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Banjo Paterson is the giant of Australian literature and folk law. His exploits in this field are so extensively well documented that I would not presume to add to them.

What is less well known is his contribution to the war effort in WW1 and to a much lesser extent The Boer War. His contribution to the successes of the Light Horse brigades was outstanding.

Banjo Paterson was a newspaper correspondent intermingled with a legal practice. When the second Boer War broke out on 11th October, 1899 Banjo was a member of the NSW Lancers and sought to sail with the first contingent for South Africa. He was rejected for active service because he had only one good arm. He was well connected with the Fairfax family and asked to be sent to South Africa at his own expense for one month to serve as a war correspondent. One month was the limit of his financial resources.

Fairfax gave him 100 pounds, friends donated two horses and with his own saddle horse on 28th October boarded the troop ship Kent with 40 lancers and 86 men from the Army Medical Corps.

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Banjo served in South Africa for nine months and was sickened by the fighting to the point where he left and went to Basutoland then to Durban where he boarded a ship with invalided soldiers and returned to Australia. In that time he covered about 5.000 kilometres on horseback, wrote 19 poems and a stream of reports for his employers.

During that time he met countless dignitaries including Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Kitchener, Breaker Morant and Joseph Chamberlain. He was scathing in his criticism of the British conduct of the war and the mistreatment of Boer prisoner in British concentration camps. He had a special dislike of Kitchener and Chamberlain and after his return home undertook a series of lectures condemning the British performance.

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The photo of Banjo Patterson on the Australian $10 note was taken on his return from the Boer War

When WW1 broke out Banjo applied to be the war correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald. There were no positions available but Fairfax arranged for him to travel with the first fleet as an honorary veterinarian on the Euripides which left Sydney on 20th October, 1914. He was witness to the departure of HMAS Sydney to pursue the Emden and her triumphant return. He interviewed Capt. Glossop, skipper of Sydney and sent back his exclusive report of Glossop’s description of the encounter.

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While the ship was transiting the Suez Canal it was announced that the destination had been changed from London to Egypt. When the troops and horses were landed Banjo’s responsibilities as a vet were over and he caught the first boat he could to London hoping to get an assignment as a war correspondent in France. This could not be arranged but he was able, through influential contacts, to get a job as an ambulance driver and arrived in France two days before Xmas, 1914. Constant efforts to become a war correspondent failed and in 2015 he returned to Australia.

On 13th October, 1915 he was recruited after understating his age by two years and made a lieutenant in the 6th Squadron of No.2 Remount Unit. These units were responsible for training horses and mules for service in the Australian Army to replace horses lost in operations and were a vital cog in the war machines of both sides. They were non-combatant units and staffed by men who were too old or otherwise unfit for fighting duty. To qualify, one had to have experience with horses and that suited Banjo perfectly.

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The demand for horses and mules by the Army was huge. The requirement that every station had to donate one horse to the war effort did not fill the need. Horse buyers were employed to procure horses from all over the world and brumbies, rounded up from the wilds of the Australian bush, were added to the numbers. The 1st Remount Unit was comprised of men from Victoria, Tasmania, SA and WA. The 2nd, Banjo’s unit, was made up of recruits from Queensland and NSW. On 9th November Banjo was promoted to Captain. Banjo explained that the role of the unit was to “take over the rough uncivilised horses that had been bought from all over the world by the army buyers, to quieten them and condition them and get them accustomed to being heel-roped, and finally to issue them in such a state of efficiency that a heavily-accoutred trooper can get on and off them under fire if need be.”

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The 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment crossing the River Jordan on a pontoon bridge between Jersualem and Moab, at Ghoraniye, April 1918.

At this depot Banjo’s unit trained 50,000 horses and 10,000 mules in lots of a couple of thousand at a time. They all had to be fed three times per day and watered twice, groomed, exercised every day including Sundays and manure carted away and burnt. The key staff were roughriders and buckjumping-show riders selected by Banjo. Their uniform comprised a shirt, riding breeches and elastic sided boots specially designed and made in Australia to prevent a rider’s foot being caught in the stirrups. The saddles had high pommels and cantles with big knee and thigh pads. Every day was like a rodeo show.

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On 21st October, 1916 Banjo was given command of the Squadron, the two units were merged into one and re-named as the Australian Remount Depot and relocated to a new base at Moascar on the west bank of the Suez Canal. Banjo made his unit famous by giving rough riding displays for crowds of spectators. His team of horse breakers was far superior to the units with recruits from the southern states.

When General Allenby was appointed commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force he was a new broom who swept out the large contingent of idolatry English officers who infested Cairo. He was also an old comrade of Banjo’s from the Boer War days in South Africa.

Harry Chauvel, now a lieutenant General and commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, was another old comrade from the same conflict. Together the pace of the war in Palestine was given a great impetus.

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The Light Horse Brigade demand for horses rose accordingly and it was Banjo’s job to provide them. Banjo, drawing on his experiences from his droving days personally drove a mob of 300 mules through the streets of Cairo then he took a team of 130 horses and 20 mules by train and foot for 250 miles over 10 days with all animals arriving in first-class condition.

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In January 1918, after two years absence at the war, Banjo’s wife Alice joined him as a nursing aid at the Ismailia English Red Cross Hospital and continued to serve together until they were repatriated in 1919.

His saddest moments were that none of the 30,000 horses that had been brought from Australia and that he had so meticulously trained, could return home, with one exception. That was the horse of General Bridges who had been killed by a sniper’s bullet at Gallipoli. Over 2,000 Walers were shot by their riders who feared that they would be mistreated by the Arabs or turned into dog meat. Most of them were sold to the Indian Army. All through the war years, Banjo continued to write poems and stories that were sent back and published in Australia.

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