– By Vance Kelly –
This small company of extremely brave men were not only the very first group of men from New South Wales to set foot on Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915, but were always on the front line paving the way for other equally brave men throughout the Great War.
I have researched and traced their stories and their lives in an attempt to bring a more human quality to each soldier of the 1st FCE. Tracing some of their circumstances before going to war, their daily life and achievements during the war….. and for those who were lucky enough to have survived and return home, details of their lives after the war.
For most of the 229 soldiers there has been plenty to write about, however some had a very short military service or the personal detail has been limited to a very short war record, and some have just disappeared off the radar. In all cases it has not prevented me from including every sapper and officer with honesty and respect.
I have made every effort to try and get a feel for what they were like as everyday people.
The diversity of their personalities not just through their actions in war but through their words in a simple letter, a page from a diary, a simple line in the longing letter from a loved one, or even the unfortunate dedications in a death notice back home, have all helped to create some personal depth to the engineer and his family.
These were among the very first men to enlist for service in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), “Nineteen Fourteeners”, as they became known and when the call went out to enlist, these men couldn’t wait to sign up for the First World War, The Great War, the war to end all wars , and as they were also led to believe….. “The Great Adventure”.
It is also a telling of their quiet courage and modest heroics, their plucky attitudes, their larrikin behaviour , the pain of the war and loss that would burden some of them, their humour in the face of adversity, the tales of a few “bad eggs” and inspirational stories that have previously been untold.
Quite a number of the 1st Field Company Engineers were among the very first to step foot on Gallipoli, the first killed in action at Gallipoli, or died of wounds sustained in the first days and weeks, in fact it is on record they suffered the first official “ Killed In Action” (KIA) on the Gallipoli Peninsula, a young sapper named Frederick Reynolds from Manly Beach , Sydney.
Many would serve continuously at Gallipoli for the entire 8 months until the evacuation and then with amazing strength and courage continued their service on the Western front in Belgium, France, at the Somme, Fromelles, Pozieres, Ypres, Amiens, all major hell holes that were far worse than Gallipoli, and came at an even greater cost.
During the various campaigns a large number of sappers and officers would also receive various distinguished honours for gallantry and valued service and a few men continued to have very distinguished military and civilian careers after the war.
The “originals” of 1st Field Company Engineers were a company of men with an average age of 25. A company of predominantly young men full of enthusiasm and a unique blend of kinship and strength to take on the task ahead. The men were not trained soldiers, neither well equipped and disciplined , they were simply a mixed bunch of city and country fellows with all the diversity to their family and working backgrounds one could imagine.
The men would become our first fighting engineers made up of carpenters, bricklayers, bank clerks, boiler makers, plumbers, electricians, surveyors, blacksmiths, boot makers, farmers, farriers, axemen, motor mechanics, general labourers and the list goes on.
This diversity of trade and occupations was just as likely to be matched equally with a diversity of personalities, larrikins, robust drinkers , hardened tradesman, sportsman, men with some quiet reserve, some full of gusto and testosterone, some with a secret past, a real mix of young men ultimately bonding for the same cause, and eager to get going to war.
It wouldn’t take long for these men to become mates regardless of their background. Like a close-knit football team that had been together for years, in quick time these men would become dependent on one another and willing to go the extra yards for each other, without question, and without considering personal cost. They would have to become mates and at Gallipoli they all learned very quickly that the only people you could count on, were your mates.
Their complete story helps to capture the essence of what the ANZAC’S are and everything they represent to us today.
“In the end ANZAC stood and still stands for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat.” – Charles Bean
Story By Vance Kelly