FREDERICK MUIR – VOLUME 3
Volume 3 of War Letters 1914–1918 is based on the letters of Frederick Muir, a twenty-one-year-old Australian who fought and died at Gallipoli during the First World War (WW1). The letters cover his departure from Australia, his training in Egypt, the 25 April landing on the Gallipoli peninsula and the fighting there until his death just before the final evacuation. It is available at Amazon for £2.99.
It wasn’t just in Britain that young men were offering to serve King and country in the war against Germany. Throughout the British Empire men from all walks of life were coming forward eager to join up. In Australia, Frederick Warren Muir, a twenty-one-year-old trainee solicitor from Unanderra, a small settlement 100 km south of Sydney, was one of thousands wanting to enlist.
Fred’s mother, Alice, must have found it extremely hard when her son broke the news that he wanted to join the war in Europe. Fred’s father had died when Fred was just one year old, leaving Alice, who ran the local post office, to bring up Fred and his older brother James alone. A few years later, Alice suffered another terrible loss when James was shot dead at the bank where he had taken his first job. He was just eighteen years old.1
Although she had remarried and had two young daughters with her new husband, Fred was now her only son. He also had the prospects of a promising career following in his father’s footsteps as a solicitor. Perhaps his mother asked him not to go, but like many Australians Fred felt a sense of loyalty to Britain and the Empire pulling him to a conflict on the other side of the world.
That loyalty stemmed, in no small part, from the profoundly close ties that existed between the two countries. When the war began, it was only 13 years since the previously separate British colonies of South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia had joined together as a federation with their own parliament.2
Although now a nation in its own right, most Australians still felt proudly part of the British Empire and celebrated the fact each year with Empire Day. The report from one Melbourne newspaper in 1911 is typical of many at the time. ‘Empire flags on the tramcars, gay bunting at every window and on every flag-pole, and the midday booming of a salute of 21 guns from the Domain proclaimed the fact that yesterday was May 24 and Empire Day. The school-children spent the day in patriotic lessons, singing patriotic songs, while in every school the ceremony of saluting the flag was carried out. Bonfires were lit in every suburb, while the explosions of crackers gave loud manifestation of the loyalty of young Australians.’ 3
The lessons the children learnt weren’t just about the history of the Empire but their role and place in it. Attending his local school in the first decade of the 20th century, Fred would have had similar lessons and heard similar sentiments. ‘It all resolved into one thing – Duty,’ said a newspaper report about what one headmaster, Mr Sutton, had told the children at his school. ‘The Empire builders simply did their duty. He wanted the boys and girls to remember that word and act it up throughout their lives. At Mr Sutton’s request the boys and girls repeated the word “Duty.” ’ 4
[The introduction in the book continues until … ]
… When they had all gathered, there was a fleet of 38 troopships, 28 from Australia and ten from New Zealand. In all, they were carrying 30,000 men. Accompanying them was an escort of four warships: two from Australia, the Sydney and Melbourne, one from Britain, the Minotaur, and one from Japan, the Ibuki. Finally, on 1 November 1914, with the German fleet still believed to be in the Pacific, the convoy set sail, everyone believing they were destined for England.21
[The following are just two of the many letters Fred wrote to his mother. The first is written just as they arrived in Egypt and describes the voyage; the second is the beginning of a letter from Gallipoli describing the build up to the invasion. Only the notes to the first letter are included in this sample.]
10th December 1914
At last after seven weeks on the water we are again safely on dry land and I can send a full description of the voyage. Taking things all round we had quite a good trip: good weather, plenty to eat and not too much work.1
We left Albany after being there a week. The ships were formed up in their lines with a battleship on each flank. We had to keep all our lights covered when we left on account of the “Emden” being loose somewhere in the vicinity. You would have smiled if you could have seen me with a close hair crop, dressed in an unspeakable suit of blue dungarees and white cloth hat and canvas shoes.
