Bill the Bastard was a big, fiery, cranky chestnut gelding famous for his buck… but he was one of Australia’s greatest war horses and became a legend, famed for his incredible stamina and for saving many soldiers’ lives. An Australian-bred Waler, Bill earned his not-so-illustrious nickname thanks to his incredible bucks, unseating rider after rider.
Used to test new recruits at Liverpool Army Camp in Sydney, Bill had never been fully broken-in because no one could stay on him long enough! He seemed to delight in throwing off his would-be riders and as such, was delegated as a pack horse. Along with 136,000 other Australian horses, Bill left Australia in 1914 to fight in World War I. On the journey to the Middle East, Bill was cared for by none other than Banjo Patterson, one of Australia’s best-known poets. Patterson was also a war correspondent and an avid equestrian, and later commanded the Australian Remount Squadron. A line in Patterson’s diary from the voyage sums up Bill’s character perfectly: ‘you can’t lead Bill the Bastard to anything and you certainly can’t make him drink!’
It was Bill’s relationship with Major Michael Shanahan that gave the fierce chestnut the chance to become the hero he was meant to be. Shanahan was years ahead of his time and a brilliant horseman, forming a strong bond with Bill based on trust, respect and liquorice treats. Despite his far from salubrious reputation, Bill became known for being fearless, standing his ground in an ambush and using his instincts and keen sense of smell to warn his rider if danger lay ahead.
Shanahan and Bill were among the 100,000 horses who fought in the pivotal Battle of Romani, in the 50 degree heat of the desert. With the Turks and Australians just 35 metres apart, the battle was fierce, with the right flank under assault. Amidst the fray, Shanahan spotted four Tasmanian troopers surrounded by Turks, unable to escape after their horses had either fled or been shot. Bill stood his ground and even resisted his natural urge to buck as the soldiers scrambled aboard – three men on his back and one balanced on each stirrup. He galloped through the soft sand and gunfire for over a kilometre to bring them to safety, thus earning Shanahan the Distinguished Service Order.
But it wasn’t over – Shanahan and Bill rode back into battle and fought for a total of six hours, until Shanahan passed out after being shot in the leg. Sensing this, Bill carried him three kilometres back to the army base. Any other horse would most likely have collapsed hours earlier – one general went through 17 horses that same night!
After his instrumental efforts in the Battle of Romani, Bill’s reward was retirement from life as a saddle horse, serving as an officer’s packhorse for the remainder of the War. He was seen as a symbol of strength to the troops and carried machine guns in the famous Battle of Beersheba.
Of the 136,000 Australian horses who served in the war, only one returned home, but it wasn’t Bill. Reliable packhorse that he was, Bill was taken back to Gallipoli to help bury the dead and retrieve artefacts from the battlefield. Afterwards, Bill and his best friend, a grey mare called Penny, were left with a local family who cared for the graves. Bill died peacefully in 1924 and has his own grave in the Anzac Gardener’s Cottages.
There is a Light Horse Memorial in Murrumbarrah, NSW which commemorates the birthplace of the First Australian Light Horse in 1897 and also features a bronze sculpture of Bill the Bastard carrying five men during the ‘Retreat at Romani’. And Bill has forever been immortalised in a book by Roland Perry, aptly entitled ‘Bill the Bastard’.
By the sounds of this, I think at the very least there should be a horse race named after Bill the Bastard on ANZAC Day. What do you think, Globetrotters?