Chatting with old friends the other day, the subject of “best-remembered books of our youth” came up. It came as no surprise that of six participants in the discussion, all aged in our late sixties or beyond, there was unanimity: the best-remembered book was The Desert Column by Ion Idriess.
I read The Desert Column when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and I can still remember being enthralled by it. I had been given a copy for a birthday, and I treasured it for ages before it went astray somewhere and I forgot about it—although I did not forget about Idriess, several of whose wonderful books I also read back then. I still have an old hardback copy of Lasseter’s Last Ride, and I re-read this recently and enjoyed once more the way Idriess so uniquely combined history, fiction and Australiana.
The discussions amongst friends about The Desert Column intrigued me, so I acquired a copy from the library. Again, I read it enthralled, staying up late on cold winter nights to finish it off and then, my interest piqued, following up references about the desert campaign in the Middle East during the First World War, the Australian Light Horse, the “waler” horses, and Idriess himself.
The Desert Column (sub-titled Leaves from the Diary of an Australian Trooper in Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine) was first published in 1932, and then, remarkably, was reprinted in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939, 1941, 1944 and 1951, demonstrating its astounding popularity with Australian readers of that generation. Re-reading the book in 2011, it’s not hard to see why, as it combines so many fascinating elements: history, war, mateship, horses, bushmanship, hardship, disaster, triumph. It is also well written in the simple language of the outback and the bush poet.
The Desert Column is not a conventional history nor is it fiction, but grew piecemeal as diary entries by the author, jotted down day by day. In a note at the beginning, Idriess says:
I began the diary as we crowded the decks off Gallipoli and watched the first shells crash into Turkish soil. Gradually it grew to be a mania: I would whip out the little book and note, immediately, anything exciting that was happening. As the years dragged on, my haversack became full of little notebooks. These memories … are my sole souvenirs of the War, except of course stray bits of shrapnel, bomb and high explosive splinters which nearly every soldier collected …
This approach gives the book immediacy, a sense that the author was writing a story in the present tense with no foreknowledge of what was coming, for better or for worse. There are characters, but no plot, just the unfolding of events. In other words, the usual situation is reversed: the reader, especially one with some knowledge of military history, knows the plot and the ending, and furthermore has access to the bigger picture, something denied the author in his status as an ordinary trooper on the ground at the time.
This essay was first published in the September, 2011, edition of Quadrant.
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The diary commences on May 18, 1915, off Cape Helles in the Dardanelles, a few days before Idriess and his fellow troopers land at Gallipoli. The Australian Light Horse, it will be remembered, was sent to Gallipoli to fight as infantry, to support the troops who had landed a few weeks before and found themselves in an appalling debacle from the outset. Through these early chapters Idriess does not spare the reader; he writes with controlled emotion, almost matter-of-factly, but this makes the ghastly situation seem even worse. The Australians were repeatedly asked to do the impossible—to charge over open ground against entrenched defenders armed with machine guns and occupying the heights. The facilities for treating the wounded were totally inadequate, as were the water supply, the nutrition and the sanitary arrangements. After the first battle-lines had deteriorated into stalemate, Australians and Turks were eating, breathing, sleeping and fighting amongst decomposing bodies. Little wonder that septicaemia was rife. Indeed this is what threatened to end Trooper Idriess’s Gallipoli campaign—a scratch from a shell splinter to his knee was left untreated, became infected (there were, of course, no antibiotics in those days), and rendered him virtually a cripple. Eventually he was stretchered off to a naval vessel and to the Government Hospital in Alexandria.
As was always the case in the First World War, the moment he could walk again, Idriess was declared fit and posted back to Gallipoli. Here the situation for the Anzacs had deteriorated further, with the Turkish defence well entrenched and now supported by German artillery. Before long Idriess was even more seriously wounded when he was blown up by a bomb that landed directly in his trench. At that stage, the Australian and Turkish trenches were only a few metres apart, and grenades were being lobbed across by both parties, with terrible results. Again Idriess (right) survived. Again he was stretchered out and spent many weeks in the hospital and convalescing in Alexandria.
Reading about Gallipoli always makes me angry, and the early chapters of The Desert Column did it again. The gross incompetence of the British generals and their support staff stands in such stark contrast to the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers. Idriess’s descriptions are matter-of-fact, but the impact is blood-chilling. All these years later, I could smell the cordite fumes and the reek of the dead, hear the cries and clamour, feel the percussion of shells and the whistle of snipers’ bullets, and sense the exhaustion, the relentless danger and stress, and the constant loss of good mates, cut down on all sides.
Yet all of this is interspersed with unexpected moments of peace and beauty. For example Idriess writes in one place:
Tonight is the first night we have had no shrapnel. We are sitting by our dugouts on the hillside, little groups singing, others smoking, others lousing themselves. The Colonel’s gramophone is playing “The Marsellaise”, and the rest of us are silently watching a beautiful, peaceful scene. The sun is sinking, a golden ball, behind the island of Imbros. Over a sea of deepest blue, destroyers are quietly gliding … behind us the hills are darkening and the Aegean is peaceful and one star is in the sky …
And he adds with desperate poignancy that had he been at home, it is the time of day he would have just been putting up the sliprails and walking over to the homestead for companionship and a hot dinner.
His Gallipoli diary also includes an account of one of the most bizarre stories I have ever heard about the idiocy of warfare. According to Idriess, an Australian officer at Gallipoli (the forty-four-year-old Major Stephen Midgley from Queensland) realised that the sawn-off shotgun was an extremely effective weapon for use in a trench raid, especially compared to the revolver or cane usually issued to infantry officers. Midgley would leap into an enemy trench, fire one barrel to the right, and one to the left, and dispose of the opposition in an instant. The Turks, however, regarded the shotgun as unsporting and lodged a complaint (I am not sure to whom, perhaps the Red Cross or via diplomatic circles). The British High Command agreed, and the use of sawn-off shotguns by Australian infantry officers was henceforth banned.1
Idriess’s release from hospital after recovery from his latest wounds coincided pretty much with the withdrawal of the Allied forces from Gallipoli. The infantry was sent to France, but the light horse brigades were reformed and retained in the Middle East to continue the fight against Turkey. It was a campaign that lasted nearly two years, involving an early period of staunch defence against a large, well-organised enemy army, and then the long counter-attack up through Sinai and Palestine, culminating in the Turkish surrender in October 1918.
Mervyn Bendle: ‘Anzac in Ashes‘
The Light Horse, I was reminded in re-reading The Desert Column, was not cavalry, but mounted infantry. Unlike the British cavalry, whose principal weapon during the war was still the sabre, light horsemen were armed with rifle and bayonet, and were organised for rapid deployment at a moment’s notice. The traditional cavalry charge was not their normal mode of operation at all. Rather they would move swiftly by horseback, travelling in columns, to a defensive or offensive position and then dismount. Each troop was made up of units of four men who operated as a team within a team. One was designated the “horse holder”, his job being to take the reins of the other three horses and retreat to a safe place until the order came for the foot soldiers to advance or retreat; meanwhile the other three acted as riflemen infantry.
The Australian light horsemen prided themselves on four things: their horsemanship, marksmanship, mateship and bushmanship. They travelled fast and light, sleeping under a blanket on the ground in the open rather than in tents, scrounging for food and firewood. They were masters of survival under tough conditions. In the desert their operations were focused on finding, attacking or defending oases and wells. It was a war over water as much as over territory.
Their horses, known as “walers”, were Australian station and stockhorses originally from New South Wales, renowned for speed, strength and endurance. Like the famous quarterhorse, they could accelerate from a standstill to a gallop in one forward leap. The walers were trained to be indifferent to gunfire, to lie down on command and to travel silently at night (although mostly they could not be constrained from whinnying if they smelled a strange horse somewhere near). They could go, and often did, two or three days without a drink, and were considered by the light horsemen as vastly superior in desert warfare to the camels used by the Anzac Camel Corps.
Having recovered from the wounds received at Gallipoli, Idriess rejoined the 5th Light Horse as a mounted trooper, and was soon involved in the defence of the Suez Canal. The capture of the canal was the Turks’ main objective at that time, as it would have completely disrupted the British war effort. Early in April 1916 he noted in his diary:
It was queer on sentry duty this morning, watching the big ships gliding down the Canal, and being able to talk to the men with their heads out of the portholes … last night a P&O boat glided past; we could hear her engines throbbing …
But it was not long before they were in action, defending grimly against the Turkish onslaught. The Turks at that stage of the campaign were a superior force in nearly every way: they were led by experienced professional German officers, had artillery (manned by German gunners), and air cover (German aircraft). Even their rifles (manufactured in Germany) had a greater range, were more accurate and better adapted to desert conditions than the old Lee Enfields used by the Anzacs. Counteracting all this, of course, was the fact that by then in the campaign, their supply lines were greatly extended—always a disadvantage in desert warfare.
The Light Horse task at this point was mostly scouting. They would move out from the main camp at night and travel silently far into the desert. Here they would set up observation points (“outposts”) which they would occupy for a few days and from which they could monitor and report on enemy troop movements. Idriess records in his diary:
This sort of active service promises to be very interesting. [There are] twelve of us up here on the peak of the world; four are down the hill in a sheltered spur with the horses. Stretching before us is a sea of sand peaks. At a surprising distance away over the hills we can plainly see the tracks of Australian horse-patrols, or of Bedouin camelry … the Suez Canal is about ten miles behind us … if the Turks come, our job is to detect them miles away. We then helio the regiment, which turns out to fight …
Here we also first meet Idriess’s mates Stan, Bert and Big Morry. The four of them are an inseparable unit for the rest of the war, riding and fighting side by side, sharing packages from home, boiling their quart pots over a shared fire, and keeping up each other’s spirits with laughter and yarns. Here we also get to appreciate the rigours of the trooper’s life:
The Regiment “Stands To!” every morning at three a.m., a silent rising of armed men—ready. The Turks love to attack in those sleepy hours before dawn. They will get a shocking surprise if they tackle us. We are a crack regiment now, ceaseless training has made us so … a crack regiment of Australian Light Horse possess a terrible fighting-power—and instant mobility adds to our regiment the strength of two. Out in the open desert our mounted regiment could defeat two thousand Turkish infantry …
The bond between the men and their horses is never sentimentalised, but is a theme that emerges over and over again throughout The Desert Column. It is fascinating to see how the discipline of the soldier is also expected of the horses. Here is Idriess on a “standing patrol”, at night, two miles out in the desert:
Seven of us made up [the patrol] last night. During my watch I was holding the seven horses. They were very sleepy, standing so still! One old bay’s eyes slowly closed, his head sagged, his knees bent, and if I had not jerked the reins he would have lain down. A pretty little brown horse stared imploringly with big black eyes that slowly closed in the moonlight. But I would not let him lie down … all my mates lay huddled asleep on the sand, except big Morry, a veritable giant in his greatcoat, standing clear in the moonlight like a sphinx, gazing out into the desert … the desert dogs came creeping close, and howled.
A modern reader feels almost disbelief at the way in which these fighting men were fed. The standard meal, three times a day, was “steel-hard” biscuit and tinned bully beef, washed down with black tea and accompanied by a cigarette or a smoke of the pipe. They had no fruit or vegetables, except on the rare occasions they were able to gather dates from an oasis, and their only fresh meat and milk were obtained from goats captured now and again from the Bedouin. For months, Idriess writes, “we did not change our clothes, we have lived in them, slept in them, always ready for instant action”.
All the troopers were driven mad by lice and most of them suffered septic sores (“Barcoo rot”) and ill-health resulting from the inadequate and monotonous diet. These problems steadily worsened as the months passed. The only saving grace was that once the allied armies went onto the offensive, and moved into Palestine, they began to encounter cultivated fields and orchards, and occasionally they would receive a food parcel from home with treasures like a tin of jam or Golden Syrup. It seems a miracle to me that they did not all come down with scurvy.
Idriess presents three interesting Australian perspectives. The first was the attitude of the light horsemen to the Bedouin. Put simply, they despised them. The Bedouin were officially neutral, and British policy was to treat them respectfully. The troopers, however, saw things differently from the generals in remote Cairo. They observed the Bedouin scavenging the Allied dead by day and experienced them as throat-slitters and thieves by night—and it was widely believed they were acting as spies for the Turks. There was no sympathy, for example, for Bedouin families caught up in the shelling or bombing of an oasis, nor did the light horsemen have any compunction in relieving them of their camels or goats when an opportunity presented itself.2
On the other hand, the Australians had an immense respect for their Anzac colleagues, the New Zealanders.3 Over and again Idriess speaks of the toughness and courage of the “En Zeds” and of their magnificent horsemanship. There could be no higher praise from an Australian light horseman.
