- A.N. Other
- History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Commander Tony Vine, RANR
In the eyes of the Australian public the Royal Australian Navy’s role in the Great War is generally limited to the capture of New Guinea, the HMAS Sydney– SMSEmden battle and the exploits of HMAS AE2 in the Dardanelles. What is not known to many Australians is that a large number of naval personnel who were called up in 1914 fought in other theatres, some wearing blue, others khaki. This is the story of one such group.
On Wednesday 28 August 1915 the normal buzz of activity at Sydney’s Liverpool Army Camp was broken when a contingent of sailors, all wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Naval Brigade (RANB), marched proudly into the camp. The sailors, clad in their blue uniforms and marching with that peculiar rolling gait which marks the seaman, they made a picturesque entry into the camp between long lines of cheering onlookers, the band meanwhile playing Sons of the Sea.
Who were these blue clad interlopers, and why were they at Liverpool and not at sea?
In August 1915 Australia had been at war for a year. The lists of casualties in the national and local papers were growing daily and dreadfully wounded men from the early stages of the Gallipoli campaign were arriving back to their families. Other families were not so lucky; their lives had been devastated by a simple telegram from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) informing them that a father, son, husband or brother had been killed. Despite the increasing carnage, recruiting centres were inundated with men wanting to join the great adventure. The AIF was desperately trying to replace losses, whilst the same time raising the 2nd Division in Egypt. It was clear that the war would not be over by Christmas and Australia’s contribution needed to be greater than what had been envisaged just a year ago.
Meanwhile the Royal Australian Navy had the opposite problem. The bulk of the fleet was serving in the North Sea, leaving only the three torpedo boat destroyers, HMA Ships Yarra, Parramatta and Warrego as the only modern ships in Australian waters. The successes of Sydney against Emden and the submarine AE2 at Gallipoli had resulted in a flood of applicants to join the navy and there were also 1,646 members of the Royal Australian Naval Brigade, essentially naval reservists, who had been called up at the outbreak of war.
In August 1914 the RANB had been recently formed from the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) and became part of the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force (ANMEF) which had captured New Guinea from its colonial masters Germany. At the same time its members manned signal and examination stations at ports, conducted harbour patrols in small craft and provided guards at naval facilities and wharves.
By 1915, the RANB had thousands of men ashore with little chance of employment at sea. The Royal Navy (RN) had experienced a similar problem in 1914 and used its surplus men to raise the Royal Navy Division (RND). The RND fought at Antwerp in 1914 and Gallipoli in 1915, suffering heavy casualties before finally being absorbed into the British Army in 1916.
The Australian Naval Board considered and then rejected the idea of raising a naval division or brigade, although in February 1915 it offered the British Government the services of two ‘Bridging Teams’ to serve as engineers in a shore based capacity. This was later amended to one team. The RANBT was raised and served with great distinction in the Middle East and at Gallipoli.
In May 1915, volunteers were sought from RANB personnel at Flinders Naval Depot to serve overseas and the successful applicants were immediately sent to the Seymour Army Camp in Victoria. On arrival they were drafted into what was loosely termed ‘The Victorian Naval Unit’ where some were advised that they were to proceed overseas to man minesweepers. This was far from the truth and within weeks they were transferred to the Broadmeadows Camp in Melbourne where it became apparent that their future lay with the AIF and not at sea. They were a mixture of young adventurers, professional merchant navy seamen, ex-naval members of the Royal Navy, the RAN, the RANR and the RANB, as well as older men who had served in the pre-federation colonial naval forces.
Meanwhile at Liverpool, NSW, the 30th Battalion AIF was forming under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel James Clark. Clark, a shipping merchant from Newcastle, had served in the militia since 1897 and before resigning to take a commission in the AIF he had been in charge of Newcastle’s coastal defences.
