Tag Archives: ANZAC

And the Band Played “Waltzing Matilda”

The horrors of World War I have been remembered in a variety of ways — in movies, books, songs, monuments — but more in Australia than in the U.S., partly because it was the first major war in which Australians participated after federation in 1901, but also partly because Australians and New Zealanders, whose militaries were grouped together at the time, suffered the most devastating casualties of any country participating. I’ve mentioned this in more detail in previous posts (just search for Gallipoli), and talk about it in my book, as well, but I thought a few more comments were reasonable. First, a movie recommendation: Gallipoli features a very young Mel Gibbson as a soldier during one of the most horrifying conflicts of the war. Second, a song by Eric Bogle, a Scot who emigrated to Australia, captures the experience of a soldier wounded at Gallipoli. I can’t show you the movie, but I can share the song. (When I brought the album home from my first trip to Australia and played it for my parents, it made my dad — a World War II veteran — cry.)

Eric Bogle: And the Band Played “Waltzing Matilda”

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Light Horsemen

“Erected by their comrades & the Governments of Australia and New Zealand in memory of the members of the Australian Light Horse, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, the Imperial Camel Corps & the Australian Flying Corps who lost their lives in Egypt, Palestine & Syria, 1916-1918.” So reads the inscription on the wall surrounding the monument pictured below, which stands on Mt. Clarence in Albany.

I related a fair bit about the ANZACs—the Australia New Zealand Army Corps, which saw some of the worst of the action in World War I—in my March 23, 2007 post about ANZAC biscuits (delightful cookies that honor the brave warriors). Australia and New Zealand were both young countries when World War I began, and yet they rallied to England’s aid and headed for the Middle East and Europe. The ANZACs sustained incredible casualties—but they also scored some astonishing victories—including the almost legendary battle of Beersheba.

Beersheba— in the area known as Palestine, though in 1917 it was part of the great, sprawling Turkish Ottoman Empire—was the key to breaking through the Turkish lines. The Allies, but most especially the British, had fought for months, but the Turkish forces were strong and well armed. The decisive battle came on October 31, 1917, a seemingly doomed effort to take Beersheba before nightfall. The British turned to two regiments of Australian mounted soldiers: the 4th (Victoria) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. The plan—charge. Have a few hundred Australians, bayonets in hand, simply run their horses over open ground at the several thousand Turks, in trenches, behind rifles, cannons, and machine guns. But the Turks never imagined a charge. They assumed that, like the British cavalry, the horsemen would get off a few thousand meters away and then attack on foot, using their rifles.

But this wasn’t the British. The Aussies yelled bloody murder and ran straight at the guns. By the time the Turks figured out what was happening, their cannons were almost useless, as the Light Horsemen were too close. After a dangerous gallop of a few miles, the horses were vaulting over the Turkish trenches. Aussies dismounted, and fighting was now hand-to-hand. The Light Horsemen were still hugely outnumbered, but the charge had demoralized the Turkish troops, many of whom fled. By nightfall, Beersheba had been taken.

The movie “The Lighthorsemen” is not the best movie to ever come out of Australia—that would probably be “Breaker Morant,” though that’s about a different war. For movies about ANZACs in World War I, “Gallipoli” is probably more reflective of the grim reality and is better acted and constructed. But if you simply want to be amazed by an astonishing piece of history that is little celebrated outside of Australia, or if you just like heroes on horseback, I do recommend the film. And the battle, while the heart of the movie, is not all the movie contains—there is background, build-up, and even a bit of romance.

To give you a sense of the film, here is an excerpt—the attack on Beersheba, from “The Lighthorsemen.”

It all makes the statue below a bit more understandable.

Monument to ANZACs, Albany, W.A.

Monument to ANZACs, Albany, W.A.

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