Although the “Afric” was fairly large there was not too much room, so we could only drill about 3 hours a day. The rest of the day was then at our own disposal. We spent most of our time on deck reading and sleeping. We slept in hammocks, which were quite comfortable when you got used the them, and we had about 500 magazines on board, which had been presented by the Red Cross Society and by the newspaper companies, and they proved most acceptable to while away the leisure hours. We also had a paper published on board called the “Kangaroo”, but this only published the Battalion news and such snaps of war news as we get by wireless. I will send a bundle of Kangaroos along as soon as I get the chance to do them up, and I want you to keep them for me as they are an interesting memento of the voyage.2
The food on board was much superior to what we were accustomed to at Kensington. We got soup for dinner, also an occasional pudding or two, and cold meat and pickles for tea. We also had unaccustomed luxuries such as butter, milk, pepper, mustard, etc. and bacon and eggs for breakfast on Sundays. So, taken all round, the food was very good. We were divided up into messes of 18 who dined at the same table and slept together. Two of us took turns each week as mess orderlies, whose duties it was to get the meals, clear up the tables and sling the hammock. We also had a canteen on board where we could buy any small luxuries we desired, and we were allowed a pint of beer per day, per man, which proved quite acceptable in the hot weather.3
We had plenty of amusements too: a glee club was formed, also a miniature orchestra, and concerts were given on deck every Saturday night and sometimes through the week. We had a representative of the Y.M.C.A. on board who looked after all the sports and also the library and distributed paper and envelopes free to the men. Every Wednesday afternoon was a half holiday for sports, and we had boxing and wrestling tournaments, etc. Every Sunday morning the Colonel read the church service as we had no minister aboard.4
On Monday 9th November there was very great excitement on board as we learned that the “Sydney” had gone off in pursuit of the “Emden”. At about 9 o’clock the “Melbourne” and the Jap cruiser also left us and steamed full speed to the eastward. A little later on we got word by the wireless that the “Emden” had run aground on the Cocos Islands while the “Sydney” was pursuing her collier. There was great enthusiasm on receipt of the news. We had passed within 25 miles of the Cocos Islands about 6.30 that morning and must have actually sighted the “Emden”.5
On Sunday 15th November we arrived at Ceylon. A welcome sight after seeing only water for 14 days. To us, unaccustomed to the glories of the East, Colombo seemed like a glimpse of fairyland. Brilliant yellow and orange butterflies came fluttering around the ship and the natives in their boats gathered around us on the water. The air there has a spicy smell and the sea and sky seem bluer and the sunlight is of a dazzling purity. The feathery palms, the red and white houses, the patches of vivid green vegetation, the native boats with their brown lateen sails in the foreground and the blue mountains towering into the clouds in the background all helped to impress the scene on our memory.
We sighted Egypt on Thursday [26 November] and arrived at Aden on Friday. Aden is a great contrast to Colombo: someone aptly described it is as “Port Hell”. High ragged cliffs rise precipitously out of the water on both sides, and forts and signal stations are perched dizzily on the top of these cliffs.
We left the next morning. It was then a five days run up the Red Sea to Suez where we received the advance guard of the hoards of Arabs, who attacked with all manner of goods for sale. It seems to be the chief ambition of every Arab to sell something to a British soldier at about four times its correct value. They brought us oranges, figs, dates, silks, handkerchiefs, curios, postcards and a hundred other things. It was almost impossible to get rid of them without using sheer force.
We stayed one day at Suez and then proceeded through the Canal to Port Said. The Canal is protected for its full length by Indian soldiers who are strongly entrenched on the banks. After two days at Port Said, we shifted to Alexandria where we lay for three more days before disembarking and entraining for Cairo on Tuesday [8 December].6
Our passage from the ship to the train was attended by about 500 of the ubiquitous Arabs, all anxious to sell us something; they followed the train as long as possible, and fresh hoards arrived at every station on the journey like vultures. The train itself journey was very interesting. Outside the towns the Egyptian native has not changed much since the days of the Pharaohs. He still scratches the ground with a primitive wooden plough drawn by two oxen, lives in mud villages, some of which are fairly respectable but mostly resemble exaggerated rubbish heaps.
We arrived at Cairo about 8 o’clock, but by the time we had a cup of cocoa and arranged our baggage it was 11 o’clock. It was originally arranged that we should march out to our camp, which is 10 miles from Cairo, but at the last minute, greatly to our joy, we were provided with trams and arrived at our encampment at Mena about 2 o’clock in the morning.
I am actually writing this from a Cairo hotel as the facilities for writing at the camp are small. The hotel is largely frequented by Australians as there are good writing rooms, and we can get a warm bath and a good meal here very cheaply. I will tell you all about Cairo and our encampment here in my next letter as I must close or I will not be able to pay the postage.
I think we will have quite a good time here when we settle down but will write next mail and let you know how things are progressing. Trusting that everyone is well and will best wishes to all.
[There are then several letters detailing life and training in Egypt before Fred begins to write following the Gallipoli landings.]
