Beersheba charge remembered by Australian Light Horse descendants in Israel | Part 2

A group of Australians has made the journey to Israel to take part in the centenary commemoration of the Australian Light Horse’s Beersheba charge.

Fairfax Media journalist Sally Cripps, who is the descendant of General Sir Harry Chauvelis taking part in the pilgrimage. 

Wearing with pride: Austin Short at the grave of his grandfather, Howard Taylor, in Haifa, northern Israel. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Wearing with pride: Austin Short at the grave of his grandfather, Howard Taylor, in Haifa, northern Israel. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Light Horsemen the honour

He died half a world away in a pre-dawn Light Horse charge, but Samford Valley grazier, Howard Taylor, has been remembered in a poignant service conducted at a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Haifa, Israel.

Brisbane’s Austin Short, travelling with the Australian Light Horse Association tour for the centenary of the charge at Beersheba, laid a wreath on the weekend for the grandfather he never knew.

A member of the 11th Light Horse regiment, Howard was part of an unusual action, a pre-dawn charge on the town of Samakh, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, on September 25, 1918.

He and fellow soldiers had to ride under cover of darkness, from 9pm to midnight, fording the Jordan River, and again from 3am to get in position.

When they were fired upon before dawn, the decision was made to go into battle, across unseen ground, immediately.

Austin, brought up by his female relatives, said they didn’t talk about his grandfather’s death but he had done a lot of research to fill in the gaps of knowledge.

“I was so proud to honour him,” he said. “All the family was behind me coming here and doing this for him.”

Some 19 Allied horsemen didn’t survive the Semakh battle. Another of those, buried just down from Howard, was trooper Walter Lewis.

Known as Splinter, the soldier gave his name to his great nephew, rugby league football legend, Wally Lewis.

The grave of trooper Walter Lewis in the Haifa war graves cemetery.

The grave of trooper Walter Lewis in the Haifa war graves cemetery.

Austin’s tribute was enhanced by his donation of an oil painting of the historic charge, painted by Tweed Heads artist, Harry Henderson.

It was unveiled on Monday at Semakh, when the restored Turkish railway station was opened before a number of dignitaries, including Australia’s ambassador to Israel.

Austin described the canvas as lifelike.

“Harry put a lot of thought into it,” he said. “It’s quite ghostly. You have to look further into the picture, and ask why swords are a feature.”

It was the first time the Australian soldiers charged with swords rather than bayonets.

Chauvel at the heart of the emu plumes legend

Stories abound of how Australia’s Light Horse units came to be wearing emu plumes in their hats, but now one of the stories has been confirmed and it features one of Australia’s greatest military commanders, General Sir Harry Chauvel.

The story goes that Major Percy Ricardo and Captain Harry Chauvel began to wear the feathers when they were serving in the West Moreton Mounted infantry, thanks to a weekend socialising together at Franklyn Vale station, at Grandchester in the Lockyer Valley.

The property was being managed by Ricardo for Henry Mort, and according to the legend, a pet emu had died and its hide had been nailed to the saddle shed by some of the stockmen.

The two men are supposed to have picked up some of the feathers and placed them in their hats, which Mrs Ricardo said looked smart and so it began.

People have tried to pick holes in this story, saying the two men served in different units, and that Percy Ricardo was working in Brisbane as the manager of the Brisbane Ice Works at the time of the story, not managing Franklyn Vale, but the Mort family disagrees.

Harry Mort, the current owner of the property, has passed down his family’s recollections to Arthur DeMain of Boonah, who is working as a military advisor for the Australian Light Horse Association’s Beersheba centenary tour in Israel at present.

“The story goes that Harry Chauvel and Dudley White were visiting Franklyn Vale where there was an emu pelt hung out to dry on the saddle room wall,” Harry wrote.

“With Ricardo, they plucked some feathers and stuck them in their hats. When they walked back to the homestead, Mrs Ricardo remarked how good they looked.

“Ricardo left Franklyn Vale and in 1891 at the government’s behest, was sent with a detachment of mounted infantry to quell the shearers’ strike around Barcaldine.

“While camped there, Colonel Ricardo encouraged his men to chase down the odd emu and put the feathers in their hats.”

Arthur backed that up with the copy of a letter written from Percy Ricardo’s daughter, Bobs, to Henry Mort’s wife, Nell.

In it, Bobs says she remembers the incident well.

“Father had been given the present of an emu by some man, and as he was out when he arrived, he put it in one of the loose boxes with its legs tied together.

“The upshot was that it broke one of its legs and had to be destroyed.

“The yard boy skinned it and tacked the hide up on the stable door to season.

“I remember the smell of it well, as I had to collect the eggs!

“On Daddy’s return, he and Dudley White and Henry Chauvel stuck some plumes in their hats, and as far as I know the QMI have worn them ever since.”

Arthur said these statements gave the story authenticity.

“In the first instance, Harry Chauvel, with his experience and military background, would want to follow the lines of the British cavalry, who like to fluff themselves up.

“Harry was brought up at Kings School, was from a family with a military background, and did officer training.

“I think the opportunity arose at Franklyn Vale to experiment and it went from there.”

Arthur went on to say that while there may not be a finite starting point, General Harry Chauvel, the man who led thousands of men as part of the Desert Mounted Corps and who oversaw the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, should be attributed with starting the tradition.

“This is a great time in our history to bring this out,” he said.

“Every country has a unit that people identify with – the Marines, the Cossacks, the Household Cavalry.

“For Australia, it’s the man with the feather in his hat.

“It’s an iconic symbol of our soldiers’ bravery.”

Paying tribute: New Zealanders Chris Holden, centre, flanked by Timothy and Donald Moore, representing their country's mounted infantry at the ceremony at Jaffa. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Paying tribute: New Zealanders Chris Holden, centre, flanked by Timothy and Donald Moore, representing their country's mounted infantry at the ceremony at Jaffa. Picture: Sally Cripps.

Kiwi role in battle for Jaffa remembered

The efforts of the mounted infantry in capturing the port city of Jaffa in the Palestinian campaign in the first World War, especially the role of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, was remembered by the Australian Light Horse Association last week.

With three New Zealand representatives proudly holding their flag, the first of many commemorative ceremonies to be undertaken by the ALHA in the lead-up to the centenary of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba on October 31, took place at the Jaffa railway station.

Kelvin Crombie, the historian for the 170-strong group, explained that it had been a very strategic victory in that it cut the Turkish rail access between Jaffa and Jerusalem.

“This was all about location, location, location,” he said.

“After Beersheba, General Allenby wanted to secure more water, and release his mounted forces.

“The Turkish 8th army was down here on the coast and the 7th army was up in the hills.

“The Anzac Mounted Division moved towards Jaffa and the New Zealanders had to face a large number of Turkish forces.

“Everyone, cooks and all, were pressed into action.”

Forty-nine New Zealanders were killed, and many horses, but the Turkish line was broken.

Two of the Kiwis on parade for the event, Timothy and Donald Moore, from Blenheim, were descendants of Edward Moore, who was a part of the action with the 9th Wellington Brigade machine gun squadron.

They were joined by Chris Holden from Gisborne.

The action by the Allied forces in Palestine in the war laid the foundation for the implementation of the 2000-year-old vision for a State of Israel.

Kelvin told the group the presence of the Anzac soldiers was remembered in the next big war when Australian troops returned.

“Ariel Sharon (an Israeli Prime Minister) has fond memories of billeting an Australian soldier,” he said.

Because of the Australian presence in the region in the second World War, the lives of 700,000 people in the Middle East became safer.

According to Kelvin, the Germans were poised to implement the holocaust on the Jewish population.