The First World War changed Australia forever and significantly shaped the future of Western Australia, writes Victoria Laurie.

Story Victoria Laurie

This article first appeared in the RAC Horizons Magazine October / November 2014 edition.

One hundred years ago, on 1 November, the first division of ANZAC soldiers left Albany in convoy to join British, French and other allied forces in the First World War. It was an extraordinary sight – 36 vessels formed a line in the sea stretching seven-and-a-half miles long, with 27,000 troops on board.

Many of the soldiers were unaware they were headed for Egypt, where they would train before being landed at Gallipoli to fight the Turks. A few sailors threw messages in small bottles over the side of the vessels, begging the finders to convey a final farewell to their loved ones.

The troop-laden ships from different ports all converged in the magnificent natural harbour of King George Sound in Albany. Banjo Patterson, corresponding for the Sydney Morning Herald, gave a firsthand witness account of the scene in the harbour.

“The only sign of life is the column of smoke appearing from each funnel,” he wrote, “and this alone…tells us that Australia’s greatest maritime venture is about to put to sea.”

Historian Dr Sue Graham-Taylor explains that Albany was chosen as the rendezvous “because it was an important port from which they could get coal supplies and water.”

She says Albany continued to play a  crucial role in provisioning returning ships, both those ships picking up reinforcement soldiers and others operating as hospital ships full of wounded soldiers.

Western Australia’s deep connection to the First World War and its Anzac tradition are inscribed in Albany’s landscape. In 1985, many decades after old enmities had ended, the sea channel between King George Sound and Princess Royal Harbour was renamed Ataturk Entrance.

The name change honours Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish leader who rallied his troops to defeat ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli.

The Anzac legend

The First World War is synonymous with the legend of the ANZACs, who landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey on 25 April, 1915. It was the first military engagement in which large numbers of our troops fought and died as Australian
nationals.

Over eight terrible months, alongside their British, French and other soldier mates, the ANZACs fought an ultimately futile campaign against the Turks. That conflict alone killed 7,600 Australians and 2,500 New Zealanders; another 19,000
Australians and 5,000 New Zealanders were wounded in battle.

Eventually evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915, the surviving men were returned to Egypt. Yet for many infantry division soldiers, the war went on; they were sent to fight even bloodier battles on the Western Front. At a time when the Australian population was less than five million citizens, the casualties were huge. During the entire First World War, out of more than 324,000 Australians who left for service overseas, one in five – or 60,000 – did not return.

Over half of the Australians who enlisted were either killed or wounded, one of the highest casualty rates amongst the British Empire forces. Dr Graham-Taylor says the figures are more poignant when one considers that every man had volunteered freely to go to war; conscription played no part in Australia.

albany harbor

Western Australia made a greater proportional contribution to the nation’s wartime effort than any state. An underdeveloped state with a small population sent 32,231 Western Australians into battle, constituting one third of all local men aged 18 to 41.

In her 1982 book Bush Heroes, author  Suzanne Welborn noted that Western Australians made up more than one quarter of the Australian soldiers chosen to land at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915. Four years later, only one in four of them had escaped death or severe injury.

Western Australians also won a greater number of Victoria Crosses than soldiers from other states, and gained a reputation for toughness and ferocity.

Welborn attributed these qualities  to the harsh conditions many men had experienced simply growing up in WA.

And she saw parallels between the home landscapes that the soldiers knew and those they were sent to fight in on the other side of the world.

“and they just shot us down …”

One soldier writing from the trenches in France reported on the fighting with chilling detachment: ‘It was a nice day, just like a spring day in Perth, quite warm. And they just shot us down to a man.’”

Albert Facey, author of A Fortunate Life, was among thousands of men in Western Australia who enlisted. His upbringing was typically tough; before he was two years old, his father Joseph died of typhoid fever on the goldfields of Coolgardie and his mother abandoned him to be raised by his grandmother.

He served at Gallipoli with the 11th Battalion until, in August, he was badly injured; two of his brothers were killed in the war. He later attributed his ongoing health problems to a bullet wound and the traumatic impact of a shell blast.

Facey was typical of many returned troops who accepted the state’s offer of a block of farming land on which to settle down. These soldier-settler schemes reshaped the landscape of southwest Western Australia; the men cleared swathes of jarrah and karri forests and hun- dreds of acres of scrubby open country.

Like many newcomer farmers, Facey was forced to abandon his land in the Depression era and went back to driving trams in the city.

The scars of war ran deep in the psyche of each returning veteran, whose families also suffered as they dealt with shell- shocked and broken men. “We know so little about the fates of those surviving men, who were two thirds of the 27,000 who left on the first convoy,” observes Dr Graham-Taylor. “For many, the impact of war lasted a lifetime. War didn’t end with the Armistice for them.”

These little-known domestic narratives about war’s impact – poorly documented until now – will be highlighted in Remembering Them, an exhibition series in 32 regional museums across Western Australia, to be held during First World War commemorations.

The exhibitions will look at the social impact and human cost of the war on rural Western Australia, exploring themes like loss, gallantry and survival – both at home and in combat.

Western Australians at Gallipoli

 Extract from a letter

by Lieutenant C. Irwin Burges of Dongara, writing from the 3rd General Hospital, Wandsworth, London. Published in the Geraldton Guardian on 30 October, 1915.

western australian gallipoli

The 10th Light-Horse, like the rest of the Australian Forces, has suffered very heavily. On the morning of August 7th we had to attack the Turkish trenches opposite our lines and about 15 yards from us…Our poor fellows fell in rows, not one man got more than a few yards from our own trenches. They were mown down like corn before the binder, and we lost 88 men killed outright and 84 badly wounded in five minutes. We survivors crawled back slowly. To move meant death and some took hours to crawl ten yards.

… [They were] brave men and true, and they gave their lives unhesitatingly for their King and country, for when the order came to go they knew it meant death and so it proved. The worst part of the whole affair was the days and weeks to follow. We had to remain in these same trenches, and look for three weeks at the dead bodies of our mates only a few yards over the parapet.

… Truly the West Australian regiments and battalions have made a great name, as have the whole of the Australian forces. [I was]..put on board the hospital ship, and with some 200 others (mostly Australians and New Zealanders), we sailed to England, via Malta. Everybody here thinks the world of the Australians, and we are being treated right royally. It just goes to show how seriously the people of England regard this terrible war and it is recognised that it will require the combined efforts of every man and woman in our great Empire to defeat the aims of the two great central powers.