At Liverpool, the naval men were allocated to the 30th Battalion’s A Company commanded by Major Thomas Beardsmore. Beardsmore had commanded a company of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) in New Guinea alongside members of the RANB. Amongst his officers were four RANB officers, all veterans of the ANMEF. They were: Sub-Lieutenants Avenal Hext, Henry Orpen, and Charles Webber who had served with the RANB, and Sub-Lieutenant Cecil Walker who had been the navigator in HMAS Fantome in New Guinea. At least 162 of the 222 men who were foundation members of A Company were former members of the RANB/RANR.
The availability of a pool of trained men to form his company was a godsend to Beardsmore. He recognised the advantages of keeping the men together rather than distributing them amongst the battalion.
The men were kitted out with army uniforms, and although now holding army ranks, they still considered themselves very much ‘navy’. This culture would exist right through to the armistice by which time only 38 of the Victorian Naval Unit remained with the battalion.
This hanging on to their origins was no more apparent than one morning in Liverpool when Corporal Ernest ‘Tosh’ Ridley, the duty orderly sergeant, reported the state of the battalion to Major Beardsmore as being; 220 men aboard, Sir, 5 ashore, 4 adrift, and 2 in the bay.Tosh had served ten years in the RN as well as in New Guinea as a Petty Officer with the ANMEF. He was one of the battalion’s ‘characters’.
The camp was a dusty, dirty and cold establishment of bare huts and tents. Leave was rarely granted and the only entertainment was at the YMCA tent where occasionally there would be an impromptu concert. A dry canteen had been established on the base, but other than to satisfy the cravings of the smokers and those with a sweet tooth, it provided few comforts. The men were allowed to roam the camp after work but they had to be in their tents by 21.30 for roll call. At 22.00 the lights were out. The meals were simple – dinner consisting of bread and marmalade and a pannikin of sweet tea.
It was with great relief that they moved to Moore Park in Sydney in early September. The men found very quickly they could take unofficial leave by going to the adjoining roller skating rink which conveniently had a second entrance from the street. As long as they were back by roll call they were safe from the battalion police.
In late October they were inspected by the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson and in the early hours of 9 November they marched from Moore Park to Woolloomooloo and embarked on HMAT Beltana (A72). The battalion history dryly notes that they were all safely onboard before the hotels opened.
Once onboard the Beltana the men were informed they were destined for the Middle East and they quickly settled into shipboard life. The sailors were at home when it came to slinging their hammocks and quickly bagged all the best spots, before assisting the less fortunate in the secrets of a hammock! They stopped briefly in King George’s Sound off Albany WA, where shortly after sailing they passed the hospital ship Kyarra (HMAT A55). The sight of the wounded men being returned from Gallipoli was a sobering reminder of what was ahead of them. The Beltana arrived at anchor at Suez on 8 December where the ship’s master refused to provide Lieutenant Colonel Clark with a boat so that news of the war could be obtained from the Port Authority. The impasse was broken when a boat was manned by members of A Company under the command of the Adjutant, Captain Sloan. The men skilfully rowed Sloan ashore, where on arrival he gave them a one pound note to have a few drinks whilst he completed his business. A few hours later the party, including Sloan, returned to the Beltana, each man carrying a box of fruit disguising bottles of alcohol.
The men were landed at Suez the next day and immediately embarked on periods of training, interspersed by guard duty in the Canal Zone. Meanwhile the AIF continued to expand. Gallipoli had been evacuated and the AIF was now to increase in size from two divisions of infantry to five, as well as raising units of artillerymen, engineers, signallers and pioneers to support the newly formed AIF divisions.
The extra divisions were formed by splitting the sixteen battalions which had served on Gallipoli to form sixteen new battalions and then building all 32 battalions up to strength using reinforcements. The 8th Brigade’s battalions were not split, but became part of the new 5th Division. The 30thhad embarked from Sydney on the same ship as its first group of 100 reinforcements and became a pool of talent from which newly formed units could draw. Many of the ex-RANB men had talents better suited to units other than infantry or were of an age that they would not be able to cope with the rigors of close quarters combat as infantrymen. Many were trained in gunnery or in signals whilst others were tradesmen and engineers. In March 1916 there was a massive re-allocation of men across the various units spread around the desert camps. Over fifty of the A Company’s ex-sailors would bid farewell to their mates and transfer to newly formed units; with most joining the 5th Division’s signals, artillery, engineer, machine gun and pioneer units.
The battalion embarked for Europe in mid-June on the Hororata (HMAT A20) and by the end of the month they were billeted just outside of Hazebrouck in Northern France. There was little time for the men to adapt to trench warfare. The Battle of the Somme commenced on the first of July and on the 10th the 30th battalion moved to the front line at Bois Grenier south of Armentières where the men were under intermittent bombardment. On the 13th a shell dropped on A Company personnel, wounding Lieutenant Avenal Hext and two others, one of whom later died of his wounds. The men remained in the line at Bois Grenier for four days and then were marched to nearby Fleurbaix.
At Fleurbaix, Clarke was advised that the 5th Division AIF and the British 61st Division would participate in an attack on the German forces near the village of Fromelles. The operation was under the command of Lieutenant General Richard Haking and the mismanagement of Haking and senior command at Fromelles has been well documented elsewhere. What is pertinent to this story is that the Germans knew an attack was imminent, held a tactical advantage and were well prepared.
The 8th Brigade’s role was for the 31st and 32nd Battalions to attack, whilst the 29th and 30th were to be held in reserve. In the lead-up to the action the 30th’s men were used to move ammunition and supplies forward to the front lines and reserve trenches in support of their sister battalions. Visible to German artillery spotters, they immediately came under heavy shell fire, killing one man and wounding eight others.
On the 19th of July the battle commenced at 11.00 with a bombardment. The bombardment stopped and started a number of times hoping to trick the German defenders into thinking that the attack had commenced and draw them out of their dugouts. It was not successful. At 17.45 the 31st and 32nd Battalions attacked in four waves with many men being cut down within metres of leaving the safety of the trenches.
As the fourth wave crossed the parapet, the 30th entered the field of battle. A Company and the 8th Field Company Engineers began digging a communications trench across No Man’s Land towards what was expected to become the new front line. The remainder of the battalion was used to carry ammunition forward to the 31st and 32nd battalions but many immediately took the places of fallen men. The trench digging party spread out across the killing field, along the proposed route of the trench, and literally dug for their lives. As a man would fall, another would take his place. As sections of the trench began to deepen, the engineers positioned sandbags to partly protect the diggers from the machine gun and sniper fire. It did little to protect the men from the shellfire. Across the battlefield the cries for ‘stretcher bearers’ from dreadfully wounded men could be heard.
Along the length of the Fromelles battlefield, ex-sailors, who had transferred to other units the previous March, were running out signal lines and building defences in support of the valiant 5th Division.
The communications trench would reach almost 200 metres in length and at its deepest was almost two metres deep, but they paid a toll. The navy men began to fall. Former Able Seaman Richard Ward, a sapper in the 8th Field Company of the Engineers was one of the first, closely followed by A Company’s Doug Rich from Williamstown, Victoria. Richard Ward is buried in Fleurbiax but Doug Rich’s body was lost and he has no known grave. Peter Anderson noticed that fellow matelot David King’s webbing had caught fire. He immediately went to his aid only to be struck in the groin and he died within fifteen minutes. David King would also fall; both men’s bodies were lost in the maelstrom and they have no known graves.
As day passed into night the work on building the trench continued. The danger from sniper fire diminished, but German machine guns continued to sweep the battlefield and the hail of deadly bullets and artillery shells continued to cause destruction. The wounds inflicted by shrapnel were dreadful. If he was lucky a man would be killed instantly, but for many it was an agonising, slow and lonely death in No Man’s Land as they bled to death from their wounds. Those who managed to reach a dressing station would now face another battle, one against infection in an era where antibiotics didn’t exist.
