The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (1964) Ordinary Seaman Robert William Bell, HMAS Sydney, First World War

Place Oceans: Indian Ocean, Cocos Keeling Islands
Accession Number PAFU2014/422.01
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 9 November 2014
Access Open
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copyright restrictions apply. Only personal, non-commercial, research and study use permitted. Permission of copyright holder required for any commercial use and/or reproduction.

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Craig Berelle, the story for this day was on (1964) Ordinary Seaman Robert William Bell, HMAS Sydney, First World War.

Film order form
Speech transcript

1964 Ordinary Seaman Robert William Bell, HMAS Sydney
KIA 9 November 1914
No photograph in collection

Story delivered 9 November 2014

Today we remember and pay tribute to Ordinary Seaman Robert William Bell.

Robert William Bell was born on 28 December 1889 to Robert Henry Barkly and Mary Elizabeth Bell of Richmond, Victoria. Two more sons, Frank and Charles, and a daughter, Nellie, were also born to the couple.

Robert’s father died suddenly in 1898, leaving Mary to bring up their four children. She remained in Richmond and the children grew up and went to school locally.

Robert enlisted for service in the Royal Australian Navy at the naval depot at Williamstown on 22 July 1912. After his initial training at HMAS Cerberus, he was posted with the rank of ordinary seaman to the destroyer HMAS Yarra in September. There he remained until July 1914, when he was transferred to the light cruiser HMAS Sydney.

When the First World War began in August, Sydney, along with other ships of the RAN, was assigned to protect the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force as it made its way to New Britain. In September, Sydney was involved in the capture of Rabaul and the destruction of a radio tower on the island of Anguar.

In October, Sydney and her sister-ship Melbourne returned to Australia to form part of the escort for the first Australian and New Zealand convoy to be sent overseas. The contingent departed Albany at the start of November.

Early on 9 November wireless operators in the convoy detected unknown signals and a query signal from the Cocos Island wireless telegraphy station. The station was soon captured by a raiding party from the light cruiser SMS Emden, but not before sending out an SOS signal.

At 9.15 am Sydney sighted the Cocos Islands and Emden approximately eight miles distant. Emden opened fire; the first salvo missed, but the second was on target, scoring hits on Sydney. One shell hit the range-finder on the fore-upper bridge, killing Robert Bell. Sydney was hit 15 more times over the next ten minutes, during which three more men were killed and 12 were wounded.

Sydney used her superior speed and firepower to overwhelm Emden, and shortly after 11 am the German ship was scuttled on the reef. The following morning the surviving Germans were taken aboard Sydney and became prisoners of war.

Along with the rest of the fallen, Robert Bell was given a funeral with full military honours and buried at sea. He was 24 years old.

Robert’s sister was the only one home the day the telegram announcing his death arrived. His mother was ill and had been sent to Foster in the hope that a change of climate would assist in her recovery. The family would suffer further losses in the years to come: Charles, aged 23, died of pneumonia in June 1915 and Mary, whose health never recovered, passed away in 1920.

Bell’s name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, along with more than 60,000 others from the First World War.

This is but one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Ordinary Seaman Robert William Bell, and all of those Australians who have given their lives in service of our nation.

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