This morning I would like to pay homage to a very special group of men who are hailed as legends in Australian history books. They were the embodiment of the Australian spirit. In the early years of colonization in Australia, a semi-military mounted police force was formed and they became known as “The Lighthorsemen”.
When the Australian colonies sent troops to South Africa in 1899 to help Britain fight the Boers, Britain was sceptical of these unprofessional colonial cavalrymen. However, those slouch hatted, rough riding bushmen soon proved to be expert horsemen as well as top shots. Many hailed from properties in the outback and could go for long periods with little food and water. They also showed a remarkable ability to use the rough terrain to their advantage, using its features for cover, in both attack and defence. (1)
Until then, the British had never changed their methods of fighting wars. Losing entire regiments on the battlefield was considered a noble and glorious tradition. However, the ingenuity of those rough and tumbled bushmen from Australia defied that tradition. ‘When a few hundred Australians and some Rhodesians held out successfully against several thousand encircling Boers at Elands River’, (2) they commanded the attention of British command. This brought about change.
William Lyons was part of that change, as he was one of those Light Horseman who fiercely manoeuvred the plains of South Africa all those years ago. He and his fellow troopers were set apart from normal troops by their uniforms, with their jodphurs, leather leggings and spurs.
Queensland troopers wore emu plumes in their slouch hats. The description below tells how the hats were worn:
The hat is worn with a rakish tilt, spaced with 3 finger spaces above the left ear, 2 finger spaces above the left eye, and 1 finger space above the right eye. The puggaree is a plain khaki woollen band 1.75′ (45mm) wide.(3)
Sadly, William Lyons’ hats and emu plumes have long since disappeared, however he did keep various badges and buttons from his uniforms and below is a badge he would have worn on his hat during World War 1.
Hat badge is the General Service badge (Rising Sun, Kings Crown) large size, and should be painted matte or satin black. (Unofficial badges worn by light horse units during WW1 are in section 9). (4)
Light Horse regiments were sent abroad at the onset of the First World War. William Lyons was in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment which was formed predominantly from Queensland volunteers. Whilst researching for my blog, I have been fortunate to stumble upon some diaries written by light horsemen and in particular, those from my Great Grandfather’s regiment. Not only have they been useful for my writing, they have been a wonderful way to take a closeup view of their world. One particular diary I found was written by trooper Jack Graham who was in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment. His family have serialized it in a blog titled “War Diary” which they have compiled for the Centenary Commemoration of WWI.
The “War Diary” blog contains some fantastic photos of events and I know for certain that William Lyons was lurking in the shadow of the camera lens. He was there on the deck of the “Lutzow” whilst men were photographed disembarking at Gallipoli; he took part in burying the dead on armistice day 24th May 1915 as scenes were captured on film; and maybe he knew Trooper Graham personally. In any case, I recommend that family members take a look at the “War Diary” blog.
I will now leave the last words to Banjo Paterson who wrote this poem about the Queensland Mounted Infantry in South Africa, 1900.
In order to do justice to my Great Grandfather’s story, I will be late in posting my next blog post. All I ask is to please be patient as it is a great weight on my shoulders writing the Gallipoli part of the story.