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

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