Over 100 years ago this young man from Gladesville in Sydney, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces. He came from a large family with two older brothers and four sisters. His mother had passed away just 7 months prior to his enlistment.
Sidney felt it was his duty to respond to the call to war and he didn’t hesitate.
Sidney was a gallant first day lander and a member of the sapper team that heroically rowed ashore dodging heavy shrapnel fire all the way and constructed the barrel piers on landing day at Gallipoli.
Sidney Matthew Garrett died from his wounds on the 6th March 1917 , today he is honoured and remembered and his story is available to read…. click here
A new discovery of what is likely to be the first pictures published of original members of the 1st Field Company Australian Engineers.
The picture above showing a relaxed and cheerful group of sappers “ON A PONTOON OF THEIR OWN CONSTRUCTION” on the lakes of Centennial Park , Sydney. They look proud of their achievement and at this early stage of their training completely unaware of how valuable these skills would prove to be throughout the war.
The pictures were published in the ‘Sydney Mail’ on the 23rd September 1914 just weeks after the men had enlisted.
– ON A PONTOON OF THEIR OWN CONSTRUCTION-
– ERECTING BARRICADES FOR PROTECTION FROM THE ENEMY’S FIRE –
“The work of the Field Engineers includes the construction of roads, pontoons, trestle bridges, barricades, wire entanglements, laying ground mines, digging entrenchments, and many other important as well as frequently dangerous duties.”
Known as Billy McDevitt,….. a rowing champion from Tasmania.
In 1911 Billy was travelling between Tasmania and Sydney and was planning his course towards becoming the world sculling champion when Australia suddenly joined the war in 1914.
An original member of the 1st Field Company Engineers, Billy was severely wounded at Gallipoli. Billy returned to Australia and with strength and determination recovered and when the war ended he returned to his love of rowing.
Ten years after he volunteered as an original member with the 1st FCE and at age 36 he became the Australasian Rowing Champion and was regarded by his peers as the best in the world.
In 1925 Charles “Billy” McDevitt was later declared World Rowing Champion.
The village of Pozières, is located in the Somme Valley, France. The main road running along the ridge, in the middle of the British sector of the Somme battlefields ran from the towns of Albert to Bapaume and close by stood the village of Pozieres, the highest point on the battlefield.
On the 19th July 1916 the men of the 1st Field company Engineers had bivouacked just outside of Albert, approximately 3 miles from the front lines. On the 21st July they marched into Albert and commenced helping to dig a communications trench that same night. The heavy bombardments from the Germans had already commenced and were relentless.
By Sunday the 23rd July the company had moved in closer to the front lines at Pozieres and commenced construction of a strong point for a machine gun placement.
Original 233 Cpl Thomas Arkinstall reported that the section was in front of Pozieres about 100 yards past the village , and were digging an advanced Machine Gun position overlooking two roads leading to Pozieres and Bapaume.
For four days, Pozieres would be pure hell for the men of the 1st Field Company Engineers.
Major Richard John Dyer
His Unit War Diary Entry
Major Richard John Dyer was the young officer in charge of the 1st Field Company Engineers during the Battle of Pozieres.
Major Richard Dyer remarkably not quite 23 years old was the very able and hardened Gallipoli veteran, famous for his single handed efforts at Gallipoli and his bravery at the German Officers Trench, creating his own landmark at what became known as “Dyers Crater”.
The young Major was no stranger to putting himself at great risk. However as Major and commanding officer, he was now placing his men at great risk and his diary entries show his hesitance in despatching the sections whilst under extremely heavy bombardment from the Germans.
Machine Gun Strong Point details – Unit Diaries July 1916Engineering Plan
Strong Point deatils Unit Diaries July 1916
The drawings above from the unit diaries showing the detailed plans for the construction of the “Strong Point” and machine gun placement.
Original 29 Bob Lundy recorded in his diary on the 23rd July the casualties and the devastation of the day, noting that there were dead laying all along the track and every inch of ground was just shell holes.
Within the first four days of the operations the return lists for the engineers prepared by original Lieut. Robert Osborne Earle for Major Richard Dyer outlined the devastation to the men of the 1st Field Company..
The casualties list recorded the men who were either killed, wounded, missing , gassed or suffering shell shock, between the 22nd and 26th July 1916.
Casualty List 1st FCE – July 1916 Part 1
Casualty List 1st FCE – July 1916 Part 2
Fourteen of the originals were included on this list of casualties…..58 Percy Hirst was listed as killed, 215 William Allan (Whelan) was listed as missing, 234 Archibald Bland and 50 Lionel Burton-Fuller were listed as wounded.
Also wounded was 88 George Casburn, a gun shot wound to the right hand and shoulder and 163 William Rice also a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
123 William Goodwin, 76 James Hamilton,184 Donald Clark, 237 Evelyn Lloyd.. all wounded.
336 Alfred Girdler and 157 Frederick Newson were gassed, and 242 Thomas Cook and 26 Roland King were both listed suffering from shell shock.
Interestingly the brothers of fellow originals 14 Edmund Banks and 139 James Pasfield were also on the same casualty list.
Pozieres Main street 1914
Pozieres Main street 1916
Pozieres Main street 1914 Pozieres Main street 1916
Still searching for a portrait of 215 William Whelan
During what became known as the “Somme Offensive”, between the 23 July and early September 1916, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions of the Australian Imperial Forces were involved in 19 attacks on German positions in and around the ruins of Pozieres.
Although the British and Australian artillery were no match for the German artillery and machine guns, despite that, they held their positions and subsequently held Pozieres at great cost. The Australians suffered 23,000 casualties while advancing only two kilometres.
Australian official historian Charles Bean declared that the Pozières Ridge ..” is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”- Charles Bean
Walter was a 27 year old “rough carpenter” or “bush carpenter” a familiar phrase in Australia and New Zealand 100 years ago.
Bush carpentry was very different to the carpentry we know today, with most of the timber cut on the property and worked by hand with axe, saw, wedge, mallet, auger and chisel. The houses, sheds, wagons and even tools were made from the local available materials such as tree trunks , saplings, fencing wire, metal scraps and anything that could be recycled such as metal drums etc.
104 James Percival Polley, was another experienced “Bush carpenter” who had been pliing his trade for 9 years. They were among the handiest men to have around at Gallipoli and the front.
The rough carpenter was very skilled, a man clever with his hands, methodical in his approach to work, able to improvise, very confident and always willing to learn new skills.
Walter was one of these men, a man not out of place even today.
He was born in Stratford, Victoria but was living and working his skills in New South Wales. His father, Archibald, his next of kin on his enlistment papers was living at Fairfield NSW.
Walter was wounded in Gallipoli, gunshot wounds to the hand and head on the 28th June 1915. His casualty is mentioned in the Unit diaries AWM4 – June 1915. He convalesced at Hospital in Mena, Egypt and when fully recovered he returned to Gallipoli in September and remained until the company was evacuated.
In March 1916 Walter was transferred to the 15th FCE and it wasn’t long before Walter was among the action on the front line at the Western front, where again he was wounded in action on 20th July 1916, a gun shot wound to his right arm and left leg.
Once again Walter recovers from his wounds and rejoined his unit on 30th May 1917 . On the 29th September 1917 again in the front line Walter is gassed and is hospitalized , but yet again rejoins the unit on 11th December 1917
He was now Corporal Walter Robertson, the rough carpenter was one tough individual, wounded on three occasions and displayed continued commitment to his unit. He had a faultless service record and was ultimately awarded the Military Medal. – He was recommended by Lt Col. Mather originally for the Distinguished Conduct medal. The original recommendation on his war file. Original recommendation RCDIG1068281–41-
‘For great gallantry and devotion to duty. In the neighbourhood of PERONNE, during operations 30th, 31st August, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th September, this N.C.O., as senior N.C.O. of his Section, assisted his Officer in the successful completion of a footbridge across the SOMME Valley. He continually went up and down his men, urging them on, and throughout night and day showed untiring energy. Previous to this Corporal ROBERTSON had reconnoitred in a collapsible boat, 500 yards ahead of Infantry, over the swamp, locating the shortest route to be followed, to strike firm land. On the completion of this track he made valuable reconnaissance, and, despite casualties, sent in valuable information quickly. He has shown himself a capable leader of men under extremely trying conditions of machine gun and shell fire.’
Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 115
Date: 10 October 1919
Walter returned to Australia safely on the HMAT “Devon” on the 24th November 1918.
Walter died suddenly in 1944 on 11th April 1944, he was 56 years of age. The Returned Soldiers League of Cobar managed his funeral arrangements and he was later buried at Cobar Shire Cemetery, New South Wales, Australia. Walter was survived by one brother Neil Robertson and his five sisters.
A similar picture of this cross, now a well known Anzac image was originally on the front page of the Sydney Mail and was published on December 1st 1915….. below
The following story accompanied the photo…
“Where Heroes Lie This cross, fittingly decorated with a wreath of victory , marks the resting-place of 14 gallant Australians. They were all members of the First Field Company of Engineers, which was the only Sydney unit with the first party that landed near Gaba Tepe on the historic morning of April 25th. The Engineers did admirable work on that fateful day, and ever since have carried out their dangerous and difficult duties in a manner which has elicited warm commendation from the General staff.”
The men whose names are cut on the cross are:
According to an article on 7th October 1916 in The Globe and Sunday Times War Pictorial this cross was erected and the names cut on it by Sapper 149 Charles Akins, an original member who also made the wreath and left it on the cross before he left Gallipoli.
It also mentions ……………………………
“Relatives of these soldiers may secure a copy of the photo by communicating with Mrs. Akins, of 30 Burton-street, Darlinghurst, East Sydney”.
Not all the men named on the cross were actually buried here and as each of their stories unfold it also explains their final day at Gallipoli.
The cross was later considered a memorial cross and this famous Gallipoli image of the cross was later replaced by a new cross and amended to read… “ Unknown Australian Soldier”.