The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson, AIF Canteens, First World War.

Place Africa: Egypt, Cairo
Accession Number AWM2019.1.1.335
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 1 December 2019
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 Neal Young, the story for this day was on Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson, AIF Canteens, First World War.

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Speech transcript

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson, AIF Canteens
Died of Illness 9 February 1916

Today we remember and pay tribute to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Garrick Wilson.

Robert Wilson was born in 1863 in Dunfermline, in the county of Fife in Scotland. His father, Robert Garrick Wilson senior, was a partner in the firm Messrs R.G. Wilson and Co, proprietors of one of the oldest and best known grocery stores in central Melbourne. Robert junior was educated at Wesley College in Melbourne, and at Geelong Grammar School.

Wilson was a grazier at the time of the outbreak of war in August 1914. He offered the government his Broadmeadows property, “Mornington Park”, for use as a military training ground. The grassy plateau was about 16 kilometres from the city centre, and the first wave of 2,500 recruits arrived at the site on the 19th of August. They had marched from Victoria Barracks in St Kilda Road through the city, cheered by large crowds along the way.

In the early months of the war around 10,000 men at a time were in training at the camp, which was set up with rows of tents, camp kitchens, and marquees from the YMCA and church organisations. The site was also busy with a stream of visitors: relatives and onlookers who came to observe the soldiers in training, and to visit their loved ones.

In November 1914, Wilson established a canteen for troops at the camp. It offered non-alcoholic refreshments and, according to The Age newspaper, “stock as varied as that of an up-country store. Anything from a boot lace to a blanket”.

The canteen, called the Garrison Institute, ran as a co-operative, with profits distributed among the men at camp in the form of comforts, games and equipment not included in their regulation outfit. Wilson was given the honorary rank of major in recognition of the success of the Garrison Institute, and the government announced it would move to install similar canteens in camps in other states.

But while the Garrison Institute thrived, the Broadmeadows camp began to experience problems. In autumn 1915, wet weather at the poorly-drained site led to a sharp rise in illnesses among recruits. A series of damning newspaper reports roused public concern, and in May authorities announced the main Victorian training camp would be re-established at Seymour. The Broadmeadows Camp remained in use throughout the war, and facilities were improved, but the numbers of men trained at the camp were much smaller than they had been at the beginning of the war. Wilson sold the land, including the homestead, to the Department of Defence in August 1915.

In early December 1915, the Defence Minister announced that Wilson was being sent to Egypt to set up the Garrison Institute canteen model in the Cairo camps. The enterprise would be known as the AIF Canteens. Wilson was given the honorary appointment of Lieutenant Colonel. He embarked for Egypt a few days after Christmas.

Setting up the canteens in the camps on the outskirts of Cairo was challenging. Trooper Edwin Dinner gave an account of the problems faced in establishing the first canteen, at Maadi Camp, to Sydney’s Sun newspaper in May 1916:
Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson, on his arrival in Egypt, was faced with many difficulties. The chief of these was that of getting a supply of Australian goods, which, owing to a shortage of tonnage and other reasons, he was unable to do. In order to keep faith with the soldiers, he searched Egypt from end to end, and after encountering many obstacles, at last succeeded in obtaining goods of excellent quality and in sufficient quantity to warrant the opening of his first Australian dry canteen.

The Maadi camp canteen opened on 9 February 1916 to great acclaim from the soldiers. However, Wilson became suddenly ill, and died that evening of sinusitis. He was 52 years old.

Lieutenant Colonel Wilson was buried at the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt. He was survived by his wife and children, including a son who served in the First World War.

The AIF canteens developed into a broad network of mobile and stationary canteens that operated throughout England, France, Belgium, Egypt, Palestine and Australia, as well as on troopships. By the end of the war, profit from the canteens amounted to 500,000 pounds. The money was later distributed to severely disabled returned soldiers, and to widows, orphans, and other dependents of lost soldiers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson’s name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, among more than 60,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War. He can be seen in a photograph displayed today beside the Pool of Reflection.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Lieutenant Colonel Robert Garrick Wilson, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.
Emma Campbell
Researcher, Military History Section

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