19th June 1915
Having still a little time on my hands I will continue the record of our doings from where I left off in my last letter. On Friday 23rd April the first of the transports sailed slowly out of Mudros Harbour amid cheers from the remaining boats and was followed at short intervals by others till darkness fell. At daybreak next morning the throb of the propellers warned us that we too were under way, and just as dawn was breaking we crept silently through the lines of troopships and battleships, past the boom of torpedo nets guarding the entrance and into the Aegean. Once out of the harbour we swung northwards along the coast, followed by ship after ship at regular intervals till there was a line as long as the eye could reach. At about 11 o’clock we dropped anchor in a small cove on the opposite side of the island, only about 40 miles from Gallipoli.
Preparations for disembarkation were now made in earnest: ammunition, picks and shovels were issued, water bottles filled, rifles inspected, emergency rations served out and final instructions read over once again. Next came the task of packing our kits – no light matter as henceforth everything we required had to be carried on our backs. This meant that many personal luxuries, letters, books, spare clothing and a host of other articles were ruthlessly consigned to the deep to lighten the load. These preparations concluded, we settled down again amid an atmosphere of suppressed excitement to await events.
We had been paid a few days previously and most of the men passed the time gambling with what remained of their loose cash. The powers that be were too busy to suppress this, so poker, and crown and anchor schools flourished. The tinkling of a couple of mandolins and snatches of the eternal soldiers songs added an air of festivity to the troop deck. During the afternoon a message was read from the King wishing us luck in our venture and also the following address from Sir Ian Hamilton.
“Soldiers of France and the King. Before us lies an adventure unprecedented in modern warfare. Together with our comrades of the fleet we are about to force a landing upon an open beach in face of positions which have been vaunted by our enemies as impregnable. The landing will be made good with the help of God and the Navy. The positions will be stormed and the war brought one step nearer a glorious close. ‘Remember,’ said Lord Kitchener, when bidding goodbye to your commander, ‘once you set foot on the Gallipoli Peninsula, you must fight the thing through to a finish.’ The world will be watching our progress. Let us prove ourselves worthy of the great feat of arms entrusted to us.”
As darkness fell a line of battleships took up their positions across the mouth of the bay, and everything was ready for the next act of the great drama. We snatched a few hours uneasy sleep, but at about 12 o’clock the shuddering of the deck beneath us showed that we were again on our way. If there is any truth in the old maxim, “the better the day, the better the deed,” this force should do well, as almost all our important moves were made on a Sunday. We left Sydney on Sunday, we arrived at Albany on Sunday and left Australian shores the following Sunday, we arrived at Colombo on Sunday, we left Suez on Sunday, we re-embarked on Sunday, and now again on the fateful day we were to land on the enemy’s shore.
Slightly before dawn we arrived off the coast of Gallipoli and crept continuously in towards the shore till we could just distinguish the clear outlines of the hills. The sight, in the half-light, was a memorable one: in front of us lay the black mass of the Peninsula, while on either side of us the dark shapes of the battleships and transports were barely visible in the gloom; not a light was visible in the whole fleet and no sound was to be heard.
Suddenly there came a flash of light from the shore followed by the roar of a gun and crackle of rifle fire, and we knew that the 3rd Brigade were fighting for a landing. The rifle fire grew stronger and more general, and we strove to see what was happening but could see nothing save the stabs of fire from the rifles and the flash of the big guns. As the light grew stronger, the battleships swung close to the shore and fired broadside after broadside into the hills where the flashes showed the enemy’s guns to be situated. At this point we were sent below for breakfast. After bolting a few hasty mouthfuls, we struggled into our equipment and lined up on deck to await disembarkation. By this time the hills in front echoed with the crackle of rifle fire and the roar of the guns as the fleet answered the shore batteries with deadly fire.
At 9 o’clock we received our orders and climbed down the steep side of the “Minnewaska” into the H.M.S. “Scourge”. Her decks packed well with troops, the little destroyer sheered off and darted towards the shore, cheered lustily by a shipload of Indians awaiting their turn to disembark. About 50 yards from the shore, the destroyer stopped and we tumbled unceremoniously over the side into the ship’s boats alongside, our movements considerably accelerated by the whistle of a few bullets overhead. As our boat drew away from the destroyer, the fort on Kaba Tepe to our left opened fire and shell after shell burst above us, the bullets churning up the water all around but doing no damage. Then H.M.S. “Euryalus”, standing close inshore, engaged the fort guns and we had the satisfaction of seeing columns of flame and smoke arising from the headland. Even as we watched, our boat grated on the stones, and we sprang out into the water and waded ashore to find ourselves at last on hostile soil …’
Notes to Introduction
[These are the notes that accompany the first part of the introduction.]
