The light horseman who refused to abandon his horse

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Faced with the choice of transfer to the camel corps and separation from his horse, or possible demotion in rank, Sergeant Major Thomas Alexander Rankin of the 11th Light Horse Regiment chose the latter.

In his early life, Tom was the classic boy from the bush. Working with and breaking in wild horses in Mitchell sheep country with his father, he was no stranger to hardship and difficult conditions.

As the eldest of five siblings, Tom helped his father track, catch, break, train and sell wild horses for a living—particularly throughout his teenage years when his family was forced to live in a tent during the depression of the 1890s. 

At 23 years of age, Tom served in the Boer War as a trooper in the Queensland Bushmen Regiment of the Australian Mounted Infantry. In 1915, aged 37 and just six months after the death of his wife, Tom joined the army so he could send money to his parents and aunt for the care of his three children.

As a trooper reinforcement to the Australian Light Horse, he arrived in Egypt with his brother, Trooper Gavin Rankin, in December and was posted to the 11th Light Horse regiment.

Uniformed soldiers on camels in front of the Sphinx and a pyramid

In January 1917, the Camel companies that had proven so useful in the desert were expanded to a full brigade. Some men volunteered, but when the brigade was short of a Sergeant Major Tom Rankin was detailed for transfer.

According to Rankin family memoirs, so strong was Tom’s bond with his horse and the men in his squadron that he refused the order and very luckily escaped with only a demotion in rank and a reprimand-but he stayed with his Waler and the 11th Light Horse Regiment.

On 31 October 1917, Tom’s unit stood in first reserve at the Battle of Beersheba. The battle, was one of the most important battles of the Sinai-Palestine campaign, allowing Allied forces to advance into Palestine. It was a great success with 738 Ottoman prisoners captured.

A week later, on 7 November 1917, the British drove the Ottoman forces away from Tel El Sheria.

Fighting was brought to a standstill as enemy forces were able to find cover. The British required assistance and the order came that the 11th and 12th Light Horse Regiments would advance through the ranks of the British to attack the enemy lines.

Hoping for a second ‘Beersheba’, the regiments cantered up the steep tracks toward the Ottomans, but met with machine gun and rifle fire, the leading squadrons were forced to dismount and send their horses back.

Thomas Rankin’s squadron missed the signal to dismount and continued galloping forward with a few hundred enemy soldiers firing at them. This small party of 21 light horsemen spurred straight toward a group of shallow trenches.

Many men and horses were shot down, and when the few left unwounded, including Sergeant Major Thomas Rankin, reached the advanced line, the Turks raised their hands in surrender. The Light Horsemen flung themselves from their saddles to rush in with bayonet. But as they halted, the soldiers who had surrendered, opened fire again at a few yards range.

It was only a matter of seconds before every Australian man and horse were shot down. Eleven were killed and the rest, with the exception of one, were wounded. Sergeant Thomas Alexander Rankin was amongst the dead.

After his death, a small white canvas bag containing two small photographs of his children was sent home. The photos which he kept in his left hand upper tunic pocket, were pierced by three bullet holes.

One hundred years later, Tom’s granddaughter Dianne Rankin, travelled to Israel to participate in the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba commemorations. Ms Rankin laid a wreath on behalf of her family and said it was an incredibly moving experience.

“He [Tom] portrays as a resolute, no nonsense, capable, strong character – a born leader, especially in the desert situation,” Ms Rankin said.

The love of horses did not endure in the next generation of Tom’s family but the tradition of army service did. Dianne’s uncle, Mervyn Rankin, who thoroughly researched and wrote the history of Sergeant Major Thomas Alexander Rankin, joined the armed forces in the Second World War, becoming a Major. Dianne’s father Corporal Bevil Rankin also enlisted and served as a radio operator in Papua New Guinea.

Resources:

The 11th Light Horse and Sergeant Rankin by M.A Rankin.

Volume VII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Sinai and Palestine by H.S.Gullett.