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My grandfather Donald Cameron began his military career in January 1900 when he sailed for South Africa as a trooper in the lst. Australian Horse. His unit was then attached to the Scots-Greys as a part of General French's famous cavalry division and undertook reconnaissance and generally disruptive actions behind the lines of the Boer enemy.
He was involved in a lot of heavy fighting which, led up to the Battle of Sand River on 10 May 1900. A force made up of some 240 Scots-Greys, Inniskillings, and 1st. Australian Horse charged some Boer guns, which were used as the bait for a trap. Eight hundred Boers lay in ambush and, when the British force was 200 yards from the top of the hill, opened fire on them. The CO gave the order to dismount and return fire, but there was little cover and the losses were heavy. It was then that an order was given which my grandfather heard but once in his life: "Every man for himself " Immediately there was a rush back to the surviving horses and men were shot down on all sides. My grandfather's horse had been shot through the shoulder and was useless, but a Scots-Grey next to him, was shot through the head and tumbled from his horse. Before the horse could bolt, Grandfather flew into the saddle and drove his spurs home. Within 30 yards a bunch of riders was brought down in a heap, Grandfather - so it seemed to him - underneath the lot. He was taken from the field in a Boer ambulance, taken by train to Pretoria and then to Watervale Prison. Within weeks he had escaped, completed his tour of duty and returned to Australia. He then re-enlisted and was given the rank of lieutenant with the First New South Wales Bushmen. He returned to South Africa, where he stayed until the finish of the war. I make reference to his experiences in the Boer War for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my grandfather never forgot what it was like to be a trooper and how the trials and tribulations of an enlisted man could sometimes be overlooked and even made worse by commissioned officers. There was one particular incident, which he remembered for the rest of his life. One night he was sound asleep in his tent when a party of British military police stormed in, woke him and charged him with being drunk and disorderly. Obviously, he was innocent and thankfully that was the verdict of his court martial. However, the part that was a source of eternal irritation was that when the presiding officer delivered the verdict, he added: "But don't let it happen again." As he rose through the ranks in later years, he was never to forget his humble beginnings. Also, it was during his time in South Africa that he became a staunch advocate of the military tactic that we are here today to honour - the storming of enemy fortifications by cavalry. When war broke out in 1914, he was quick to enlist again. He joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment, which had a large contingent of volunteers from the Hunter Valley, near Newcastle. Many of those were lifelong friends; the others were to become his friends for life. The 12th arrived at Gallipoli in August 1915 and was split up as reinforcements. Grandfather, who by then was a Major, was second in command of C Squadron until its ultimate withdrawal from that horrific campaign. The regiment was re-formed in Egypt. He regained command of his squadron and was made 21C of the regiment under Lt Col Harold McIntosh. In the second Battle of Gaza, Colonel McIntosh was killed and Grandfather was given command at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In recalling his appointment in the Reveille magazine dated 1 October 1937, Snowy Roberts, a trooper in the 12th, said: "The choice was a happy one. Don's officers and men held him in the highest regard, while he, for his part, thoroughly believed in them. How well we remember the picture of him, mounted on his tall bay horse - either riding at the head of his regiment, scouting up with his screen, sizing up the situation at a glance, making his dispositions, and, best of all from his troopers' point of view, sticking to his orders when once he gave them." The 12th continued on through the campaign of the Middle East. They experienced some magnificent victories, suffered some defeats, and battled the hardships of desert warfare. Water was always at a premium, and there was one story that was very popular amongst the troopers: An old billygoat had been hanging around one of their camps. There was much debate as to whether the billygoat or a certain Major had the stronger aroma. Naturally, the only way to solve the issue was to let the Colonel decide. So it was arranged, and the Major was duly taken to the Colonel, and the Colonel fainted. The billygoat was then taken to the Colonel and the goat. fainted! Just as water was the source of good old Aussie humour, so it was vital to the conduct of the campaign. The Turkish line of defence, known