Harry Chauvel, who had been knighted and promoted to lieutenant-general, devised a shrewd plan to fool the Turks before the last important thrust to drive them from Palestine, Syria and Arabia. The secret aim was to move his Light Horsed force west to the coast at Jaffa where they would be hidden in orange groves. They would wait for the British infantry to make a shock attack and punch a hole in the Turkish defence forces in Palestine’s north. Then the horsemen would emerge from the orange groves, thrust through the gap in the Turkish lines and ride north. The aim would be to defeat the one enemy army there before sweeping east to take on the second enemy army in Palestine. After that it planned to ride further east and north to tackle the third Turkish army, which was being harassed by Lawrence’s Arabs in Jordan.
Chauvel had to make the Turks believe his force would be staying the Jordan Valley. It was September 1918. His 34,000 horsemen and cavalry would have to succeed, otherwise, when the war ended, the Turks might still be in Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Arabia, which would mean they would retain that territory in a carve-up following an armistice. In effect, the Turks would maintain their dominance in the Middle East, as they had done since the sixteenth century, making the past three years’ effort by the British amount to securing just the Sinai and acquiring southern Palestine.
Part of Chauvel’s ruse was to stage a five-event race meeting near Jericho, not far from the Turkish defences on the Jordan River. The Turks’ scouts and spies would be able to see the build-up to the event. A program was to be printed and distributed in all major towns, and primarily Jerusalem, to make sure that the Turks knew about it.
Chauvel called a meeting at his Jericho HQ days before secretly driving to his HQ at the village of Sarona, five kilometres north of Jaffa on the coast, where he would oversee the build-up of horsemen.
‘The main event should be billed as a Melbourne-Cup style race,’ he told several select officers, ‘but we can’t call it that. It won’t be a handicap event.’
‘How about a cross been Palestine and Melbourne,’ one officer suggested, ‘the Palbourne Cup?’
Chauvel winced. ‘Bit insipid and obscure,’ he replied, ‘need a bit of alliteration. Something like ‘The Cairo Cup’.’
‘The Jericho Cup?’ a second officer proffered.
‘That’s better. It has a sweet ring to it. That name also lets the Turks know where it is.’
The Jericho Cup was adopted.
‘And the length?’ Chauvel asked. ‘Must be at least two miles.’
‘Longer,’ another officer suggested. ‘That will mean we can use leaflets saying that the biggest and strongest Walers in the entire force will be tested in the race. Hopefully this will make the enemy believe the authenticity of the event. The Turks would know that our eighty strongest horses would always be in the front line of any attack. If they think they are racing in the east, clearly we could not be planning anything in the west.’
‘Let’s make it three miles then,’ Chauvel decided. ‘Make sure the horses are not watered for, say, twenty-four hours before the event. That will mean they will go harder when they get wind of the well as they head into the straight.’
‘General Allenby has asked that Major Paterson’s big Arabian thoroughbreds be in the event. They would not be in any attack, so that helps.’
‘It would be good to have Bill the Bastard up against them,’ a third officer commented.
Chauvel nodded. ‘I saw him do the dispatch run at Gallipoli. He was strong and covered more than three miles speedily enough. But no one can ride him, except that Aborigine . . . what’s his name, Mullagh?’
‘He hasn‘t stayed on him for very long,’ the third officer remarked. ‘Besides, Major Paterson ordered him not to be used as other than a packhorse, out of respect for his efforts at Romani.’
‘That directive applied only to battle,’ Chauvel corrected, ‘I don’t think it matters if he is in a race.’
‘But could Mullagh last three or four minutes on him?’ the first officer asked.
‘Only one way to fine out,’ Chauvel said.
More than 10,000 spectators-including 5000 British infantry and Indian soldiers, about 1000 Anzacs not required in Jaffa, and 4000 bribed locals-lined the rough dirt and sand track just outside Jericho. The crowd’s size gave the meeting an authenticity. Turks guarding their camps on the Jordan River used binoculars to see the build-up of the spectators. The event promised to be gruelling in the projected 90-degree Fahrenheit temperature in early autumn.
Betting was rife, especially among the Anzacs, and some sizeable wagers were laid out with bookies from as far away as Cairo. Many Light Horsemen, stealthily tucked away at Jaffa and waiting for the order to attack, put money on the Jericho Cup.
