TROOPER GEORGE
© Anthony (Tony) Hammill

Winner, 2013Snowy Mountains Muster, Jindabyne, NSW.

When clouds of war rolled in to darken blue Australian skies,
And tyranny loomed large and threatened freedom’s swift demise,
George Cooke walked off his South Coast farm at king and country’s call,
And joined the 12th Light Horse, prepared for all that might befall.

The desert sands of training camps in Egypt soon gave way
To Gallipoli, where rugged peaks of Sari Bair held sway;
Where brave men died in futile sacrifice repeatedly,
And blood-red suns sank slowly down past Imbros out to sea.

Cool Autumn’s fragrant breath had come to still the stifling heat,
And the August battles by and large had ended in defeat
When George encountered all the joys of trench and dugout life,
Where bully beef was daily fare, and fleas and flies were rife.

The men were safe from snipers, much like rabbits underground,
But sudden death came knocking when the shells burst all around;
And bathers at the Cove cursed ‘Beachy Bill’, the Turkish gun,
When a whistling shell meant ‘Dive like hell!’ or else your race was run.

But fate was set to intervene, and George soon took his leave
When typhoid from the flies of Anzac gave him his reprieve;
A medical evacuee, he almost slipped away,
But care on Malta rescued him to fight another day.

In Egypt fit and healthy George rejoined the old brigade,
And drank and trained with mates and battled through each dull parade,
And listened to the yarns of Tibby Cotter once again,
That great test bowler, undisputed idol of the men.

He’d played the man and shattered stumps as demon bowlers must,
And struck old ‘W.G.’ who turned and strode off in disgust;
But though a score of tests were his, and all the fame and hype,
He’d never stand above the men, and handed back his stripe.

Soon fate would take the Light Horse on an odyssey and more
From Sinai to Damascus in a thousand miles of war,
And lead their columns on by burning sand and cool blue sea
To the land of milk and honey to fulfil their destiny.
And battle honours won would grace their guidons far away
With names that gave them glory that will live till Judgement Day:
Romani, Jaffa, Jericho, Jerusalem revered –
All places found their freedom where the Light Horse men appeared.

But Gaza held; the Turks had checked the allies’ great advance;
The Gaza to Beersheba line would prove the only chance;
An eastward flanking movement now could help to win the war;
Beersheba held the golden key to open Gaza’s door!

Three nights the Desert Mounted Corps rode over barren plains;
Men slumbered in their saddles as they loosely held the reins;
Their well-loved Walers suffered for the wells were all too few,
And thirst would dog the hoofbeats of the steadfast and the true!

A sombre mood would settle down upon the weary men,
With thoughts of home and loved ones they might never see again;
And each man steeled himself to fight and see his duty done,
As steadily the squadrons rode towards the rising sun.

And George in dreams saw waiting for him, as Beersheba neared,
The bullet with his name on it that every trooper feared;
And Tibby bowled a ball of mud- a sporting man’s adieu-
Then uttered this prophetic statement, “That’s my last bowl, Blue!”

All day the thump of allied guns was heard beyond the town;
All day assaults would slowly wear the Turks’ defences down;
And George’s divvy stood dispersed in wadis out of sight,
While shadows lengthened, heralding the fast- approaching night.

The horses hadn’t slaked their thirst in thirty hours or more;
The wells of Abraham ahead retained their precious store;
And victory awaited, or the jaws of grim defeat,
When Allenby gave orders, “Take Beersheba.  No retreat!”

Then Grant proposed his regiments should charge like cavalry,
Though lacking sword and lance, for they were mounted infantry;
Surprise and speed were tactics that would surely win the day;
Chauvel agreed, and ordered Grant to act without delay.

The fierce red sun was setting as the Turks in panic peered
At the dust cloud sweeping toward them, and the nemesis they feared,
And trenches soon were trembling from the shock of hooves on ground,
But Jacko had no heart for fighting horsemen so renowned!

Resistless as a tidal wave that breaks on hapless shores,
Australia’s sons went racing while the wide world heard their roars;
Their bayonets held high and glinting off the sinking sun,
The Fourth and Twelfth rode; so the grand Beersheba Stakes was run!

The Turkish shells fell long because the range was closing fast;
Rifle and machine gun fire went wildly whipping past;
But shrapnel shells from British guns performed a striking show,
Bursting over Turkish lines like stars all in a row!

The Light Horse struck the trenches with a terrifying din,
Leaping them, dismounting, snatching rifles, rushing in;
Then hand to hand they tackled any Turks disposed to shoot,
And quickly took them down with bullet, bayonet and boot!

And in that melee Tibby, stretcher bearer on the day
Was cut down by a bullet while dismounting for the fray;
And while in deadly combat George was grappling with the foe,
A bullet struck him from behind and dealt a mortal blow!

The wounded men were stretchered in from bloody trench and plain,
A thousand Turks placed under guard who’d nevermore campaign;
The Walers drank their sweet, cool water from the wells that night,
While brass drank toasts to victory and casualties deemed light.

In death united, bloodied forms lay strewn across that scene –
Steeds and men denied forever things that might have been:
The steeds their precious water and the men their dear home states –
And morning light brought burial for Tibby, George and mates.

But freedom’s never free, and with the final toll revealed,
Beersheba and the wells were won and Gaza’s fate was sealed.
So evermore we’ll cherish bonds heroic deeds can forge,
And sacrifices gamely made by men like Trooper George.


In memory of 848 Trooper George Herbert Cooke, 12 LHR A.I.F., K.I.A. Charge of Beersheba, 31 October 1917, aged 22. From Gerringong, N.S.W. The above is a true story based on his official service records at the Australian Archives and many other sources.


