Illegitimate Bill

bill-the-bastardBill the Bastard by Roland Perry is the story of an almost legendary horse ridden in Australian Light Horse campaigns in WWI, who my wife and I politely refer to as “Illegitimate Bill”.

I first heard about Bill in a TV documentary about the horses used by The Australian Light Horse during World War I.

His name came up again a week or so later at a local trash and treasure market when I met a descendant of one of the very first ALH members who had fought in the Boer War. He told me where there was a statue celebrating Bill and his most famous exploit. I was able to visit that statue a week or two later.

Bill got his name because of his wild and stubborn nature. He refused to be ridden, although he could be used as a very strong and dependable packhorse. Those who tried to ride him always came off second best, and some were seriously hurt. Perry’s book records how one man, Major Michael Shanahan was able to win Bill over and was able to use him as his mount in battle. On several occasions Shanahan’s life was saved by Bill’s ability to sense approaching danger.

BTBBill’s “most famous exploit” commemorated in the statue happened at the Battle of Romani, where the Australian Light Horse were trying to repel a massive Turkish force. One section of Australian troops fell to the Turks and were wiped out. However four horseless survivors of that section were found as the Australians were trying to withdraw. Shanahan rode up to them and helped them onto Bill, two sitting behind the rider and the other two standing on a stirrup each. Bill carried the five away to safety despite being chased and fired upon by Turkish pursuers.

Later in that battle, Shanahan was seriously wounded in the thigh, but fought on as long as he could before losing consciousness. Bill clearly knew something was wrong, making his way back to camp with Shanahan slumped on his back. The weakened Shanahan came close to death, his wound became gangrenous, and his leg was amputated to save his life.

excerpt from military record

excerpt from military record

Perry’s book is written more like a novel than a history book. While its an easy and interesting read, it has one weakness. There are no source references, so I was left wondering at times how much of the detail is factual and to what extent things may have been imaginatively embellished.

I didn’t doubt the accounts of major events, but at times incidents and conversations were reported with a degree of detail that I thought was a little “suspicious” as if someone had been standing nearby with pen and pad recording it all.
As there are no reference details provided, the possible source of the detail is left a mystery. In other WWI books I’ve read, its been made clear that dialogue between participants has occasionally be constructed from information found in soldiers’ diaries and letters.

At the end of the book, Perry mentions the statue of Bill that I referred to above, however by describing it as “life-sized” he makes it clear that he hadn’t seen it himself; unless Bill and the Light Horse members he saved were the size of garden gnomes.

Major Michael Shanahan

Major Michael Shanahan with nurses after his leg was amputated


The First Casualty, by Ben Elton

the-first-casualtyI haven’t read a lot of fiction this year. Most of my reading has been First World War non fiction.

The books I’ve read have included comprehensive histories, biographies and the diaries of participants in the war. Maybe I needed a break from history books, so when I came across The First Casualty by Ben Elton in a second hand shop, I thought it could give me a short break from my ongoing heavy reading program, without moving too far away from the historical topic.

This is only the second Ben Elton book I’ve read, the first being Stark, his debut novel released in 1989. I enjoyed that book at the time, but I recall how reviewers commented on Elton’s habit of preaching through his fiction.

There are clear moments of preachiness in the The First Casualty . Occasionally dialogue seems to be like mini lectures on the politics of the time, expressing views on the war’s causes and how it was being fought. Views that may perhaps be more obvious now with the hindsight we have. I assume some of those views align with Elton’s (considering the little familiarity I have of the author). While some might see that as a negative, its not something that bothers me.

Despite that political commentary, I find the book also shows there are no neat answers. Even the best of intentions, with every attempt to do the right thing, don’t always work out in the desired way in the middle of armed conflict.

Passchendaele burial party

Passchendaele burial party

The book is set at the time of the battle of Passchendaele in November 1917. It follows a London police inspector Douglas Kingsley and his undercover investigation into the murder of a British officer serving in France. It seems to be a cut and dried case. The murderer and the weapon used have been determined, so why the need to investigate further?