The fifth and final race on the program had fifteen starters. The non-Walers were the big Arabian horses owned by Paterson, including Khartoum, Tut 1, Tut 2 and Blackham. Jackie Mullagh agreed to ride Bill the Bastard. Most of the alleged ‘smart’ money was on the powerful black stallion Khartoum. He had the fastest times by far over the Melbourne Cup distance of two miles and had been clocked and trained over this distance for two years. The next best times had been scored, in order, by Blackham the white mare, Tut 1 the gelding and Tut 2 the stallion. Two stayers from South Africa had been able to clock faster times than the remaining nine starters. Bill had never been timed with a jockey on him and the only guide was his Gallipoli despatch run, but that had been without a rider for most of the distance.
The Jericho Cup was not a handicap race so Khartoum, who carried an ex-professional Sydney jockey, was the out and out favourite. By the beginning of the event punters could not put a bet on him. Bookies, some experienced operators from Melbourne and Sydney, had never seen such a huge plunge in percentage terms compared to other competitors. There was one bet of 750 pounds from Cairo, and the bookies suspected a former owner of Khartoum in play. Some wagers were around 50 quid, a year's income for a serviceman.
Some spectators wandered close to the ‘track’, which was a crescent shape running the three miles. Most in the crowd wore headgear to protect them from the sun and sat on sand mounds around the course. Some found meagre shade from palms at the only oasis, where a well dispensed water about fifty metres beyond the finish line. A make-shift horse trough was set up for the thirsty competitors after they reached the line.
The first four races were largely non-events. Some horses gave up before the end of the mile races, others crashed into each other. Two went lame struggling over the sand and had to be shot. One was bitten by a scorpion and had to be retired for treatment while another poor mare appeared to have been bitten an asp and collapsed. A trooper arrived with a rifle to put it down but the animal died before he could take aim.
The crowd seemed listless and disinterested, except for the Anzacs, who were betting on every race. Against orders, many of the troopers had alcohol and were becoming boisterous, then obstreperous, in the trying heat. Fights broke out. Military police waded into the crowd near the finishing post and made a dozen arrests.
Meanwhile Paterson sat in his office at Moascar with about forty trainers crowded around a cable machine which would send a placings report for each minute of the Jericho Cup. At Jaffa, hundreds of troopers hovered near the officers’ HQ waiting for word on the first three place-getters.
At 6 pm in the Jordan Valley the heat had been taken out of the day and the humidity was at its lowest. The fifteen starters in the Jericho Cup variously sauntered, trotted, pranced and cantered to the start line. There were no stalls, just a taut rope across the track which would be dropped when signalled by the starter’s revolver.
Mullagh was the only jockey to ride bareback. In the scores of truncated rides he had had on Bill, he found this was the best way to go. He was also the only rider not to mount up on the way to the start line. An officer acting as the chief steward asked him why he had not done so.
‘I can’t risk it,’ Mullagh said, clearly suffering from nerves. ‘I don’t want him to bolt before the race begins.’
Mullagh had walked Bill for an hour at dawn. He had taken him for a nailbiting short run of about a furlong before a long drink and a further relaxing walk. His lungs were opened. While the other races were on Mullagh had walked him a third time and had risked another ride, a quick second furlong dash.
One writer to record the event was the author and cricket specialist A Sumner Reed, who had covered the Melbourne races when a junior reporter at the Herald. He was a member of the brigade’s brass band, which had struck up before each race. After drumming in the earlier events, the balding 50-year-old Anglo-Australian retired to write a full report on the event. He positioned himself on horseback halfway around the course and took notes, which he would have typed up for posterity. He, like all the other onlookers, had no idea that the race was part of a ruse to fool the Turks into a false sense of security.
Reed was intrigued by all the impressive thoroughbreds but planned to watch Bill the Bastard with particular interest. He had seen quite big side-bets put on the distance that the big Waler would travel before he removed his jockey. Most picked the first half-mile for Mullagh’s dislodgement.
Just before the betting books were closed at 6 pm a gentle plunge was placed from Jaffa by Chook Mulherin, who put ten pounds on Bill at 50 to 1. He had placed the bet ten hours earlier in a cable dispatch to Jericho HQ and it had just reached the bookie concerned.
The bookie with a booming voice laughed at the bet. ‘This is the second bet I’ve taken for the Bastard to finish the race with the jockey still on ’im!’ he roared to a fellow bookie a few yards away. ‘The rest are on where he will buck his rider off, with the exception bein’ the bloody jockey himself! Mullagh put a fiver on. Felt sorry for him and gave him 50 to 1.’
‘Is he allowed to be on himself?’
‘Only if he reckons he’ll stay on.’
They both laughed.
The stewards began to line up the horses as best they could.
‘Get on him or I’ll disqualify him,’ the chief steward ordered Mullagh.
