Bill the Bastard

Backward Glance


Bill the Bastard was a 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 because he was famous for his incredible bucks, unseating rider after rider after rider.

But it was his relationship with 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 and respect. Despite his far from salubrious reputation, Bill’s spirit became hugely important and he became known for being fearless, standing his ground in an ambush and using his instinct 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 raging battle was fierce with the right flank under assault. Shanahan was able to rescue four injured soldiers on Bill, who stood his ground and didn’t cut and run like some of the other horses. Once mounted and hanging on in the stirrups, Bill carried the soldiers for just over a kilometre to safety, all the while under heavy fire. Any other horse would most likely have collapsed, but Bill’s stamina played an instrumental role, enabling him to continue for six hours straight. Shanahan was also injured in the battle and Bill, ever the loyal steed, carried him many kilometres to safety.

After his instrumental efforts in the Battle of Romani, Bill was officially retired from battle, but he would still help out as a pack horse from time to time, carrying machine guns or leading the line. He was seen as a symbol of strength to the troops.

Of the 136,000 Australian horses who served in the war, only one returned home, but it wasn’t Bill. Reliable pack horse that he was, Bill was taken back to Gallipoli to help bury the dead and retrieve artefacts from the battlefield. Afterwards, he was left with a local family who cared for the graves along with his best friend, a grey mare called Penny. 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 the form of a book by Roland Perry, aptly titled ‘Bill The Bastard’.

By the sounds of this, I think there should be a horse race at least named after Bill the Bastard on ANZAC Day. What do you think, Globetrotters?

References: Horse Zone, Gallipoli Roachie, Donal Sheil – ABC News, Bill the Bastard.

Image credits: Wikipedia

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