as the GazaBeersheba Line, had to be broken. Beersheba had to be taken to secure water for the horses and troops or withdrawal was inevitable. It was then that my grandfather's experience in South Africa was called upon. On his recommendation, it was decided that the 12th and 4th Light Horse Regiments would charge the Turkish fortifications. Frank Dalby Davison, in his book The Wells of Beersheba, paints a graphic picture of the men and horses: "In such a moment the minds and hearts of men rise to a condition in which mean things cannot touch them. A condition such as is known to attacking infantry when the moment comes to leave their trenches. They are buoyed up by a courage that is the measure of the task before them - a courage not of each but of all. Death sinks to a name. Fear falls from them, and they become more than men. "A wave of subtle excitement swept through the mounted ranks and communicated itself to the beasts they rode. Saddle worn, parched and overloaded, the horses knew by the alert bearing of their riders, that unaccustomed activity was at hand. "They wheeled prettily, like men and horses drill. They looked almost gay: brownish ranks of horses with a sprinkle of roan, chestnut, and grey; tails flying, heads reefing at the bit. The ray of the setting sun was on their fronts; a coppery glow, diffused through the dry red mist of the battlefield. They advanced, "The pace, at first, was a smart trot, with an eye to the careful alignment of the ranks. The pace quickened to a canter, then to a gallop. The men sat still in their seats. Sound and movement were in swinging rhythm. They had no swords, but rode with rifle and fixed bayonet across the thigh; others with rifle slung across the back, bare bayonet gripped in the hand. "The shells began to burst amongst them. A long-striding bay was the first to go down. His was a long, lurching, staggering fall, for the will to race on died hard in him. The weaving hooves of his mates swept by and over him. A sheet of flame leaped up, and before it a chestnut reared with gaping chest and fell backward, throwing his rider from him. "The shelling increased in intensity. The ranks were thinning. Where men had ridden knee to knee they rode now with space between them. Men dropped from their saddles and their horses galloped on, shoulder to shoulder with the rest." H.S. Gullett, author of The Official History of Australia in The 1914/1918 War in Sinai and Palestine wrote: "Many horses in the leading line were hit and dropped, but there was no check in the speed of the charge. The enemy fire served only to speed the gallop. These Australian countrymen had never in all their riding at home ridden a race like this; and all ranks, from the heroic ground scouts galloping in front of the squadron leaders, to the men in the third line, drove in their spurs and charged on Beersheba. "The leading squadron of the 4th on the right was under Major J. Lawson and the vanguard of the 12th was entrusted to Major Eric Hyman. The fire from the trenches came chiefly from Lawson's front, and the bold young soldier led his squadron straight at it. "As they came within half a mile of the earthworks, which were now clearly in view, the casualties among the horsemen almost entirely ceased, despite an increase in the firing. Over the last few hundred yards Lawson's men galloped untouched; the Turks, surprised and bewildered by the audacity of the charge, had failed to change the sights on their rifles, and their fire was passing harmlessly overhead." The Light Horsemen cleared the first trenches at the gallop. Horses and men were shot as they jumped over the Turks, yet the casualties remained amazingly light. The Australians dismounted, the horses led to cover at the gallop, and they waded into the desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Some galloped on towards the reserve trenches. One trooper who did so had his horse shot as he jumped one such trench and he went crashing to the ground. When the dazed Australian found his feet, five Turks, with their hands up, had surrendered to him. The progress of the 12th was equally as brilliant and decisive as that of the 4th, as Gullett recounts: "Major Hyman, at the head of the leading squadron, charged up to the trenches of a small redoubt and at once dismounted with about a dozen of his men. But most of his command passed the redoubt close on their right and, finding that they had ridden through a gap in the defensive lines, galloped straight on for Beersheba, with Captain Rodney Robey at their head. Hyman, with his party of twelve [12], engaged the Turks in the trenches with rifle and bayonet. A bitter fight ensued, and not until the Australians had killed sixty [60] of them did the enemy surrender. Major Hyman used his revolver to shoot many of them. "As the trenches were approached, the second squadron under Major C.M. Featherstonhaugh, a South African veteran and fine old soldier, had reduced the distance between the