As senior curator of Film and Sound at the Memorial, I was greatly privileged in February this year to go with the ADF to the Australia’s area of Middle Eastern Operations.   Not only did I meet with and interview an amazing range of ADF members based in or around Al Minhad, Kandahar, Tarin Kot and Kabul, but I found myself in the rare position of being a female civilian, totally immersed in the ADF’s world.   I trained with ADF.  I wore body armour.  I travelled by armoured convoy and by Hercules aircraft.  

Interviewing at Camp Holland, Tarin Kot

I had meals in the food halls where everybody else ate - lining up outside to sterilise my hands - and slept in the same accommodation, sharing bathroom and laundry facilities.   Every day brought a hectic round of new names, acronyms, places, and protocols to remember;  every day was a day of early starts and late nights.  Some days were marked by fun (joining in Camp Baker's Trivia Night) or frustration (repeated cancellation of flights), whilst other days were memorable for their sadness  – the loss of an Australian sapper the day we left Tarin Kot; attending, with a host of coalition force members,  a US ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield.  

There was nothing about this trip for which the standard day at the office could have prepared me.    

As one of a three person team of Memorial curators for the Collecting in Action program,  I  spent three weeks on  deployment, travelling across the Middle Eastern Area of Operations (MEAO). In keeping with the Memorial ‘s tradition of documenting Australians’ experience at war,   I recorded  interviews with  a wide cross section of the ADF  - men and women of  different ranks, performing different duties , in a range of locations on base and in the field. Their stories were fascinating and inspiring, providing a unique insight into the life and times of Australia’s current serving military.  The team also sought items to include in the Memorial’s collection, from photographs and personal cloth patches, to gear too big to bring back right away, such as vehicles.

This video compiles a small selection from the many hours recorded during my deployment.  The Memorial thanks all those who contributed their time to this program.

The ADF do their utmost to prepare you for travelling to a war zone. Along with a large cohort of ADF members, our team undertook a training course at Randwick Barracks. Full days of lectures covered topics as diverse as vaccination, how to speak to the media, and how to conduct oneself in the event of capture.  A month later we departed with the scheduled ADF sustainment flight to Australia’s Al Minhad base, where we undertook  a further four days of lecturers and training. This included being taught how to assemble and fire a rifle, how to identify explosive devices, to call in a medivac (evacuation by air), how to apply a tourniquet, and how to dress an open wound.  My wound dressing skills being somewhat more theoretical than actual, I quietly hoped no one would have to depend on my training in an emergency!

During the training period I met many people who were , like me , about to go “in country”, but unlike me, would stay on for many months past the date of my return to the comforts of  “civvy” life. They would continue to work the long hours,  in  harsh environmental conditions, which  characterise  Middle Eastern and Central Asian deployments.  These and other  ”pattern of life” matters were discussed by many of  my interviewees.  

Outside Kabul

My interviewees included troopers, snipers, members of mentoring task groups, medical staff, unmanned aerial vehicle operators, artillery trainers, ground support crew, engineers, a Chaplin, a legal officer, a Federal policeman and, offering a different perspective, an Afghan translator.    In every case, I asked them how they came to enlist, what brought them to their current situation, what their jobs entailed, what life is like on an Australian base.  What did they enjoy about life in the Forces, what was not so good? If they had any downtime, how did they spend it? And what is it like to work with other nationalities?


Artillery practice

 People willingly shared their experiences, personal insights and thoughts for the future.  A nurse spoke of the bravery of an Afghan child who’d sustained horrific facial injury in a tractor incident.  A Lieutenant Colonel, remembering his earlier work the UN, described having to repatriate the bodies of UN personnel killed in the war between Hezbollah and Israel.   A postal operator, missing her own young family, told how amongst the inmates of Camp Baker she was known as the Morale Princess, for distributing precious news and gifts from home.  An experienced Warrant Officer described the importance of keeping people busy when sad events at home or at war tested their morale.  One interviewee showed me his publically displayed artworks, which, while allowing him artistic outlet, enlivened both his spare time and the walls of the base , pleasing ADF and coalition personnel alike.    A sniper described how his team narrowly avoided being taken out by an insurgent with a rocket propelled grenade launcher. A female officer told me about the respect shown her as a trainer, working with Afghan military.  Another interviewee described meeting his Canadian fiancée at a fitness class on base.

Stencil Art - Kandahar Airlfield Base

Some interviewees felt they might not have enough to tell, or suggested that they “weren’t interesting enough”.      The fact is everyone has a story to tell. Not only are their individual experiences interesting in their own right, but every single interview contributes a part to the whole story of Australia’s history.   In the years to come, their descendants will come to the Memorial seeking out their stories, just as the grandchildren and great grandchildren of our First and Second World War veterans are now looking for the records and recordings of their ancestors, which form the Memorial’s collections.    

The Memorial seeks to build its collection of film, photo and oral history with material from current and recently serving ADF members.  Please contact the Film and Sound section if you would like to help.

