Choosing the war moments that matter
IN the depths of the University of New England archives building – it’s quiet.
Lining the walls is the history of New England, walk through the rows long enough and you will stumble across Bill Oates.
The archivist is curating his first exhibition, Horse Power: Light Horse in Palestine – to Beersheba and Beyond.
“This is a big first,” Mr Oates said.
“I always used to say we gather the ammunition and then we give it to the cowboys and the Indians.
“In this case we’ve actually chased materials, that’s very different.”
Travelling as far as Mingoola, through family homes and small communities – Mr Oates is collecting the stories of New England Light Horsemen, who fought in the Battle of Beersheba.
“I’ve walked over the fence and I’m not playing archivist here – I’m playing historian,” he said.
“Australians have stuck to the ode pretty well, the Lest We Forget stuff.
“The families of Australians, where they’ve had ancestors who have been veterans – they’ve kept memorabilia, so you find that everywhere.
“It’s then tying that together.”
With each Light Horseman comes a unique story, the one Mr Oates wants to tell is of the life in the bush that made these men so well-suited to the Egyptian desert.
“Somebody once said the harder you train the luckier you get,” Mr Oates said.
“I think the Light Horse were lucky because they’d been well-trained.
“They were suited to the job they were given.”
The success of the Light Horseman is something Mr Oates puts down to leaders like Harry Chauvel.
General Chauvel understood the Light Horse because he started on the banks of the Clarence River with his dad and brothers.
“If you look at is as a walk in the park because they had so few casualties – that’s a reflection of the fact that they’re fighting in the desert where they’re skill set fits their requirements,” Mr Oates said.
“Riding around in the desert in the dark where you’re meant to be is a matter of practice, they did it a lot and they did it well.”
Wartime through a lens
ONCE describing himself as “horse mad”, Armidale Light Horseman Arthur Overell left behind a rare insight into history before he died.
Serving in the 2nd Remount Unit A.I.F, Mr Overell was tasked with breaking-in and maintaining horses for the men of the Australian Light Horse regiments.
It’s largely why his photos are so good.
Some of which will feature in a Beersheba exhibition at the New England Regional Art Museum.
“We had war time photographers who were in the right place at the right time that had taken poor photos, because it’s just where they were,” University of New England archivist Bill Oates said.
“What struck us when we started doing the Light Horse stuff was that suddenly we found this group of Light Horsemen who were taking good photos.
“The reason they were taking good photos is that they were in the Remount Unit, it gave them more time to collect photos, swap them and take their own.”
Tape recordings still exist of Mr Overell telling the stories behind his pictures, and in each he could still remember the nicknames of the men he served with, and where they came from.
The photos are largely of buck jumpers, the odd game of blanket toss and cossack riders like Mr Overell himself.
One is of squadron commanding officer A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, who took a commission with the Remount Unit.
For the Remount Unit, it could take up to five men to keep one fighting in the field.
The Light Horsemen would travel through the desert at night, attacking the enemy from behind.
Temperatures routinely soared towards 50 degrees in the Egyptian desert, and serious injuries were just a part of the job.
But amongst the difficulties of war, the Remount Unit still found time to show off how naturally Australians took to the saddle – exhibition riding in their spare time.
Mr Overell spent 50 years in Armidale, before he died in 1985 at 89-years-old.
His photos are a rare glimpse into what life for the Australian horseman was like, fighting in the Battle of Beersheba.
The exhibition of war stories
The exhibition Horse Power: Light Horse in Palestine – to Beersheba and Beyond is on at the New England Regional Art Museum.
Opened by Armidale RSL Sub Branch president Max Tavener, the exhibition looks at day to day life soldiers through their own words and images.
“After the Great War commenced in August 1914 there was a rush of enthusiastic volunteers who joined up from communities around our region,” NERAM director Robert Heather said.
“Young men from small country towns like Armidale, Tamworth, Tenterfield, Walcha and Glen Innes were fighting a determined enemy in the rugged, biblical landscape of Jericho, Jerusalem, Megiddo and of course Beersheba, we can only imagine the impact that these experiences had on them at the time and for the rest of their lives.”
Working with University of New England archivist Bill Oates, NERAM has launched the commemorations of the Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba.