Sandy: the only horse to return from the war

8 April 2024 Written by Andrew Lemon

For the Australian Light Horse soldiers who fought during World War I, horses were not only a means of transporting troops and equipment – they were their beloved companions, providing solace and comradeship through the darkness and horror of war. On the hundredth anniversary of his death in 1923, this is the story of Sandy, the only horse to make it home.

During World War I, Australians sent at least 136,000 horses overseas. These horses performed their tasks heroically, despite the harsh conditions and stress of gunfire. They were heavier horses that were used to haul supply wagons, heavy artillery, and ambulances as motor vehicles were not always available or very common. They often travelled long distances with little water. On icy nights in the desert, soldiers would often sleep alongside their horses for warmth and comfort.

Of these magnificent horses, however, only one ever made it. home to Australia – a bay gelding named Sandy.

Sandy, who was 15.2 hands, was the ‘charger’ of Major General Sir William Bridges, commander of the 1st Australian Division at Gallipoli. It was thought that he was chosen because of his gentle temperament.

He was donated by the O’Donnell family from Tallangatta in northeast Victoria, where he was used on their farm for general farm work and domestic use, but also to haul bricks for the family’s brickworks. After the family donated him to the war effort, Sandy became one of 6100 horses to be sent to the peninsula to accompany the ANZAC troops. 

However, once the horses arrived at the peninsula it was decided there was not enough room for them ashore, so they were sent back to Alexandria in Egypt.

Sadly, the horse and his commander were never to be reunited. While Sandy was offshore, General Bridges died, three days after suffering wounds from a sniper attack. His dying wish, historians report, was for Sandy to be returned home to Melbourne after the war.

Fulfilling this wish was not such a simple matter. At the time, Australia’s strict border quarantine meant it was often impossible to bring war animals home. Many of the 13,000 horses that survived the war were transferred as remounts for the Imperial Army. Some older or infirm horses were put down, and some troopers chose to euthanise their own horses rather than have them taken away. While General Bridges was being laid to rest, Sandy was settling into a new life in Egypt under the care of Captain Leslie Whitfield, an Australian Veterinary Corps officer. Captain Whitfield and Sandy remained companions until March 1916, when they were both transferred to the Australian Veterinary Hospital in Calais, France. Here, Sandy was put into the care of his groom, Archibald Jordan, a soldier from Kew in Melbourne who had been classified ‘medically unfit’ some months after he was sent on duty to the Veterinary Hospital in Calais.   

In October of the following year, Senator George Pearce, then the Australian Minister for Defence, ordered Sandy to be returned home to pasture. In May 1918, this plan was at last set into motion, and Sandy was sent to the Remount Depot at Swaythling in the south of England. After three months of veterinary observation, Sandy was declared free of disease and boarded a freighter to Liverpool, before finally setting off toward home. 

Senator Pearce originally wanted Sandy to be sent to Duntroon on his return to Australia, as this is where General Bridges’ grave was (Bridges was the only soldier repatriated from the war, until the unknown soldier in the 1990s, just as Sandy was the only horse to come home). However, due to the economics of sending Sandy to Duntroon and because he had an eye injury (possibly resulting from a shell attack), Sandy was left at Maribyrnong.

Sandy and Private Jordan arrived in Melbourne together in 1918 just as the war ended. 

Back home, Sandy was turned out to graze at the Central Remount Depot at Maribyrnong, a stretch of land in a bend of the Maribyrnong River that was used as a staging point for horses bound for war. For the next six years, he led a calm and peaceful life in the paddocks by the river. 

Unfortunately, his blindness and debility prompted the decision to have him humanely euthanised in 1923. His remains were laid to rest beneath these paddocks. His dedicated groom, Private Jordan, died three months later of tuberculosis (and some believe of a broken heart, such was his devotion and incredible bond with Sandy). He lies in an unmarked grave in Box Hill Cemetery.

The War Museum Committee had Sandy’s head, neck and hooves preserved, as a fitting tribute to the thousands of horses that gave their lives in service. 

If you happen to pass through the grounds of the Maribyrnong Community Centre today, you may notice some lingering traces of Sandy’s legacy. In April 2013, a commemorative plaque was embedded in a carefully prepared stone, beneath the shade of a tree in a grassy picnic area, honouring Sandy and his historic return home. 

In 2017, a new memorial dedicated to Sandy the Light Horse and the Australian Light Horse Brigades was unveiled on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba where four of Australia’s Light Horse Brigades played a pivotal role. Located adjacent to Defence Site Maribyrnong, the memorial was supported by the Australian Government, through the committed group, Friends of Sandy and the Australian Light Horses, and the Maribyrnong City Council.

It serves as a fitting tribute not only to Sandy himself, but to the service and loyalty of all our warhorses, and the role they have played in our country’s history.