1916 – King George V is on the throne. The ‘war to end all wars’ is raging through Europe, and the ‘mother country’ is calling for more of our fit and healthy to join the ranks on the front lines.
In Australia, famous battles at Fromelles, Gallipoli, Pozieres, Magdhaba and the Somme had all been well reported, and the losses tallied with heartbreaking affects. Tales told of heroism, tragedy, and sacrifice to defend borders from an immoral opponent in the name of King and Country.
It wasn’t all upsetting, though. Heroes were emerging that would make us proud. Men like Private Martin O’Meara who risked his own life repeatedly to enter “No Man’s Land” at Pozieres and bring wounded officers and soldiers back to safety.
Flash forward to today; we all know about Simpson and his donkey and what happened at Gallipoli. It seems, each year on Anzac Day, more tales emerge of enormous battles and gallant acts of bravery.
In 2015, while holidaying in the south of England, I was to discover another side to our war efforts. I drove around the countryside looking for centuries-old churches and graveyards that suggested these obscure little villages, once upon a time, housed vibrant, active communities humming with life. In the middle of horse paddocks, all but abandoned, sit churches along with ruins that once accommodated the early existence of the English monarchy – little treasures from a time long gone.
Eight miles from historic Salisbury, I stumbled across the sleepy hollow of Baverstock – little more than a quaint village with a dozen houses, a churchyard, and endless farmlands situated on the edge of the Salisbury Plains. No more obscure was to discover twenty-nine of my compatriots lying eternally in St Editha’s churchyard: ANZACs from The Great War. Many of their ‘neighbours’ – consisting of local farmers, merchants, and gentry – preceded their final resting place by hundreds of years. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Who were these men? Why were they buried here? Were they heroes of a hard fought battle? As I read each of the headstones, I noted most had died within a few months of each other in early 1917. My curiosity was aroused and I went in search to find out who these soldiers were and why they were buried in the backwaters of Salisbury, England.
“Your Country Needs You”
By 1916, The Great War was turning out to be anything but short and sweet. In Australia, ‘Snowball marches’ designed to sign up new recruits as they progressed from rural regions to the nearest capital city were in full swing. Between October 1915 and February 1916 alone, the Australian War Memorial reports nine marches taking place. These impromptu marches initiated by civilians amassed able-bodied men from all walks of life to head off and join the fight: clerks, businessmen, labourers, farmers, self-employed, unemployed, fathers, sons, married, single. “You need to remember,” Mike Boakes, Salisbury Museum guide and former soldier, says, “back in those days people considered themselves British before they considered themselves Australian.”
While it has been said many Australian men, in the early days of World War I, signed up for the adventure there is a less romantic reality. Unemployment in Australia was relatively high. By 1916, the population was well aware of the risks of war. But the offer to be paid, clothed, and fed seemed a better option for many. The allure of having basic human needs met was compelling.
Between a sense of duty to the empire, and a ‘way out’ for others, our young, vibrant, and desperate heeded the call of the motherland and volunteered to do their bit. Many of these men, however, would not be heroes, like O’Meara, carrying out daring acts. Some would lose their life before even seeing the battlegrounds.
“if you could walk, hold a rifle and see, you passed the medical”
The basic medical examination undertaken to ensure only those fit were signed up, changed depending on how many men waited to be processed. In 1914, when volunteers flooded to enlist, the minimum height requirement for soldiers was 5’6”. However, as time passed and enlistment numbers fell so did a soldier’s minimum height to 5’3”. “By 1916, more often than not, if you could walk, hold a rifle and see, you passed the medical,” says Mr Boakes.
The recruits joined battalions at training grounds located within Australia. Fields and paddocks outside the capital cities were turned into camps. Tent after tent materialized with little more than the most basic of facilities.
Otway Carter, a soldier from the 29th Battalion describes his early experience at one of the new training camps in Black and Gold: The History of the 29th Battalion 1915 – 18 (1997). “We are having a splendid time, plenty of blankets, altho the ground is like flint. Good officers tho not over much in tucker. We have our hats and boots. My boots are a size too small. We have only to get our overcoats then we will have all for the present. We have tipped the cooks 10/- a fortnight between the crowd of us [so now] we get more scran than we used to …”
Heavy winter rains soon turned the unmade roads and unfloored tents in the hurriedly formed training camps to mud. Before long, the cold and wet also brought disease. “Inspiratory infection … assumed a prevalence that gave rise to anxiety,” wrote A.G. Butler, author of Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914 – 18, Volume 1 (1930).
“Many of the enlisting men,” comments Mr Boakes, “were coming from a background of poverty – jobless, homeless and broke. They would most likely have had health issues before signing up.”
Conditions soon became so dire, at the Broadmeadows camp in Victoria, that all recruits were transferred to Seymour. All over Australia, the overcrowded training camps battled similar conditions. This was all new territory. The world had not seen war on a scale like this before and authorities struggled to come to terms with it. A.G. Butler went on to write, “… despite the improved hospital accommodation [Seymour camp], deaths from pneumonia (idiopathic or associated with influenza or measles) became frequent.”
“… the outbreak assumed almost epidemic proportions”
New epidemics began arising within the training camps and a pneumonia-like disease started to appear. As meningitis swept the world, Australia was not immune. A. G. Butler reported 15,000 troops stationed at Seymour saw an outbreak that soon took on “epidemic proportions.” Conditions in the camps, particularly in Australia’s southern states, offered the right conditions to harbour the disease. Of the diseases affecting Australian troops between July 1915 and June 1916, the mortality rate was a staggering 42 percent. It would seem the young and vibrant future of our nation had a battle on their hands before they even left our shores.
On board the transport ships, with cramped and overcrowded conditions, the need to stay fit and healthy was paramount. Men erected improvised sports courses – climbing ship ropes, crawling under tarps, racing up and down stairs, and wriggling through life belts – not just to ward off boredom but also to try to maintain a reasonable physical state.
Walter Perrins, on board the HMAT Port Melbourne (21st October 1916) wrote, “Things go well until about 6pm when sea-sickness overtakes us. A terrible night. Very wet and rough seas coming down deck damaging a lot of rafts. Still sea-sick myself.”
The camps were far from glamorous …
In mid-1916, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) moved its’ Head Quarters from Egypt to London with strategic command depots in rural areas. Hurdcott House, the AIF No. 3 Command Depot, lay on the outskirts of the Salisbury Plains where an immense military village had sprung up to house, train, and prepare new recruits for the frontlines of war. “It was better for the soldiers to be based in England where they were closer to the European frontlines and could be moved about easier,” says Mr Boakes. The camps were far from glamorous with thousands of men on the Salisbury Plains and in the surrounding areas. “Even though, by 1916 when the Australians arrived, there would have been proper structures to house the men, still facilities were basic because it was all about ‘get them in and out quickly’,” continues Mr Boakes.
The Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, reported the winter of 1916/17 in the UK as being the coldest of the 20th century. Basil Rackham, of the Royal Naval Division, comments, “The winter was so cold that I felt like crying … I didn’t actually cry but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire …”
A normal British winter would have been a shock for many of the Australian soldiers. However, they had endured a miserable winter at home surrounded by disease, and undertaken a difficult four to six week sea journey, only to be presented with more cruel conditions. It didn’t help that military hospitals were glutted and under pressure. Combined with the colder than normal winter conditions; the weakened and sick new Australian recruits disembarked on English soil.
“There would have been a medical facility nearby [the Australian camp at Hurdcott]. Most likely the manor house at Baverstock,” reports Mr Boakes. However, for some recruits it would not be enough.
Twenty-three of the twenty-nine soldiers buried at Baverstock enlisted during the Australian winter of 1916 and died from respiratory diseases before the war was over – sixteen of them never having seen the battlegrounds of the war they had come to support.
Social commentators of the day were describing the war as an epic event that would alter the world forever. Our men wanted to be a part of this life changing moment in time. But, alas, so many never got the chance. The countries they were coming to defend were too ill equipped to prepare or protect them. The men buried at Baverstock are but a few of the ‘acceptable losses’ that went off to defend our nation only to have their lives cut short for, what could appear to be, nothing but to spend eternity in foreign soil.
Lest we forget …
Having researched the soldiers buried at Baverstock, they all seem like typical Aussies of the time: young country boys seeking adventure; lovable larrikins that found themselves in trouble for going AWOL – some while still on the transport ships. One found himself on report for not turning up to the 05.00 parade after a night of drinking. For another, it took three attempts at enlisting, a name change and a new ‘hometown,’ before finally getting his place as an ANZAC. The men buried at Baverstock represent more than just another soldier’s headstone. They represent ‘our boys’ who went to make their mark only to be denied the chance to do anything heroic or become household names like O’Meara and Simpson. Their intentions were, however, just as valiant.
So, this Anzac Day, on the centenary of their deaths, let’s raise a glass to the men so easily forgotten – out of sight, out of mind. The Baverstock boys and other ‘acceptable losses’ buried in country churchyards, may not have seen battle, but still left a legacy. One that sees subsequent soldiers benefitting by not having to suffer the conditions and unpreparedness they did. What they endured for King and Country and contributed to our nation’s health deserves to be remembered along with our other national heroes.