Australia’s greatest war horse was Bill, but he was given the dubious title of Bill the Bastard because he was fierce and difficult to handle and refused to be beaten by anyone or anything into submission. He has been nominated by our wonderful Australian Ambassador Nigel Allsopp, President and Founder of AWAMO, the Australian War Animal Memorial Organisation. February 24 is Purple Poppy Day in Australia, New Zealand and America and Nigel says it important we feature him in remembrance of the thousands of whaler horses that were sent from Down Under to fight in the Great War and other conflicts. Here, Nigel shares the story of Bill – a remarkable stallion, who is truly worthy of the accolade Hero Horse…
Bill the Bastard’ was a ‘Waler’, a hardy type of horse bred under the extreme climate and challenging working conditions of Australia. Bill was a massive 17.1 hands high, weighed approximately 730 kg and had strength and intelligence unmatched by any others of his breed. Bill showed courage, endurance and strength that became legendary. He had only one problem – he was the most cantankerous horse that had ever been encountered by the
Bill travelled over to the Middle East on a troopship under the watchful eye of his minder, Australian writer, poet and journalist A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Banjo, despite all of Bill’s bad habits and behaviour, became very fond of the chestnut stallion.
Bill met his match when he met Major Michael Shanahan, a 46 year old builder from Roma in Queensland. Major Shanahan won the horse’s respect and trust with gentleness, perseverance and a large quantity of liquorice allsorts. Major Shanahan and Bill fought together, depending on each other for their survival.
It was August 4, 1916, the noise of the battlefield at 2 am was deafening as the Australians fought the Turks in one of the most important battles – the Battle of Romani, the turning point of the war in the Middle East. The Australians were severely outnumbered with a force of 1,700 troopers pitched against 26,000 Turks, and when the chips were down, Bill’s heroic efforts and exceptional instincts in battle, saved the lives of his rider and four other troopers at the Battle of Romani. Bill carried the 4 Tasmanian troops over 3km to safety from the Turkish Soldiers. Later in the battle of Romani, Shanahan was shot in the leg and passed out.
Bill, sensing that his rider was unconscious, carried Shanahan three kilometres to medical aid. In 1997 Carl Valerius ( pictured below) designed and built the many aspects of the Memorial to celebrate the Centenary of the formation of the 1st Australian Horse in Murrumburrah. Carl later learned of the story of ‘Bill the Bastard’ and Major Shanahan’s daring rescue of four Tassie Troopers from certain death at the battle of Romani. He was inspired to commemorate this feat and sculpted a small bronze statue which currently resides in the Memorial in Murrumburrah.
In Professor Roland Perry’s book ‘Bill the Bastard’ a small typing error stated a ‘life size’ rather than a ‘life like’ statue of Bill the Bastard could be viewed in Murrumburrah, resulting in a flood of enquiries to see a life-sized sculpture that didn’t exist. As the Centenary of the battle of Romani was approaching, Carl decided to remedy the situation and the crafting of a life-sized statue in wax, clay and polystyrene, was completed on August 4, 2016 in Murrumburrah. There is now a community group and charitable company ‘Bronze, Bill the Bastard’ Ltd, working to have this magnificent model bronzed and placed in the 1st Australian Horse and Australian Light Horse Memorial Precinct in Murrumburrah, NSW.
When Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, the Australian Government offered 20,000 troops for immediate service anywhere under British direction and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was raised. The AIF depended at all times on voluntary enlistments and included a large number of veterinarians already serving in the Australian Army Veterinary Corps (AAVC). The acquisition of horses was relatively easy. Background or breeding didn’t matter, the horses just had to be disease-free and strong. The hardy Waler — the horse named for its state of origin was the main equine export for WWI. They usually stood between 14 and 16 hands and weighed on average 500kg. They were sired by English thoroughbreds from breeding mares that were often part draft horse but could include genetic input from Welsh ponies, Timor ponies and the brumby.
