The Last Charge of the Australian Light Horse

Article | Nov 2023

PETER FITZSIMONS new book, The Last Charge of the Australian Light Horse, traces the hard path of the Light Horse from the bleakest of starts – being deprived of their horses and fighting at Gallipoli in the tragic Battle of the Nek – to triumph and glory in the desert.

Revealing the feats of the Australians who built the legend, it is a brilliantly told tale of courage, resilience and derring-do from Australia’s favourite storyteller.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

On 31st October 1917, as the day’s light faded, the Australian Light Horse charged against their enemy. Eight hundred men and horses galloped four miles across open country, towards the artillery, rifles and machine guns of the Turks occupying the seemingly unassailable town of Beersheba. What happened in the next hour changed the course of history.

This brave battle and the extraordinary adventures that led to it are brought vividly to life by Australia’s greatest storyteller, Peter FitzSimons. It is an epic tale of farm boys, drovers, bank clerks, dentists, poets and scoundrels transported to fight a war half a world away, and is full of incredible characters: from Major Banjo Paterson to Lawrence of Arabia; the brilliant writer Trooper Ion Idriess and the humble General Harry Chauvel; the tearaway Test fast bowler ‘Tibby’ Cotter and the infamous warhorse, Bill the Bastard. All have their part to play in the enthralling, sprawling drama of the Australian Light Horse.

Theirs was a war fought in an ancient land with modern weapons; where the men of the Light Horse were trained in sight of the pyramids, drank in the brothels of Cairo and fought through lands known to them only as names from the Bible.

 

EXTRACT
The Charge of the Light Brigade
25 October 1854,
Balaclava, the valley of death

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

If they should die, think only this of them. While they advance with the ghosts of their forebears who, in the service of the British Empire have died due to everything from bullets to bombs, dysentery to drowning, spears to splinters … they risk shuffling off this mortal coil because of a sleeve.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!’ he said.

Certainly, but which guns exactly? For the Commanding Officer of the Cavalry Division, the Earl of Lucan, the answer is not obvious as he gazes at a bloody battlefield on the floor of this valley, which now has Russian artillery blazing on three sides. For the written order, which has just arrived in the hands of Captain Louis Nolan, is confusing:

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate!

What? Does the Army commander, Lord Raglan, refer to our own cannon on the causeway, which the Russians have captured and may try to take away, or does he mean the mass of the Russian guns, pointed at them directly, a mile away, at the far end of the valley? Captain Nolan? ‘Attack immediately!’ he says, recalling this as the verbal instruction he was meant to pass on. Certainly, but which guns? Nolan simply throws his arm out pointing roughly to the left, the sleeve billowing out as his sweeping gesture is absorbed by Lucan. So, the far guns, at the end of the valley, glinting in the sunshine. Very well. Lord Lucan passes the order on to Lord Cardigan, who is stunned. A charge straight at guns a mile away, firing straight at them, even while guns on their flanks tear into them from both sides! Lord Cardigan cannot help but question the order vigorously and is rebuked by Lord Lucan for his trouble. (The conversation is not helped by the fact that they are brothers-in-law, with Lucan married to Cardigan’s sister. They are two men who despise each other with a passion in the way only forced families can.) Orders are orders, and I will ask you to follow them. So be it. As you command. In short order, 607 men of Her Majesty’s Light Cavalry ride, their sabres and lances glittering in the sun as they set off.

Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’ Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered.

In fact, one man observing is more than dismayed. It is Lord Raglan himself who, watching aghast through field-glasses from the Sapoune Heights, cannot believe that Lord Cardigan is leading a charge towards the wrong guns! In horror, he watches as the Light Brigade thunder forward in a cloud of dust and the fog of war, their sabres forward, their fate sealed. There is no time to stop them. And no sense in sending reinforcements. For you do not reinforce a suicide.

Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

Lord Cardigan rages at the insanity of it all, at the hide of his damn brother-in-law in insisting such orders be followed, and even at Captain Nolan, who now has the cheek to ride ahead of him. Cardigan has just decided to place Nolan on report should they make it back, when a Russian cannonball turns Nolan into bloody mush, instantly left behind.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred

Nolan is not the only one. In no more than two minutes, 107 worthies of the Light Brigade are blown apart by pieces of lead small and large, while their brethren charge on, their blades high, the primal roar of their lungs soon competing with the guns themselves.

Flash’d all their sabres bare, Flash’d as they turned in air, Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wonder’d

Lord Cardigan is among the first to reach the Russian guns, wielding his sword with savage skill, only to recognise a friend from their days together in London high society, before the war. Why, it is Prince Leon Radziwill! Despite Radziwill being more than a little occupied at the moment commanding the assembled Russian forces, he acknowledges Lord Cardigan and gives the order – noblesse oblige – that Cardigan is to be captured rather than killed if possible.

Plunged in the battery-smoke Right thro’ the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reel’d from the sabre-stroke Shatter’d and sunder’d.

Lord Cardigan is not captured, or killed, and, regarding his bloody brother-in-law’s order fulfilled, turns and trots back up the valley. He refuses to speak to Lucan as the remnants of his men return in bloody disarray, choosing to leave the field in disgust and ride to Balaclava Harbour, where his yacht and his champagne await.

They that had fought so well Came thro’ the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of Hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred.

‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, penned by the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson just two weeks later, will be recited ever after, a timeless classic that demonstrates that while warfare might have entered an industrial age, signalling the end of grand cavalry charges, honour, bravery, duty and self-sacrifice endure.

When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wonder’d. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter FitzSimons AM is Australia’s bestselling non-fiction writer, and for the past 35 years has also been a journalist and columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-herald.

He is the author of a number of highly successful books, including BREAKER MORANT, BURKE AND WILLS, MONASH’S MASTERPIECE, KOKODA, NED KELLY and GALLIPOLI, as well as biographies of such notable Australians as Sir Douglas Mawson, Nancy Wake and Nick Farr-Jones. His passion is to tell Australian stories, our own stories: of great men and women, of stirring events in our history.

Peter grew up on a farm north of Sydney, went to boarding school in Sydney and attended Sydney University. An ex-Wallaby, he also lived for several years in rural France and Italy, playing rugby for regional clubs. He and his wife Lisa Wilkinson AM – journalist, magazine editor and television presenter – have three children; they live in Sydney.

Visit Peter FitzSimons website

Author: Peter FitzSimons

Category: Humanities

Book Format: Hardback

Publisher: Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733646676

RRP: $49.99

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