Book Review: Bill the Bastard: The Story of Australia's Greatest War Horse by Roland Perry

A documentary entitled Australia’s Great War Horse aired on ABC TV recently. It told the story of 130,000 horses that went to the Great War and never returned to Australia.  The documentary contained actual footage and also reconstructions of the trek through the desert and the famous charge by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, in Palestine. However, it was the mention of one particular horse that prompted me to write this review of a book I had read last year, Bill the Bastard: The Story of Australia’s Greatest War Horse.

I loved the movie War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, but when I came across Roland Perry’s book about a real Australian horse that went to war and became a legend, I knew it was one I had to read.

Bill was a Waler, a mixed breed of horse developed from those brought to Australia in the 19th century. Bred for the harsh conditions of Australia, these horses became popular as cavalry mounts. Their stamina was such that they were able to go without food and water for great lengths of time, making them ideal for desert warfare.

Bill the Bastard, so nick-named because of his cantankerous nature, couldn’t be ridden, bucking off anyone who tried, especially if they tried to make him gallop. Not fully broken in he was deemed unsuitable as a trooper’s mount and so began his military service as a pack horse at Gallipoli. Bill was shot twice while trying to get the mail through along a seven mile stretch of beach at Anzac Cove.

It was that famous ride, witnessed by Major Michael Shannahan, that propelled Bill into history. Shannahan saw something special in Bill and believed he would make an exceptional cavalry mount. With patience, affection, respect, and rewards of sweets, Shannahan gained Bill’s trust and became the only man Bill would allow on his back.

When the Light Horse were posted to Egypt, the Major rode Bill into action at Romani. Here Bill added to his legendary status by carrying five men to safety, his rider and four other troopers, on his back and clinging to his stirrups.

As expected a number of historical figures are mentioned in the book, but the one that caught my attention was ‘Banjo’ Paterson, the famous Australian poet and journalist. It came as a surprise that he had served during World War I and not as a war correspondent. Due to his expert knowledge of horses, Paterson was made the commanding officer of the remount unit in Cairo, Egypt, a very important role, and by the time of his discharge from the army in 1919 he had attained the rank of Major.

When hostilities ceased and the troops were ordered home, the horses were to be left behind. Some were sold to the British Army as remounts, but according to the book, many were killed en masse. Some troopers believed their mounts deserved better treatment and preferred to shoot their own horses as a final act of respect. This would have been heartbreaking and horrendous.  Fortunately, Bill was so revered he was returned to Gallipoli where he was used to collect artefacts of the campaign and eventually a home was found for him with a Turkish family.

Bill the Bastard doesn’t delve too heavily into the politics of the day, though it is informative and highlights certain aspects of the war and unpopular decisions made at the time. There is even a romance to soften the harshness of the war time setting and the book mentions a little known fact that there were women attached to the army working as veterinarians.

I enjoyed this book as not only is it the story of a great horse, it is also the story of the Australian Light Horse at Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine which, as mentioned before, included that famous charge at Beersheeba – touted as the last great cavalry charge in history. Added to my reading enjoyment was the distinctly Australian wit and humour, which never fails to raise a smile. However, the main reason I recommend this book is that it focuses on a different kind of hero and the unusual bond with the man who tamed him, though I’m sure “tamed” is not the correct word to use.

I found this poem, Bill the Bastard by Maureen Clifford  on the War Veterans International Poetry Archive, which sums up Bill’s exploits and is another fitting tribute to this remarkable horse.

2 comments:

  1. This is such a wonderful post, I'll keep an eye out for this story of Bill. So often animals are the unsung heroes.

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    1. Thank you. Bill was a very exceptional horse. I hope you get to read this book. Thank you for following my blog. I am now following you too.

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