Well, we got wind in the morning that the Armistice was either signed or about to be signed... And the word finally came through and of course there was great excitement... I was only sorry I hadn't arrived there Armistice night because the chaps that got off the train, the girls just formed a ring around them.. and they wouldn't let them out of the ring till they'd kissed every one of them. - Former Corporal Ted Smout, a member of the 3rd Sanitation Section,  Australian Imperial Forces, 1915-1919 ( S03424)

Remembrance Day was once known as Armistice Day,  the day when World War I ended. It is a day to reflect on the losses incurred by the “Great War”, as it was known at the time. The Memorial holds many stories of the Great War; these are the oral histories of survivors, veterans who recorded their stories of the war years leading up to Armistice, and in some cases beyond.    These stories are a fascinating insight into the minds of a previous generation, revealing not only the history of how campaigns were fought – essential information for researchers -  but also the realities of war at the individual level, deeply personalising the Australian history of war. The WWI oral history collection has a character all its own; the idle browser may find their expectations confounded.  Although the scale of death and destruction during the Great War was unprecedented for the time, and certainly many a horror and hardship of war is alluded to, graphic descriptions of killing or dying do not typify the collection:

Oh, the trouble is it's so long ago that, you know, any unpleasant memory seems to sink away to the bottom. You only think about anything that was funny or pleasant, actually. -Former Private George Cooper, of the Gordon Highlanders, recorded in 1994 for the Department Veterans’ Affairs “Diggers and Mates” project (S02036)

Traumatic events are in the main obscured, possibly by polite discretion, possibly also by the mellowing of memory -  for few recordings predate the 1970s,  and  interviewees were well advanced in years by the time they recorded their stories.  Conversely, the passage of time produced revelations for some.  John McNeil, as Brigadier,  5thLight Horse Regiment, demonstrates this in his  recollection of being shelled at Gallipoli:

One afternoon I was writing a letter at the table and a shell came in and hit the corner of the table, turned it up, threw me into a corner of the dugout and the shell went into the other corner and exploded. I was dug out and taken down to the casualty clearing station.. Subsequently at a reunion in Brisbane some years later, I met one of my sergeants and he said, 'Oh... Skipper, did they ever tell you how we dug you, came to dig you out that time you were buried?' And I said, 'No'. ‘ Well..Sergeant so-and-so', he said,  ‘we went along to the dugouts when the shell exploded and we said, oh well the skipper's in there...We tossed up to see whether we'd dig you out or leave you where you were.’  And he said, ' We got turned out heads...' Interviewer: What, that meant heads to dig you out? Brigadier McNeil: Yeah. Heads they'd dig me out and tails they didn't bother. Interviewer: And they finally got you out alright. McNeil: Oh, yes, well I'm here. -  Interview conducted in 1980 by Major Aylmer Campbell Robertson (S00186)

An interested listener will always find the numerous, humorous anecdotes of war; our WW1 veterans always made time to tell a funny story, seldom missing a chance to turn a near death experience into a light hearted tale. Sheer chance  - whether pure or perverse - was credited with saving many a life; seldom does heroism get a guernsey. And while their inherent resilience saw them through to old age, it's also worth noting that these veterans went to war at a time when a majority of people at home in Australia supported the war, despite the losses suffered.   Whether at war or at home , this was a generation for the most part accepting of global events beyond their control :

Interviewer : Did you realise they’d lost a lot of people? Veteran, Norman Chapman: oh yes. Interviewer : Had that changed your attitude to the war? Norman Chapman : No. Interviewer : What was your feeling then? Were you a bit apprehensive or... Norman Chapman : No, I was never that way. The only thing is, you know, had to carry on. - Former Lieutenant Norman Chapman, interviewed in 1994 by Bryan Butler of the Memorial about his service in 3 Field Company, France (S00466)

When asked to reflect upon their lives, the veterans characteristically respond modestly:

Well, I think the only thing that I actually feel that I'm justified in feeling slightly proud of is that I gave my word, I never broke it or anything like that..I just take things as they come, and don’t worry. –  George Cooper

The total number of WW1 audio recordings held by the Memorial is 269. At least 32 are with Gallipoli veterans, many  of whom were also at the Western Front in France, and five Western Front veterans  recall witnessing the fall of the famous German flying ace, The Red Baron (Baron Manfred von Richthofen) .  Many recordings are interviews conducted on site at the Memorial, or as part of special projects, while a few are memoirs, where the veteran spoke their stories to a recorder,  rather than being interviewed. Examples of other interesting stories include Private Eric Abraham’s self recorded tape,  ( S04443) in which he recounts his time in the 5th Division Signal Company, in Gallipoli and France, during the period 1915-1919.  He recalls stumbling across corpses of the enemy, narrow escapes from shrapnel and shells, while resting at Hooge Crater on the Menin Road, and a time in France so fatiguing,  that he actually slept through the night while rats ate his hair.  Listen to Eric recall how he lost a friend in a shell attack, and later how he celebrated his birthday in France: Download MP3 (deadly shell story)

Download MP3 (birthday story)

Australian soldiers bringing in the wounded to the dressing station at Hooge Crater near Ypres in Belgium during the battle on 20 September 1917.

Private George Cooper of the Gordon Highlanders, sent to France in 1918, humorously relates how he trained in trousers, but “fought in a skirt”.  As a member of the Highlanders, he was required to wear a kilt as part of his uniform – without underwear!  Listen to George talk about Armistice, and the art of wearing a kilt, here:

Download MP3 (George's Kilt)

English born Queenie Sunderland, almost our only female interviewee for the WW1 period, was a “Pommy Bride”.  Queenie’s interview recalls her early life in Salisbury, England, and, whilst working at the Salisbury Train Station, meeting her tall, broad- shouldered Australian  husband-to-be ;  seeing Lord Kitchener on the train platform ; accompanying her husband to Australia on the troop ship Osterly, and while en route, staying up at 4am to see the Southern Cross for the first time, an experience moving for both her and the Australians aboard. She also mentions befriending a woman aboard ship who transpired to be one of the many "abandoned brides",  British women who, expecting to be met in Sydney by Australian fiancés, waited in vain – only to be repatriated by ship to Britain.   Queenie went  on to recall several anecdotes of her husband’s time in Gallipoli, including  briefly assisting an injured man onto the back of Simpson's donkey, and another time, whilst on guard duty, encountering a Turkish soldier doing the same ;  they came face to face, about turned without pause, and paced away from each other again!  ( S03442) Researchers often ask about the Memorial’s holdings relating to Victoria Cross Winners.    Our oral history holdings, in this regard, are small, and sadly there are no interviews with WW1 VC winners.  However, we have a couple of interviews with David Edward (Ted) Smout, one of the last WW1 veterans to live into the 21century, and one of those who saw the famous German flying ace, The Red Baron, shot down.   Ted’s 1997 interview, (conducted  by Peter Rubenstein for Department of Veterans’ Affairs 1990s oral history project, "Voices From The Great War"),  is of outstanding clarity and quality, particularly when its realised he was 99 at the time of his interview.   In an hour-long interview with Ted, Ted  discusses enlisting in 1915 , meeting Frank (later Sir Frank) Beaurepaire in the YMCA Hut at Le Havre, and how Frank's bread rolls disappeared during a period of harsh rationing; experiencing the harsh front- line conditions of winter in France, 1916 :  shelling, trench-foot, lice and "frozen blankets". Ted also reflects on Armistice, and what he was doing when it occurred; life after the war including the after- effects of shell shock, working with other veterans, and the success of his marriage.  We don't have permission at this time to post a clip online,  but the Memorial conducted its own interview with Ted in 2002, in which he discussed being a stretcher bearer and how, when the wooden duckboard paths (which provided safe passage over the bogs) were shelled to pieces, there was no way to get to the  wounded men lying in and around the shell holes. 

EPIP tents pitched in the grounds of a convalescent camp near the Australian General Base Depot at Le Havre. Note the Australian flag flying from the pole on the right, and the large YMCA buiding in the background (centre).

(a photograph from the collection showing a YMCA hut at Le Havre, quite possibly the same hut where Frank Beaurepaire’s bread rolls disappeared) . Reports of Baron Manfred von Richthofen's death vary according to source (for example, several people have claimed responsbility for his fall. )  But here is an excerpt from the Memorial's filmed interview with Ted ( F08487 ) , wherein Ted tells his story of the death of  "The Red Baron" :

When the Red Baron was shot down, we were only a couple of hundred yards away, in a rest camp, there was a group of six of us.  We were first there, that was before any guard was posted... and one report said, he was dead. He wasn't, he was alive, he lived long enough to be cleaned up, his face and body and clothing were covered in blood, he was cleaned up, taken out of the plane, and put beside the plane on the grass. And he recovered consciousness, and uttered one word : 'Kaput'.   K-A-P-U-T. And died. And that was it.

These are but a sample of the wealth of stories held by the Memorial’s Sound Section.  Recordings may be accessed in the Memorial’s Research Centre, or copies purchased via our ESales Section.  For information about a particular recording, contact the Sound Section.   We’ll let Ted have the last word, about the Great War:

..that was the war to end all wars. No wars ever ended a war. I don't think there's any place for war. The history of wars has never been for any peace. I wouldn't do it again.

The Memorial’s Research Centre holds original First World War AIF War Diaries [AWM4] that are now available to view on our website.  Hidden among the volumes of these records are some wonderful artworks created by the artist Bernie Bragg. Bernard [Bernie] William Patrick Bragg [Service number 2870] enlisted at 21 years of age on the 16 November 1916 at the Royal Agricultural Show Ground in Sydney.  His service record [held at: National Archives Australia] lists his occupation as “Draughtsman”.  He embarked from Sydney on A19 Africa on 8 November 1916 and arrived at Plymouth in January the following year.  From there he was sent to France to join the 59th Battalion and later to the 15th Brigade Headquarters.  Bragg was given the job of regimental draftsman – meaning he was responsible for drawing the maps and diagrams used by the regiment.  At the end of the War he was honoured with a Mention in Despatches. During Bernie’s time in France with the 15 Infantry Brigade he produced some beautiful War Diary Covers.  Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diary, 15th Infantry Brigade, May 1918

This is his illustrated cover of the Australian Imperial Force War Diary, 15th Infantry Brigade for May 1918. It depicts two soldiers, one swimming in a river and the other standing on the river bank, with the title lettering contained within a rectangular shape. For this image Bernie has used Indian ink and watercolours.

 Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diary, 15th Infantry Brigade, June 1918

Another illustrated War Diary Cover by Bernie for the 15th Infantry Brigade for June 1918 features an elliptical design depicting soldiers under a night sky and full moon, with Art Nouveau style title lettering and scrolls. For this one Bernie used gouache and inks. Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diary, 15th Infantry Brigade, March 1919

And this illustrated cover by Bernie was also for the 15th Infantry Brigade for March 1919, and depicts Australian soldiers marching past a memorial in France, with Brigadier General Harold Edward 'Pompey' Elliott taking the salute. For this one Bernie has used Indian ink and gouache. These are but a few examples in the Memorial’s Collections of illustrated War Diary covers and  they are a great testament to the skill and talent of their maker.  Before the war Bernie studied classical Art in Sydney and after the war he went on to become one of Melbourne’s most respected movie advertisement and newspaper illustrators. 

To view more items of Bernie Bragg’s art search our Collections Database

The Australian War Memorial's Heraldry collection contains a number of commemorative badges and brooches which display a high level of beauty and craftsmanship combined with poignant individual stories. A recently donated brooch demonstrates these characteristics excellently.

This fifteen carat gold brooch was one of four privately made for the Hislop family in memory of their son and brother, Allan Henderson, who died of wounds on 18 October 1916 while a German prisoner of war.  

Allan was born at St Mary’s, NSW on 6 October 1895, the fourth of six children (five surviving to adulthood) and only son of David and Annie Hislop. David and Annie were married in Brisbane in 1889 and relocated to Sydney after the birth of their first child, Evelyn. After the birth of their last child, Beryl Irene in 1890, the family returned to Brisbane, where David died in 1913.  

On 4 September 1915 Allan enlisted in the AIF as a member of 25 Battalion.  Joining up alongside his best friend Alec Peters (Alexander Drew Peters) both men were taken on by 10 Reinforcements. Allan and Alec were  just 19 years of age but both had already seen a number of years service in the militia and the naval cadets respectively.

Allan was also a gifted athlete and was noted for his excellence as a boxer and footballer. As a member of the Blue Star Football Club Allan played in and won the 1915 Queensland Rugby Football League 4th Grade Junior Premiership. 

Embarking from Brisbane for overseas service on 28 March 1916, Allan arrived in France on 5 June and joined up with 25 Battalion in the field on 16 July. At this time the battalion was yet to take part in a major battle on the Western Front but would do so in the coming weeks at Pozieres. At midnight on the night of 28/29 July, the battalion made their first attack during which Allan went missing. However, he was not confirmed as a prisoner of war until a month later. He had arrived at Gottingen Prisoner of War Camp on 7 August and was admitted to the camp hospital suffering wounds to his left hand and thigh. Hislop’s left hand was amputated and in the proceeding months he developed numerous abscesses on his body. He quietly passed away from an abscess to his heart at 8.30am on 18 October 1916.

Allan was buried in the neighbouring Gottingen Military Cemetery, however he was reinterred in Niederzwehren Cemetery in 1924 when four permanent cemeteries were established to house the graves of Commonwealth servicemen who had died in Germany. This cemetery is in the German city of Kassel, approximately 165kms south of Hannover.

After Allan’s mother and sisters were informed of his death they arranged to have four of these magnificent brooches made in his honour to commemorate his war service. One was made for each sister  – Evelyn, Meg (Margaret) Essie (Annie Estella) and Beryl. Only the brooch now held by the Memorial (believed to be Evelyn’s) is known to still exist.

The brooch is in the shape of a shield surmounted by a red enamelled King's crown. In the centre of the badge is a black and blue enamelled 25 Battalion colour patch, a gold machine gun and gold sergeant's rank insignia  On a white enamelled scroll above the colour patch is '4057 AHH FRANCE POZIERES 28-7-16. At the base is a black enamelled scroll with 'GOTTINGEN 18-10-16. The brooch is housed in its original blue presentation box with the maker’s details stamped in black on the inside lid.

Endnote: Alec Peters' survived the Battle of Pozieres but was killed in action at Flers on 5 November 1916. He is buried at Warlancourt British Cemetery in France.

The Memorial holds a fantastic collection of First World War trench art made by Sapper Stanley Pearl, who served in the First World War and later worked at the Australian War Memorial. Stanley Keith Pearl [6756] enlisted at 21 years of age on the 9 November 1915 at the Tasmanian town of Ulverstone.  On his service record, [held at: National Archives Australia] when asked about civil convictions, he responds that he was once convicted of riding a cycle on a foot path! The recruiter did not seem to mind and Pearl was accepted into the AIF.  He embarked from Sydney on HMAT Orsova on 11 March 1916 and arrived at Alexandria April that year.  From there he was sent to France with the 2nd Div reinforcements 8th Field Coy Engineers and by August was a Sapper with the 5 Field Coy Engineers where he served until the end of the War. During Pearl’s time in France he produced the most amazing and highly crafted items of trench art, much of which he later donated to the Memorial.   Trench art was made by soldiers in the trenches from any available material and ranged from small brooches for sweethearts to large sculptures made from brass shell casings.  The creation of these items helped occupy the soldiers between bouts of major action and gave an outlet for artistic expression.  RELAWM14153 - Trench art table napkin ring : Sapper S K Pearl, 5 Field Company Engineers, AIF

Sapper Pearl made this napkin ring at Armentieres in January 1918. The ring is a piece of 6-inch "dud" shell found lying near Favreuil. The stand is a nose-cap of a Newton rifle-grenade and the feet are 18-pounder shrapnel pellets dropped short near Le Touquet.  Trench art chrysanthemum vase : Sapper S K Pearl, 5 Field Company Engineers, AIF

This chrysanthemum vase was made by Sapper Pearl at Thy-le-Chateau from a French 75mm shell-case and embellished with the Royal Artillery badge and a French artillery button. The shell-case was souvenired from a French battery south of Villers-Bretonneux, while the handles are 1-inch copper steam pipes split down and flattened out. The latter were purloined from a German locomotive which formed part of the Armistice indemnity and were removed at night with a hack saw in spite of a guard.  Trench art clock : Sapper S K Pearl, 5 Field Company Engineers, AIF

This alarm clock was made by Sapper Pearl at Ypres in March 1918. The case was made from two 4.5 inch shell cases picked up on Christmas Day 1917 at the Australian batteries at Le Bizet. The foot support is a clip of an 18 pounder shell. The arms are detonator wells of rifle grenades and nose-caps. The hands are from a gun-cotton case, while the alarm cover is an American-made 18 pounder nose-cap with a 'whizz-bang' driving band. The Rising Sun badge belonged to one of Pearl’s mates who killed at Noreuil, while a button from the Pearl's greatcoat and a German bullet surmount the whole. These are but a few examples the trench art made by Sapper Pearl in the Memorial’s Collections.  They are a great illustration of the skill and talent of their maker.  After the war Stanley Keith Pearl became one of the original employees at the Memorial here in Canberra where he worked as a carpenter and senior tradesman from the Memorial’s opening in 1941 until his retirement. 

To view more items of Sapper Pearl’s trench art search our Collections Database. 

A young man, fit and blond, waits nervously in a trench, clenching his bayonet-fixed rifle across his chest. A whistle sounds and he throws himself over the top of the trench into no man’s land, which is already littered with the bodies of his fellow soldiers. Machine-guns chatter, more of his companions are cut down, and the young man drops his bayonet and runs as hard as he can toward the enemy trenches. Chin up, arms outstretched, his chest is riddled with bullets.

Few who have seen Australian director Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli can forget those final poignant scenes as Archy Hamilton and his friends are ripped apart by machine-gun fire in a failed charge toward enemy lines on the Turkish peninsula. But many may not realise that they are based on one particular battle fought at Anzac:  the Charge at the Nek, on 7 August 1915.

“The Nek was such a heroic failure it almost epitomises the First World War,” says Peter Burness, senior historian at the Australian War Memorial. “People connect with it because it’s on a scale we can grasp, and all the folly and valour we can accept.”

The Nek was a strategically important land bridge that connected Russell’s Top, the northern end of the Anzac front line, to the Turkish-held rise of Baby 700. The charge was a diversionary attack for the August Offensive, the last attempt of the allied forces at Gallipoli to break the stalemate that had persisted since the Anzacs landed on 25 April. It was to be carried out by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade.

The attack began with a bombardment of Turkish positions by artillery and a destroyer steaming offshore, but the bulk of the shells fell beyond their target and the shelling finished seven minutes early. The officers of the light horse held off the charge until the allotted time of 4.30 am, giving the Turks a chance to return to their positions after sheltering further back during the bombardment.

First over the top was the 8th Light Horse Regiment, and immediately they were shot down by Turkish rifle and machine-gun fire. Many were killed just metres out of the trench. The second line, also from the 8th, scrambled over the dead and wounded to make their attack, and suffered the same fate.

The charge had obviously failed, and cancellation of the attack was proposed. But Lieutenant Colonel Jack Antill, who had effective command of the 3rd Brigade, rejected the idea and a third line of soldiers, from the 10th Light Horse, were sent over the top – Archy’s regiment.  With the body count climbing higher, cancellation was again suggested, but before a decision was made the right flank of the fourth line charged as a result of a misunderstanding, and the rest of the line followed. They too were mowed down by the Turkish fire. The 8th Light Horse suffered 234 casualties, 154 fatal; and the 10th suffered 138 casualties, 80 fatal.

Burness became fascinated with the story of the Nek via the Official History writings of Charles Bean, the painting by George Lambert and other relics in the Australian War Memorial’s collection. In 1995 his account of the battle, The Nek: the tragic charge of the Light Horse at Gallipoli, was published and – owing to demand – he is now updating it.

“The whole thrust of the book is about the men involved in the charge, who they were and what made them tick,” Burness says. “In 1985 I’d interviewed survivors of the battle, and what they told me was included in the book. But since then I have had more material given to me by families of those who witnessed or were part of the charge. Research now is also easier, and there is much more material available at your fingertips on websites. This has confirmed and corrected information that I had, and gives a fuller picture.”

Burness has delved deeper into the lives of the senior officers overseeing the charge, and made some interesting discoveries.

 “The personal relationships between a couple of Australian officers were very poor – I’ve found they were poisonous,” he says.   At a time when clear thinking and cooperation were essential, there was no effective communication.  “One officer who later gave a clear description of the battle was very deeply affected by the failed attack.  I recently found out he committed suicide after the war.”

While today most people connect the story of the Nek with Peter Weir’s film, early generations compared it with the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.  Even Charles Bean made the comparison.  Burness says: “Behind the glorious charge of the Light Brigade there is a story of inadequacies, incompetence and bitter personal rivalries.  The action at the Nek was no different.  Yet still we marvel at the courage of those who took part.”

Burness will speak on “The Nek, a battle revisited” at the Narratives of War Symposium at the University of South Australia this Thursday, 29 September.  The new edition of The Nek is in production.

                                            The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915, by George Lambert

While major structural work is being carried out, work progresses on some of the smaller cabin fitout items as well.  Mark Aitken, one of the Large Technology conservators, is currently replicating the F24 Camera Well using a loaned original for reference, as well as original blueprints.

The end of September marks the 71 year anniversary of the battle of Dakar. Also known as “Operation Menace”, this operation was endeavoured to be peaceful, with the aim of placing General Charles de Gaulle in leadership at Dakar. It was a significant attempt to set up a Free French government in Dakar (West Africa) by British, French and Australian forces.  The recently digitised Royal Australian Navy Reports of Proceedings highlight HMAS Australia’s three day skirmish with the Vichy French.

Dakar, French West Africa; HMAS Australia; HMAS Australia, seen from an unidentified British destroyer, in action against shore batteries at Dakar

HMAS Australia started her duties at Dakar on the 19th of September before the official dates of 23rd to 25th of September, 1940. The Australia landed the chore of tracking and “shadowing” French Vichy ships. Des Shinkfield, in his book HMAS AUSTRALIA: a lucky ship, describes the chase of the ship Gloire, “the climax came about midnight. Australia was steaming at full speed through a rain squall when, suddenly, on passing out of the rain squall into brilliant moonlight, there, on the starboard beam, and heading for Australia was Gloire, only a cable or two away.  A collision appeared inevitable. Only the smart handling of the ship by Captain Stewart averted what would have been a major disaster.” Captain Stewart’s account of the incident features in the Reports of Proceedings with a description of the Gloire as a ‘lone bird’

What then ensued was ship to ship stalking as the Australia stuck to Gloire’s tail to guarantee she was safely ensconced in Casablanca. Captain Stewart warned the captain of Gloire that if the Australia were attacked by submarines then they would engage in battle with the Gloire. Needless to say the Gloire assured him that they would be very civil! Captain Stewart suggests in the Reports of Proceedings, that the captain of Gloire was fearful and explains “I have no doubt...he went through an anxious moment when I encountered him on opposite courses and put my searchlight on him on the night of the 19th September”.  The Australia forced the Gloire on towards Casablanca; however the Gloire did finish part of the journey herself, and the Australia back-tracked to re-assemble with her team.


During the ensuing battle for Dakar, the Australia was involved in further skirmishes with Vichy French ships from Dakar. The Reports of Proceedings for the month of September describes an incident with the French destroyer L’audacieux on the 23rd of September in a very matter of fact manner.

Harold Plumber, a sailor on board the Australia, describes this situation with more energy in A Sailors Life when he says “she [the L’audacieux] immediately burst into flames from her bridge and right aft and it was a terrible sight watching the poor devils rushing right forward on the FX to get out of the way as she was one mass of flames.”

During the 24th and 25th the Australia continued to help battle against enemy ships on the seas outside Dakar. There were many incidents where the Australia had to engage in attacking and defensive fire. However by the 25th it was clear that this battle was not going to succeed. Australia lost her “walrus” (aircraft spotter) to the sea, and got hit twice herself by enemy fire. Other allied ships were also suffering the marks of war. This battle was over after the faintest sniff at victory. The HMAS Australia successfully carried out everything thrown at her in Operation Menace, albeit with just a few battle scars to take home.

Further reading

Des Shinkfield, HMAS AUSTRALIA, A lucky ship (Ringwood Victoria: 2001)

Peter Taylor, A Sailor’s Life, Aboard HMAS AUSTRALIA (II) (Western Australia: Peter CW Taylor, 2010)

Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments. AWM78 44/1 HMAS Australia: Reports of Proceedings August 1939-December 1941

Reports of Proceedings, HMA Ships and Establishments. AWM78 44/3 HMAS Australia: Reports of Proceedings August 1939-November 1944

Where there is war, there is love. Almost 13,000 Australian soldiers who fought in the First World War married during their years of service, mostly to English women they met while on leave or during training stints in country.

The Aussie soldiers were an attractive prospect: comparatively well-paid, lively and free-spirited, they offered an escape from bleak surroundings for many young women. Official war historian Charles Bean noted in his diary on 31 January 1916, during a break in London, that girls “are simply throwing themselves at our mens’ heads” – but not all matches, or all girls, were suitable.

He recounted the following:

 Jack tells me that quite a few of our men have been marrying English girls. These marriages are rather lightly undertaken in some cases, I fancy. One of Jack’s men in the 3rd Battalion – a most stolid, dry old bone of a chap ... came back to the office the other day and after much scratching of his head, he blurted out that he too had been married in the interval. “Quite a nice girl too,” he said, half to himself, reflectively, fingering the back of his head. The next week he turned up on sick parade and was seen by Sgt Wolseley, Jack’s little right-hand man. He confessed in the same dry style that he was suffering from a dose of gonorrhoea. “Why, who gave it to you?” asked little Wolseley. “Not your wife, surely?” “Well – no – as a matter of fact, it was the chief bridesmaid,” said the bashful A -- -- mournfully. These Australians!

Tilly Devine was a war bride with a less than reputable past, and an even more notorious future ahead of her. Born Matilda Twiss in London in 1900, she was working as a prostitute on the city’s streets when she married Sapper James Devine, a former Queensland shearer, in 1917.

Jim Devine was quite possibly the AIF’s worst soldier: his service record lists dozens of unauthorised absences, periods in detention, and numerous stints in hospital with “VD”– venereal disease. He served briefly in France with the 4th Tunnelling Company, but spent most of the war in English training camps, or AWOL. When the war ended, he faced court martial for his illegal absences, and served a lengthy sentence in England before returning to Australia in October 1919.

Tilly arrived in Sydney in January 1920 aboard the “bride” ship, Waimana. The couple quickly established themselves as part of the city’s seedy underbelly; Tilly once again began working as a prostitute, and Jim as her protector and chauffeur. She was arrested often: before she had turned 25 she had almost 80 convictions for prostitution, offensive behaviour and indecent language. In 1925, she was imprisoned for two years after slashing a man with a razor.  She gained a reputation as the “Worst Woman in Sydney” and “The Queen of the Night”.

By the late 1920s Jim Devine had further enmeshed himself in the criminal underworld, with dealings in drugs, “sly grog” and attacks on rival gangs. Tilly moved on from being a prostitute to becoming a madam, and more charges followed for her illegal activities. Despite this, she was a very successful businesswoman, employing bodyguards and acquiring properties. By the time the Second World War broke out, Tilly had attained a more affectionate reputation among Sydneysiders and was known for her collection of diamond rings, her opulent dress style and her lavish parties.

Tilly’s relationship with Jim had become increasingly violent and, no longer needing his protection, she divorced him in August 1943 on the grounds of cruelty. It was a boom time for her, as vast numbers of local and Allied servicemen passing through Sydney fed a demand for brothel services. Tilly contributed generously to the war effort and in 1945 she married again, to a seaman named Eric Parsons.

When the war ended the best of Tilly’s years were behind her, but she remained a prominent and criminally active figure and was brought before the court numerous times. She travelled to London in 1953 to see the Coronation procession, and operated her brothel until 1968.

Tilly Devine died in a Sydney hospital on 24 November 1970. She was survived by a son whom she had adopted during her second marriage. Her two children to Jim Devine had predeceased her.

Tilly would undoubtedly be delighted to know that her story lives on, with the current Nine Network television series Underbelly razor based on her and Jim’s notorious activities. The contribution made to Australian society by so many other First World War brides was, of course, of far greater moral and social value, and today there are tens of thousands of their descendants among us.

Sources and further reading

Allen, Judith, 'Devine, Matilda Mary (Tilly) (1900–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

Fifty Australians exhibition, Australian War Memorial,  /exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/15.asp

C.E.W. Bean, AWM38 Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of C.E.W. Bean, Official Historian.

