Major Michael Shanahan came from Roma in Queensland. He was the type of leader you would want to serve under when fighting a war. He was courageous and always put the safety of his men before his own. He would never willingly put them in an impossible situation. He led from the front and put himself at risk to pull injured men to safety. Although a carpenter by trade, he was an excellent horseman. He survived Gallipoli and it was there that he noticed a pack horse with amazing strength and endurance.
Bill the Bastard, as he was affectionately known, was a huge 730 kg horse with a cantankerous nature. Bill did not mind hauling 400 kg of heavy equipment uphill or carrying the injured down the hill (one of whom was the famous John Simpson), but he objected vigorously to anyone trying to ride him. Men placed bets on how long anyone could stay on him. The record was a mere two minutes and thirteen seconds by a British jockey who had ridden cup race horses. The average was fifteen seconds! He was indeed a handful for even the most experienced and best horse handlers. Bill would buck, kick and bite and caused many broken bones and other injuries as he threw his charges off. He was considered unrideable but useful in other ways because of his strength. He could run for five to six hours where other horses tired in thirty minutes.
Shanahan was impressed with Bill’s physical abilities, intelligence and determined character and decided to befriend the horse. He always carried treats (licorice allsorts) in his pocket and developed an understanding for the way Bill thought. Today Major Shanahan would be called a horse whisperer, but at that time there was no such term for a horse breaker. Back in Egypt, Shanahan gradually managed to coerce the horse into allowing him, but only him, onto his back. When called into the battle at Romani as part of the 2nd Light Horse regiment, it was Bill that Shanahan was riding. He was still unsure if Bill would revert to his previous behaviour at the battle front, but Shanahan had no more time to train him further.
Called to the front line, Shanahan rode up and down the lines encouraging and covering his men, dodging bullets and checking for any injured. At one point, when some of his men had been outflanked, he rode through the line of fire and heard a groan. He went to find the injured man and instead found four men without any horses to enable their escape. With shots exploding around him, he loaded two into the saddle with him and the other two, with one foot in each stirrup. Bill, carrying 380 kg of human cargo plus equipment, cantered 1.2 km through soft sand to carry the five men to safety, away from certain death. After a good drink, Bill was pawing the ground to go back for more action! Unwilling to leave his men without their leader, Shanahan returned to the battleground.
Shortly after, he was shot through the leg. Despite this, he kept going for another hour, encouraging his men to push on to victory, until he finally passed out.
Bill became aware that he was not receiving commands from his rider. Realising that he was in trouble, he now gently trotted back to camp, delivering his master to none other than the veterinary hospital! For his gallantry on this day, Shanahan was awarded a Distinguished Service Order but his injuries were so severe that part of his leg had to be amputated. Had there been a Victoria Cross for horses, Bill surely earned it that day. Bill’s heroism made him the most famous and respected horse amongst the thousands of horses recruited to serve the Light Horse troops.
- Bill the Bastard statue, Murrumburrah, NSW, Australia – Google Bill the Bastard statue – www.iwvpa.net
- Michael Shanahan in hospital – Australian War Memorial photo AWM P03088.008
The Big Diversion Race
Before the Megiddo Sweep, General Allenby conducted a massive deception plan to conceal his intended place of attack near the Mediterranean coast. According to Roland Perry1, on September 18, 1918, to keep the enemy focus on the Jordan Valley in the east, a horse race was to take place which they called the ‘Jericho Cup’. It was run over a distance of three miles (4.8 km) making it longer than the Melbourne Cup which is two miles (3.2 km). Other races were scheduled for that day also but this was the final big event that was to be an endurance test for the best horses not needed in the next day’s race, featuring five great Arabian horses. Ten thousand people were assembled to watch the event and the last race was to begin at 6 pm. The hot favourite was Khartoum. Bets were placed on who would win, and since Bill the Bastard was also in the race, there were bets taken on how long his rider, Aboriginal horse-handler Jackie Mullagh, could stay on. Most thought he would not last past the first half-mile. Unlike the other riders, Mullagh had opted to ride bareback and use no whip. Through his mind went all the advice that his mentor, Michael Shanahan, had given him about how to handle this grand strong-willed horse, which had been retired to packhorse duties after Shanahan’s injuries had forced him to retire from active duty.
After the first mile Bill was running second-last from 15 starters but Mullagh was still on. The next mile was difficult with soft sandy patches that slowed the horses down, but Bill ploughed through and emerged in eighth place which he reduced to fifth by the two mile mark. Khartoum was well ahead but losing pace. Blackham levelled 400 metres from the finish and Bill was catching the third and fourth placed Arabian horses. He was now within a whiff of the water trough – the prize at the finish line. Khartoum outpaced Blackham 110 metres from the finish but Bill was now at his tail, and running his own race. With the finishing tape in view, he levelled and moved close to Khartoum to make his presence felt, then pulled ahead, winning by a half length. The exciting finish delighted the crowd and emptied many pockets. Few punters had bet that Mullagh could last the distance of three or four minutes, let alone win, but Bill seemed to have enjoyed the challenge. While the other horses headed for the water trough, he charged past and on up a sand dune taking his rider for a victory walk. When he descended, he decided he had had enough fun and bucked Mullagh off – just to make sure everyone knew who was in charge! Mullagh, caught by surprise, suffered a twisted ankle, but it gave the crowd a good laugh.
All this purposely took place in full view of the Turkish outpost just across the River Jordon. With all this activity, and such a crowd amassed, never did they imagine what was to come the following morning, when the surprise attack – the Big Race - began.
- 1. Perry, R., Bill the Bastard, Allen and Unwin, 2012, 229-243