Monday 14 May 2012 by Kerrie Leech. 2 comments
News, Personal Stories, Family history, New acquisitions, Collection

Last month, the Memorial was delighted to accept a Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) diary, donated by Mr Martin Smee of Port Elliot, South Australia.  Mr Smee made the trip to Canberra to personally deliver the diary, which has been part of his family's valuable family history for many years.  The diary was written by his grandfather, Able Seaman Driver Laurie John Smee.  Born in South Australia, Laurie ran away to sea when just 17.  After serving on various merchant ships and making his way to England, he joined the Royal Navy and served on several British ships before returning to Australia to join the newly formed RANBT in March 1915. 

The RANBT was being prepared to work as an engineering unit on the Western Front but in August 1915 was diverted to the Gallipoli Peninsula to work with British troops.  Here the 300 men of the RANBT were based at Kangaroo Beach and operated the wharves that all men and supplies were landed across.  They also carried out a wide range of other engineering duties and were under constant shell fire; four men died and another 60 wounded during their five months on the Peninsula.  The Bridging Train then served in the Middle East, operating the bridges over the Suez Canal, from February 1916 until May 1917 when the unit was disbanded. 

Laurie's diary commences in June 1915, with his departure from Melbourne on A39 SS Port Macquarie with 318 horses and 400 men.  He landed on the Peninsula in August and describes the conditions, the many near misses, and day to day work of the RANBT.  An entry dated Monday 6th [September] reads:

This has been a sorrowful day for all hands.  At 6am the Turkish battery opened fire on our camp from Byuk  Anafarta which played havoc with our men.  We had 3 injured and one CPO killed outright.  it was a pitiful sight for one to see.  We were all dodging schrapnels and liddite when one fell in a dugout where the said CPO was sitting mourning over the sad news of his brother being killed when a shell burst and took his head clean off also his right hand and knee...

 

Another entry dated Monday 29th [November] describes the terrible winter conditions that had descended on the Peninsula:

The weather is bitterly cold and the dugouts and timber is coated with snow but there is another sight that I am about to relate that looks awful.  During Sunday night the rain fell in torrents and on top of that came the snow which naturally put everything to a standstill for the time being.  And during the day 2000 men, Infantry, Mountain Battalions, Royal Engineers, etc have been suffering something awful as the first, second, and reserve trenches are overflowing with water.  And the men remained in them until 7pm Monday, when they received orders to retire.  Those that had the strength to crawl or drag themselves out did so.  The remainder had to remain in the trench frozen to their rifles and consequently to death.  And if one could see the poor wretches standing in water up to their armpits and frozen as they stand.  It is possible even now (Tuesday) to walk from one end of the trench to the other and see the lads in dozens standing up but not counting those that are underneath the ice which is 6-8 inches thick throughout.

The RANBT left the Peninsula in December 1915.  After serving in the Middle East, Laurie Smee returned to Australia in July 1917. 

Laurie's original diary is accompanied by a typed transcript which Martin had attempted to compile many years ago.  In 2008 he made contact with Commander Greg Swinden, a naval historian, and with his help the transcript was completed.  The eventual donation of the diary and transcript to the Memorial is due in no small part to the assistance and efforts of Commander Swinden. 

Prior to this donation, the Memorial only had one other personal diary from the RANBT.  By donating his grandfather's diary to the Memorial, Martin Smee has not only ensured that it will be preserved for future generations to read, but he has also provided the opportunity for further research into the history of the RANBT.  The diary is held as PR04710.

Comments

My Grandfather, Cyril Lindsay Gordon Harslett, was also a member of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train and his diaries are held at the State Library, NSW. I recently sighted these and was overwhelmed by his reports of his experiences similar to these. His diaries also covered his Team's forays into the Suez Canal and France where, towards the end of 1918, he describes visiting an abandoned "boiling down chamber" complete with sombre description of rotting corpses and vats of "stew". It is hard to describe how precious and poignant it was for me to be able to not only hold two diaries that were with my Grandfather for over 3 years but to gain an insight into a man who I never knew and my father barely got to know. I now have a project gradually copying these diaries for my family.

My Grandfather, Alexander Gordon Maxwell, was also a member of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, having enlisted in Melbourne. He departed Australia in 1915 from Albany, Western Australia, on the Port MacQuarie and served at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. When the RANBT was disbanded he then saw duty on the Western Front. I am in possession of his diary which outlines his experiences during the conflict. This diary is his hand written transcript of the original made after his return to Australia. Unfortunately the whereabouts of his original diary is unknown.