Australia’s greatest war-horse was the unlikeliest of heroes -

Australia’s greatest war-horse was the unlikeliest of heroes

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Two elderly men with grey hair stand in front of a bronze horse statue and smile for photo.

Australia’s greatest war-horse was the unlikeliest of heroes.

The big, partly broken-in stallion played up so badly while being loaded onto the troop ship he was nearly left behind in Australia.

On arrival in Egypt, he was declared unrideable and given an unflattering nickname.

“He was called Bill the Bastard because no man could mount him and ride him. He threw them off, he didn’t just smash them into the ground, he put them into orbit,” historian Roland Perry said.

So the 17.1-hand chestnut was put to work as a packhorse at Gallipoli.

“When Simpson died, Simpson and his donkey, it was Bill that brought him down from the heights,” Mr Perry said.

While Bill was recovering from bullet wounds to the rump, Terry’s horse-whispering grandfather Major Michael Shanahan won Bill over with kindness and licorice allsorts.

“He helped the vet nurse him, he took him into the water at Gallipoli and when they all got back to Egypt he fought very hard to get Bill as a match,” Mr Shanahan said.

Australian poet Banjo Paterson headed the Remount Service there and was reluctant to hand Bill over to Major Shanahan.

He had been making “a few pounds” betting how long soldiers could stay on bucking Bill.

Black and white image of a soldier in his army uniform sits on his horse.

“Eventually granddad took him out into the desert and came back half an hour later and he was as placid as anything, he was the only bloke who could ever get on Bill,” said Mr Shanahan.

It was at the Battle of Romani in 1916 where Bill and the Major made an astonishing and little-known rescue galloping towards advancing Turkish soldiers to save four comrades.

“Four Tasmanian troopers had their horses shot from under them so they’re left stranded in no-man’s-land,” Roland Perry recounts.

“Major Shanahan got them up onto Bill, he had this reputation of being a pretty ornery horse, how would he cope with five human beings on him?”

“Under Shanahan’s calm direction he took the five of them off.”

Incredibly, Bill and the Major returned immediately to battle.

“Shanahan keeps on battling Turks, then he collapses because he’s been shot in the leg and Bill walks him slowly back to the horse depot.”

Black and white image of a veteran sitting with nurses in a hospital after having his leg amputated.
Michael Shanahan in a UK hospital after being shot in the leg in combat. (Supplied: Terry Shanahan )

Major Shanahan’s leg was amputated. He was sent to England, never to see Bill again.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order, while Bill’s reward was to be decommissioned, never to carry a soldier into battle again.

‘Retreat from Romani’ memorialised

Roland Perry’s book ‘Bill the Bastard’ inspired sculptor Carl Valerius to recreate the daring ride of Bill and the Major in bronze.

Fittingly, Mr Valerius lives in Murrumburrah, north west of Canberra, where in 1897 the first Light Horse Troop was raised to fight in the Boer War.

It’s taken him nine years to capture Retreat from Romani, the moment when Bill and the Major carried four troopers to safety.

A bronze statue of 'Bill the Bastard' and his rider Michael Shanahan shows the horse with an open mouth
A bronze statue of ‘Bill the Bastard’ and his rider Michael Shanahan.

It’s no mistake that the statue features a loose rein.

Mr Valerius explained, “The loose rein is trust ‘C’mon Bill we can do this, you can do it, you can come up under five you have never taken anyone but me’.”

“I tried to get the expressions in the face, that little moment of belief that ‘yes we are going to get out of here, we are going to be OK’.

“What an incredible ask of an animal, but he seemed to know the circumstances in which he found himself, and the trust he had in the Major was incredible, the same as the trust the Major had in the horse, it’s not a one-way thing it’s a two-way thing.”

An elderly man with grey hair works with clay to make a round piece.
Sculptor Carl Valerius at work. 

A local vet gave Mr Valerius horse bones so he could get the life-sized sculpture right.

“It has a skeleton underneath it, it was made with every bone correct for 17 one hands, it moved like a real horse.”

The $780,000 needed to fund the statue came from the Valerius family, state and federal government grants and public donations.

The statue will soon stand in Murrumburrah’s main street, but Mr Valerius’s studio has already hosted hundreds of visitors who want to pat Bill and hear about that rescue.

Hilltops councillor Chris Manchester said there has been widespread interest from around Australia.

“I believe someone has bought the rights to the book, hopefully one day it will be a movie and it will put the town even further on the map.”

Very few war horses returned to Australia. Most were shot to save them from a life of misery after the war.

Bill escaped that fate. He returned once again to Gallipoli as a packhorse to assist soldiers collecting battlefield artefacts.

It’s believed he lived out his life with Turkish farmers, who were warned never to put anyone on his back.

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