The first contingent of the AIF left Albany, WA, on 1 November 1914 and consisted of approximately 20,000 men, including 19 veterinary officers and nearly 8000 horses carried in 38 transport ships escorted by four Navy cruisers. Bill was a fractious, fierce and some thought unbreakable chestnut, Waler, stallion who became a Great War legend for his incredible stamina and effort in saving many soldiers’ lives. He was one of over 130,000 Australian horses that served in the First World War, who were never to return home. Bill’s story starts in Sydney’s Liverpool Army Camp horse corral where a young Ben
Towers, from Cootamundra, was volunteering to serve in the Australian Light Horse. Towers stated his age as 17 but the recruiting officer was skeptical. “Break out Bill for Mr Towers,” was the direction. Everyone around the corral knew that Bill was used as a test for the horsemanship skills of underage recruits. Anyone who could stay on Bill for any length of time was considered a good rider and recruiting staff often turned a blind eye to their age. Towers was the first rider ever to stay on Bill for over two minutes before being ceremoniously bucked off. He also scored the second highest score on his rifle test making him very attractive to recruiting. An assistant to the recruiting officer asked, “You gunna sign him up?” The officer held his gaze and said: “I’d sign him up even if he couldn’t hit a barn door at 10 paces. Anyone who can handle Bill like that deserves a chance.” He advised Towers to go for a walk around the block and come back a year older. Three years later they learnt that Towers, whose real name was Ben Burke, was only 14 years old the day he enlisted.
Bill was much bigger than the average Waler. His eyes were cool and yet at the same time alert and nothing seemed to ruffle him. Instead he ruffled others, especially potential riders. There was something in his independent nature that would not allow him to be dominated. Bill had never been fully broken-in, like many of the horses sent to war. The army were relying heavily on hundreds of Australian trainers who would be transported to its remount depots to prepare the horses for battle readiness. Hence, Bill was shipped off to war.
The horses were loaded onto the transport ships in three decks. The upper deck was open to the air and on occasions, the sea. The middle deck was well lit and ventilated. The lower decks were dark, airless and poorly ventilated. The contingent was expected to be on board the ships for about 5-6 weeks. The health of the horses was very good considering the circumstances, with the loss at sea being only 3 per cent, much less than the 15-20 per cent expected.
Bill caused trouble even before the convoy set sail. He refused to go down to a stall on the lowest deck. He was then eased up to the top deck but was unable to be coaxed or forced into a stall. At this point the ship’s adjutant was starting to get frustrated and Bill was almost left behind. Finally, Bill was then led down to the middle deck where it was well lit and nicely ventilated. Happy with his current position Bill walked straight into the stall, giving no further trouble at all.
Bill’s minder on the long journey by sea was writer, poet and journalist Banjo Paterson. Paterson’s true passion was horses. He could ride almost before he could walk. He secured a tenuous role as an honorary veterinarian on the troop ship with Bill amongst those under his
Everyone knew the temperamental Bastard’s reputation and Paterson was cautious with him, yet they found an unusual connection and a mutual respect developed. Unbeknown to Bill and Paterson, Lieutenant Michael Shanahan was also on board the ship. Bill’s later relationship with Shanahan gave the horse the chance to become the hero he was meant to be.
The first stop for the convoy was Egypt under the command of Harry Chauvel. In February 1915, Chauvel began mounted training when the horses were fit and Bill was amongst thousands of horses being broken out for the troopers. Many attempted to be matched with Bill but time and time again they ended up bucked off and bruised.
In mid-April 1915, Chauvel informed his men that they would be sent as back-up infantry for close combat trench warfare at Gallipoli. A small group of packhorses and mules would be sent for mail run and packhorse duties. Bill’s bulk strength and endurance and the fact that no-one could ride him meant he would be allotted to duties as a Gallipoli pack horse.
Bill worked tirelessly carrying loads up and wounded or fallen soldiers down the steep and twisting tracks. The Anzac field ambulance men and animals showed as much courage as any of the combatants as they moved up the valley retrieving the fallen. Everyone noticed Bill in particular, along with a gritty yet always cheery Englishman John Simpson and his small donkey. Bill would be the one who would carry the limp body of John Simpson back down the valley the day Simpson’s luck ran out as he was hit by a spray of shrapnel.
