The first to fall
Among the first casulties of the First World War were Australians fighting in the British Army.
On 26 August 1914, two weeks before the first action undertaken by Australian troops in the First World War, a 22-year-old lieutenant of the 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment lay mortally wounded by shrapnel in a cornfield outside the village of Ligny-en-Cambrésis. He had been in France for just three days. British and French troops had fought a series of rearguard actions against the German army, which was driving headlong towards Paris. The British line between Ligny-en -Cambrésis and the town of Le Cateau was supposed to slow the German advance, while the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) took up positions south of the River Meuse. But when German troops attacked Le Cateau, the British positions were overrun and the defenders were forced to withdraw. It was a costly action that resulted in 5,500 casualties in just a few hours, among them Lieutenant William Chisholm, who begged his men to leave him in the cornfield while the rest of the British line withdrew. Chisholm’s men carried him to a nearby church, where he uttered a few final words to his platoon sergeant: “They’ve done for me all right,” he said. “Let my people know that I died fighting like a soldier.”
William Malcolm Chisholm was the first officer of the East Lancashire Regiment to die in combat on the Western Front. From the available historical records, he also appears to be the first Australian killed in the First World War. Born in Sydney in 1892, William Chisholm was one of an unknown number of Australians who served in the British army and fought in some of the earliest battles on the Western Front. The eldest son of an eminent surgeon at Sydney Hospital, he was affectionately known by the family as Malcolm. He attended Sydney Grammar School, paraded with the 3rd Battalion Senior Cadets, and was later commissioned into the New South Wales Scottish Rifle Regiment. In 1910 the family briefly settled in Harrington Gardens in South Kensington, London, so that the children could receive an education in the British system. The following year Malcolm was accepted into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and was later gazetted into the 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment. As a newly minted lieutenant in the British Regular Army, he spent just eight months with the battalion at Sobraon Barracks in Colchester before embarking for France at the outbreak of war.
Australians like Malcolm Chisholm shared close ties with Britain and the Empire in the decades before the First World War. The six self-governing British colonies of Australia had federated less than 14 years before the war, although many Australians often retained a sense of dual nationality; for some, they were Britons first and Australians second. It helped that more than 20 per cent of the Australian population had been born in Britain, while many others had close family ties with “the mother country” that often spanned generations. Australians were connected to Britain not only by blood; wealthy families in Australia were also quite likely to send their sons to boarding schools in the British public school system and even to university. Young middle-class men were more likely to achieve a career in the military in Britain by attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst or the Royal Naval Colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth. It was a two-way exchange; some of those who made up the rank-and-file emigrated to Australia after completing a term of service in the British Army. Many remained as reservists who could be called upon in the event of a general mobilisation. When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914 some 1,500 reservists living in Australia returned to the United Kingdom, were recalled to the colours, and were in action on the Western Front with their old regiments by Christmas (see Wartime Issue 48).
The destruction of British service records by German bombing in 1940 prevents us from knowing just how many Australians fought in the ranks of the British army. In most cases there is very little in the British army records to distinguish Australians from the millions of other Britons who fought in the war. But on the headstones of British soldiers buried on the Western Front are inscriptions that serve as a reminder that some of the war’s earliest casualties had a tremendous impact on the lives of Australian families. Beneath the regimental crest of the East Lancashire Regiment on Lieutenant Chisholm’s headstone in Ligny-en-Cambrésis cemetery is an inscription that connects the fallen British soldier to Australia: “Elder son of Dr. & Mrs. William Chisholm of Sydney, New South Wales”. Grief-stricken by the loss of their beloved son, Malcolm’s parents returned to Sydney in 1919 after their second son, Colin, had sufficiently recovered from serious head wounds received while serving with the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers. The memory of their eldest remained with them for years after the war. When Malcolm’s mother, Emma, died at the family home “Ligny” in Woollahra in 1928, her ashes were taken to France and entombed in the Lignyen-Cambrésis cemetery, just metres from her son’s grave. In Malcolm’s memory, his father donated £1,000 to the village to assist the descendants of local soldiers killed in the war, and in return the main road bisecting the village was renamed in Lieutenant Chisholm’s honour.
But Malcolm Chisholm was not the only Australian casualty of the opening battles on the Western Front. Charles Antoine De Guerry Dalglish was born in Goulburn, New South Wales, in 1883 and was the third son of a district surveyor with considerable wealth invested in the Broken Hill Proprietary Company mine. Well respected in the Goulburn community, the Dalglish family also had influential blood ties to Scottish aristocracy, including a former member for Glasgow in the House of Commons. After the death of Charles’s father in 1888 the family emigrated to Britain, where they resided at Gledhow Gardens in South Kensington. Like many young men of the British middle classes, Dalglish and his brothers attended British public schools: first the Oratory School in Edgbaston and later Beaumont College in Old Windsor. As a public schoolboy with influential family connections in Scotland, it would not have been difficult for Dalglish to be granted entry into a “respectable” regiment of the British regular army. After joining the 3rd Battalion Royal Perth Militia in 1900, he was commissioned into the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), serving as a subaltern in the Boer War in South Africa. Afterwards, Dalglish was promoted to captain, got married, and had three children. He was based at Aldershot with the 1st (Guards) Brigade when the German army mobilised and invaded neutral Belgium in 1914.
The Black Watch was among the first regiments of the BEF deployed to France in August 1914, forming part of the defensive screen along the Mons-Condé Canal to blunt the German drive towards Paris. The regiment covered the withdrawal of British and French forces to a defensive line south of the River Marne; then, with Paris in sight, it participated in the allied offensive that drove the Germans back across the river. On 8 September the Black Watch forced its way across the Petit Morin river, through a narrow defile into the German-held village of Soblonnières. They were engaged by German troops as they crossed the river, drawing rifle and machine-gun fire from a detachment of Garde-Jäger and dismounted cavalry that occupied the high ground overlooking the village. Reinforced by the Cameron Highlanders, dismounted troops of the 6th Dragoon Guards, and the battalion’s two Maxim machine-guns, the Black Watch successfully occupied Soblonnières and captured 40 prisoners. The attack cost the regiment 28 men killed or wounded – a remarkably small number, compared with later actions on the Western Front. Among those killed was Captain Charles Dalglish, who as a company commander was shot dead very early in the battle while leading his men from the front.
Back in Australia, Goulburn was shocked to learn that a soldier it claimed as its own had been killed in the war. Two months later, locals were informed of the death of another soldier in the British army with close family ties to the city. Born in Lithgow in 1892, William Thomas Leggett was one of 11 children of a clerk in the New South Wales Railways Department who had moved to Goulburn with his family in 1900 from the rural rail town of Junee. Leggett attended Goulburn Public School and the Goulburn Technical College, where he studied an array of subjects that enabled him to become a lanternslide, bioscope, and x-ray operator. He was employed for two years as a junior attendant at the Goulburn Technical Museum, after which he moved to Sydney and worked as the electrician and projectionist at the Crown Open Air Theatre in Surry Hills. A skilled electrician, Leggett was also known to have owned and operated a licensed wireless transmitter in the modest room he rented in Moore Park. He was probably one of the very fewpeople in Sydney at the time to do so.
After a year in Sydney, Leggett told his parents of his ambition to become a wireless telegrapher on an international steamer; so in June 1911 he travelled to London via South Africa and New York in the search for work. Things did not quite go according to plan. For reasons unknown, instead of finding work with a British steamer company, in January 1912 he enlisted as a trooper in the 1st Life Guards. This prestigious regiment, stationed at barracks in London’s Hyde Park, was part of the Household Cavalry and carried out many of the ceremonial and mounted guards for the royal family at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, and St James’ Palace. It was also an active service regiment that could be deployed whenever required, having previously campaigned in South Africa, in Egypt, and in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Initial training was carried out at Regent’s Park Barracks, where Leggett trained in musketry, fencing, horsemanship, and hand-to-hand combat. The Life Guards also required a high level of education from its troopers, so he also attended lectures in arithmetic and written comprehension. After completing his training in June 1913, William Leggett was posted to Aldershot Military School as an instructor, and held the rank of corporal of horse in C Squadron 1st Life Guards. He was also engaged to be married when Britain went to war in 1914.
There was a genuine concern in Britain that news of the outbreak of war would cause civil unrest at home, so the 1st Life Guards and two other cavalry regiments initially remained in Britain when the BEF left for France in August 1914. By October the main focus of British operations had shifted north to the Belgian town of Ypres, which was the last major obstacle between the German army and ports on the English Channel at Boulogne and Calais. If Ypres fell, the Germans could outflank the allied positions from the north and roll up the network of trenches that now stretched all the way south to the Swiss border. When the predicted unrest did not occur, the 1st Life Guards was sent to Belgium as part of the 7th Cavalry Brigade, landing at Zeebrugge on 4 October. The brigade was ordered east to assist the besieged Belgian and French garrison at Antwerp, but the garrison surrendered before the cavalry arrived.
Instead, the 7th Cavalry Brigade was sent south to defend Ypres. On 14 October, C Squadron 1st Life Guards was ordered to Roulers, where it covered the flank of the British 7th Division that was also making its way south to Ypres. This involved patrolling the town of Menin, where it was suspected German forces were massing to attack. As C Squadron patrolled the Ypres–Menin road, Belgian civilians at the village of Gheluwe alerted them to the presence of a German Uhlan regiment scouting for the British positions. With one section dismounted and the other remaining on horseback, the British initiated contact with the enemy in the streets of Gheluwe and forced the German cavalry to withdraw across a farm toward Menin. The skirmish resulted in four Uhlans killed and one taken prisoner. The only British casualty was Corporal William Leggett, who was killed as he pursued the German cavalry across the farm. Belgian villagers buried Leggett and the four German Uhlans in the local cemetery the following morning; in 1925 Leggett’s remains were reinterred at Harlebeke New British Cemetery. Today, a monument outside the Gheluwe church in Belgium, and the Goulburn War Memorial, commemorate William Leggett as the first Australian killed in the defence of Belgium in the First World War.
We may never know how many Australians served in the British army, but a search of Commonwealth War Graves records indicates that as many as 1,500 of those who died had some connection with Australia. Their names are recorded on the Australian War Memorial’s Commemorative Roll, which honours Australians who died serving in foreign armies. This record includes men like Malcolm Chisholm, Charles Dalglish, and William Leggett, who were born and raised in Australia but whose deaths in 1914 were later eclipsed by the 60,000 who died serving in the Australian Imperial Force. While the names of these soldiers remain little known to Australians today, they were among the first Australians killed fighting in the First World War.
Aaron Pegram is a senior historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial. He thanks Airlie Moore, Bradley Robertson, Pierre Vandervelden, Gordon Thompson, and Martina Prentis for their assistance.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue (No. 67) of the Memorial’s magazine, Wartime. Purchase a copy or subscription to Wartime.
Since going to print, another early Australian casualty in the British Army from the fighting in 1914 has come to light. Read more on the ABC website.