Bill The Bastard, Australia's Greatest War Horse

Bill was massive. He had power, intelligence and unmatched courage. In performance and character he stood above all the other 200,000 Australian horses sent to the Middle East in the Great War. But as war horses go he had one serious problem. No one could ride him but one man - Major Michael Shanahan. Some even thought Bill took a sneering pleasure in watching would-be riders hit the dust.

Bill the Bastard is the remarkable tale of a bond between a determined trooper and his stoic but cantankerous mount. They fought together. They depended on each other for their survival. And when the chips were down, Bill's heroic efforts and exceptional instincts in battle saved the lives of Shanahan and four of his men. By September 1918, 'Bill the Bastard' was known by the entire Light Horse force, who used his name not as an insult, but as a term of endearment. Bill had become a legend, a symbol of the courage and unbreakable will of the Anzac mounted force. There was no other horse like Bill the Bastard.

Bill The Bastard Book Review By Natalie Heslop

No longer am I in the minority of ignorant Australian’s that have no idea about “Gallipoli”, thanks to the remarkable and endearing tale of, “Bill the Bastard”. I now have a new respect for horses and Australian war heroes, through reading the tribulations experienced at Gallipoli, a war that broke “Australia’s naivety” & all romanticised notions of heroic war tales set in the minds of Australia’s emerging army.

Renowned author, Roland Perry bares all with familiar Australian wit and dry humour, exposing our attitude towards the enemy and even towards our British counterparts not to mention the gripping dangers tragically encountered amongst our respected war veterans. This action packed tale is amazingly centred around the book’s central character, “Bill the Bastard” the endearing name bestowed to arguably the greatest war horse in history. No other war horse compares to this “stoic but cantankerous” character. “Bill the Bastard”, was a horse respected by all countries who were graced with the legend of this independent yet powerful stallion.

Many a prayer were uttered by the naive riders to buckle against the horse all of whom were ceremoniously thrown off  and with pride also thrown away, all riders were guaranteed to receive Bill’s infamous sneer much to the entertainment of the generals observing who predicted the outcome for each rider, so much so bets were often collected as to how many seconds each rider would stay on.

All was set to change for Bill the Bastard upon … The romance between the glamorous and respected vet, Kath Phelan and (horse whisperer), Major Michael Shanahan the only one to be able to heroically succeed in dealing with, “Bill the Bastard” providing the right balance of smouldering tension amidst the backdrop of World War 1.

Having finished this unique tale, I was left wanting more and dare I say I hope there is a sequel..stay tuned!

Roland Perry at the Griffith Readers Festival 2013

Roland Perry was next, speaking to promote his 27th book Bill The Bastard. Perry was the stand-out speaker of the day as he actively sought to engage his audience, constantly scanning the crowd and responding to their body language in a way that made his delivery more like a conversation.

The titular Bastard was one of over 200,000 horses sent from Australia to assist in the first world war, which had included around 1,100,000 such animals. Bill was something of a mongrel with "the legs of a thoroughbred and the body of a draught horse". His cantankerous disposition was due to being handled roughly and branded early in life, leaving a deep mistrust of humans.

"Bill was used almost as a cynical joke to test the city-folk who wanted to join the lighthorsemen," explained Perry. Sent to war, the horse worked on the mail run at Gallipoli. It was such a dangerous task that Australian and British soldiers would cease fighting to place bets on the likelihood of success each day.

Major Michael Shanahan was impressed by Bill and decided to make him a warhorse and spent three months breaking him. Perry noted it wasn't widely known that poet Banjo Patterson oversaw 800 breakers during the war.

Bill's most distinguished service was in the General Sir Henry George Chauvel-led offensive against the Turks in the Sinai desert:

His greatest feat was to save the lives of his master and four other men who clambered on him to escape at the battle of Romani in the Sinai on 4 August 1916. After cantering, under fire, several miles to Australian lines (and using his hooves to cave in the chests of two Turks who tried to shoot him) he took a drink and pawed the ground, indicating he wanted to return to the action. The Turks were massacring prisoners and he undoubtedly saved the five men. When Shanahan was unconscious with one leg smashed by a bullet, Bill carried him gently and without directions several miles to an aid post.

Around this point Roland Perry stopped to comment. "What I am looking for in all my books is the narrative and the characters." Bill the Bastard brought together both and I often think the best dramas have a backdrop of intense social upheaval, like war.

Perry spoke about his forthcoming book about a dog that served in the second world war, making it clear that he wasn't aiming to be known for writing about animals serving in combat. He indicated toward Peter Rees and said, "we're looking always for the human content in war" and I guess the relationships of humans with animals adds further interest, as well as humanising history in an engaging way.

After some discussion of the authors works outside of war history, Perry made an observation about his motivation to write:

"You've got to have a passion for the subject matter. You're on your own and you have to feel very strongly about the subject" to get through the process of writing a book. "You must not be motivated by what is popular."

It was interesting that Perry shared how happy he was to have written a book that interested female readers. Cynically one could suggest this is because most buyers of books are women and, looking around the audience at the Readers Festival this seemed to be true. But I'd guess that war is not usually an interest for females, so there was a challenge in that anyway. It got me thinking about Michael Lewis' observation “You never know what book you wrote until you know what book people read”.