In between exercises, Bill had been quite gentle all day but that meant nothing with his mercurial character. Mullagh kept on eye on Khartoum, knowing that these two had a ‘history’. The big black stallion was near the ‘fence’, or left of the track. Mullagh took Bill to the far side, where no other jockey wanted to be. Then he took a breath and mounted him. Bill remained impassive. Mullagh patted him.
Bill wandered up to the line. Ringing in Mullagh’s ears were Shanahan’s words of advice two years earlier: ‘Show Bill respect all the time and he will give it back, most of the time . . . Never hit him or yell at him. Keep a long rein. Don’t jerk him ever, but be firm. Let him know what you want. If he is feeling good, he will do some if not all of what you want . . . Never dig a stirrup into him. Use a gentle heel. Heel and hands, that’s what he responds to. Sweet words of praise in his ear never hurt. He knows your voice. Stroke his mane. You must have an inner rapport with Bill. . . He has to believe in you . . . Remember, this animal is the smartest four-legged anything that you will ever meet . . . Respect his intelligence . . . Embrace it and give it a chance to breathe and create . . .’
Mullagh looked along the line-up and noticed he was the only rider without a whip. The starter’s gun fired and the horses began raggedly. Mullagh used a feather-touch of his hand on Bill, who responded by building slowly from a light gallop to something resembling an interest in being in touch with the field. Khartoum blazed to the lead early, followed by Tut 1 and Blackham. Tut 2 was in a difficult mood and well back in the field after the first two furlongs.
Mullagh kept up an encouraging chat in Bill’s ear but tried not to sound too urgent. He lifted himself off the horse’s back to give Bill some sense of freedom from his rider. Mullagh recalled Shanahan telling him: ‘He is used to me and he accepts my weight, my presence. But if you are on him, try to make it seem as if you are not on him, like a jockey. It will help.’
Bill was running second last as they passed the rough first mile post marked by two palm trees near a disused well. Mullagh kept his head down, only looking up to see how far behind he was. All the horses were finding the going tough. The track was ‘heavy’, not from rain but the occasional thick layers of sand that made it a plough for every runner. Bill was pulling through well but his pace was slow. At a mile and two furlongs he was neck and neck for last place. The next furlong was very slow, even for the front runner Khartoum, who was forty metres in front of Tut 1 and Blackham, fighting out second place. The sand was deep and soft. All the horses pushed hard. The whips were out everywhere.
A Sumner Reed had positioned himself high on a sand-hill at the halfway mark. He could see the complete field. He used binoculars to watch Bill and noticed that Mullagh was stroking his neck all through the tough plough of that stretch. Bill was pulling harder than any horse. He pounded past six competitors and was running eighth when they all emerged onto red dirt. Reed saw something else from his vantage point. Bill was the only horse moving at pace. He was making up ground on the middle bunch. Reed pushed his horse down the slope and was galloping ahead of the front runners on a flat stretch next to the track. He reached the two mile point and looked back. Khartoum had stretched his lead to fifty metres but, like all the runners, he was struggling. He had done his training length run of the Melbourne Cup and seemed to be slackening off. His jockey was using the whip so much that the horse seemed distracted. The same applied to Tut 1 and Tut 2, who were gaining on the leader. The rider on Blackham was the only one not using the whip apart from Mullagh. Reed stopped to take notes. He scribbled ‘Bill, Fifth-one mile to go’. He watched as Bill grunted past, his nostrils flaring and pulling in the oxygen for his big lungs. Mullagh was hanging on, his derriere well above Bill’s back. Reed galloped on but could not keep pace with the front runners.
At two miles and a furlong, Khartoum was being challenged by Tut 2, who had settled down and was running on better than the others.
Mullagh felt in harmony with Bill for the first time in perhaps all their rides. The race had now been going for more than three minutes and Bill had not attempted even a playful buck. He seemed to be concentrating on what was ahead. At two-and-a-half miles, Bill was still running fifth. He could smell the water. Mullagh had given him a fair drink in the morning, although this had been against the race guidelines, which had suggested that a horse would run better without water for a day.
At two miles, five furlongs the front runners had bunched. Khartoum was still in the lead but by only two lengths, with Blackham second, Tut 2 third and Tut 1 fourth. Bill was a further three lengths behind, but Reed reckoned Bill had moved faster than any horse over the past mile. His tremendous strength was beginning to tell.
Half the spectators were bunched around the finishing tape three furlongs away. Their animated cheering could be heard floating over the thick evening air. Two furlongs from the finish, Blackham and Khartoum were neck and neck. Blackham’s jockey was using the whip for the first time. Bill had caught Tut 1 and Tut 2. Mullagh felt a thrill up his spine as he realized Bill was actually trying to pace and beat the others, something not evident in the race until this moment. Bill was being his unpredictable self. One furlong out, the desert evening air carried the roar as Bill burnt off Tut 1 and Tut 2. Mullagh was too nervous to urge him on overly hard for fear of a sudden turn-off, but he heard himself say close to Bill’s ear: ‘C’mon, Bill you Bastard! You can take that big black bugger!’
Khartoum had Blackham beaten 110 metres from the line. Bill moved up and took the game mare too. Khartoum was now only a length in front. Bill moved up close. They were neck and neck as the tape came into view. Bill swerved close and the move seemed to startle Khartoum, who may have had memories of Bill’s attack three years earlier. Fifty metres from the line, Bill’s head was down, his tail straight out. Mullagh now was just riding him without any control at all. Bill edged half a length in front at the tape.
The cheering was more for the excitement of the competitive finish than the joy of anyone backing a winner. Hundreds of spectators looked on in disbelief as Bill, Khartoum and the others thundered by and were directed towards the water trough. Mullagh tried to pull Bill up but he charged past the trough and straight up a high sand dune. He reached the crest and stopped, sweating and snorting. Mullagh could feel the horse’s mighty heart pounding. He expected Bill to attempt to throw him, but instead he stood pawing the sand and settling himself after such an effort. Mullagh waited for a minute. Bill walked along the crest, as if in triumph at his feat. Mullagh eased him down the slope. Close to the trough, Mullagh relaxed, but just as he did, Bill reared up, catching his jockey by surprise. Mullagh was thrown off. He landed awkwardly, twisting his ankle. It brought a roar of laughter from the onlookers near the trough. Mullagh hobbled about cursing and then limped up to Bill.
‘You just had to show me who was boss, didn’t you?’ Mullagh said as he led Bill to the water. A swarm of spectators congratulated Mullagh. He kept patting Bill as he drank.
‘It wasn’t me,’ he repeated to well-wishers, ‘it was Bill. He ran his own race. I was only there for the ride.’
The crowd admired his modesty, even though Mullagh protested that he meant what he said. Seconds later, he received a surprise when the bookie with whom he had placed the bet sidled up beside him. He shook hands with Mullagh, who felt a rolled-up envelope being pushed into his palm. It contained 250 pounds.
‘Put that in your pocket and don’t say nothin’ to no one, young man,’ the bookie said out of the corner of his mouth. Mullagh digested the emphatic triple negative and pocketed the money.
A hundred kilometres west on the coast at Sarona HQ, a cable operator confirmed the placings: 1, Bill the Bastard; 2, Khartoum; 3, Blackham; and 4, Tut 2.
‘I’ve won five hundred quid!’ Mulherin said to Legg as they wandered back to their camp in the groves. ‘That big, beautiful neddie!’
‘Jeez! That’s enough to buy a couple of good bush properties back home,’ Legg said.
‘I’m going to kiss Mullagh when I see him! How did he bloody well do it?’
‘Kiss the major too,’ Legg said. ‘He taught Mullagh how to handle Bill.’
‘And you can kiss Bill for me!’
They reached their tents as night fell and were greeted by a major.
‘Get some rest, you blokes,’ he said. ‘We are moving out after midnight.’
Chauvel’s ruse had worked. The Turks believed that the cavalry/Light Horse thrust would be in the east and not the west. Captured enemy intelligence maps as late as 10 am on 18 September, the day of the Jericho Cup meeting, showed that the Australian mounted division and British cavalry were still thought to be at the base in Jericho, close to where the Cup race was held.
Learning this, Chauvel decided now was the time to strike.
Darkness turned the lazy country side east of Jaffa into a seething mass of movement under moonlit skies. The artillery, cars, men, horses, camels and mules brought up to the front in the last few hours jammed every thoroughfare going north. Silence was imposed, although the creaking of wagons, purr of lorries, crunch of boots on metallic roads and the odd groan of the camels and whinnying of the horses could not be avoided.
The moon set at 4 am on 19 September 1918 as British troops made their last-minute adjustments to weapons and gear. A half-hour later they attacked on a thirteen-kilometre front in from the coast and confronted the Turks less than two kilometres away. They breached enemy lines and the cavalry and Light Horse rode through the gap.
Chauvel’s force galloped eighty kilometres on 19 September and took a key Turkish communications centre and rail junction at El Afule. He just missed capturing the senior German commander Liman von Sanders, who had been behind the Turkish stand at Gallipoli and was now running the two Turkish armies in Palestine. He escaped the town of Nazareth in his pyjamas, chauffeured out in a Mercedes.
The Turks were in disarray and on the run north-west with Chauvel’s horsemen in hot pursuit.
(end of chapter)
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