Finally, there were the Turks. Their upper echelon was generally sneered at, but their fighting troops were greatly respected, and when they were not actually killing them, the Australians were almost affectionate towards the “Johnny Turk” or “Jacko” as he was called. The Turks “fought bravely, desperately”, Idriess notes. However:
[although] they had more artillery, more machine guns, more men, more ammunition, not to mention an undoubted superiority in air force … we have completely beaten them and pushed them back with the loss of more than half their army and vast quantities of stores.
Idriess is guilty of some overstatement here. With the advantage of a wider view than was available to the light horse troopers, a modern reader recognises that the Turks were operating at a significant disadvantage by the time they reached Suez. Their supply lines stretched back over hundreds of miles of hostile desert. Nevertheless, as Idriess points out, they were beaten back despite their superiority in numbers and equipment, a great tribute to Allied troops.
Many parts of The Desert Column are fascinating from a non-military viewpoint. Idriess and his colleagues are fighting in an ancient land, and often find themselves digging out an old Roman well and marvelling at its workmanship, or encountering the remnants of a temple dating from biblical times.
There is a fascinating chapter where Idriess goes to Cairo to work with one of the specialists on an invention of his that turned a standard Lee Enfield .303 rifle into a repeating rifle or light machine gun. The invention works and the design is sent to England, but we do not hear of it again, and as far as I know it was never taken up. Idriess simply returns to his unit and resumes life as a trooper.4
It is possible that Idriess was the first to use the term “desert rat” to describe Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East, a term adopted with honour by a later generation. On leave in Port Said in 1916, Idriess and his mates Bert, Stan and Big Morry enjoy their first bath for months and change into clean clothes before wandering off into town for a meal. However they soon find themselves in trouble. A British military policeman stops them, reprimands them for not wearing their uniform tunics and orders them to return to their hotel and stay there unless they are prepared to dress properly. After a fruitless argument and a warning that they would be taken to the guardroom, the troopers give in and don their uniform tunics. Stan even puts on a tie. Idriess writes: “He looked quite smart in his new clothes and curly hair. I kept gazing at him; could hardly believe he was the dirty desert rat I’d worked with all these months.”
If there is a mild criticism to be made of the book, it is the tendency towards a “Boy’s Own Adventure” style in the telling of some events. There are numerous thrilling gallops with bullets whizzing past and kicking up the sand; there are encounters with fierce and dastardly Bedouin; gunners sweat at their roaring guns; bayonets flash and rifles crack. A classic moment occurs when two English artillery officers join the troop for an exploratory ride into enemy territory. They are surprised by the enemy, and have to retreat at full gallop, losing some men and horses along the way to Turk rifle fire—Idriess himself is dismounted when his horse stumbles in deep sand, and he believes it is all over for him. But his sergeant gallops back, and steadies the struggling horse while Idriess remounts, and off they go again “at a plunging gallop”, laughing like madmen. Eventually catching up to the rest of the troop they find the two English officers in high spirits: “Ba jove! Hear those bullets whistling! Better than being in India, old bean, what? What an experience to tell the chappies! We’ll be the envy of the mess.”
As was the case with his Gallipoli diaries, Idriess does not spare the reader with his accounts of battle, especially when the light horsemen are defending a position against advancing Turkish infantry (“It was grand shooting”) or involved in hand-to-hand fighting when over-running an enemy position. The Turkish defenders are trampled by maddened horses, bayoneted, shot or bombed, and the carnage is terrible. Once the tide has turned and the Allied army is on the move, it goes on and on, page after page. The Turks, according to Idriess, were wonderful riflemen and brave attackers, but could not confront berserker Australians at work with the bayonet. I have to sympathise with them.