The murder investigation gives the story a framework that allows Elton to explore the moral ambiguities and contradictions of war through Kingsley’s experience.

Things aren’t going well for Kingsley when he is introduced. His opposition to the war on grounds of “logic” instead of the usual conscientious objector’s appeal to pacifism aren’t being viewed kindly in the court where his case is being heard. Almost half of the book takes us through the process of his journey from that court house to a posting in the war zone that his conscience had driven him to avoid.

The brutality and futility of war are central themes of the book which is at times graphic in its portrayal of the violence of trench warfare. After reading so many histories of WWI I found that depiction of violence necessary. Apart from one incident in the book I didn’t find any of the violent episodes excessive. But even that single incident, that I felt hovered on the border of being gratuitous, had a purpose within the plot, playing an important part in Kingsley’s gathering of evidence.

A scene that I found less redeemable was a sex scene, that in the overall story had no role in the story’s progression, apart from giving Elton the chance to portray “liberated” suffragette attitudes. With that scene I felt Elton was following an overused formula but tried to give it a politically correct twist by using suffragette references.

After an extended diet of history, The First Casualty was an enjoyable snack that didn’t stray too far from the rest of my current reading habits.

I appreciated the break it gave from books that can often be a struggle to get through, books lacking the page-turner character of a well-paced fiction story. Elton’s book DID have that “can’t put it down” quality, with an intriguing but flawed protagonist thrown into a progression of interesting situations, and rather than being a distraction from my WWI studies, it has been an enhancement.

Beersheba, by Paul Daley

BeershebaOn 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse played a significant role in the capture of Beersheba from Turkish Ottoman control. Paul Daley looks at a variety of views of the Beersheba battle and the Light Horse charge in his book Beersheba. The book’s subtitle “A journey through Australia’s forgotten war”, reflects the general national ignorance of this part of Australian military history.

The final assault leading to the capture of the small town and its wells was an unorthodox horseback charge across open ground towards the Turkish defensive trenches. A charge of that type was not the usual Light Horse tactic. They generally acted as horse born infantry, riding to a battleground, where they dismounted, leaving their horses in the care of a designated handler, and then acted as infantry on foot.

In the charge at Beersheba they remained mounted, and relied on their horses to get them to the trenches where they would engage the enemy in brutal hand to hand combat.

The_Lighthorsemen_DVDThe 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, based on the charge at Beersheba, shows the Turkish troops being thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Light Horsemens’ action. Expecting them to dismount as usual, the Turks were taken by surprise, making it difficult to set the range of their artillery and rifle sights.

Daley is a journalist, not a historian, so he takes a much more personal approach to his subject, visiting the sites associated with the battle and combining his own experience of the place with his historical research as well as investigating how others today have been influenced by the events of almost a century ago.

Those other people include:
Joe Hockey, the treasurer in the current Australian government, whose Armenian grandfather had the task of rebuilding Beersheba after the war.

Businessman Richard Pratt who financed the Park of the Australian Soldier outside of modern Beersheba to commemorate the Anzac role in the battle.

And Kelvin Crombie who at the time of Daley’s book was an Australian long-time resident of Israel. Crombie has a strong belief that the battle of Beersheba and the subsequent Anzac involvement that removed Palestine from centuries of Ottoman rule was part of a Divine plan that led to the re-establishment of Israel as a nation 30 years later. He notes that the victory was won on the same day that the Balfour Declaration was announced, promising Jews a homeland in Palestine.

Apart from the Beersheba battle itself, Daley also uncovers a less glorious aspect of Anzac history, a post war revenge attack on an Arab village in which many of the male villagers were murdered as a reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by an Arab in the nearby military camp.

Beersheba was a turning point and was followed by a chain of victories that led on to the surrender of Jerusalem to British forces, then on to Damascus in Syria and the eventual, overall surrender of the Ottoman Turks at the end of October 1918. Less than two weeks later, four years of war ended with the armistice declared on 11 November.

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives