Tribute to the 'forgotten heroes'

23 Apr, 2015 02:00 AM
Unlike the soldiers who rode them, they suffered in conflicts which they had no understanding of

WORLD War I killed more than 10 million men, almost 60,000 of them Australian, but less known is the tragic fate of the Australian war horses that were killed alongside the men who rode them.

Known as war's 'forgotten heroes', 136,000 Australian horses were sent to battle from 1914 to 1918, with just a single one of them returning home.

"There is a sadness about the Australian horses that were enlisted to war – unlike the soldiers who rode them, they suffered in conflicts which they had no understanding of," Merrijig, Victoria, Anzac Day memorial ride organiser Paul Jackson said.

Mr Jackson said there were many untold stories about the horses that were abandoned on the battlefields, critically injured, wandering in agony and left behind post-war.

Nestled in a pocket on the border of the Alpine National Park in North East Victoria, a group of stockmen and women pay tribute to the horses conscripted to WWI that died in battle and did not return home, as well as their own ancestors who helped to train and breed them.

Iconic family names such as Lovick, Greenway and Young participate in the ride that leaves the small town of Merrijig at the break of dawn and meanders along the highway to the war memorial near Buttercup Road.

It is a powerful and silent tribute that reinforces to horseriders the crucial role the warhorse played in shifting rations and ammunition to the front line and were then responsible for ferrying back the wounded.

"The devastation of war is often counted by men lost but we need to recognise the horses which perished in the service of their victories," Mr Jackson said.

"It is an emotional ride where the people who are on it want to recognise Australia's forgotten heroes.

"A lot of the horses sent over were from the Merrijig region so it is important we remember them as well as the local soldiers."

Horse pilgrimage

Carloads of people travel to witness the horse pilgrimage that sees more than 50 horses and riders, carrying the Australian and New Zealand flags, attend the annual ceremony that began in 2008.

Imposing natural shrines of rock pyramids surround Merrijig's iron memorial site with individual rock inscriptions that list local soldiers' names, "the horses" and the words "they had no choice".

Mr Jackson said while the sacrifice of the men who died in 1914-18 would remain the focus of remembrance, on the 100th anniversary of World War I, it was important to reflect also on the high price Australian horses paid.

This year organisers are hoping 100 horses will join the ceremony, which will leave the Merrijig Hunt Club Hotel car park at 6.30am on April 25 and will be escorted by police along the main road to the Merrijig war memorial site.

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Annabelle Cleeland

Annabelle Cleeland

is the national sheep and wool writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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