Notes:

1) Sari Bair: the main range forming the spine of the Gallipoli peninsula.
2) Imbros: An island off the coast of Gallipoli. Imbros and Samothrace are visible from Anzac.
3) Beachy Bill: The Turkish artillery piece never located and silenced by the allies, and a constant threat to bathers at the Cove.
4) Albert ‘Tibby’ Cotter (1883-1917): Australian fast bowler; played in 21 tests from 1904-1912. Had a reputation for breaking stumps. Took eight or more wickets four times in a match from 21 tests. Had a strike rate of 52. Struck W.G. Grace with a full toss on his first tour of England. Effectively banned from playing tests after a dispute with the Board of control. Handed back the lance-corporal stripe he was awarded. “That’s my last bowl, Blue!” revealed his premonition of his own death.
5) W.G.: W.G. Grace (1848-1915). The famous English batsman.
6) Sinai: The Sinai Peninsula.
7) Damascus: The capital of Syria.
8) Land of milk and honey: The biblical term for Israel, in 1917 part of the Turkish Empire.
9) Guidons: Flags carrying battle honours of the A.I.F., officially issued in 1926.
10) Beersheba: Officially Be’er Sheva. Now the largest city in the Negev Desert of Southern Israel. In 1917 a small, strategically important town defended by the Turks on the eastern flank of the Gaza-Beersheba line. The bible has it that Abraham ordered the digging of wells in the desert that resulted in the foundation of the town.
11) Gaza: The city in the Gaza Strip heavily defended by the Turks, from which they were expelled only after three battles and heavy casualties suffered by the allies in 1917. The Gaza to Beersheba line if broken would make the defence of Gaza impossible due to the threat of encirclement.
12) Desert Mounted Corps: Commanded by Major General Sir Harry Chauvel, the Corps was comprised of several Australian, British, French, Indian and New Zealand mounted units.
13) Walers: The Light Horse mounts. Bred in new South Wales, they were part thoroughbred, Arab, Cape Horse, Timor pony and Clydedale, and achieved fame in the Middle east for their endurance.
14) Squadron: Three squadrons made up a Light Horse regiment of 500 men.
15) Wadi: A valley, gully or streambed that is dry except during the rainy season.
16) Allenby: Field Marshall Viscount  Edmund Allenby (1861-1936), British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. He gave the order to attack Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917.
17) Chauvel: General Sir Harry Chauvel, G.C.M.G., K.C.B. (1865-1945). Distinguished Australian soldier. Born NSW, moved to Darling Downs. Commands held: 1 LH Brigade, 1 Division, Anzac Mounted Division, Desert Column, Desert Mounted Corps, Chief of Australian General Staff. First Australian to command a corps.
18) Grant: Brig-Gen William Grant C.M.G., D.S.O. and Bar, M.B.E.         ( 1870-1939). A Darling Downs pastoralist. Commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, comprising the 4th , 11th and 12th regiments, from Victoria, Queensland and NSW respectively. The 11th was on outpost duty at the time, and so did not take part in the charge.
19) The Light Horse were mounted or mobile infantry, not cavalry. Their tactic was to approach the enemy, then dismount and fight on foot. A horse handler would hold the reins of three other horses, thereby reducing the fighting force by a quarter. After the Beersheba experience the Light Horse was issued with swords.
20) Divvy: Short for Division. George Cooke was a member of the 12 LHR, 4th LH Brigade, Australian Mounted Division of the Desert Mounted Corps, A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force), Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
21) Jacko: The Australian soldiers’ nickname for the Turks, an abbreviated form of  another nickname ‘Johnny Turk.’
22) Lt-Col. R. M. P. Preston in The Desert Mounted Corps p. 29 recalled and portrayed the conditions well: ‘It was growing dark, and the enemy trenches were outlined in fire by the flashes of their rifles. Beyond and a little above them blazed the bigger, deeper flashes of their field guns, and our own shells burst like a row of red stars over the Turkish positions.’
23) About 800 Australians took part in the charge. Beersheba was captured with the loss of 31 men killed, 36 wounded, and around 70 horses killed. One report said the Turks seemed to be aiming at the horses, not the riders.
24) Chauvel celebrated the victory that night with ‘a small bottle of fiery wine’ at dinner. (Jones p. 113).

References:
1) Bean, C.E. W.  The Official History o f Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volumes 1 &2: The Story of Anzac. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1981.
2) Bostock, Henry P. The Great Ride. Perth, W. A.: Artlook Books, 1982.
3) Bou, Jean. Light Horse. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
4) Carlyon, Les. Gallipoli. Sydney: Pam Macmillan, 2001.
5) Daley, Paul. Beersheba. Carlton. Vic.: Melbourne University press, 2009.
6) Hill, A. J. Chauvel of the Light Horse. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1978.
7) Jones, Ian. A Thousand Miles of Battles. Aspley, Qld: Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (Qld) Incorporated, 2007.
8) Laffin, John. Damn the Dardanelles! The Story of Gallipoli. Lane Cove, N.S.W.: Doubleday Australia Pty Ltd, 1980.
9) Lawrence, Cyril. The Gallipoli Diaries of Sergeant Lawrence of the Australian Engineers. Edited by Sir Ronald East. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981.
10) Preston, Lt-Col R.M.P. The Desert Mounted Corps. London:
 Constable and Co, 1921.
11) Robertson, John. Anzac and Empire. The Tragedy and Glory of Gallipoli. Port Melbourne, Vic: Hamlyn, 1990.


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