Each day a rider carrying urgent dispatches would make the seven-kilometre run from Suvla Bay, north of Anzac Cove, to British campaign headquarters. The mail delivery had to be done at a gallop as the rider was fired at by Turkish snipers from the moment he left the shelter of Suvla Bay. Light Horsemen competed to get the job and hundreds would place bets on whether the rider, his horse and the treasured mail would make it safely to the other end.
During October, Captain Anthony Bickworth, an exceptional English cavalryman, was ordered to mount the most difficult horse in an attempt to get a despatch through. The bet was usually that either the mail would get through or it would not. Once word got out that Bill was involved, the bet quickly changed to whether the mail would arrive with or without the rider. The result was Captain Bickworth lying unconscious on the ground after two kilometres and Bill completing the gallop safely and delivering the mail riderless but with a bullet lodged in his flank.
During Bill’s stay in the veterinary sick bay Bill received treatment for his wounds and Shanahan claimed a bond with the Bill through sweet talk, daily walks and liquorice treats. This friendship continued well after the Gallipoli campaign ended and Bill was returned to the remount depot in Egypt. On his return to Sydney, Paterson applied for remount service and was made a captain, accepting Chauvel’s earlier offer to command the remount depot in Egypt.
Paterson’s directive was breaking, training and preparing tens of thousands of horses for one of the most vital roles of the war in the Middle East. He soon had 800 riders and trainers under his command along with 45 vets and assistants. During this time Shanahan continued to visit Bill at the remount depot working to win his trust through soft talking and liquorice treats. Shanahan became the first person to ride Bill without being bucked off.
During August 1916, Shanahan persuaded Paterson to let him take Bill into the pivotal Battle of Romani. Paterson agreed and from then on Bill was matched with Shanahan. Bill soon gained the reputation for being fearless, standing his ground in an ambush and warning his rider of danger ahead, using his keen instinct and sense of smell. Late on the night 3/4th Shanahan and Bill rescued four Tasmanian troopers, who faced certain death, returned them to safety and earned Shanahan the Distinguished Service Order. Bill had monumental stamina and powered on for six hours that night. One general went through 17 horses in the same time that Bill stayed with Shanahan.
Later in the battle of Romani, Shanahan was shot in the leg but kept fighting until he passed out. Bill, sensing that his rider was unconscious on his back, carried Shanahan three kilometres to the vet, who then passed him on to a medic where his leg was eventually amputated. Shanahan was now out of the war and Bill continued to serve as a packhorse, including an impressive effort at the Battle of Beersheba where he carried machine guns. The end of the desert conflict triggered considerable disharmony when the Anzac force learned the official word was that most of the horses were to be sold wherever the British Government wished.
Officers, including Paterson, turned a blind eye as many troopers took their mounts into the desert and shot them to stop them from being sold into Middle Eastern markets where they potentially would lead a life of abuse. Bill, on the other hand, had the best possible ending. He was smuggled back to Gallipoli as part of the group of packhorses used on an artefact-gathering trip. There he was left, together with his best mate, a grey mare called Penny, with some villagers who remembered seeing him during battle. It was made clear to the village elder that Bill was only to be used as a
packhorse and stud, never to be ridden.
Shanahan’s association with Bill the Bastard caused him to become a permanent part of the Anzac legend. Shanahan died at the age of 92 in 1964.” 340 kilometres south-west of Sydney, nestled in the undulating hills of Harden-Murrumburrah, Bill the Bastard is being immortalised. This life size model depicting the epic feat of Bill the Bastard and Major Michael Shannahan saving four Tasmanian troopers during the Battle of Romani, can be viewed by the public in the artist’s studio, cnr Bathurst St and Burley Griffin Way, Harden-Murrumburrah.
AWAMO registered a STAR for all animals called the purple poppy. Look up in the sky the night of the 24 Feb – official war animal day in New Zealand, Australia and the United States and make a wish for all animals.
ANZAC of the year 2017-18
Australia Day Citizen of the year 2019