Visitors to the Memorial’s exhibition Rats of Tobruk 1941 will have noticed the unofficial Rats of Tobruk medal presented, according to its engraving, by Lord Haw Haw. Around twenty of these medals were made at Tobruk, which illustrates one of the earliest examples of the town’s defenders reclaiming the title ‘Rat’, bestowed on them by the propaganda radio program ‘Germany Calling’. Visitors may also notice the brasso caked around the small copper rat on this medal, the result of many years of cleaning. This perhaps gives an idea of the importance of this object in the life of its owner, John Joseph Murray, who commanded 20 Brigade at Tobruk. The care lavished on this object certainly accords with views expressed during Murray’s own lifetime about the pride he felt in having participated in this pivotal campaign. But this medal, while illustrating a highly significant period in Murray’s service career, does not give a full view of the breadth of his service. For a better appreciation of his distinguished career, we must turn to another set of objects, Murray’s medal group, which have recently gone on display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.


The medals of Major General J J Murray are impressive by anyone’s standards, and are the tangible result of a distinguished career which spanned thirty years and two wars. A native of Sydney, Murray had already served in the militia when he left Australia with the 5th Reinforcements to 1 Battalion in 1915. This unit had already participated in the first landings at ANZAC, and would remain at Gallipoli until the evacuation in December. Although his unit served at Gallipoli, his service record indicates that Murray did not. This anomaly may stem from the sectarian prejudices of his day, denying this Catholic officer the opportunity of frontline service.


With the doubling of the AIF in 1916, Murray was transferred to 53 Battalion and promoted to Temporary Captain. The battalion was subsequently sent to France, and its first major action on the Western Front was at the disastrous battle of Fromelles on 19 July. For his courage and leadership during this battle, Murray was awarded the Military Cross. In a similar vein to many award recommendations from that terrible day, Murray’s recommendation concludes, ‘[a]ll the other officers in his company were either killed or wounded.’

Murray’s unit participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, and defended gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Promoted to Major, his unit saw further service when the AIF’s focus shifted to the Ypres sector in Belgium, where he was Mentioned in Despatches toward the end of 1917.

The stalled German offensive in March 1918 prompted an allied counteroffensive, which saw 53 Battalion in action in the capture of Peronne, where Murray was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His unit was withdrawn from the line at the start of October, and saw no further action in the First World War. After the armistice Murray was again Mentioned in Despatches for his leadership, and returned to Australia in 1919.

Murray resumed his duties in the militia, and after several command appointments and promotions, and the outbreak of a new war, joined the Second AIF in April 1940. He was appointed to command 20 Brigade, which embarked for the Middle East in October. In February 1941 the brigade transferred from 7 Division to 9 Division. Despite being poorly equipped, 9 Division were then sent to relieve 6 Division in Libya. At Er Regima, 20 Brigade were one of the first Australian formations to engage Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps. The brigade successfully staged a fighting withdrawal to Tobruk, where they played an integral part in halting and eventually repelling the German advance on 14 April.

It was at Tobruk that Murray’s experience and leadership became wholly apparent. In his account of the campaign Tobruk 1941, Chester Wilmot described Murray as ‘…a big, genial Irishman who loves a fight. He is personally easy-going but brooks no slackness among his troops and even before Tobruk his brigade was marked out as one of the best-trained in the 2nd AIF. His dogged temperament made him well suited for the defensive tasks that lay ahead. He had shown himself a strong leader in the Great War when he won the DSO and MC and rose to be second-in-command of the 53rd Battalion.’

Overall command of Tobruk lay with Major General Leslie Morshead, whose defensive strategy was one of aggressive patrolling, summed up in his statement to Wilmot ‘I determined we should make no man’s land our land’.  Murray’s First World War experience of static warfare in the trenches of the Western Front was readily adapted to Morshead’s philosophy. It was these tactics that prevented the German and Italian forces from observing the allied defences and kept Tobruk’s besiegers in a constant state of tension.

A good example is the ‘V For Victory’ campaign of psychological warfare that was adopted by Murray’s 20 Brigade in the southern sector during July and August. Murray ordered leaflets stencilled with ‘V Per Vittorio’ and ordered that they be attached ‘by the use of clips, string, nails, pins, etc., to enemy bodies, posts wire, sandbags, sangars, etc., by patrols’. With monotonous regularity, the Italian forces in this sector found Murray’s leaflets in their own defences, left by Australian patrols that they had never heard.

For his leadership during this period, Murray was awarded a Bar to his DSO. He left Tobruk in November with most of his brigade, and was Mentioned in Despatches for the performance of his duties. He returned to Australia in January 1942 and was promoted to Major General. This period of Murray’s career saw several commands at Division level, and the command of Northern Territory Force from March 1945 until the expiration of his appointment with the Second AIF in January 1946 when he was placed on the Reserve of Officers.

In peacetime, Murray worked as Australian trade commissioner to New Zealand from 1946 to 1949, and then to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1949, where health considerations saw him return to Australia. He died in Sydney in 1951.

The Australian War Memorial is proud to be able to display the medals of a soldier to the public whom he served with such distinction. They can be viewed as part of the Tobruk display in the Memorial’s Second World War gallery.

Further reading

For a detailed account of the entire Tobruk campaign, see Chester Wilmot’s Tobruk 1941.

For an insight into Murray’s own thoughts on this campaign, see his recently published account I Confess – A Memoir of the Siege of Tobruk.

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