An incident at Romani: In memory of the Light Horse Field Ambulance


Remembrance Day has a special significance in 2018. Sunday 11 November marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War (1914–18), signed 11am on 11 November 1918. One hundred years on we remember those who have given their lives in conflict before and since, by taking a minute to stop, be silent and remember the war that was to end all wars. We also take this opportunity to reflect on the Australian Light Horse Field Ambulance, one of the many stories of courage.

During the First World War, George Lambert (1873-1930) served Australia as an Official War Artist attached to the ANZAC Mounted Division. He spent two terms in service, the first with the Light Horse in Palestine, and the second in Gallipoli and Egypt. As a result of this service Lambert was offered a variety of commissions to paint scenes from significant war time events after his war contract had officially ended in 1920.

Australian Light Horsemen at Romani, Palestine, 1916 / The Battle of Romani was the last ground attack of the Central Powers on the Suez Canal at the beginning of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the First World War. The battle was fought 3-5 August 1916 near the Egyptian town of Romani / Photographs courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Among these was a 100 pound commission from the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance to paint the activity of the Field Ambulance during the Turkish attack at Romani, in the north west Sinai Desert.1 The completed painting was to be given to the Gallery by the Light Horse in memory of their fallen comrades. Lambert received the commission in 1919, to be painted immediately after he was released from his official war contract. At the time, Lambert wrote the following to his wife in Britain: ‘I have a job to do at Kantara of the Field Ambulance work, very interesting’.2

George W. Lambert, Australia/England 1873-1930 / Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919-22 / 92 x 138.1cm / Oil on canvas / Gift of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance in memory of Comrades who did not return from the war c.1922 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The incident to which the painting refers occurred during the Battle of Romani on 4 August 1916. The 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance had deployed two sand-carts to an exposed part of the line in order to retrieve some seriously wounded men. Upon its return journey the Field Ambulance envoy came under Turkish fire and its panicked horses started to bolt. Tragedy was averted when the corporal signalled ‘Walk’, and galloped to the front of the party to steady the teams. After the horses had been calmed and resumed their pace, the enemy apparently recognised the Ambulance’s mission and averted their fire. As a result of their bravery and composure during the incident the corporal and drivers were awarded Military Medals.3

2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance wagon in the Middle East / Photograph courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane
Photography of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance at the Battle of Romani in 1916 re-enacted at Kantara, Egypt in 1919 for George Lambert / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

When it was decided in 1919 to give George Lambert the commission to paint this incident, the actual event was already three years in the past. To enable Lambert to make sketches of the event, it was re-enacted at Kantara, Egypt in 1919. Photographs were taken of Lambert at work sketching this re-enactment. The completed painting portrays the moment when the corporal signals ‘Walk’ whilst rushing to the front of the group to steady the bolting teams. 

Edited from research by Victoria Garton, QAGOMA

1  Gray, Anne. ‘George Lambert 1873-1930 Catalogue Raisonne’. Bonamy Press, Canberra, 1996, p.112.
2  Lambert, George. Letter to Amy Lambert, 18 June 1919, Mitchell Library, Sydney [ML MS 97/4, item 1, 165].
Gray, p.112.

Artwork Correspondence

Colonel David Gifford Croll, CBE, was an eminent Queensland doctor who served in both World Wars, and is remembered for his service in the Middle East. Upon his return to Australia Dr. Croll resumed his medical practice in Sherwood and was in correspondence with George Lambert on behalf of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance for the commission of Walk (An incident at Romani). The core of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance was formed in Brisbane.

Colonel David Gifford Croll (second from right) and other officers in the Middle East / Photograph courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane
Colonel David Gifford Croll on horseback in the Middle East / Photograph courtesy: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

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Feature image detail: George W. Lambert Walk (An incident at Romani) 1919-22