The Real Sandy

Sandy is the name of the horse from my latest historical fiction novel, The Last Light Horse.

Historical fiction blends known history with imaginative leaps. Australian WWI military record-keeping was thorough – for humans. Less is known about individual animals that served over one hundred years ago, even iconic animals like Sandy.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be adding details about the imaginative decisions I made during my research journey, including differing viewpoints about where Sandy was raised and how he came to be Major General Bridges’ favourite horse. More soon.

Sandy’s early years

Sandy hauled bricks in (old) Tallangatta for the O’Donnell family brickworks. In 1956 the original town of Tallangatta was moved 8 km west before the town was flooded to expand the Hume Dam. The place where Sandy carted bricks is now under up to six metres of water. During dry years you can still see ghostly infrastructure of the old town. More.

Details about Sandy’s early years were supplied by Richard Crispin, now deceased. Richard was a friend of my sister and we met several times. He was passionate about horses and history. Richard’s uncle Ray ran the Tallangatta Museum and he was related to Jean Merbach, descendent of the O’Donnell family (more about that soon). Sadly, Richard did not live to see the publication of Sandy’s story. The Last Light Horse is dedicated to his memory. Soon after I began researching, Richard sent the following information via email (in May 2020):

‘My understanding is that Bonner (Francis) donated the horses to Bridges. It was most likely that Sandy caught Bridges’ eye. Sandy has been described as ‘ not a noble-looking horse’, and that is great to me, because Walers were not ascetic horses, most were Roman-nosed and large-boned animals. South Australia led the way with a government breed program in the 1880s in response to British army officers noting our ‘weedy horses’. Many station horses were consequently cross-bred to build bone with the likes of Suffolk mares. 

‘It was Bonner’s idea to donate Sandy. Francis (Bonner, sometimes spelt Bonnar) and Jack were chalk and cheese … everyone spoke highly of Francis ( see Jean Merbach in Albury for more information). Ray is my uncle and runs the museum in Tallangatta. He has photos of the brick kiln and can tell you more about that. Good luck! Richard.’

Richard explained that there were several highly-regarded horse breeders in the Upper Murray area, and that Sandy could have been born on one of those properties. He’d heard talk that Sandy may have come from a farm further away in NSW. What is known, is that horses from this region were prized and were transported for sale to Wodonga.

There are often many versions of historical events. Here’s part of another recollection from Robyn Wood, a member of Tallangatta’s Sandy the Warhorse Committee:

When war was declared on 4July 1914, there was a national call for troops to enlist into the newly formed Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and a campaign also began for horses to be sent overseas with the troops. The locals responded enthusiastically with 150 horses brought to the Tallangatta saleyards on 19 August 1914. Among them was a fine bay gelding called ‘Sandy’ that belonged to the O’Donnell brothers. Evidently, he was one of the 47 horses chosen as he became Major General William Throsby Bridges favourite mount.

Sandy meets Major General Bridges

As you may imagine, deciding on this scene was challenging! No one knows for sure where or when Sandy and the major general met (more soon)

The Last Light Horse

Written by Dianne Wolfer
Illustrated by Brian Simmonds
Published by Fremantle Press, April 2022

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