Walter Robert Hartnett of the Australian Light Horse Regiment
On Wednesday 5th August 1914 Australians awoke to the news that their country was at war. The initial reaction of the public was one of high spirits and eagerness to join the fight. At the start of the war men were rejected by recruiting officers as there were so many to choose from. Walter Robert Hartnett, a 24-year-old from Batlow, New South Wales, like many, was an early volunteer, joining a month after the war broke out. A member of the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment (ALHR), Hartnett was deployed to Egypt and sent to Gallipoli in 1915 as a machine gunner in the campaign against the Turks. The vision of the Australian soldier fighting on the shores of Gallipoli has become embedded in Australia’s psyche as a pivotal moment in its beginnings as a nation.
Enlistment requirements in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) were to be aged between 19 and 38 years, be at least 5ft 6 inches in height and have a chest measuring a minimum of 34 inches. Hartnett met these requirements when he enlisted in Sydney and was sent for training at the Rosebery Military Camp. Hartnett was one of three brothers to join up and while they were all single, this would have impacted on the family left at home, his parents and his younger siblings. Almost 39% of male Australians enlisted to fight in the war. Leaving huge gaps in families with their able-bodied menfolk suddenly leaving their primary role of providing an income, protection and support.
Group portrait of members of the Machine Gun Section, 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment
The Australian Light Horse Regiment
The ALHR was formed at Rosebery Park, comprising men from New South Wales.The regiment sailed on the Star of Victoria in October 1914, arriving in Egypt two months later. Hartnett spent the early part of 1915 with his regiment undergoing intensive training in Egypt. A school teacher, he was only one of many soldiers in the Infantry and Light Horse who had no previous experience in the military.
Members of the 1st and 4th Australian Light Horse.
The Gallipoli Campaign
On a now famous date in April 1915, the Australian’s together with the New Zealand Army landed at Gallipoli. The ALHR was not initially used in Gallipoli because the environment was not suitable for horses. The regiment was sent to Gallipoli without horses to reinforce the AIF mid May 1915, with Hartnett assigned as a machine gunner. Aside from a stint in hospital with colic, he was with the regiment until December 1915. He was extremely lucky to escape death or serious injury as there was a high rate of casualties. The battles fought at the Gallipoli peninsula caused severe losses amongst Australian troops and ended in disaster for the allied forces. Australia lost approximately 8,709 troops with a further 19,441 men being wounded during the Gallipoli campaign.
Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 1915.
Romani, Palestine and Zeitoun
Following evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915, the regiment returned to Egypt to regroup. Hartnett joined the Western Field force in January 1916 to patrol the Nile Valley. The ALHR was involved in preventing the Turkish from infiltrating the Suez Canal zone at Romani. Their work caused the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Sinai. At this time, Hartnett served with a machine gun squadron, continuing with them into Palestine. Gaining several field promotions in this unit, to Lance Sergeant. His Captain noting “Hartnett was keen and worthy of future promotion”. Hartnett was admitted to the Rest camp at Port Said, for some days. Perhaps he was run down, the reason given for other soldiers’ admittance to the camp. Hartnett returned to his unit for the successful attack in October 1917 on Beersheba, part of a strategic line of defence in Palestine. Hartnett was sent to the cadet school at Zeitoun, following a decision to provide formal training for potential officers and after qualifying for commission was appointed as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1918.
With The Light Horse Brigade In Palestine
While the soldiers were returned home after the war to families and friends, their horses were not destined to do so. The fitter horses were transferred to Indian Cavalry, leaving the remainder to be killed. Hartnett returned to Australia at the end of hostilities,as did his brother Henry while another brother John was killed in France. Hartnett would later marry and have a daughter. Out of approximately 400,000 enlistments, 60,000 Australians lost their lives in the Great War with another 180,000 returning home with injuries.
Memoir by Walter's brother Hartnett who also served in WW1
Harry's diaries recorded the events as he experienced them at the front as a soldier in the first world war. This memoir was written from these forbidden diaries which he had kept hidden while he served. They were later used in writing up official histories of the unit he served in and used in general by CW Bean official Australian historian. Harry's experience would have been shared by many of those who took part in the war.
8,000 Australians died at Gallipoli
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© 2018 Jen Wood