1. ‘James was shot dead at the bank where he had taken his first job his only brother …’ James (Fred’s brother) had been working for two months as a clerk at the Commercial Banking Co., Gayndah, Sydney. He was shot on the evening of 18 October 1908 following a violent struggle with a burglar at the bank. Northern Times, 24 Oct 1908, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article74880580
Arthur Ross, the man who committed the murder, was executed by hanging in June the following year. Byron Bay Record, 12 June 1909, p. 9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article108050167
2. ‘joined together as a federation with their own parliament …’ The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) has an excellent guide to the birth of the Australian nation, tracing the transition from colonies to federation. The ‘further information’ links on the ‘Federation Story’ pages also provide links to a multitude of other sources, both print and online. ‘Federation Story’, http://www.abc.net.au/federation/fedstory/home.htm
The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK), one of the key founding documents of the new nation, along with many other important documents that shaped Australia are at http://foundingdocs.gov.au/area-aid-2.html
3a. ‘Empire Day …’ Empire Day, which took place on 24 May, had its origins in Canada at the end of the 19th Century, but began to be celebrated throughout the Empire following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. It was first celebrated in Australia in 1905.
The Australian National Film and Sound Archive has actuality footage from 1915 of people in a small Australian town celebrating Empire Day. The section of the page under ‘Education notes’ gives a brief history of the importance of the day. ‘Empire Day Pageant’, http://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/empire-day-pageant/clip1/
3b. ‘Empire flags on the tramcars, gay bunting at every window …’ The description of Empire Day 1911 in Melbourne comes from The Argus, 25 May 1911, p. 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article10904810
4. ‘At Mr Sutton’s request the boys and girls repeated the word “Duty” …’ Mr Sutton was headmaster of Mount Gambier School, South Australia. The report continues with what else he told the children: ‘They should all love the country to which they belonged. They had a great Empire that was worthy of love, and in Australia a large, prosperous, and splendid country. He hoped they would ever do their very best for both. He thought there were something like 80,000 schools in the Empire doing that day what they were doing here, celebrating Empire Day, and 8,500,000 pupils attending those schools, all thinking of the Empire, and what they could do for it. He hoped they would all grow up lovers of the Empire, and do their best to keep it great, glorious, and free.’ Border Watch, 29 May 1912, p. 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77466612
Notes to Letters
[These are the notes to Fred’s first letter home.]
1. ‘I can send a full description of the voyage …’ The voyage of the flotilla is covered in Bean, C.E.W., Official History, Vol.I, chaps. v-vi, pp. 98–114, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol1/ (PDF pp. 17-21) ( 0.91 MB); (PDF pp. 1-14) (0.62 MB)
Bean, however, gives almost no details of what life was like aboard, concentrating principally on the events surrounding the capture of the Emden. Two accounts of the voyage aboard the Afric from the soldier’s perspective that do give details of life aboard are given in the letters of Sergeant John Hoey Moore and the diary of Lance Corporal Archibald Barwick.
Moore, J.H. (ed.), Anzac Jack, pp. 11–24, www.anzac-jack.com/Anzac%20Jack.pdf (PDF pp. 13–26) (2.91 MB)
Archibald Barwick diary, State Library of New South Wales, pp. 25–56, http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/_transcript/2011/D04351/a2549.htm
2. ‘We also had a paper published on board called the “Kangaroo” …’ According to The History of the First Battalion A.I.F., 1914–1919, ‘Some of the men had managed to get a printing plant presented to them, and had set it up in one of the cabins. The second day at sea saw the first issue of the “Kangaroo”, which was produced daily until the end of the voyage. It consisted of one full page, well printed and with a collection of wood-cuts, turned to novel use by the topical allusions that accompanied them. After the voyage the printer found his occupation gone and, having no taste for soldiering, promptly deserted.’ Stacy, B.V. et al., The History of the First Battalion, A.I.F., 1914–1919, p. 17, http://nla.gov.au/nla.aus-vn4767397 (PDF p. 20) (37.54 MB)
The Sydney Morning Herald carried an article about the Kangaroo twenty-five years after it was published. ‘It was,’ says the paper, ‘a breezy, useful, clean, healthy newspaper because it was a reflex of the character and personality of the Australian elements that went into the making of the Anzacs of the immortal memory.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Apr 1939, p.13, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17570075
3. ‘The food on board was much superior to what we were accustomed to …’ The ships had been chartered from their owners by the Australian government and, as part of the contract, the ship owners were responsible for feeding the troops. A fixed scale of rations was agreed. This was 1s. 4d. per day for privates, 3s. 3d. for warrant officers and sergeants, and 6s. for commissioned officers. As the Afric, like many of the other troopships, had been a commercial passenger boat, this may also go some way to explaining the high quality of the food. Jose, A.W., Official History, Vol. IX, ch. xiii, p. 408, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol9/ (PDF p. 3) (1.38 MB)
4. ‘We had a representative of the Y.M.C.A. on board …’ The YMCA in Australia had a special ‘army department’ dedicated to working with the troops, and sent representatives from YMCA groups in the different states to accompany the men on the ships. They provided a range of entertainments but also saw it as an ideal opportunity to evangelise.