first and second lines. Featherstonhaugh's horse was wounded within thirty [30] yards of the trench. With his first thought for his favourite charger, he put the animal out of its pain with a shot from his revolver. He then rushed on into the trench, emptied his weapon into the nearest Turks, then fell, shot through both legs." (Major Featherstonhaugh was to recover from his wounds, and in fact attended my grandfather's funeral some 33 years later.) Most of his squadron, however, swung away round the redoubt and, led by Major Jack Davies of Puen Buen, Scone, followed Robey's men at the gallop towards the town. Robey rode hard for the western side of Beersheba, aiming to envelop it from the north, while Davies led his men along the main street. It is Major, later Colonel, Davies who is credited with being the first man into the actual town of Beersheba. The victory was comprehensive. The courage, audacity and recklessness of the Australians not only overwhelmed the Turks at Beersheba but it was to affect all those who faced the prospect of doing battle with them. Part-time soldiers had humbled the might of the enemy. Generally, the men of the Light Horse were not professional soldiers; of those I have just mentioned, one was a hotel keeper, one an estate manager, and the rest, farmers and graziers. Of course there were so many others who were there that day. One such man was Lieutenant Guy Haydon, from the local property Bloomfield. Lieutenant Haydon had a wonderful black mare called Midnight. While the Light Horse was in Cairo, Lt Haydon was chosen to represent Australia against the British cavalry and, riding the Broomfield mare, won three events for his country: the sprint race, flag race and equitation test. He also rode her in the Charge of Beersheba. While they were jumping a trench a bullet passed up through Midnight killing her. It then entered Lt Haydon's back and lodged next to his spine. Lt Haydon was one of the five hundred and fifty eight [558] men from the Hunter Valley who enlisted in the Light Horse in World War I. After the signing of the Armistice, my grandfather was given command of the 4th Light Horse Brigade for the journey home on the troopship Morvada. A ship's magazine was published in which he gave an interview. In it he said: "When I was in Cairo, just before we sailed, I saw Lambert, the artist, engaged on his great painting The Light Horse at Beersheba. I told Lambert, even if it took him five years, to work on and show us to the public. People will open their eyes when they see this picture. I don't think any man can paint a horse like Lambert." To this day that picture is on display in the National War Memorial in Canberra. He also said: "I always advocated the use of Australians as cavalry. It is positively fatal to employ Light Horsemen as dismounted troops. To begin with, in dismounting them you lose at least 25% of your effective fighting strength, and then, as a rule, the Australian horseman is a very poor footman." My grandfather married after the war and had three children. Each of them bore the name of a Light Horseman - even my aunt. My late father used to say that his father was disappointed that it was not practical to have sufficient children to allow him to carry on the name of every one of his men, although my grandmother didn't share this disappointment. When my grandfather was a 12 year old boy, he was sent up into the mountains to shepherd sheep and live on his own in an isolated hut. Without the Light Horse, he might never have had the opportunity to show his capabilities. It provided him with great adventure, challenges and opportunities, which are so much harder to find today. I have read many things about my grandfather, but one of the nicest things said of him was that he was a wonderful man amongst wonderful men. Much has been said in recent years about the need for Australians to establish a national identity. The men of the Light Horse had no such need. They were sure of their identity, as surely as were their allies and their enemies. They have given us a heritage as rich, colourful and heroic as any in the world. Their courage and determination earned them the respect and admiration of their contemporaries. Just as the following generation respected and admired them, it is the duty of my generation, and that of the generations that follow, to ensure that their deeds are remembered with pride and reverence. One would think that those who seek to foster our identity would be looking for a model to hold up to our children, which teaches them to be proud of what they are and acknowledge the achievements of our forefathers. One would hope that such a model would include courage, loyalty, compassion and integrity. If this is so, then they need look no further than the men of the Australian Light Horse. To ignore their achievements would be bad enough, to deny them - unforgivable.
Note: by Richard Cameron


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