Australian Light Horse

The Australian Light Horse were mounted troops who served during the Second Boer War and World War I that combined characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. This was the outcome of doctrinal debate in military circles in Australia in the late 19th century concerning the future of mounted troops. The example of the Franco-Prussian War illustrated that the battlefield had become dominated by massed land armies supported by artillery. For Australia the reality was vast spaces with sparse populations making it difficult to consider anything that remotely looked like the European model. The 1890s were wracked by drought and depression ensuring that none of the states were able to afford anything but the most token of armies supported by a large contingent of volunteers. The Second Boer War provided the short term answer. While Australian forces fought against the Boers in South Africa, the Boer methodology of conducting war was considered to be the answer for Australian defence. Volunteer Light Horse Regiments were established around Australia supported by the Rifle Club movement which provided semi trained reinforcements for the various formations. Should these formations be called upon to defend Australia, the local commander was charged with maintaining resistance through the use of the Commando formation which envisaged a large scale guerrilla war. The prospect of an endless and strength sapping guerrilla war was the key deterrent factor which relied heavily upon mobile soldiers. The mounted infantry remained the key to the Australian defence posture until the Kitchener Report of 1910 which envisaged formations that could be slotted directly into an Imperial expeditionary force. The plan envisaged two mounted divisions.

Light horse were like mounted infantry in that they usually fought dismounted, using their horses as transport to the battlefield and as a means of swift disengagement when retreating or retiring. A famous exception to this rule though was the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. In 1918 some light horse regiments were equipped with sabres, enabling them to fight in a conventional cavalry role during the advance on Damascus. However, unlike mounted infantry, the light horse also performed certain roles, such as scouting and screening, while mounted.

The light horse were organised along cavalry rather than infantry lines. A light horse regiment was roughly equivalent to a battalion, but containing only about 600 men (an infantry battalion would contain about 1000 men). Around a quarter of this nominal strength (or one man in each section of 4) could be allotted to horse-holding duties when the regiment entered combat. A regiment was divided into three squadrons, designated "A", "B" and "C", (equivalent to a company) and a squadron divided into four troops (equivalent to but smaller than a platoon). Each troop was divided into about ten 4-man sections. When dismounting for combat, one man from each section would take the reins of the other three men's horses and lead them out of the firing line where he would remain until called upon.

"Specially Sighted Telescopic Rifles will be issued, stated in Routine Order No. 112 by Major G.M.M.Onslow, 7th Light Horse A.I.F., dated 2nd October, 1915. In this, is the extract from Operation Memo. 73 where the specially sighted telescopic rifle issued at the rate of four to each Brigade of the Division, 'for use at sniping posts by SPECIALLY SELECTED MARKSMEN ONLY' (ref: AWM4-10-12-4.pdf page 9).

Each regiment had a troop of two Maxim guns. At Gallipoli, where the light horse served dismounted, this was increased to four guns. In 1916, these were consolidated into light horse machine gun squadrons, each with 12 Vickers machine guns. In turn, the troops received the Lewis Gun. This was replaced by the Hotchkiss M1909 Benet-Mercie machine gun in April 1917. Eventually they arrived in such numbers as to allow each troop to have a Hotchkiss gun, which considerably added to the mobile firepower of a regiment and considerably altered their combat tasking and activities.

The Australian Waler horse was the common mount for the light horsemen, as it was strong and hardy, which was needed in the harsh desert climate. This was facilitated by the horses being left behind in Egypt while the light horsemen went to Gallipoli, allowing them to gradually acclimatise.

Read more about Australian Light Horse:  Post World War I, Legacy, Commemorations of The Battle of Beersheba

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