their hands and used them as “swords”.
The momentum of the surprise attack carried them through the Turkish defences. The light horsemen took less than an hour to overrun the Turkish trenches and enter Beersheba. Thirty-eight Turkish and German officers and about 700 other ranks were taken prisoner, and a supply of water was secured.
The Australians suffered 67 casualties. Two officers and 29 other ranks were killed, and 8 officers and 28 other ranks wounded.
The fall of Beersheba opened the way to outflank the Gaza—Beersheba Line. On 6 November, after severe fighting. Turkish forces began to withdraw from Gaza further into Palestine, the episode remains one of Australia’s most famous military battles.