Remembering the Battle of Semakh 100 years on

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Hat badge of the 11th Light Horse Regiment (Image via Wikipedia)

Commemorating the events of the Battle of Semakh in World War 1 is a recount passed on through generations of the Donovan family, writes Matthew Donovan.

IN CENTRAL QUEENSLAND during the '80s and early 1990s, my father and I would often be out mustering on horse, usually during the long, hot and oppressively humid days of summer, but this was Central Queensland and that’s how our family mustered cattle. Not with a motorbike or helicopter, just an old, faithful horse and a tired body that craved a drink of water more than anything else.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s nearly impossible to carry water on horse and gallop through the scrub, one needed to be as light and nimble as possible and anything flapping or jarring like a few kilos of water would be more than a slight distraction to both you and your horse. After the skirmish with the cattle – skirmish meaning we were mustering in scrub and they often got away and success if we managed to get them in the yards – we would be exhausted and have quite a few miles ride to get home and have a drink, which on the property at Mount Coolon would often be at least 12 hours in the saddle.

The only break to the boredom of the long ride home was to chat about Grandfather Donovan. A subject I loved as a boy, it was fascinating to hear about his adventures both growing up as a drover and a soldier during World War I — the revered and romantic Light Horse in the Middle East. The veracity of the stories told by my father, heard by him as a boy in the 1930s and '40s cannot be verified and the narrative in its second-hand form would most certainly be frayed by time and by memory, but the events that he retold of that era of Australian history are not easy to forget.

Personally, I never knew Sergeant A.W. Donovan of the 11th Light Horse Regiment. He died in the '50s – at least ten years before I was born – but with Dad's only remaining brother, the legend of his life lives on. 

The Donovan boys. L-R: Albert, Ivor and Walter.

Granddad came from the Texas region on the border of Queensland and NSW, as did a lot of Donovans from our clan and went to Warwick in SE Queensland in 1915 to join the Light Horse with his brother, Walter. Their younger brother, Ivor, enlisted a year later in August 1916.

Albert William and Walter Donovan served in Palestine, fortuitously missing the bloodbath of Gallipoli from the year earlier and, by doing so, possibly saving their lives and, no doubt, their sanity in the process. What possessed these country boys to volunteer after that fiasco one can only guess, but young men crave adventure and war — particularly boys growing in the bush used to carrying a rifle and riding a horse.

Ivor Donovan, the younger of the three, didn’t serve in the Light Horse and, for some reason unknown to our family, served in the infantry AIF 54 Battalion 14th Brigade in Belgium and France, where he was gassed but thankfully survived all the same.

Dad retold stories as he remembered them, no doubt from listening to their fireside conversations when he was a boy growing up on settlers and ballot blocks around Clermont. Stories, I remember, were always only just removed from the wars and the language we have adopted today was founded from those men who fought in the trenches of Gallipoli and France.

Old men would say “Keep ya head down”, a reference to snipers in the trenches and call anyone they met “Digger” as a common reference to the many miners who joined and dug furiously to seek shelter from the shells. Men would speak about who served with whom and if someone “didn’t go away”, a reference to the few who chose not to serve their country and stay at home.

The gear we used on the stations was often sourced from the Army disposals stores that sold everything from clothing and hats to ammo boxes that were converted into toolboxes. Every station had an old .303 rifle and, quite often, long 15-inch bayonets were a standard item in the toolboxes in rural Queensland sheds as were bandolier bullet belts and slouch hats. So, this was the life we lived as kids with parents or grandparents that served in the wars and memories of the events never to be forgotten.

The Battle of Semakh

Apart from the heroic account of the Battle of Semakh, there were stories that will probably never be published, rightly and quietly hushed up during and after the war for many years. These included the way Australians treated prisoners during a battle, particularly the Turks.

In one story about the Battle of Semakh, a group of prisoners were taken and marched over the hill, away from the prying eyes of the senior officers and other men, where one soldier said “okay that’s far enough” and Granddad, the non-commissioned officer in charge, abruptly halted whatever that particular soldier wanted to do and said “there will be no shooting of prisoners under my command”

Many of the Australians in Palestine in the Light Horse were veterans of the Boer War, hardened by years in the bush and war in the South African veld. They were not the types of soldier that respected an enemy that shirked a head-on fight. The Boer were tough, hard, resourceful and ruthless, brave to a man and could ride, shoot, live off the land and feared God as any Australian would — as a result were very respected by the Australians.  

This background and the typically cowardly antics of Arab Bedouins made Australians unsympathetic to any enemy that would not engage in a fair fight. It was with this in mind that the context of what happened to a battalion of Light Horse that triggered the following events.

From the stories my father told me – he retold as he heard – one that I remember is known as the Massacre at Surafend. My grandfather did not take part in this event as far as I know but it was one that was often retold by returning LH infantry.