The culmination of the book (although not its final chapter) is the description of the famous charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, in which Idriess did not participate, but which he watched through field glasses from an observation post. The whole story does not need retelling here, but I cannot resist quoting Idriess’s wonderful eyewitness account of the onset of the charge:
[All day, the attempts to take Beersheba by infantry had been repulsed by the entrenched defenders. Then] someone shouted, pointing through the sunset towards invisible headquarters. There, at the steady trot, was regiment after regiment, squadron after squadron, coming, coming, coming! It was just half-light; they were distinct yet indistinct. The Turkish guns blazed at those hazy horsemen but they came steadily on. At two miles distant they emerged from clouds of dust, squadrons of men and horses taking shape … at a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man—they were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze—knee to knee and horse to horse—the dying sun glinting on bayonet-points …
The fall of Beersheba was a turning point in the desert campaign. It opened up the left of the Turkish defence, and was followed by a retreat that became a rout. By March 1918 the end was in sight, and in October the Turkish army capitulated. But well before then, Idriess’s war was over. For some time he had been suffering from a persistent and mounting illness (“some form of malarial fever” was how he described it), no doubt brought on by years of stress, hardship, exhaustion and poor diet. Then, while resting at a Red Cross camp, his troop was shelled by the Turkish artillery, and Idriess suffered shrapnel wounds to an arm and leg. An appalling journey by cart, motor ambulance and train eventually brought him to the Australian Infantry Hospital in Cairo, from where, his diary concludes: “January 2nd 1918. I am to be returned to Australia, as unfit for further service. Thank heaven!”
Heartfelt though this is, I was more touched by an observation at an earlier point in the book, one which I think sums up the universal philosophy of the Australian light horseman:
But the dearest memory, the memory that will linger until I die, is the comradeship of my mates, these thousands of men who laugh so harshly at their own hardships and sufferings, but whose smile is so tenderly sympathetic to others in pain.
My final thought on The Desert Column is that while I remember it as a childhood classic, a re-reading discloses that it is a true classic: it stands the test of time. I still love the patriotism and comradeship of the light horsemen, their tough bushmanship and their pride in being fierce, undefeatable warriors. And although these days I find the detail of battle to be gut-wrenching, it is impossible not to be stirred by the sheer adventure of it all.
The book also captures a watershed in military history when age-old and modern technologies overlapped. Horsemen defend the Suez Canal; camel-mounted infantry oppose armoured cars; riflemen shoot at aircraft; the first tanks and armoured trains appear; cavalrymen armed with sabres attack troops armed with machine guns; communication is by heliograph, but the first field telephones are in use; food comes in tins, but water supplies are drawn from wells and cisterns built in Roman times.
Ion Idriess (always known as “Jack” to his mates) died in 1979 aged ninety. Although he was a brilliant horseman and marksman, and was wounded three times, he was never decorated for his wartime exploits; nor indeed were many of his Light Horse mates. But he was rewarded in other ways, becoming at one time perhaps the nation’s most popular writer; in my youth there would hardly have been an Australian home without at least one of his books on the shelf.
I daresay the intelligentsia would regard Idriess (and the Light Horsemen) as politically incorrect these days—but they would need to be brave to come between my generation and The Desert Column.
1. I discussed this story recently with scholar and historian Bill Gammage. He doubted its veracity. On the other hand my forestry colleague Stephen Midgley (grandson of Major Midgley) knows the story well, as it has been passed down as family folklore.
2. This attitude to the Arabs was not confined to the Australians. In his wonderful memoir of the war in Mesopotamia, when he was commanding an English infantry company, Sir William Slim wrote: “we passed evidence of the desperate fight at the bridge … and the bodies of a good many Turks. There was one Arab among them, shot I suppose as he crept from the river to loot the dead. However, the sight of the dead Turks caused us few pangs, and of dead Arabs none at all” (from Unofficial History, 1959).
3. The New Zealand equivalent of the Australian Light Horse was known as the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. Like the Light Horse, the Mounted Riflemen were mostly farmers, sons of farmers and bushmen. They performed an identical role to the Light Horse.
4. Idriess was a skilful sniper; during the Second World War the Australian Army asked him to write an instruction booklet on sniping, and to advise on sniper training.
Roger Underwood wrote on Harold Larwood in the March issue.