The Hill of Lambs
contributed by Michael Hall
On Easter Monday 1906 William Farrer died at his home, ‘Lambrigg’ on the Murrumbidgee River near Tharwa. Once described as Australia’s greatest benefactor, for his ground-breaking work on wheat, Farrer was married to Nina De Salis, daughter of the owner of ‘Cuppacumbalong’ near Tharwa. They had no children but were godparents to Nina’s nephew, Eric.
Charles Eric Fabius Fane De Salis was born in 1891 at ‘Cuppacumbalong’ and grew up there and at ‘Lambrigg’ before his family moved to a property near Michelago. Eric was staying with his aunt and uncle when Farrer died. Just shy of his fifteenth birthday, he undertook a ride of almost 30 kilometres, in the dark, across the Murrumbidgee and through the hills to Michelago to tell his father the sad news.
Nine years later De Salis enlisted in the Light Horse and joined the 2nd Light Horse Machine Gun Squadron in the Sinai just before the Battle of Romani in August 1916. The machine gun squadrons played an important role in the work of the Light Horse. They moved rapidly from position to position, unloading the guns from their pack horses, assembling them and opening fire, often in less than a minute after they got the order to halt. “In fight after fight,” wrote Henry Gullett, author of the official history of the AIF in Palestine, “their support alone made the advance of the riflemen possible”.
Success at Romani was followed by an oasis-by-oasis advance to Palestine over the next six months. At the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917 the regiments and machine-gunners of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade entered the city before the British General commanding the battle, Charles Dobell, dumbfounded them by ordering a retreat. It would take two more attempts before the British finally captured Gaza on 7 November 1917. The day before, Eric De Salis died.
After the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments secured Beersheba on 31 October 1917, the next task was to clear the Turks from the hills to the north around Tel Khuweilfe, a prominent position with access to precious water. An attack there by British infantry and the Imperial Camel Corp on 6 November had stalled and their position had become precarious when De Salis’ squadron entered the fray. “They charged in a very gallant manner,” according to Gullett, “and at once came under a murderous machine-gun and shrapnel fire; but they reached their objective, at which point the hill rose so abruptly as to give cover from the Turkish firing line above and slightly to their right. They rushed their guns up the hill within forty yards of the Turks, and, although the teams were shot down almost to a man, their very gallant action caused the Turks to pause and gave the 3rd (Camel) Battalion breathing-time to size up their position.” Gullett added “that there is compensation in the thought of the splendid dash and daring with which the mounted machine-gunners raced their teams forward to almost certain destruction under a hail of fire”.
It was Melbourne Cup Day. De Salis and a mate were discussing the race as they galloped into action. They had mounted their gun and commenced firing when Eric was mortally wounded by machine gun fire. He was posthumously awarded the Military Medal upon the recommendation of the commanding officer of the Camel Corp.
* ‘Lambrigg’ was named by William Farrer after his mother’s childhood home in England. It means “the hill of lambs”.