Australian history

The Walers: Our WW1 partners who never made it home

By | | comments |

During WW1, 136,000 horses were sent from Australia to France, India, the Western Front and the Middle East. Only one horse, Sandy, made it home. Nadyat El Gawley talks to wartime animals writer, Jill Mather, and other horse lovers about the cost to animals in conflict.

THE OLDER she gets, the more pessimistic she feels. To writer Jill Mather, there’s no cure for humans’ lack of respect for animals. And so, since her retirement, it’s been her mission to record their stories. Specifically, those that perished in war.

Eight million animals died in the Great War, says Jill. They carried soldiers and supplies, delivered messages, were shot at and killed. Six million alone were horses, about as many as the allies’ military casualties. The difference is, as she says, the horses didn’t volunteer.

She talks about how she had to give up her horse after she contracted polio at the age of 16. There’s a silence, and then she says: “I never really recovered”.

Her love for animals and knowledge of the horse has driven her work. The former journalist and teacher has written five books including Forgotten Heroes, about the Australian Waler in WW1. Walers are mixed breed horses bred for outback conditions. They are evenly-tempered animals, reliable in tough environments:

We have a special affinity with horses. Let’s take the light horsemen who were on patrol in the Sinai for example. If those horses made a noise or snorted, or stamped, or called for a mate, they could reveal their position. So when a trooper put his hand on his neck, that horse knew to freeze.

He also could move through those desert sand hills very silently. They could rely on one another. If the trooper was shot or injured in any way, there are many stories of horses carrying the trooper back to base camp.

Horses Abandoned

Through the complex history of WW1, the fall of empires, battles won and lost, the horse remains on the fringes. Looking for their story has highlighted the “profiteering” of war for Alex McInnis , media and communications officer at Sydney’s Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville.  She sees evidence of that in the Australian Government’s refusal to bring home horses sent to war:

“They abandoned them. It was too expensive to bring them back."

The Australian War Memorial records 136,000 horses being sent from Australia to France, India, the Western Front and the Middle East with the troops. At the end of the war, most horses were sold to European countries and to India, then a British colony. Only one horse, Sandy, made it home, according to Jane Peek, Curator of Military and Technology at the Australian War Memorial: 

At the end of the war, most of the horses were sold onto Belgian farmers or unfortunately – [for] the ones that couldn’t be sold on – there was a very strong market in horse meat and that’s still the case in Belgium and France. And the very best of them were selected to go to Britain for breeding.

In Palestine where the Australian light horse was operating, at any one time, there were 13000 horses. Of these, 2000 were put down because they were too old or debilitated.

Bridging the divide

The old military barracks at Marrickville’s Addison Road Community Centre has been a space for multicultural services and alternative groups since the 1970s.

The nine-acre site was the army’s major centre for enlistment in almost every conflict in the 20th century according to Sue Castrique, the Centre’s historian.

Young conscripts were sent from there for training before going to Vietnam and it was there where the Save Our Sons (SOS) movement protested against the war with its silent vigils.

But in its early days, the Centre was about the horses and the community.

Rosy Porter, Program Co-ordinator at the Centre, is mindful of the layers of history. She, along with colleagues and volunteers helped to mark the site’s history and the Australian Centenary with an event about horses —Tails from the Past.

Military drill, Tails from the Past. (Photo courtesy Addison Rd community Centre)

“It was actually the horses that bridged some of the divides between the community and the Army at the time, because the kids would come in to see the horses and then talk to the officers here. The officers would ride the horses up Addison Road and the kids would follow. The army actually had a close relationship with the community.“

Wars and Protests

But once the site became a community centre, political attitudes changed. Sue Castrique says the organisation’s outlook was the direct opposite to the “whitewashed huts and strict military discipline”. She continues:

Many community centre members had been shaped by anti-conscription protests. Some were refugees from war zones.

There was unease about recognising the site’s past as an army depot, or becoming the guardians of a history with the army’s conservative and militaristic overtones.

Staying neutral

The Addison Road Community Centre is busy with activity. The black and white themed Stirrup Café is the first of the many huts on the site. To the left, there’s a truck unloading old furniture for the Bower Centre — a recycling outfit that runs the Men’s Shed in Marrickville.

The Stirrup cafe., Addison Rd Community Centre. (Photo: N. El Gawley)

And further down, is the Centre’s office. A strong theme of social justice runs through the posters and notices on the wall.

Outside in the crisp sun, planes fly overhead, dogs run through the grounds highlighting the Centre’s dog friendly policies. Children chatter as they make their way to another activity. 

People who went to the Tails from the Past event and whose views varied on the question of war had regarded the Centre as a safe space, said Rosie Porter, who explained:

“We had the Gallipoli Centenary Peace Campaign inside the hall as one of the stalls … but we had the Light Horse Association [who] do the re-enactments. We had diggers coming back [who] remembered the site. We had family members of diggers who passed away, and they were some of our honorary guests. We had a mixture of people coming together on both sides of those two views."

The Horse

Phillip Chalker, president of the Australian Light Horse Association is easy-going and relaxed, having just bought some feed for his horses, and has pulled over into a car park for the interview.

He is passionate about increasing awareness of the role the horse played in the Great War:

 When I went to school (1973), I don’t remember ever hearing about the light horse. It was always about Gallipoli, the Western front.

There was more [that happened] in WW1 than Gallipoli and the Western front.  We’re interested in … educating and communicating with people about the role of the horse in the third front: Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq). 

And after about 20 years of talking to groups and making contact with the community, Phillip feels things are changing.

We owe more to animals than we know or remember as Jill Mather argues.

Being forgotten by government after all they had meant – “the horses were all”, says Jill  – is to animal advocates, a terrible injustice of the war.

The Hughes Government’s decision in1918 was a blow to many.

“A lot of soldiers were prepared to pay for their horse. They would’ve paid anything to have got their mate back." 

But the soldiers had no power to influence a government they’d surrendered their horses to. According to Jane Peek:

“When soldiers joined up in 1914, some of them came with their horse, in which case, the army bought the horse from them. So it became army property.”

Horses of the Australian Light Horse Association at Tails From the Past , Addison Rd Community Centre. (Photo courtesy Addison Rd Community Centre.)

The story doesn’t stop there. There were other animals such as camels, donkeys, even elephants that were used for war fighting purposes and died in WW1 according to Jill Mather. She says mules delivered medical supplies, and carried gun parts “staggering on until they dropped dead and nobody cared”.

It is why she writes books about the cost to animals in conflicts, and why it has become her life’s passion.

You can follow Nadyat on Twitter @nadyatel and her blog

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Open your eyes. Subscribe to IA for just $5.

Recent articles by Nyadat Gawley
The Walers: Our WW1 partners who never made it home

During WW1, 136,000 horses were sent from Australia to France, India, the Western ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate