Voyages to the war: the AIF at sea.
25 Trooper Roy Brown 'A' Squadron 14th Light Horse Regiment. Sailed from Sydney on 13 May 1916 on A72 Beltana.
Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Australia and New Zealand followed suit immediately and offered troops. Recruiting, organising and outfitting the first contingent began at once. It was highly visible and was characterised by public support and enthusiasm. Less visible to the public eye, but nonetheless organised and enthusiastic were measures to overcome Australia's perennial problem, 'the tyranny of distance." Just how were the 20,000 men and 7,000 horses to be transported to the battlefield on the other side of the world? The answer was of course obvious; by sea, there was no other way.
Two authorities were responsible for the transport of the AIF to Europe: the Australian Naval Board and the British Admiralty. The Naval Board set about obtaining merchant ships to make up the convoy while the Admiralty marshalled the warships to escort it Merchant ships were requisitioned ranging from the 15,000 ton Euripides to the 4,600 ton Saldanja but work was necessary to make them suitable for the task as the Official History explains:
The process of conversion entailed alterations of a very drastic character. In nearly every vessel the whole of the passenger accommodation had to be gutted, and often the electric wiring and water supply systems had to be dislocated and renewed; further the galley and lavatory accommodation needed much enlargement. (Vol IX, 1993, p.408)
By 27 September, that is slightly less that two months after the outbreak of war, 28 transports were completely equipped with accommodation for 21,529 men and 7,882 horses. It was a superb effort by the Naval Board and the workers in Australian shipyards.
So at the beginning of October, the transports were ready, the men and horses were ready, but a major problem loomed: the location and intentions of the German Pacific Squadron which boasted two fast and powerful cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and three lighter cruisers including the Emden. What risk did these ships pose to the planned assembly and departure of the convoy carrying the expeditionary forces of Australia and New Zealand?
A strong difference of opinion existed between the Admiralty which thought the risk very low and the governments of the Dominions who feared the blow the national morale and perception of security should a troop ship be sunk in home waters. The Governor-General of Australia resisted pressure from the Colonial Office and sided strongly with the government and telegraphed the Governor of New Zealand to urge caution. The problem was eventually resolved but the assembly of the convoy had been delayed a month. But finally, on 1 November 1914, with HMS Minotaur, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki as escort, the AIF accompanied by NZEF, began its first voyage to the war.
The story of the first convoy, the dramatic encounter with Emden and the disembarkation in Egypt rather than Great Britain is not one I will pursue here. Sufficient to say that in the months and years to follow many more ships and groups of ships departed Australian ports carrying the AIF to the war. Rather, I shall turn to the aspects of the voyages, so tantalisingly introduced by Roy Brown's letter, the AIF at sea, the human side of the story.
To do this I have drawn on letters, diaries, notebooks and photographs of the following members of the AIF who departed from Melbourne (except Trooper Brown who departed from Sydney):
Capt Charles Arblaster 8th LH A16 Star of Victoria 25.2.15 Capt Alexander Mitchell 13th LH A34 Persic 28.5.15 Trumpeter Sgt Campbell Rennie 13th LH " " Dvr Bertie Sheather 21st Bn A37 Barambah 9.7.15 Sgt Robert Scott 4th Reinf 13th LH A20 Hororata 27.9.15 Tpr Matthew Morrison 7th Reinf 13th LH A40 Ceramic 23.11.15 Tpr Roy Brown "A" Sqn, 14th LH A72 Beltana 13.5.16 Pte Harry Derrick 37th Bn A34 Persic 3.6.16
The differences in size and carrying capacity of the ships on which they travelled are also relevant so I have listed them:
Transport Gross tonnage Fitted to carry A16 Star of Victoria 9152 tons 30 Offr 511 Ors 537 horses A20 Hororata 9400 tons 67 " 2000 " 124 " A34 Persic 12042 tons 40 " 520 " 491 " A37 Barambah (ex- enemy Hobart) 5923 tons 5 " 120 " 498 " A40 Ceramic 18481 tons 100 " 2700 " 24 " A72 Beltana 11120 tons 49 " 1587 " 1 "
Brown, who travelled to England with the 3rd Division, wrote, "We had nine weeks on the water." Voyages to Egypt were shorter, about five weeks. But both were a long time to keep a large number of young men confined to a crowded ship in sometimes rough weather and sometimes very. hot weather. How was this time spent? As we might expect Army discipline and routine continued, there was some training and some entertainment; for some there was a great deal of hard work and for others very little.
One factor affecting ship-board life was the composition of the troops on board a particular ship. For example, the 8th LH with its horses occupied the whole of the Star of Victoria. By contrast, Robert Scott was part of a mixed bag of reinforcement drafts on board the Hororata carrying 67 officers, 2000 other ranks and 124 horses. Soldiers on Star of Victoria were under their own regimental officers, while on the Hororata military command rested with officers of the Sea Transport Service.
