WITHOUT horses there would be no harness racing.
And to a large degree, no equines could also have meant the Australian way of life as we know it wouldn’t exist!
Horses played a major role in Australia’s efforts during the World War, with the Light Horse Brigade now recognised around the globe for its heroics.
None more so than the brave men on horseback which fought enemy forces with distinction during the Battle of Beersheba.
A series of allied attacks took place on October 31, 1917, with the Anzac Mounted Division among the first in action.
Shortly afterwards, a mounted infantry charge by the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments (4th Light Horse Brigade) took place.
With bayonets in their hands and their rifles slung across their back, the Aussies captured Beersheba and part of the enemy garrison as it withdrew.
It was a bold tactic never seen before and caught the enemy off guard.
The victory proved to be a significant turning point of the war by breaking the Turkish defensive line from Gaza to Beersheba.
To commemorate the anniversary of the battle, the New South Wales Harness Racing Club has once again conducted a special service at Club Menangle this morning.
While the world class venue is now the site of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier racetrack, during the war, the land was used as a training ground for divisions of the Australian Light Horse Infantry Regiment based at Holsworthy.
As such, the club hosts the Battle of Beersheba Breakfast, with previous attendees laying wreaths in memory of the 800 ANZACS who defeated 4000 Turkish Soldiers against all odds to liberate the wells of Beersheba.
“We are very conscious of the special connection between the Australian Light Horse and our property at Menangle Park,” club President Robert Marshall said. “It’s special to me and special to our club and it’s great to see that it’s special to so many Australians.
“Our board sees it as a high priority to mark the significance of the Battle of Beersheba and its pivotal role in the outcome of the Great War.
“We purchased the land during the 1950s and are proud of the heritage and history it holds, including our time as a First World War makeshift army camp to train troops of the Australian Light Horse.
“Hundreds of men and horses left these grounds for foreign shores and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to pay tribute to their gallantry and memory.
“Our industry is indebted to the relationship men and women have with horses.”
In 2017 – the centenary year of the war – the club unveiled a memorial in honour of the 31 Australians killed and the 36 wounded during the Battle of Beersheba.
Club Menangle also boasts a dedicated area to the battle, which is widely-regarded as the best in Australia outside of a museum.
The club also supports a local tribute group, which keeps the memory of those lost and their bravery alive.
“We have this historical Light Horse troop that the club supports and they do amazing things attending so many functions around this area and keep the history of the Australian light horse alive with that,” Club CEO Bruce Christison said.
“This was the tenth year, which was really special as we had readings from journals of the soldiers from this area and others who went over there which gives us some appreciation of what was going on over there and it is quite amazing to think just how young these guys were.
“We’ve got some amazing tributes here with people like Tibby Cotter a test cricketer and John Albert (Jack) Dempsey who has connections to harness racing.
“So many Australians from all walks of life were over there fighting for their country and it is amazing to hear those stories.”
Born on December 3, 1883, Albert “Tibby” Cotter played 21 tests as a fast bowler between 1904 and 1912.
Regarded as the quickest bowler of his era, Cotter was so fast, English fans referred to him as “Terror Cotter”!
At age 31, Cotter joined the Australian Imperial Force in April 1915, with his enlistment regarded as powerful publicity for the AIF recruiting campaign.
Despite having no great riding ability, Cotter was accepted into the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment, while he also took a late part in the Gallipoli campaign.
Later transferring to the 12th Light Horse, Cotter was commended for his “fine work under heavy fire” during the Second Battle of Gaza. The official history remarked: “he behaved in action as a man without fear”. He declined promotion.
Although officially present as a stretcher-bearer, Cotter took part in the Beersheba charge, where he was shot and killed.
“Cotter was killed in a mounted charge on Beersheba at dusk on the 31/10/17. Early next morning, together with Trooper O’Rourke of our troop, I was detailed to collect saddlery and personal effects. We were surprised to find Cotter amongst our casualties, knowing he had been detailed for that day as a stretcher bearer. It seems he had changed places with another Light Horseman because he wanted to be in the mounted charge.” — “Ex-Trooper”, The Crookwell Gazette, 1 March 1933.
John Albert Dempsey, known as ‘Jack’ was a horse breaker from Leeton, who was heavily- involved in harness racing.
Serving with the 2nd Remount Unit, Sergeant-Major Dempsey directed the work of the rough-riders, under the command of Major A B (Banjo) Paterson, who described him as “a six-foot-two Australian, straight as a stringy-bark sapling and equally as tough. He put his living into riding buck jumpers in shows in Australia, and he can tell an outlaw through a galvanised iron fence”.
A founding member of the Leeton Trotting Club, Dempsey moved to Sydney during the 1930s where he established a successful stable, which included 10-time winner, Dave Step, along with handy types Sarita, Gambling Boy, Jim’s Gift and Lucy Theresa.
An advocate for night racing, Dempsey’s ailing health forced him into retirement by 1947, but was present during the inaugural night meeting at Harold Park on October 1, 1949.
Dempsey, who’s sons George and Henry fought in World War II, died in March 1950.