On 14 August 1907, Seaman Ludwig Edward Ahbol sailed into the port of Newcastle aboard the River Falock, which he had joined a few months earlier in Cape Town. Ludwig had left his hometown of Kuldiga in western Latvia nine years previously.
Since he first went to sea in 1898 Ludwig had tried to conceal his German and Russian origins by using the more British- or Scandinavian-sounding alias of William Anderson. This was not uncommon among those from the Baltic States who were of German origin. The Russian government wanted to erase the strong German influence in Latvia and encouraged people to embrace a more Russian style and character.
Ludwig spent the next eight years in Australia, working with Russian-born Australians on ships between Sydney, Newcastle, and Brisbane. They spoke Russian or German to each other and shared memories of home.
Ludwig was single, and had no relatives in Australia. However, he did have a good friend, Kathleen Kennedy, who lived in Annandale in Sydney. She had been kind to him ever since he arrived in Australia, and they always drank tea together at the Botanical Gardens whenever he was in Sydney.
Many Russian-born Australians served in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, including some of Ludwig's seafaring mates. In October 1915, Ludwig enlisted in the AIF and served with the 41st Battalion under his alias "William Anderson". He corrected his name three months later, for life insurance purposes.
Ludwig trained at the dry and dusty Bell's Paddock Camp as a Lewis gunner, and left for England in May aboard the troopship HMAT Demosthenes. There were long weeks of drills and parades, with card playing and the occasional concert in the evenings to ease the boredom. In July, the ship finally docked at Plymouth.
From July to October Ludwig and his battalion trained at the Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain. They slept on wooden boards in tin sheds and had to contend with chalky mud after rain, and dust when it was dry. At 36, Ludwig was older than most and had demonstrated leadership and sound judgement. Younger men looked up to him. In October he was promoted to lance corporal.
The battalion finally arrived in France on 25 November 1916 amid freezing temperatures – the country's coldest winter in thirty years. Here the men heard stories from battle-weary soldiers about the fighting at Pozières. However, Ludwig was wounded before his battalion could be sent to the trenches, and on being admitted to the 8th Casualty Clearing Station on 7 December suffering with pneumonia, he died four days later.
Ludwig was buried in the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (Nord) near the town of Armentières and the French-Belgian border. He is commemorated on Roll of Honour panel No. 133 at the Australian War Memorial.
Activities for research and classroom discussion
On a world map, find the locations mentioned in Ludwig's story: Kuldiga, Cape Town, Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane, Plymouth, Salisbury Plain, and Armentières. Label them in sequence.
The Salisbury Plain was the main training area for Australian troops from May 1916 until the end of the First World War. Write a diary entry/letter home/cartoon strip to your family or friends back home telling about life at Larkhill camp on Salisbury Plain. You may include details about the weather, food, training drills, entertainment, and nearby places of cultural interest such as Stonehenge. You may wish to use the following website and the photographs below to provide some background information.
- World Map 1
- World Map 2
What are the similarities between seafaring and joining the AIF? Think about what both jobs include in terms of travel and the people they would meet. Write or draw your answer.
Research the country of Latvia – how do its climate, customs, and traditions differ from those in Australia? What challenge might Ludwig have faced on arrival? The following links provide information about Latvia.
Investigate Ludwig's war records.
- Why would Ludwig have used an alias when he first enlisted in 1915?
- Who did Ludwig list as his next of kin in his enlistment papers? Why? What would this have meant for his family in Latvia? Who would have received his estate?
- Why do you think Ludwig wrote a letter to ensure that the name on his insurance policy was changed back to his original name of Ludwig Ahbol rather than his alias, William Andersen?
Elena Govor, Russian Anzacs in Australian history, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005.