A Story for Anzac Day – Bill the Bastard, Australia’s Greatest Warhorse

Here is one amazing story to look for and read in the lead up to ANZAC Day.

Of course the title of this book grabbed my attention straight away, when I found it at a book swap in our caravan travels, and I had to pick it up. I’m not a ‘horse person’, but this sounded like an intriguing story about a giant of a horse that could be wilful and head strong, but proved to be the greatest warhorse of the Australian Light Horse Brigade of WW1.

This story is about this incredible horse and the one man who could ride him, Major Michael Shanahan, when they served in Gallipoli and the Middle East. And a spoiler alert I will be letting you know the ending, but don’t let that stop you from reading this cracking story, there’s so much more to it.

Bill’s story starts from when he was used as a test horse for those volunteering for the Australian Light Horse Brigade. He was much bigger than the other Waler horses at around 17.1 hands, so anyone able to stay on Bill for any length of time was considered a good rider. He had never been fully broken in, but his independence, strength, endurance and sheer size made him suitable for transportation over to the Middle East with the troops.

From the beginning of the voyage his stubbornness, or intelligence gave a sign of things to come when he refused to go down to stalls on the lower deck or upper deck of the ship, but got his way in getting a stall on the middle deck. Because of conditions during the voyage, some horses on those other decks died, but Bill in the middle deck made it safely. His minder on the journey over and during some part of the war, was none other than the poet, writer and journalist, Banjo Paterson.

At Gallipoli, Bill was used as a pack horse and worked tirelessly carrying loads in, and wounded soldiers out of battle. One of the wounded included Englishman, John Simpson, of Simpson and his donkey fame.

The book is full of amazing examples of the feats of this horse including arriving at British campaign headquarters with dispatches and mail even though he had lost his rider on the way, and had a bullet lodged in his flank.

During his stay in the veterinary sick bay he was befriended by Major Shanahan who gained his trust with daily visits, walks and licorice treats. Shanahan later became the first person to be able to ride Bill without being bucked off.

The two of them would later gain legendary status at the Battle of Romani when Shanahan and Bill rescued four troopers galloping towards advancing Turkish soldiers and delivering them safely from battle, all of them carried on Bill at the same time.

In that same battle Shanahan was shot in the leg and when he eventually passed out, Bill carried the unconscious rider for three kilometres to receive medical attention. Unfortunately Shanahan’s leg had to eventually be amputated but Bill continued to serve as a packhorse at the Battle of Beersheeba.

At the end of the conflicts in the Middle East, it was policy that horses weren’t brought back to Australia but sadly many were shot rather than being left to be sold at markets where they potentially would be abused, but Bill was smuggled back to Gallipoli with a group of pack horses being transported for the purpose of gathering artefacts for the Australian War Museum.

He was left there with some villagers who remembered the horse, and they were given clear instructions that he was never to be ridden and only be used as a packhorse and stud.

It is believed that he lived out his life and was looked after by Turkish farmers. Shanahan lived to the age of 92, and died in 1964.

Today, a life size sculpture of Bill the Bastard with Shanahan and the four rescued troopers, can be found in Murrumburrah NSW. The sculptor was Carl Valerius. The book, Bill the Bastard was written by Roland Perry.

What a story.


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