Do you know Bill the Bastard, Australia’s famous war horse?
Bill was a hardy Waler - the horse named for its state of origin which made up the main equine export for WWI, after featuring in the Boer War. 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 only one of over 130,000 Australian horses who served in WWI, who were never to return home.
Bill left for duty on the first contingent of the AIF on November 1, 1914 with about 20,000 men, including 19 veterinary officers and nearly 8000 horses carried in a variety of 38 transport ships escorted by four Navy cruisers.
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 sceptical. “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 riders. Bill had never been fully broken-in, like many of the horses sent to war.
Bill’s minder on the long journey by sea was writer, poet and journalist Banjo Paterson. Paterson was keen to become a war correspondent, excited with the thought of battle, travel and competing for a ‘scoop’. Unfortunately he was turned down for the job in favour of Charles Bean, who would also act as the official war historian.
In desperation Paterson turned to his other true passion which was horses. He could ride almost before he could walk and he felt the horses would help facilitate his travel to war. He secured a tenuous role as an honorary veterinarian on the troop ship with Bill amongst those under his care. As they steamed into the Indian Ocean, Paterson grew fonder of Bill than any other animal.
Everyone knew the temperamental Bastard’s reputation and Paterson was cautious with him, yet they found an unusual connection and a mutual respect developed. Unbeknownst to Bill and Paterson, included on this voyage was a 40-year-old Lieutenant Michael Shanahan. It was Bill’s later relationship with Shanahan that gave the horse the chance to become the hero he was meant to be.
The first stop was Egypt under the command of Harry Chauvel. In February 1915, Chauvel offered Paterson the position as commander of the remount division in Egypt. Paterson politely declined and gained a job as an ambulance driver on the Western Front before returning back to Australia.
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 in fact would not be taking their mounts into the battlefield but 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 pack horse.