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Memories of the Lighthorsemen

ODD isn’t it, how pointers to a past event can suddenly all appear, as if conspiring toremind you of its significance.

Take last week. Strolling along Sydney’s Macquarie Street I stumbled on a hidden bas-relief plaque on the southern edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Dating from the late 1950s, the slim, dark memorial overhung with greenery was a tributeto ’s then forgotten soldiers, our Desert Mounted Corps, in World War I.Better known once as the Desert Column, many of these soldiers took part in the historiccavalry-style charge at the water-rich, but heavily fortified, town of Beersheba, in Palestine, in the late afternoon of October 31, 1917.

These legendary soldiers, mounted infantry really, were called the Lighthorsemen and a$10.5 million Aussie film was finally made about their exploits 30 years after this gardensplaque had been erected.

After some skirmishes against the Turkish-held town in 1917, men of ’s 4th and12th Light Horse Regiments were directed on a mad, almost suicidal frontal charge over5 kilometres of open ground at enemy trenches in the late afternoon.

With their .303 rifles slung over their shoulders, the horsemen charged wielding bayonetsin their hands like swords. Yet somehow, despite machine gun and artillery fire, theytook the town with their surprise tactics. At least 70 horses were shot and died underneaththe riders. Some 31 Aussies were killed and 36 wounded, but up to 1000 Turkish troopswere captured. Six weeks later, the Allies then seized Jerusalem.

The Sydney memorial plaque especially interested me because a little earlier I’d comeacross a recent Newcastle 1233 ABC Radio feature about a rare war saddle rescued froma Dungog tip.

A Dungog local Mick Taylor was quoted as saying he was now the proud owner of a1915 saddle, handmade in England but with n army stirrups.He claimed it definitely belonged to the famed Light Horse Brigade and intended torestore it and become a member of a re-enactment troop.

My third pointer to the Light Horse regiments action in Palestine then came only thisweek while emptying my filing cabinets as The Herald prepared to move premises downto Honeysuckle soon.

It was an interview I’d done back in 1987 of Jim Hutton, then aged 89 years, of Booragul.

He was one of the last survivors of our famous Light Horse soldiers and his name hadpresumably been given to us by film researchers eager to promote their new Aussiemovie, The Lighthorsemen.

By then Hutton was almost blind, hard of hearing and finding it difficult to walk, but stillpart of ’s living history and had the battle scars to prove it. Showing the scars ofbeing shot in both legs and the left wrist and bayoneted in the left leg, he cheerfully conceded he’d led a charmed life 70 years before.

As a rifleman with the Ist n Light Horse Regiment, Hutton did not take part inthe mounted charge at Beersheba’s flank, but he vividly remembered the bitter fightinghours before the charge.

“We had to take the town,” he said.

“The Turks had us. The horses wouldn’t have lasted any longer without water. We took itlate in the afternoon and stirred them up.

“The thing I remember most about Beersheba is that the Turks tried to blow up the wellsbut didn’t do a good job,” he chuckled.

Back in 1987, Hutton was part of a select but dwindling band of old desert campaignersfrom World War I who’d come back home to under the slogan, ‘the land fit forheroes’, but were then discharged as medically unfit and unable to get a job.

Hutton said he later got a job in the NSW police force where he distinguished himself.

Much later, as the South Coast commissioner of Boy Scouts, the Queen even presentedhim with an Imperial Service Medal during her n visit in March 1955.

“I was going to slip her a kiss, but the joker behind her had his sword drawn,” Huttonquipped in a larrikin drawl.

And what a war it was years before in the Middle East with A Troop of the nLight Horse; a war when he was more out of the saddle than in it.

“A horse was killed under me by shrapnel once. Actually we were retreating at the time,galloping away when he was shot down,” Hutton said.

“Another time down in the Jordan Valley, out of Jerusalem, a Turkish aeroplane droppingbombs killed every one of our horses. We lost 32 mounts and had to walk 16 miles(59 kilometres) in loose sand carrying harnesses.

“I got to know Lawrence (of Arabia) then. He’d speak Arabic as good as any Arab. He’dcome in occasionally from the desert.”

Hutton said serious wounds were common, but referred to his own machine gun andbayonet wounds as “occupational scratches”.

“My bayonet wound came from a fight we had with the Turks between a prickly pearhedge. Neither side had any ammunition as was very often the case,” Hutton said.

“We were just jabbing through the hedge when one of their bayonets got me in the leg.My mate gave the Turk something to remember me by butting him on the head with hisrifle.

LIVING HISTORY: Former Light Horse veteran Jim Hutton, aged 89, of Booragul, as seen back in 1987 when a film about the WWI desert campaign had just been made.

LEGEND: Soldiers of the Light Horse Brigade dismounted with their horses. Picture: courtesy of the National Archives of

“It was a hell of a place that Jordan Valley with all the heat, the flies and the body lice.We wouldn’t have been there except somebody had to go and in those days people gaveyou white feathers (meaning cowardice) if you weren’t away at the fighting.

“But you weren’t scared. I was about 19 then. There were three of us mates who wentthrough the campaign together; the three musketeers we were called. They’re all deadnow, I suppose, and I’m still going.”

Eventually back at home from war, despite his medals, Hutton said he couldn’t get a warpension.

His wife, Edith, believed that was because he had a government job all his life. She saidthe government had been “very good otherwise with operations, taxis, fares, that sort ofthing”.

Hutton had then smiled at me. “When the war was on they’d say, ‘C’mon boys, get overthere. You’ll see you’ll want for nothing when you come back’. That was it, we got……nothing,” Hutton said.

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