History Parkes

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Diaries from the Battlefield : Memories from Bogan Gate’s Major Sydney Walker Part 1

While Charles Bean needs to be commended for his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918  it was the men who kept diaries and journals that offers a more personal insight into the rigours of war. Parkes resident and regular Library user, Margaret Jackson, shared her father’s diaries which we have presented in part on this post. Major Sydney James Walker was born in Bogan Gate and served his country in both World Wars. While official sites such as Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia have sparse details of his involvement in the Great War, thanks to Major Walker we can get a glimpse of what life in World War 1 was like through reading his writings.

“29/12/14 Accepted the responsibility of commanding and organising the Artillery Reinforcement of NSW

4/1/15 Selected the men to form the 2nd FAB 

5/1/15 Ordered to remove camp from Liverpool to Moore Park. No arrangements were made to receive the men consequently a great deal of trouble was caused in order to make some kind of camp.

11/1/15 Ordered to quarters in Victoria Barracks” 

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1915)

Major Walker’s diaries highlight that the many men who enthusiastically enlisted in the early years of the Great War created a logistical nightmare. Accommodating men – many who came from all parts of the state, and then transporting the soldiers, equipment and horses would have created administrative headaches. Major Walker’s diaries highlight that life while at sea was also difficult. Modern transport is about travelling efficiently and in comfort – the very opposite of what Major Walker and the AIF experienced 100 years ago.

“31/1/15  Appointed Adjutant of Troopship “Hessen” AH5 and ordered to go aboard 1/2/15 in order to take over and arrange for arrival of men and horses on 2/2/15

2/2/15 Remainder of troops and horses embarked, set sail about 4.30pm.

3/2/15 Appointed Orderly Officer of forward end of ship (142 horses)

4/2/15 Appointed Orderly Officer of Aft end of ship (258 horses)

5/2/15 Horse died. Funeral at sea. Removed horses from lower deck to top deck. Much excitement being caused in the process. Called away whilst writing to attend to sick horse. The horse was dead when I arrived. The vet held a post mortem over same. Pneumonia the cause of death.

6/2/15 Same old routine today. Rise at 5.50am, parade 6.30, men’s breakfast 7.30, parade 9.30, men’s dinner 12.30, parade 2.30, tea 5.30. Officer’s meals half-an-hour after men. Another horse died today and was quartered. The odour was most revolting and objectionable, penetrating all over the ship; the more noticeable because all were inoculated today. Feeling very miserable and can hardly stand up on account of insulation. The work is very strenuous now and if anything goes wrong or if anyone is wanted, the Adjutant is called. On duty from 6amt till 10pm; the only time I have to myself is meal time and a few minutes I take off to smoke and write. The men planned a “musical evening” tonight but insulation caused it to be postponed. Weather fine but very, very cold at night.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication 1915)

Major Sydney James Walker in his full World War 1 attire, including woolen gloves

Major Sydney James Walker in his full World War 1 attire, including woolen gloves Source: private family collection.

Being made Adjutant would have been a source of honour and pride for many families. Major Walker describes it differently. The Commanding Officers turned to their Adjutants to carry out difficult duties, and Walker had to liaise with many different soldiers over various matters that occurred while on ship.

“7/2/15 Suffering from severe headache today. The weather is fine but cloudy. It is very pretty sight [sic] to see the three ships (Hessen, Chilka, Clan McThay?) all sailing abreast of each other. Another horse died today. Pumps went wrong and night picquet had to bail the water out, the men struck and Captain Johnston dealt with the case and got the men to return to duty. I had retired for the night when the C.O. sent for me and wanted me to attend a meeting re settling on account of fodder. The result was I had to count all the horses. This put me in a bad temper and one of the picquet had left his post I therefore put him under open arrest and the outcome of his trail [sic] was that he was let off and an officer had to remain on duty all night. I was selected to act first night (naturally).

7/2/15 Horse died 2.30am. Land sighted at 6am. Weather fine but sea rather rough. The “thydeus” passed us today. Albatrosses followed the ship today; the first time we seen them [sic]. Sent a wireless home. Feeling much better today. Headache gone and effects of inoculation passed off. Another horse death reported to me at 9.15pm. Passed Cape Leevin Lighthouse about 8.30pm Saw a big bushfire on the coast. Found every picquet and sentry asleep; put them all under open arrest.

8/2/15  Slept all morning. Arrived at the Rendezvous Rott Nest at 12.30pm We had to wait 1/2 an hours for the “Mashobia”. A boat had to put out to meet her and get some salts for the horses. The Vet and I went with it and got some press news. The weather was very fine and pleasant today and the four ships moving abreast through the Indian Ocean must look very imposing. Played cards in the Chief Engineers room until 12.15am then went to bed.

