Midnight jumps the Ottoman trench in a dramatic recreation from the TV documentary Australia's Great War Horse.
Midnight jumps the Ottoman trench in a dramatic recreation from the TV documentary Australia's Great War Horse. ABC

Waler’s tragic tale told in new TV doco

TALES of heroism from the First World War are not limited to Anzac men and women.

The Walers of the Australian Light Horse bravely ran into gunfire and often helped to retrieve wounded men from the battlefield.

But the story of the 130,000 Australian horses which served in The Great War is ultimately a tragic one.

A new ABC documentary aims to shed light on the forgotten stories of these animals, none of which returned home.

"The idea was to try to capture the beauty of the horse and celebrate the horse," director Russell Vines told APN.

"As soon as you start filming horses, you realise they're the most amazing animals."

Australia's Great War Horse documents the journey of Outback-hardened Walers across the Indian Ocean to the pyramids of Egypt, Gallipoli and the Middle East's unforgiving desert sands.

The Lancelin sand dunes in Western Australia double for the legendary charge of the fourth Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba.

Vines and producer Marian Bartsch travelled to the Middle East to capture footage of landscapes to combine with Australian-filmed horses and actors for the documentary's recreations.

"We used the modern technique of compositing and marrying two worlds together, so in the film you'll see a column of horses moving through sand dunes," Vines said.

Producer Marian Bartsch, director Russell Vines and special effects supervisor Bruce Flint pictured on the set of Australia's Great War Horse, filming a charge scene at Lancelin Sand Dunes in WA.
Producer Marian Bartsch, director Russell Vines and special effects supervisor Bruce Flint pictured on the set of Australia's Great War Horse, filming a charge scene at Lancelin Sand Dunes in WA. ABC

"They'll be the sand dunes north of Perth, but in the background you'll see mountain ranges from Israel."

The re-enactments are combined with archival footage and interviews with the descendants.

The film homes in on two celebrated partnerships - Michael Shanahan and Bill the Bastard, and Guy Haydon and Midnight.

Bill the Bastard famously carried five men out of the Battle of Romani.

Research also uncovered a long-lost document - the letter of surrender of the city of Damascus accepted by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Olden of the 10th Light Horse.

 "We were trying to find the name of the horse that Olden had ridden and through the process we found those letters. We didn't know what they were," Vines said.

"It was a huge surprise… they'd never been made public before. They'd been sitting in a shoebox for 100 years.

"That history has been washed over by the legend of Lawrence (of Arabia). To have the actual documents, the artefact that could drive home that truth, was the power in the story."

The documentary finishes, as it must, on a sombre note. Despite their gallant service, Australia's war horses could not be brought back home.

"There is that special relationship humans have with horses," Vines said.

"I think the tragedy of it really drives home the futility of war.

"The poor old horse had no say in it, yet they went through all the rigors of the campaign and then were all shot or sold off as a result.

"It's very sad when you look at it that way.

"It's a real privilege to have the opportunity to make a film at this time (Anzac centenary) and be able to tell that history in a slightly different way."

Australia's Great War Horse airs tomorrow at 7.40pm on ABC1.



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