Trooper Michael Walsh was among Australia’s unique band of soldiers, the Light Horsemen, whose exploits in the Middle East captured the imagination of a generation.
While the Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments rode to glory in what historians dubbed the last great cavalry charge – the attack on October 31, 1917 on the heavily defended town of Beersheba – less well remembered is the contribution of the 5th Light Horse Regiment, in which Michael served, which played a supporting role in the battle.
A 34-year-old farmer from Tamborine, Michael had enlisted on June 1, 1916. He was presented with a “handsome wristlet watch” at a farewell function at Laravale State School, according to a report published in the Beaudesert Times, and had told the guests that “his aim at all times would be to do nothing to disgrace the district”.
Michael embarked at Sydney on the RMS Karmala on February 3, 1917 as part of the 25th reinforcements of the 5th Light Horse Regiment and arrived in Suez in March. After further training at Moascar in Egypt, he joined his regiment in July at Um Urgan, just as its commanders had adopted a new strategy to harass the Turkish forces as much as possible.
According to a unit history, there was no shortage of volunteers for raids and ambushes on enemy outposts, with daring ‘stunts’ planned to cause maximum disruption to the enemy with minimal casualties to the light horsemen.
Michael’s regiment took part in the Battle of Beersheba in October 1917, and the follow-up actions which continued into January of 1918.
After the fall of Gaza in November, the regiment began its pursuit of the retreating Turks into Palestine.
However, Michael was out of action in November with gastritis and a septic sore on his left wrist.
After being treated firstly at the Australian General Hospital and then the Convalescent Depot in Abassia, he went next to the School of Instruction at Zeitoun, where officers and NCOs were taught the latest tactics which made the light horse such a dynamic and formidable force.
Michael returned to his regiment in early February, 1918, but a few weeks later was back to school attending a Hotchkiss gun course, becoming a qualified instructor.
In March, he rejoined his regiment which, after the fall of Jerusalem in late December, had moved into the Jordan Valley and taken part in the capture of the biblical city of Jericho in February.
Michael’s first major action after rejoining the regiment was the raid on the village of Es Salt between April 30 and May 4. The plan had been to take the village for use as a staging point for a further advance by British troops and, while it was a tactical failure it succeeded in convincing the Turks that the next major offensive would come from across the Jordan.
When the major attack was launched from the coast in September 1918, the 5th Light Horse Regiment took part in a smaller operation from the Jordan, attacking at Amman on September 25.
Four days later, one of the most unusual, if little known, actions of the entire war took place after two squadrons of light horsemen surrounded 4500 Turkish troops in the town of Ziza and the Australians and Turks briefly joined forces.
According to a unit history of the 5th Light Horse Regiment, the Turkish commander had agreed to surrender the garrison to the Australians but was worried that Arab guerrillas in the distance would take the town and massacre everyone in it.
The light horsemen agreed to protect the Turkish garrison and for one night Turks and Australians stood together, ready to take on a greater foe. The next morning, the Turks kept their word to surrender the garrison and their weapons and were taken prisoner by the Australians.
The Turkish forces entered into their own Armistice in October 1918, and although the war in Europe officially ended with the Armistice in November, there was still one last task for the 5th Light Horse Regiment, deployed to quell the Egyptian Uprising in March 1919.
For the next two months its men were busy with patrols to put a stop to the murder of soldiers and civilians and the destruction of bridges, railways and telephone and telegraph lines in Egypt.
The final and saddest chapter in the story of the light horsemen came as they prepared to return to Australia and had to say goodbye to their best friends, the stout-hearted horses which had served them so well for so long. Animals considered fit enough were transferred to the Indian Cavalry, the rest were destroyed.
On June 28, 1919, Trooper Walsh was the among men who marched to the wharf at Kantara, took their kit bags from the pile and, after the embarkation roll was called, filed up the gangway of the Madras to return home.
First stop was Fremantle on July 24 and then Melbourne on July 31.
Trooper Michael Walsh returned to a hero’s welcome by a waiting crowd at the Tambourine Railway Station on August 8, according to a report published in the Beaudesert Times on August 15.
“As the train steamed in, lusty cheers were given for the returned hero,” it read.
“On his arrival, he was hoisted shoulder high and three cheers were given.
“Little Miss Rita Hart presented her soldier uncle with a beautiful bouquet of sweet peas, stocks and asparagus , tied with his battalion colours. After meeting many friends, Trooper Walsh and party were conveyed by car to his home; the car tastefully decorated with the 5th Light Horse Regimental Colours.”