I woke one morning to find a trooper face-down in the horse trough with his throat cut. It was common knowledge that the Australians had grown sick of the thieving, looting and sniping from the Bedouin villages nearby and the Bedouins were about to find out how the Australians were going to deal with this. It must have been a spontaneous decision and not one that would have been planned by any of the officers, often the officers in charge of the LH were English cavalrymen — disciplined, riding straight back, toes in the irons and riding crop under arm, respected accordingly but by no means treated in any other way but as equals to the enlisted men. According to historical accounts, the Australians and New Zealanders went into the Bedouin camp armed with the standard issue 15-inch bayonet and massacred every male over the age of 14. Although this was a story that was often told, I’m quite certain it wasn’t one that my grandfather took part in, however word soon got around to other troopers and, of course, reached the British High Command.

General Allenby addressed the Light Horse and told them what a disgrace they were, his clipped English accent berating the unruly Aussies was drowned out by a countdown — 10, 9, 8, 7, 6... the Light Horsemen never reached zero as Allenby knew his fate would have been as sure as those of the Bedouin if he had stayed. He left with haste.

The Fight at Semakh, by A.W. Donovan. From RSL Reveille Magazine:

On 24 September 1918, we had just pulled into camp, put our horse-lines down, given our horses their scanty meal (just a small, double handful of grain) and ourselves just about finished munching our “bully beef” and biscuit, when the blast of a whistle was heard. The orders were to stand-to, draw twenty-four hours’ rations and be prepared to move out in half-an-hour. In less than that time we were out in our respective lines and eventually moved off — whither bound, the rank and file knew not.

We rode, with periodical rests till midnight, when we just linked up our horses and loosened the girths, two men per troop being detailed for horse piquet while the remainder lay down in front of their horses, in full marching order, for two hours’ rest. As soon as night began to fall, orders were passed along the line that there was to be no smoking and no noise. It should perhaps be here mentioned that prior to the “big push,” which began on 18 September, our regiment, in common with other units of the Australian Mounted Division, had been issued with swords. The 11th had been put through a hurried cavalry practice in the vicinity of Ludd.

Moving off in the early hours, we led our horses in half-sections across an old stone bridge (said to have been built by the Crusaders) spanning the Jordan, a few miles below Lake Tiberius (the Sea of Galilee) and formed up in line of squadron column, ready to advance in that order until nearing the enemy position. Our guide – an officer from an imperial regiment, which had attempted, without success, to take Semakh a day or two before – however, had evidently mistaken the distance, for we were right onto the enemy before we knew where we were.

Fortunately, the jingle of stirrup irons and bits was carried up as though we were coming down the hillside and the first burst of fire swept over our heads. Through the din, Colonel Parsons’ voice rang out (I seem to hear his order now): “We are going to charge the town, form squadron line.”

Major Loynes brought us into one long line. Our horses immediately commenced to bite at the bit and stamp their feet, some whinnying as though sending a last message to their mates. “Draw swords... charge!” came the command and away we went, full gallop, straight for the line of spurting flame.

Many horses and riders fell on the way, either by bullets, through galloping into pits that had been dug by the Turks to trap our horses, or by failing over trip-wires. The coo-ee that went up, when we got going in that charge, is ringing in my ears still. “Ring ’em in the Gidyea, boys! We’ll give you bastards what you want!” yelled the wild sons of the Australian bush, who, with their swords gleaming in the moonlight, seemed to demoralise the Turks, who should have shot every horse and rider galloping over that treeless plain.

My “old pony” saved my life. We had among us several newcomers, who had not previously been in action and were crowding in together. Being an N.C.O., I was calling out, “Keep out on the left, there,” when I felt my horse take a leap and, glancing down, I saw a stream of flame shooting out from under him. What had evidently happened was that a Turkish machine-gunner, whose gun was set in a “ possie”, had been traversing our line when he suddenly saw us galloping straight for him and fired a straight blast just as the “old pony” took the leap, clearing the “possie” in his stride.

We galloped on to the shore of Galilee, where we sheathed swords and dismounted, handing over our horses to the horse-holders. We then fixed bayonets and got into the Turks on foot. Rushing across, a party of us lay behind the railway line and fired on the station building until suddenly the door was slightly opened and a hand shot out holding a white handkerchief. Captain Whitfield, at once, gave the order, “Cease firing, boys” and, jumping up from his prone position, walked across towards the building. He got to within a few feet of the door when the handkerchief was dropped and he was shot dead. Needless to say, we took no prisoners from that joint.

Anyhow, we won the day, though only after losing many of our noble comrades and faithful steeds — on the very field on which Sennacherib’s army is said to have been destroyed.

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