BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Australia's answer to Morpurgo's War Horse
, April 27, 2013
BILL THE BASTARD:
The Story of Australia’s Greatest War Horse
by Roland Perry
(Sydney: Allen and Unwin)
Paperback: 288 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Recently, the popular Steven Spielberg film War Horse, based on British author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name, has captured the public’s imagination. It tells the story of Joey, a horse purchased by the Army for service on the Western front during World War I.
Australian historian and best-selling author Roland Perry, whose previous works include a biography of General Sir John Monash and the Australian Light Horse in the Great War, tells the story of the war horse “Bill the Bastard”, one of 200,000 Australian horses sent to the Middle East during the conflict.
Bill performed with particular distinction in campaigns at Gallipoli and in Egypt and Palestine, and was held in high regard by the light horsemen; but his story has been almost forgotten by the Australian public.
Bill was a Waler, a special Australian type of riding horse specifically bred for tough conditions, such as deserts or the outback regions of rural Australia. Such horses had proven to be assets in the Boer War, and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) favoured them for the Great War, hoping that they would be well suited for the arid regions of the Middle East.
Bill the Bastard acquired his nickname because he was a cantankerous and extraordinarily difficult horse even for an experienced rider to stay on without being thrown. The army used him to test potential Light Horse recruits who they suspected were underage, such as one Ben Towers from country New South Wales. However, the soldier who had the greatest success in handling him — and the only one who could ride him — was Major Michael Shanahan.
A.B. “Banjo” Paterson encountered Bill on the voyage from Australia at the end of 1914, while serving as a vet on the transport, and later after he had risen to the rank of major.
Most Australian light horsemen were wary of mounting Bill. On one occasion, British General Edmund Allenby ignored warnings about Bill when he was offered a range of mounts to ride while reviewing troops. He was quickly thrown off by Bill.
Bill saw service in a number of famous engagements, including Gallipoli, where he ran dispatch messages between British and Australian lines while coming under fire from the Turks, and in the Battle of Romani in the Sinai during August 1916, in which the Australian Light Horse played a key role in staving off a Turkish attempt to capture the Suez Canal. In that battle, Bill was Shanahan’s mount. Due to the horse’s daring, Shanahan was able to move around the battlefield, rallying other light horsemen.
Bill served as a packhorse in the historic Battle of Beersheeba, which was part of a campaign waged by the British army to capture the Holy Land and famous for the charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
At the end of the war, the AIF took the reluctant decision to slaughter most of the horses, rather than transport them back to Australia. A few horses were chosen as packhorses for the Allied expedition to Gallipoli, after the war’s end, to bury the dead and retrieve some artefacts. Bill was one of the horses chosen. He was last seen by Australians after he had been sold to some local peasants.
As with Roland Perry’s other works, Bill the Bastard is well researched. However, it is written not in the style of a serious academic tome, but in the lighter and eminently readable style of a good novel.