A letter from George Shapley, one of the Adelaide YMCA secretaries who sailed with the first troopships, gives a fascinating description of both these aspects of his work on the voyage. The Register, 23 Dec 1914, p. 9, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/59927597
5. ‘the “Emden” had run aground on the Cocos Islands …’ Bean describes the events leading up to the capture of the Emden in Bean, C.E.W., Official History, Vol. I, ch. vi, pp. 103–8, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol1/ (PDF pp.3–8) (0.62 MB)
A more detailed account is given in Jose, A.W., Official History, Vol. IX, ch. vii, pp. 179–207, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol9/(PDF pp. 1–35) (1.55 MB)
6. ‘After two days at Port Said, we shifted to Alexandria where we lay for 3 more days before disembarking and entraining for Cairo …’ It was originally intended that the Australian and New Zealand forces should go to England to complete their training, but on 28 November 1914 the Afric, along with the other ships in the convoy, received instructions that the troops were to complete their training at Cairo. 1st Infantry Battalion War Diary, p. 19, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/awm4/23/18/(PDF p. 21) (6.19 MB).
In terms of its consequences for the future of the Australian and New Zealand forces, the decision turned out to be one of the most fateful of the war. Understanding who made the decision and why, however, has been hampered by the account given by Bean in the official history.
In that account Bean says that the critical factor affecting the decision was the appalling conditions, due to the bad weather, at the proposed training camp on Salisbury Plain in England. He then credits Sir George Reid, the Australian High Commissioner in London, for being the leading force behind the decision to disembark in Egypt.
Bean says: ‘On receiving a full report of the conditions on Salisbury Plain, Sir George Reid immediately telephoned to Lord Kitchener, obtained an interview, and put to him the opinion that the Australian troops must be diverted to Egypt at once, and on no account be allowed to come to England.’ Lord Kitchener, says Bean, ‘was ready to be convinced of the desirability of this step, and the decision was forthwith urged upon the Australian Government, which adopted it.’ Bean, C.E.W., Official History, Vol. I, ch. vi, pp. 111–12, http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol1/ (PDF p.11) (0.62 MB)
This account is completely different to an account that Bean himself gave on 26 December 1914 following a conversation with Reid. According to this account, it was Kitchener who called Reid to suggest the troops disembark in Egypt.
Recounting what Reid had told him, Bean says: ‘On the same day [17 November 1914] on which these reports [about the conditions in England] came to hand Sir George received a ring on the telephone. It was from Lord Kitchener. He had rung up to make the suggestion that the Australian force should train in Egypt.’ The Argus, 20 Jan 1915, p. 9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1490932
The overriding factor influencing Kitchener’s decision wasn’t the bad weather conditions at Salisbury but the entry of Turkey into the war and the consequent need to protect Allied interests in the area. While the condition of the training camps might well have been an additional factor, they were clearly not the decisive element, as evidenced by a telegram Kitchener sent to General Sir John Maxwell, commander of the British forces in Egypt.
According to Maxwell: ‘On November 20th, Lord Kitchener telegraphed that owing to the Turkish threat, the Australian and New Zealand contingents would disembark and train in Egypt, and that I was to make arrangements for their reception.’ Powles, C.G., The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, p.ix, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Sina-t1-front-d5.html#n8.
Whatever the reasons for Bean changing his version of events, the effect of his account in the official history was to give the impression that Australia exercised a greater agency and influence over events than it would seem they actually did.