9/2/15                  Carried out the routine work today the same as usual. Played cards at night. The engines stopped suddenly during the night, nearly all the crew, cooks etc All jumped up out of bed fearing the Germans had arrived. It is beginning to get very warm during the day; the lower deck is almost unbearable for both horses and men during the day.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication 1915)

Embarkation Roll including Major Sydney James Walker

Embarkation Roll including Major Sydney James Walker on board HMAT A45 Hessen

As Australians we are proud of “mateship” that often gets documented. However to get a true understanding of life during the Great War, we need to remember that not everyone in the Australian army were great mates. Even friendships will be tested while living in cramped conditions and being confined to the ship transporting you from your home to a destination you may never have even heard of. Major Walker’s accounts of 10th February 1915 highlight the difficulties of everyone trying to get along while working and living together at sea.

“10/2/15 The Vet overstepped himself today by ‘ordering’ a soldier to do some work for him. The soldier refused to leave his horses, as he was picquet and told by C.O. not to leave. The man was made a prisoner and tried. He was let off as the C.O. considered him in the right. This excited the Vet who there upon got drunk and quarrelled with me over fatigues. He also used the horses in such a brutal manner the C.O. and Captain of the ship had to interfere. Two more horses were disposed of today. One died and one was shot. The weather is extremely hot during the day but it gets cool in the evening. Played cards (Bridge) tonight until 12.40pm. On duty all night until 6.30am”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication 1915)

Major Sydney James Walker

Major Sydney James Walker

Major Walker’s account of the first eight days is enlightening to read with many difficulties and obstacles encountered even before experiencing combat. The trip from Melbourne to Alexandria was a month long. If the days were not filled with newsworthy events – men fighting, cyclones or horses’ deaths – then it was monotonous routine. The journey to Egypt went via Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) which was the first time Walker and his colleagues were able to walk on dry land. Here, Major Walker interacted with the Ceylonese natives, ate curry and was even shot at by one of the Australian Army’s officers (who was showing off his automatic revolver to Walker and the Chief Mate). Fortunately Walker’s leg didn’t need amputating, otherwise that would have been an interesting story to tell his loved ones back home – losing a leg from “friendly fire”! After surviving being fired at, Major Walker is now in Egypt.

“27/3/15 I am now encamped at Mena to which I was ordered on 23/3/15. This is a very much larger camp than Abbossa. We have the pyramids to the South and very imposing they look. They appear to be 1/2 a  mile from us but in reality they are 2 miles. Work is much more systematic here. We rise at 6am and retire when we are tired. There are plenty of amusements here for the men, including cinemas and vaudeville shows. The Officers generally gambled at night until 1 or 2am. On the 24th I went to the Hospital at Kasna El Ina and was introduced to all the sisters there (12 in all). They all conspired to give me a really good time. We played tennis all the afternoon and had dinner at 8pm. After dinner they handed round sweets in the centre of which were spirits such as Whiskey, Rum, etc. On the 25th we went for a manoeuvre in the desert. We did not do very much work. On the journey home to camp we saw a tremendous “willy willy” [this is an Aboriginal term for “whirly-whirly” or a “dust devil”] soaring over a mile high. It was very interesting as it was the first big one I had seen. Of course there are innumerable small ones everyday. The next day (26th) we went out for the day in the desert to carry out a Brigade exercise. We went about 4 miles out and then rested in the broiling [sic] hot sun. About 2.30 we commenced to return and got back at 3.30 and at 4.30 we had a conference and discussed the days work. To-day [sic] (27th) I am brigade orderly officer. There is a lecture at 9am to-day but I am unable to attend owing to being on duty.

It is very interesting to see the different units water. You see one long line of horses being led from every unit and there is great competition to see who will get to the trough first as there is only one long trough for each brigade and the last there always finds it empty. The horses are very well trained and will lie down quite contentedly by the man who looks after them. They have a young donkey as a mascot in this brigade (1st) and he is extremely interesting in his antics. He makes us laugh until the tears run down our eyes.

We were visited by myriad’s [sic] of locusts on Sunday 21st. They almost shut out the suns [sic] rays. The men amused themselves all day by throwing stones at random and knocking the locusts over. The locusts are large yellowish insects having long slender bodies. They do not make a noise like the Australian locust.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication 1915)

Major Walker's ship HMAT A45 Hessen - aka Bulla - has an interesting story too

Major Walker’s ship HMAT A45 Hessen – aka Bulla – has an interesting story too Source: Flotilla Australia website

 The ship that Major Walker sailed to war in has an interesting story as well. While Walker’s diaries call her the Hessen this was the name the Germans called the ship. On September 3rd 1914 the Hessen sailed into Melbourne unaware of the outbreak of World War I (Source: Jose, Arthur (1928). Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume IX. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. p. 543). The ship was seized and renamed HMAT A45 Bulla and used to transport Australian troops, including Major Walker. In 1918 the Bulla was transferred to the Commonwealth Government Line (Source: http://www.flotilla-australia.com/hmat2.htm#A45). In 1926 it was sold to a German and renamed Weissesee and was bombed and sunk by aircraft in 1943 (Source: http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/commonwealth.shtml)

Everything aforementioned are just some of the highlights from Major Sydney Walker’s first part of his diary. To view the entire Part 1 of his diary click on the link below:

major-sydney-james-walkers-diary part 1 (PDF, 4MB)

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