REMEMBERING BILL THE BASTARD
A WALER AND ONE OF THE BEST
© Irene Dalgety Timpone
Winner, Open Bush Poetry Section and ‘Babes of Walloon’ overall award, 2020 Ipswich Poetry Feast, Ipswich, Queensland.
Two pencil pines, like sentinels, in far Gallipoli,
stand guard beside a lonely grave that rouses poignancy.
There’s sympathy for one long-gone, though few might know of Bill,
Australia’s greatest war-horse, one of solid iron will;
but Bill the Bastard looms above all others of his kind,
and represents the thousands left so cruelly behind.
Bill symbolises, too, the bond between a man and horse
when Light Horse troops and Walers followed war’s most deadly course.
Beyond Bill’s grave, atop each ridge, the fallen Anzacs lie,
the headstones bearing epitaphs exposed to foreign sky:
and, sad to say, so many there, are nameless, where they fell –
like Bill, who saw them come and go, they had grim tales to tell.
The massive, chestnut Waler, one whose fame had known no bounds,
at War’s end – new assignment – travelled back to Anzac grounds.
Bill’s headstone gives his name and ‘rank’, a full identity,
inspiring countless visitors to seek his history…
Bill gained attention readily throughout ‘enlistment’ days,
impressing with gigantic size and wily, strong-willed ways.
He bucked off all would-be recruits, then gave a taunting sneer
which earned the ‘Bastard’ accolade that tended to endear
the roguish rascal to the hearts of horsemen, far and wide,
inspiring ‘Bill the Bastard’ yarns the troops would tell with pride.
Bill’s legend grew, his exploits told by men of rank and fame –
before long, he knew men of note whose mateship he could claim.
En route to war, aboard the ship, Bill made one special friend,
Horse-Master, Banjo Paterson, his mate till battles’ end.
Now, Banjo had an old-school pal, Lieutenant H. Chauvel
who came to be amazed by Bill, in one forsaken hell –
Bill caught his eye, so many times, at work, Gallipoli:
with hefty loads, while under fire, he strode on steadily.
He bore John Simpson from the field – one quickly raised to fame:
John and his donkey, heroes both, became a household name.
Lieutenant Michael Shanahan, best horseman, Allied Force,
soon noticed Bill, reputedly the strongest, fittest horse.
He watched him lugging giant packs up-hill, where duty led,
then plunging down the deep descents with bodies newly dead.
He witnessed, too, Bill’s famous run along the Suvla trail,
in sight of Turkish sniper fire, delivering the mail;
then, riderless, twice shot, distressed, he aced the five-mile task,
a champion, without a doubt – what more could Light Horse ask?
In sick-bay, vets attended Bill, with Shanahan as well:
he’d seen Bill flinch and thought they’d find two bullet-holes to tell
that Bill had raced on, injured, knowing what he had to do.
The soldier yearned to ride that horse – and into battle, too.
Unlike so many, both survived, and left Gallipoli,
evacuated from the Cove – to Egypt – secretly,
and Shanahan was there for Bill, to care, caress, cajole,
to win his heart with gentleness and claim his very soul.
Four months of war inaction let the pair combine as ‘one’,
and Shanahan, now Major, felt the hard work had been done,
that Bill was battle-ready, and that he could trust his mount
in time of fierce action when each move would surely count.
The Oghratina massacre set both of them a test
when Bill, by saving others, proved he was the very best.
When leading out the column, he stopped dead, displayed his fear –
his rider’s reconnoitre showed a deep ravine, too near.
Bill showed he was intuitive, alert both day and night,
protecting well his rider and equipped to stand and fight.
Thus, reassured, the Major, was prepared to lead his men
to battle at Romani – and it didn’t matter when.
The ‘Bastard’ and the Major made an awe-inspiring team
that shared, with all the Light Horse men, the Anzac troopers’ dream
of mighty charges that destroyed the dreaded enemy,
avenging all the Anzacs lost at grim Gallipoli.
By 1.00am, on August 4th, the battle had begun.
Sheer force of greater numbers meant the Turks could over-run
the front lines of the Light Horse; but they kept to Chauvel’s plan
to fight from horseback when they could, and not fight man to man.
The Light Horse staged a planned retreat while noise of battle raged
as mounted troopers, Anzacs all, a mighty struggle waged
against the savage Ottoman who’d crossed the Sinai sand
to take the Suez, Egypt too – they had it all ‘in hand’.
Beside a blood-soaked dune, the Major found four Light Horse men:
their Walers dead, they needed mounts so they could fight again.
By sliding back his booted feet he left the stirrups free.
“Get up on Bill! Get up!” he cried, while Bill stood steadily.
“Here, one each stirrup, two with me.” He gave his mount the rein.
Strong tension in the neck revealed the horse was feeling strain.
Bill’s knees were almost sagging from excessive, jostling weight:
he struggled to stand upright and escape before too late.
With bulging eyes and nostrils flared, Bill gagged and gasped for air,
then felt the Major’s gentle stroke, the touch of loving care.
Advancing foes began to fire. Bill’s passengers did, too.
A guiding hand, a gentle voice, and Bill knew what to do.
That horse had strength and fortitude, great loyalty and pride –
he groaned to match each painful step; but settled into stride.
He carried five men and their gear two miles that fateful night,
a measure of his courage and his super-equine might.
For Shanahan and his mate, Bill, their work would not be done
until the dawn when help would come – Romani would be won!
The mighty team fought six long hours against prolonged attack,
inspiring fellow Light Horse men to fight while edging back.
The Major, gravely wounded, slumped straight forward on his steed:
with no commands, no signal-touch, Bill sensed his rider’s need.
The Major was unconscious; but Bill understood the case –
with level canter, smooth and safe, he took him back to base.
With light of day, fresh Anzacs fought, and tide of battle turned.
The enemy were parched with thirst: the sand and sun both burned.
The Turks’ attack had been repelled. They scurried in retreat;
but other battles would be fought before their next defeat.
A left-leg amputation took the Major from the war,
and Bill became a packhorse, just as he had been before.
No guiding hand upon his neck, no Major on his back,
Bill galloped on for glory, guns and bullets in his pack…
In Harden - Murrumburrah, Bill the Bastard strides once more,
a hero resurrected and retrieved from tales of yore:
skilled hands of Carl Valerius revived Bill’s claim to fame
with focus on his history, his near-forgotten name.
The statue is a work of Art, its stark reality
a credit to the sculptor’s craft and his integrity.
There, borne upon Bill’s huge, bronzed frame, four Light Horse men to save,
and Shanahan, the Major, always selfless, strong and brave.
Bonds forged in heat of wartime never break and cannot fray –
the greatest horseman, strongest horse, they live again, today.
They symbolise the iron bonds once wrought in fires of war:
between a trooper and his horse, they last for ever more.
United, in their finest hour, but deepest agony,
they fought, as one, for freedom and for our democracy.
The massive, classic cenotaph fills patriots with awe,
reminds them all of wars long-gone, what we were fighting for…
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