Sea-sickness afflicted almost everyone. Ships departing Melbourne sailed into the traditionally rough seas of Bass Strait and then the Great Australian Bight. At lunchtime on their first full day at sea Harry Derrick recorded, "Nearly half our table missed their meal ... Only 5 at table for tea, men sick all over the place."
Three days later he noted, "the boys are gradually getting over their sea sickness."
I have noticed that some writers provided a good description of the voyage and others say:
Nov 23--Got wet through on pier. Embarked on SS Ceramic.
Dec 15--Reached Suez--anchored outside in the harbour at 10 p.m.
Most of the prolific writers commented on mal de mer, but said they were little affected, or not at all. One can draw the conclusion, I think, that some with few or no comment had a 'forgettable' voyage. Charles Arblaster, one of the 'prolifics', observed:
Sort of strained expectancy throughout boat today--each suspecting the other of being seasick. Some wait at the sides with mouths partly open & seem quite disappointed when nothing came.... Church parade at 10 a.m. Hymns were nice & band played well. Parson was unable to preach a sermon--frightened of loosing his breakfast.
Bertie Sheather, however, might have had another reason for writing little about the voyage. He was one of 120 men on board the Barambah (the ex-enemy ship Hobart) with 498 horses to care for which might not have left much time for writing.
A substantial trade in horses had existed for much of the nineteenth century with countries such as Argentina and Australia being big suppliers, but the care of horses on these voyages varied. In Egypt, Australians were surprised to see a French horse transport enter harbour preceded by an unbelievable odour. During the voyage no attempt had been made to muck out the decks and the horses were knee deep in manure. Care of horses in the AIF was very different and consumed much of the time and effort of men of the light horse and artillery and those making up the transport sections of infantry and service corps units. Campbell Rennie noted the routine to be "stables (i.e. mucking out) first thing in the morning." On some ships it was possible to lead horses round a deck for exercise but where space or rough weather did not allow, the horses legs had to be thoroughly massaged. Caring for horses in this way together with efforts to ensure a flow of fresh air to the horse decks resulted in a death rate of only 3% stunningly below the expected rate of 15 to 20%.
Rough seas created havoc. Alex Mitchell wrote, "Rough sea today.... Storm all night. Horse boxes washed away. McLeod and Kerr got hurt."
Rennie was more expansive, explaining that when the ship met monsoon weather:
the waves rose like mountains. On two occasions the stables on the top deck were smashed to bits owing to waves coming over and water 2 & 3 ft deep [rushing] up and down as the boat pitched & rolled.
On the Star of Victoria and Persic the ratio of horses to men was about 1:1, but on the Barambah, Sheather's ship, the ratio was 5:1. Opportunities for training varied in proportion to the horse to men ratio.
Generally afternoons were given over for individual training and the evenings to lectures. Prior to the departure of the 1st Division three phases of training had been planned: phase 1 preembarkation; phase 2 on board ship, and phase 3 after reaching destination. On board ship training included rifle drill, bayonet fighting, semaphore, MG handling, map reading, physical training known as "jerks" by the men. Some live firing with rifles and Vickers MGs occurred. Arblaster wrote of how well the Vickers guns looked after two coats of paint, and how well they performed in a live firing practice after new barrels had been fitted. Artillery units dragged their guns out on to deck for drill training and occasional live firing. Scott observed:
Big gun practice by the artillery, first shot a bad one, 2nd one jammed, 3rd one an good one. Target about 20 12 square at a range of 1 & a half miles.
Rennie, being Trumpeter Sergeant, wrote, "I had to take the trumpeters on the poop deck for practise, so I missed going down below [to the horse deck] for which I was very thankful." Arblaster recorded pistol practice for the officers and sword drill conducted by the RSM.
While cohesive units carried out training, it seems less likely much occurred among reinforcement drafts. Scott recorded a number of days of being on guard duty but only one day of rifle shooting. Mitchell listed lecture topics given by regimental officers: "Squadron in attack", "Guards and sentries", "Orders and messages in the field" and "March discipline". Interestingly the ship's purser, a Mr Buttery gave a series of lectures on "Map reading and field sketching". Buttery perhaps was a former soldier. Derrick, 37 Bn, noted one on "Care of teeth", given by the dentist and another "Field dressing of wounds". He also said French lessons had begun.
At sea as on land, 8 LH sought to continue routine. On the first morning on board Arblaster recorded: "Reveille at 6." Next day he wrote," [I am] Orderly officer. Up in fair time. 9 am parade, physical training for men but couLd not give them much as they were a bit groggy." Two days later, "Only a few men available for 9 am parade so did not have one. Weather rough.... No parade till further orders."
Rennie on the Persic with the 13 LH recorded the daily routine as: stables first thing then breakfast, then back to feed, water and exercise horses till dinner time. Training followed in the afternoon and lectures some evenings.
Disciplinary matters varied obviously. Reading Arblaster, one gets the feeling he thought the Light Horse had better and more disciplined men. He recounted an incident when Star of Victoria carrying 8th LH and A54 Runic carrying other troops called at Colombo:
"Men [of 8th LH] allowed ashore 50% at a time. Runic not allowed ashore. Thank goodness for that.... Not a man of the 8th tried to stay ashore! A bit of a record.... CO, Naval people & all officers pleased with the men. Were ready to sail when Runic gave an exhibition. 3 boatloads of men mutinied & made for shore. Woods cut one load off& tried to persuade them to come back. Our men supplied a guard & brought most of them back but there are still a number of men ashore. 'Spose they will play old harry. A fine thing for the authorities at home to hear about! Runic moored out to sea a little as numbers of men had swum ashore during the night.
The 8th were not without sin however. Later in the voyage Arblaster mentions "Court Martial in p.m....," and next day, "Court Martial again but did not quite finish it." Four days later he wrote, "another court martial."
Mitchell on board Persic alluded to disciplinary problems there too when he wrote:
Aitkens, Nicholl & myself sitting on Court Martial (District) in afternoon. Accused awarded Detention 7 days, fined 2 [pounds sterling]." Next day the Court heard a charge against a sergeant in B Sqn, but no details are given.
Gambling, was forbidden and attitudes on board ship differed. Arblaster on the Star of Victoria with a cohesive contingent belonging to a single regiment dealt with an infraction thus, "Caught some fellows gambling. Gave them a good talking to." On the Hororata carrying four times as many men in various reinforcement drafts a more serious view prevailed. Scott wrote:
Two chaps who were sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of the voyage for gambling were released on account &petition signed by the men."
Problems with gambling on Hororata began early and a man who had won 80 [pounds sterling] at gambling on the voyage from Melbourne deserted at Fremantle. Scott commented, "so you can understand he didn't want to fight for his country." Scott also reported "3 of my sentries sentenced to 24 hours solitary for being asleep on their post." This seemed a light punishment considering the two gamblers who received solitary for the remainder of the voyage.
Other ranks messes consisted of tables seating 16 men. Two orderlies were appointed for each table to collect meals from the galley and serve it. In rough weather this was no mean task as Brown explained:
Our deck was down below and when it got a bit rough you would see stew and burgoo come flying down the stairs and orderlies after it.
After the meal the orderlies were responsible to clear up and get the deck ready for inspection by the ship's captain and the orderly officer. Derrick recorded the practice of having permanent orderlies who were paid 1/- per week by the rest of the table. Brown said he was a permanent orderly but gave no detail of payment from his mess mates.
Food was rarely mentioned in the letters and diaries. Rennie wrote, "We had a Sgts Mess on board which was very fine after the food we had at Broadmeadows." Derrick described the meals of their first day at sea, "Had dinner at half past 1 soup, cold meat & beans & rice. Bread & butter, cheese & jam for tea." Brown's letter suggests stew was a regular meal as well as burgoo, i.e. porridge. Derrick recorded that his company put in 1/- each and purchased apples prior to leaving Albany, "we got a good many cases altogether & we get about 2 each second day."
Messing among the 8th LH officers was obviously an affair of some refinement, Arblaster noted, "CO had to put 1/- in box for late at meal." Photographs show most men in shirts and trousers, a sort of working dress. White hats in the Greg Chappell style were popular. Officers were photographed in more formal attire and Lieut Arblaster wrote in his diary a few days out from Melbourne: "Paraded in blue uniform in evening & it felt quite nice." He donned blues again for an evening visit ashore in Colombo.
In the heat of the tropics however, ship dress obviously became more relaxed. Derrick noted: "men going about in knickers." And in another comment, "Very hot today, have to wear felt hats with white hats on top of them."
Rennie also wrote about tropical attire:
Weather now intensely hot. One could go about in his birthday suit, except when our erratic & eccentric old Colonel would order a ceremonial parade when we would have to appear done up like sore toes.
The crossing of the Equator was a popular distraction on many ships. Arblaster described it thus:
After dinner we got ready for Neptune's parade. Ceremony started at 2 p.m. Heralds--trumpeters--came along to give warning of the approach of Neptune. [who] came along in carriage with Queen accompanied by mermaids & policemen armed with big waddles. The dressing was fine get up. Neptune in his seaweed, crown etc., mermaids in their seaweed, the Doctor dressed comically and so on. Trial took place. Treatment by Doctor. Treatment by barbers & then drowning by mermaids. It was most enjoyable. All the officers done first & then a few sgts & cpls as time allowed. Speech by Doctor & then by Chief & Captain. I secured razor & got my certificate.
Mitchell gave a briefer description:
Crossed the line today at dinner time. Neptune & Spouse held solemn court in afternoon. All officers and most of crew initiated.... Made facsimile of Proclamation."
Boxing was popular. It seemed to have been staged for entertainment, rather than as a wide participation sport. There were both championship competitions and prize fights. Derrick recorded, "boxing competition started after dinner ... there are prizes for light, middle & heavy weight of 4 [pounds sterling] winner, 2 [pounds sterling] runner-up. Shortly before arriving in England he gave details of a fight between a member of 37 Bn and a member of the ASC for a purse of 30 [pounds sterling]. The purse is a very large one and there is no reference as to who put it up. Also there is no mention of betting on the results of fights, and gambling was an offence, however it is hard to believe no side-bets were laid. The fight ended in the disqualification of the 37 Bn boxer for hitting his opponent while he was down.
Besides boxing other sports in which sub-units competed were tug-a-war, pillow fights and cricket. Deck quoits, cards, letter-writing and reading were also popular pastimes. Rennie wrote:
On Saturday afternoons we had sports on deck, some of which created no small amount of excitement and amusement. The tug of war being always a keen struggle. The pillow fights over a big canvas tank filled with water being particularly amusing. Some of the combatants striking very funny attitudes as they tried to cling to the slippery pole and deliver a knockout blow to their opponents.
Concerts too were popular. Arblaster wrote of regular concerts with squadrons taking mms to be responsible for the program. His MG section had one good singer in Tpr C.H. Gribble winner of the Scotch song competition, and the MG Section had enough fair singers to be best in quartets and duets. Derrick wrote of a concert where George Castles, brother of Amy Castles, a well known opera singer, performed. Arblaster didn't think that well of a night of comic songs and recitations, "Not up to much. Bit of filth once again," he wrote. He also recorded a debate for a 3 [pounds sterling] prize, the question being: "White Australia: is it justifiable?" The "pros" won.
Illness and disease seemed to vary between ships. Diaries from the earlier contingents reported fewer cases of disease than the later contingents. Brown and Derrick both wrote of recurring outbreaks of meningitis and measles. Deaths did occur, but were small in number. Brown, on the Beltana with 1600 men, reported seven deaths. Derrick wrote of only one on Persic with 600 and described the funeral at sea:
A man from A.M.C named Edwards died this morning from meningitis, he was buried this morning at 10.30. The ship stopped for about 10 minutes & bugler played the last post, all men stood at attention during the service.
Derrick also told of measures taken to prevent the spread of disease. Companies were not to mix, soldiers were confined to their own part of the ship, sports meetings were postponed and soldiers had their throats sprayed at frequent intervals. Deaths occurred from other illnesses too and burials were equally swift. Mitchell recorded, "Pte Smith bad with pneumonia. Died about 10.30 am & was buried at 1.45 pm." Derrick recorded a case of surgery, "The ship stopped for an hour at 3 p.m. while an operation on a private for appendicitis was performed." Inoculations and vaccinations occasional interrupted the routine. "Got jagged for typhoid. Not too bad," wrote Arblaster. A week later, "We were jagged in arm again for typhoid." Another week: "Vaccinated again in a.m. I got done again just to make sure." Derrick too had trouble with vaccinations, "I was inoculated [probably means vaccinated] this afternoon on the right arm this time, this is the third time." Nine days later he wrote, "I was inoculated again this morning & vaccinated again in the afternoon, if it does not take this time I will be immune." Scott wrapped up illness and vaccination thus:
There has been illness on board but small in proportion to the number of men on board (2000). Some chaps have suffered terribly with their arms, caused through vaccination.... I have been lucky as [mine] has failed twice. A few of the chaps refused to be re-done, but as far as I'm concerned they can do mine till it takes.
The transportation of the AIF to the war was a masterpiece of administration and logistics. The technical and statistical aspects are covered in the Official History, but little has been written about the human experience in this great enterprise. For very many the voyage to the war was an adventure which confounded their wildest expectation. We are fortunate that there were soldiers who took time to write their accounts in diaries and letters and that families preserved those writings. We might have expected the accounts of routine and discipline, training and entertainment, horses, disease and occasional death, but it was never possible to anticipate the turn of phrase, the humour and the observation of small things that come as we read what these men actually wrote. All voyages come to an end and those of the AIF to the war were no exception. Troops disembarked at Suez, or Alexandria, or Plymouth and life on land resumed. There were of course many other voyages: to Lemnos and Anzac Cove, to Marsailles, and cross-channel junkets. There were voyages on hospital ships to Malta and England. And there was the final voyage home to Australia. Charles Arblaster and Harry Derrick did not make that final voyage.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2005|
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