On Australia Day, 1997, Sir John Young unveiled this plaque on Point Danger, Torquay.
The plaque identifies a significant event in Torquay’s history and the sentiments of ‘change’ for the Light Horse Brigade – from horses to machines.
In 1940 the four Light Horse Regiments (4th, 8th, 13th and 20th), some 5000 Light Horse and 2000 horses camped and trained at Torquay. Three other regiments, formerly mounted on horses, were also at Torquay ‘mounted’ on privately owned trucks and cars. Division troops included Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Field Ambulance and other branches of the Army necessary to enable a Division to function.
It wasn’t just the sheer numbers of men coming to this little town that made the event significant, it was also the fact that the men of the Light Horse were dramatic, almost glamorous figures and it is easy to see their exploits as some splendid adventure. Horses have played a special role in the story of Australia. They were the only means of transport across this huge country, so it was necessary for everyone to have the ability to ride a horse. When war broke out in 1899 between Britain and the Boers of South Africa (“Boer” was Dutch for “farmer”) Australia sent troops to fight. At first Britain was wary of using untried, unprofessional colonial cavalrymen but soon saw that the slouch-hatted Australian “bushmen” were a match for the fast-moving and unconventional mounted commandos of the Boers. The Australians proved themselves to be expert rough-riding horsemen and good shots. Bush life had hardened them to go for long periods with little food and water. They also showed remarkable ability to find their way in a strange country and use its features for cover, in both attack and defence.
By 1914, when Australia joined the war against Germany, there were 23 Light Horse regiments of militia volunteers. Many men from these units joined the Light Horse regiments of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Men were given remounts (if not using their own horses) – army horses bought by Commonwealth purchasing officers from graziers and breeders. These were called “walers” because they were a New South Wales stockhorse type – strong, great-hearted animals with the strains of the thoroughbred and semi-draught to give them speed, strength and stamina.
On 1st November, 1914, Australia’s First Infantry Division and the first four Light Horse regiments sailed for England in a fleet of transport ships. The first of the Light Horse arrived at Gallipoli in May without their horses. Back with their horses after Gallipoli, they were formidable combatants across the Sinai and Palestine. Some British commanders observed that the light horseman moved with a “lazy, slouching gait, like that of a sleepy tiger” but described how the promise of battle “changes that careless gait, into a live athletic swing that takes him over the ground much quicker than other troops”. They had developed a reputation as formidable infantrymen. The Turks called them “the White Ghurkas” – a reference to their deadly skill with the bayonet. The Arabs called them “The Kings of the Feathers”. The plume had originally been a battle honour of the Queensland Mounted Infantry for their work in the shearer’s strike of 1891. During WW1 it was adopted by almost all the Light Horse Regiments. It was the proud badge of the light horseman.
The most famous of their battles was the attack on Beersheba- the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade. Mounted infantrymen and their superb walers had carried out one of the most successful cavalry charges in history – against what seemed impossible odds. They surprised the Turks by charging cavalry-style, when they would normally have ridden close to an objective then dismounted to fight. The fall of Beersheba swung the battle tide against the Turks in Palestine; and changed the history of the Middle East. While 19 men from the Surf Coast Shire served with the 4th Light Horse over the course of WW1, only four were involved in the charge of Beersheba- John GAYLARD, Philip QUINN.(Winchelsea); Wallace FINDLAY (Anglesea); Harry TRIGG (Bambra).
After the war, Light Horse units played a key role in the Australian Government’s compulsory military training programme. The Citizen Military Forces (C.M.F.) thrived on the glamour of the wartime Light Horse tradition, ignoring the possibility that motor vehicles would soon replace the horses.
When training was no longer compulsory, the C.M.F. regiments declined and horses became more of a luxury during the 1930s depression years of poverty and unemployment. Some regiments were motorised. Then, in 1939, Australia joined Britain in another world war. Training was increased for the militia at both home bases and regional training camps. The camp at Torquay in 1940, commanded by Major General Rankin, was at Divisional strength. By the end of the camp some felt that the Division was ready for active service. Gradually, over the next four years, the Australian Light Horse units were mounted on wheels and tracks and the horses were retired. Six men enlisted at the Torquay camp and another 57 men and women enlisted at Torquay for service in WW2. Those who served in the Militia provided valuable Officers and NCOs and men for the armed services during the war. Each infantry division of the 2nd AIF had a Light Horse regiment attached to it.
But the day of the Australian mounted soldier hadn’t quite passed. During World War II, Australia’s 6th Cavalry Regiment formed a mounted unit they called “The Kelly Gang” which did valuable scouting work. In New Guinea, a mounted Light Horse Troop did patrol duty and helped carry supplies. Some fully equipped walers were flown into Borneo for reconnaissance in rugged mountain country. But by the end of the war, in 1945, the horse had disappeared from the Australian Army.
The Light horse- a Cavalry under Canvas
Late in 1939 it was decided to set up a Lighthorse training camp in Torquay to train both men and horses for the battles of the Second World War.
Horses, men and equipment came on special trains from all over Victoria and NSW, and as you would expect horseman came from areas such as Omeo and Sale, the Wimmera and the Western District.
They arrived at the Geelong racecourse for watering in the Barwon River and then were ridden across the ford at the breakwater and began their 11 mile trek to Torquay.
By the end of January 1940 the camp at Torquay accommodated some 5000 men and 2500 horses of the Second Cavalry Division. The rows of horses, tents and huts near Blackgate Road were quite a sight.
While the cavalrymen engaged in exercises on the land and on the beaches, many of the troops took over the Torquay School for special training of men and officers.
Mr Bob Pettit local farmer and Councillor for the Barrabool Shire, wrote about the Light horse in the Surf Coast Community News in 1985 saying
“They used to travel about the district riding four abreast in one long convoy. To my annoyance they went through my property and shut all the gates behind them. I had certain gates open to let stock in to the water holes and it would take me three -quarters of an hour to follow the horsemen up and put all the gates right again”
“the men from the Light Horse were here when the fire went through in March 1940. He recalled an incident when early one morning, as some one blew the bugle, a soldier putting a white sheet on the line frightened the horses. They panicked and ran off in all directions. Six went over the cliff near Bird Rock, five were never found, and the rest were gathered up after nearly a fortnight in the bush around Addiscott and Anglesea"
The training camp culminated in a parade through the streets of Geelong on March 12th 1940. The salute was given at the Town Hall and the troops continued on a route to the You Yang’s for a training exercise.
The Camp was abandoned in mid 1940 as it was deemed unsuitable for training during winter and the cost of a permanent camp could not be justified if it could not be used all year.