David Irvine, a 20 year old naval reservist from Rozelle, Sydney, was cut down by shrapnel, his left knee shattered so severely that he was repatriated to Australia the following year. Bill Scott, who had served in the RANB for four years, had his left arm blown off by shellfire. He was treated at the Australian 1st Casualty Clearing Station and the 8th Stationary Hospital at Wimereux, before being evacuated to England on the 23rd of July. Bill would lose his fight for life a week later, but not before he made a statement to the Red Cross that he had been with Lieutenant Jack Lees when the latter was shot through the heart just before dusk on the 19th. Lees, who had joined A Company in the Middle East, had served with the ANMEF in New Guinea and was a much respected officer.
The irrepressible Acting Sergeant Ernest (Tosh) Ridley was placed in charge of a section of eight men to carry stores to the front line during the night. They inched forward, until with only five men, the sun began to rise and they dug in surrounded by Germans. Soon after Tosh was knocked out by shellfire and came to, covered in blood, in a shell hole where he remained all day. Fellow ex matelots Edward Dunn and Vernon Drake later told the Red Cross that they had to abandon Tosh when they withdrew and they thought that both his legs had been broken. In fact Tosh had been badly wounded in the right arm and remained in No Man’s Land until he was spotted by a German officer who gave him water and a cigarette. Tosh spent the remainder of the war as a POW, eventually being repatriated in 1918, having lost over 30 kilograms. On arrival in England he discovered that his promotion to sergeant had never been substantiated and that he was back where he started his AIF career, as a corporal.
Tosh would have company as a POW, with fellow sailors Hilton Law, Horace Holmesby and David Storey all being taken prisoner at Fromelles. David, a member of the Williamstown Port Division, had enlisted with his reservist brother James. David and James were both wounded at Fromelles. James was evacuated to England with severe facial injuries, including losing his right eye; he would survive to be repatriated home in early 1918.
German shells and bullets did not discriminate between officers and sailors. Major Beardsmore was felled with wounds to his neck, head and arm. Former Sub-Lieutenant Richard Orpen, a Platoon Commander in A Company, abandoned his men early on the first day after a shell landed nearby. Orpen took himself to a Casualty Clearing Station with ‘shell shock’ and was evacuated to England where he served in a training unit. It would be sixteen months before he returned to the battalion and be posted to C Company. Within weeks of his arrival he had again abandoned his men in the front line, this time claiming he had ‘sore feet’. An investigation found that Orpen had neglected his men, many of whom had severe ‘trench feet’ and should have been evacuated themselves. It also concluded that Orpen had nothing wrong with his own feet. He was immediately removed from the battalion and returned to Australia ‘services no longer required’.
The 30th remained at their posts until withdrawn to Fleurbaix on the 26th of July. The battalion had suffered over 350 casualties of whom 118 were killed or missing in just two weeks in the lines. In all, Australia suffered over 5,500 casualties in 24 hours at Fromelles, with almost two thousand killed.
Haking, in his post battle analysis, blamed everybody but himself for the catastrophe and then cynically argued that:
I think the attack, although it failed, has done both Divisions a great deal of good, and I am quite sure as a result of the attack that the Germans are not likely to move troops away from the front for some time.
Haking’s reckless behaviour resulted in it taking almost a year to rebuild the badly mauled battalions.
At least seven former members of the RANB lost their lives at Fromelles with many more maimed, physically and mentally. Some would be repatriated home immediately, others after months in hospital, but the majority would ultimately return to their units. They, and those who had come through Fromelles unscathed, would fight on as the dreadful attrition of trench warfare slowly eroded their numbers.
Some men, like Able Seaman Donald Stuart, a boilermaker from Auburn, NSW, would return home in 1919 as officers and gentlemen. A number would be decorated, whilst many were content to keep their heads down and simply survive through to 1919 as private soldiers. The 30th would go on to to fight at the battles for Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Amiens and St Quentin Canal.
