The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
At different times during the slow progression across the Desert, the horses were often short of rations, and almost continually had bad water to drink—often not enough even of that. These were added cares to the majority of the men, who had the welfare of their faithful chargers so much at heart. This individual care for their horses, indeed, was one of the outstanding characteristics of the New Zealand horsemen, and largely made possible the long marches and consistently good patrol work done by them. Men would go to all sorts of trouble to gain a little extra feed or water for their horses, and in bivouac, or on the march, do everything to save them, and preserve them in the best possible condition.
At one time the horses were badly affected by the bad water, and sand colic, and as the strength of the Brigade was measured by the men it could mount, for some time the units were very much below strength, owing to the wholesale evacuation of sick and collapsed horses. Many of the remounts sent up to replace the worn out chargers were not New Zealand horses, but came, originally, it was page 45thought, from the Argentine. These animals, although apparently in the pink of condition when they arrived, were soft, of poor heart, and could not stand up to the hardships as the original New Zealand-bred horses had done, with the result that they were evacuated from the active list as fast as they appeared.
At this point it will be apposite to state that on this front, where in the later days of the Campaign in Palestine the New Zealanders took part in the largest cavalry movements seen in the world's history, the New Zealand horses throughout stood up to their work brilliantly, and were considered, by many qualified to express an opinion, to be, perhaps, the most serviceable troop-horses in the world for active service.
The mounts possessed by the Australians were, generally speaking, better looking horses, and were held by some to be the best horses, but veterinary returns will show that they did not stand up to hardship as did the New Zealand-bred stock.
As regards the English Yeomanry, the New Zealand horses were superior in both appearance and stamina.
The load carried by a Mounted Rifleman's horse in the field is considerable, and may be described here in some detail, to give the reader some idea of what is required of these horses in endurance. The description given is of the minimum load carried when setting out page 46on a "stunt" (as all individual operations against the enemy came to be called), consisting of bare essentials only.
The Mounted Rifleman wore, on his person, a leather bandolier containing 150 rounds of ammunition, bayonet, service rifle, and haversack, the latter usually stuffed with tins of the inevitable "bully" beef and army biscuits. The saddlery on his mount consisted of head-stall and bridle, headrope, picketing rope, saddle, and blanket. In addition to this the horse carried, slung round his neck, a leather sand muzzle, which was slipped on in place of the nosebag when he had finished his meagre feed, to prevent him eating sand and dirt; this being a bad habit quickly indulged in by many horses when hungry.
In this sand-muzzle the trooper often carried his mess-tin, or "billy" for cooking or making tea, and his dandy brush for grooming. The next item was the horse bandolier, slung round the horse's neck and containing an additional 90 rounds of ammunition. Strapped on the front of the saddle were two leather wallets, probably containing towel, soap, spare shirt, socks, and what rations the rider could not get into his haversack; strapped on top of these again would be the greatcoat and one blanket.
The men usually set out with forty-eight hours' rations and an iron ration, while the horse ration for three days (27 lbs.) would be carried. This horsefeed would be distributed page 47between two nosebags, tied to the side of the saddle, and a sandbag, round which might be rolled a ground or bivouac sheet, strapped across the rear of the saddle. Also slung to the side of the saddle would be the canvas water-bucket which served the soldier for the watering of his horse and his own ablutions, and his water-bottle. When the Desert was behind them, and our troops were in Palestine, where a sufficiency of water was usually obtainable, two or three water-bottles would be carried by each man.
Besides the above, some men carried a spare haversack made into a saddlebag, and strapped to the side of the saddle, while at least one man in each section of four had to carry as well a sack for anchoring the picket line of his section in the sand. Another addition to the load which was often seen was a small bundle of firewood strapped to the rear of the saddle, this being often unobtainable on the march, and a necessity for the production of a New Zealander's stand-by, a "boil-up" of tea. The tunic, which was needed at night, was usually carried strapped to the top of the load, the rider wearing an armless singlet or shirt which protected his body from sunburn.
Considerable skill was required in adjusting the load described above, as an unequal distribution of weight, loose ends of straps getting underneath the saddle, or a wrinkled saddle-blanket, would quickly give a horse a sore back page 48on the long marches the New Zealand horsemen were constantly called on to do.
From the foregoing it will easily be understood that a man of medium weight would ride, with all his gear up, at well over twenty stone, a huge weight for a light horse to carry for long distances on good going, let alone through the heavy sand of the Desert.
A pathetic sight was often to be seen during brief halts on a long march, for the faithful, tired animals would often lie down, with all their gear on, beside their wearied masters, to snatch what brief repose they could.page break page break