Author’s note: This poem describes in accurate detail the charge of the Aust. Light Horse, WW1, 31st. Oct. 1917
They sat in the dust, the tall, gaunt young men, the no-nonsense men from Australia,
They sat by their giant and thirsty good steeds without sword or lance or regalia.
Across the plain there, just three miles or more, were cannon, machine-gun and rifle,
And dealing out death to the mounted young men would be only a few minutes’ trifle.
So they thought, these hardened and old-fashioned men for whom war was the customary life,
Day after day down the centuries long, since they fought with the club and the knife.
But a new man was out there across the dry sands – he could meet any hardship with humour,
And the men of the Old World knew nothing of him, and they thought it must be but a rumour
That troops from an unknown and far Southern Land could storm to Gallipoli’s height
And all but devour the untakeable hill to win the unwinable fight.
Oh they hated the war, the men from the South – in each breast beat the heart of a rover
As they dreamed of their friendly Wide Brown Land in peace, mutt’ring “Let’s get this bloody thing over!”
Their horses were restive and dry with the heat: they’d been far too long without water,
To the soldiers they were more than just mounts: they were mates,
and for mates the Light Horse would face slaughter.
“To hell with their numbers! To hell with their guns! It’s too hot here to flamin’ well think!
“And beggar their desert,” said Digger, “Let’s go! Our horses will die without drink!”
Harry Chauvel summed up the position: his men were all rested and ready –
Victoria’s Fourth and New South Wales’ Twelfth, determined, courageous and steady
The chiefs on the hill were now forced to decide – the light would be presently gone!
Balaclava itself was a much shorter dash, and some said, “It cannot be done.”
But General Grant took another good look at strong horses and great-hearted men:
“I feel they can do it, Harry,” he said – Said Harry, “Let’s jump to it, then.”
Across the wide plain nestled Abraham’s Wells, and before them the hell and the strife,
But Lawson and Hyman set off at the trot, at the head of men careless of life.
Their tempers were up, they were sick of the war, the Old World with its blunder and error,
But never before, in its story so long, had it seen such a thundering terror –
The guns opened up and the shrapnel flew wide, but the horsemen were too far away.
In the enemy hearts a most awful fear grew, and they knew they’d remember this day.
Half way across! Now the gallop was on! The men from each side of the Murray
On their High Snowy Walers thundering close! In the trenches all panic and flurry.
“They’ll stop and dismount!” came an officer’s shout, “They can’t fight like a fine cavalry,
“So stay at your posts in your trenches all safe, and just pick off this poor infantry.”
“They’ll tire and halt, they can’t gallop so far! No horsemen can take these defences.
“They’re out in the open, all weaponless, too. They can’t fight ’til they get to our trenches.”
But a weapon they had that the Turk couldn’t know, and it lay in the strength and the speed
Of the finest horseflesh that the world ever saw – the mighty Australian bush steed.
“We’re under the guns!” a Light Horseman cried out as his heartbeat went double the pace,
And his mount galloped faster, determined and strong – Oh never was run such a race!
“They’re still coming! They’re mad! But we’ll stop them all yet, this menace be suddenly gone!”
Then the dying sun flashed on each fixed bayonet! And the horses rushed awesomely on!
A riot of fear now, down in the trench. The Light Horsemen saw flashing the lights
As the rifles spat fury right over their heads – they’d forgotten to lower their sights!
Now into the trenches the Light Horsemen plunged, their bayonets and bullets worked well.
The enemy strong demoralised now by the men who’d come at them through hell.
Beersheba was won! The whole war was cut short, and the feathered brown hat shone in glory.
When the pens write of war now they tell of the charge that cannot be left from the story.
But the Walers were left, and sent riders in tears as they boarded the ships to come home,
Left to see out their days in Palestine’s sands, no more on their Snowies to roam.
Ah! The dust of the battle has settled long since – or has it? The warfare’s not done
Where tyranny tramps and greed has dug in: so the struggle for justice goes on.
And this Land in the South can still teach the world, can still have the spotlighted part,
But we must keep the flag of the Light Horse unfurled, and their courage keep strong in our heart.
By Fr John O’Neill, Parish Priest of St John Vianney Parish, Doonside.
The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, A.C.T. now has a copy of this poem in its War Memorabilia.