In mid 1917 Sergeant Fred Batten, a former RANB sailor from Albert Park in Victoria was serving with the 5th Division Field Artillery when German shelling set the battery’s ammunition dump alight. Three times Fred and his men attacked the fire only for it to reignite. The men, knowing full well that the entire dump could explode, continued fighting the fires until they were finally extinguished. Fred would be awarded the Military Medal for his courage that night.
At Polygon Wood another ex-Able Seaman, now Sergeant, Arthur Burns took charge of a fatigue party carrying ammunition from Hooge Crater to the front line. The men were caught in a very heavy German barrage and; Sergt. Burns shewed (sic) exceptional Leadership and bravery in delivering the ammunition without delay at the correct spot. Arthur and his men made two trips that night, having to pass through the barrage four times. He was recommended for the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) by his Commanding Officer. At that time the DCM ranked second only to the VC for other ranks, but the recommendation would eventually be downgraded at brigade level to a Military Medal. Whilst Arthur would survive the war, his RANB colleague Sergeant H. J. (George) Eccleston would lose both legs to a shell at Polygon Wood and, although he was rushed to a Casualty Clearing Station by fellow sailor George Gilderthorpe, he would succumb to his dreadful wounds.
The last major action the men fought in was the Battle for St Quentin Canal, where the last of the naval men to die in battle would fall. He was Private Hugh Auld from Williamstown in Victoria. Hugh, a labourer who had served in the RANB for five years, had been severely wounded in the left arm at Fromelles. He returned to the front in early 1917, however later in the year he was evacuated to England with severe jaundice. He rejoined the battalion again in June 1918. On 28 August 1918 Hugh Auld and nine other men were sheltering in a dugout near Peronne when it was struck by a large shell. He was killed instantly – the other men all survived.
In the same action another ex-sailor would distinguish himself. Sergeant Robert Case from Williamstown was in charge of an advanced post which was heavily shelled and machine gunned. Eventually it was struck by a shell burying Case’s men. He worked untiringly digging out his men and then establishing another post further forward under heavy fire.Later that day; he led his platoon forward under heaving machine gun fire showing an utter disregard for personal danger and setting a fine example for his men. Robert Case would be awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Peronne.
Other ex-RANB men who had transferred to other units would also be honoured. Corporal Reg Power, serving with the signals as a motor cycle despatch rider, received a Meritorious Service Medal in 1918 for his bravery carrying essential despatches under fire, whilst Andrew Nelson’s service with the Pioneers would be recognised with a Belgian Croix de Guerre.
In 26 months the 30th would lose 458 men killed in action, dying of wounds or illness, with a further 1,207 men wounded. Of the 162 ex-naval officers and men who had formed A Company in 1915, thirty one would lose their lives in the Great War with many more wounded, some multiple times.
The Battle of Fromelles gained prominence in Australia with the exhumation of 250 soldiers from a mass grave at Pheasant Wood in 2009. Whilst no ex-sailors were amongst the men identified, the role that the men of the Victorian Naval Unit played in the battle has never truly been recognised by the RAN.
Bean, Charles E.W. The Official History of Australia in the war of 1914-18 Vol 3 – The AIF in France 1916, AWM 1929.
Frame, T.R. and Swindon, G.J. First in last out – the Navy at Gallipoli, Kangaroo Press 1990.
Jose, Arthur W. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Vol 9, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, AWM 1929.
Lindsay, Patrick. Fromelles. Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne 2008
Lording, Rowland (Pseudonym ‘A Tiveychoc’), There and Back, RSSLA 1935.
Sloan, Hannibal. The Purple and Gold, 30th Battalion Association, 1938.
Australian War Memorial – AWM 4 – 30th Battalion War Diaries
Australian War Memorial – WWI Red Cross Files
Australian War Memorial – WWI Honours and Awards files.
National Archive Australia – Service Record Files – various.