A Family at War
(last updated: 27 January 2015)
A17 SS Port Lincoln casting off from Port Melbourne dock on 20 October 1916 (AWM PB0868).
After spending some time outside the Heads, the SS Port Lincoln sailed west past Perth and then on towards South Africa. After the first few days the initial excitement of their first sea voyage would have subsided and the boys would have grown weary of the monotonous diet and accompanying routine of physical training, lectures, deck games and rumour mongering. Their interest was soon revived, however, on sighting the outline of the eastern coast of South Africa and, after that, the port of Durban. Here it is likely that they would have shared the experience of Corporal Alan Campbell of the Australian Flying Corps, whose ship left Melbourne shortly after and followed the same route as the Port Lincoln, and who wrote in a letter to his mother: 'The first person that we were able to discern on land was a girl, or perhaps she would prefer, a young lady, neatly dressed in all white, who waved to us and in excellent semaphore, sent Australia some very nice messages. We gave that girl the loudest cheer that, I think, I ever heard, 2500 of us together and she disappeared. We had not seen a female for so long, that the sight of her did us good'.
Troops on board the SS Port Lincoln en route to Durban, and a postcard of Cave Rock at the Bluff near Durban.
On the back of the postcard, which had been sent to his younger brother Ted, Sam had written:
'We were up on top of that rock yesterday we may be leaving here tomorrow'.
After a few days leave in Durban, the Port Lincoln got ready to sail and the ships company was treated to the spectacle of a local YWCA worker, a Miss Campbell, coming onto the wharf with several chaff bags full of fresh oranges which she threw to the departing troops as fast as her native helpers could pass them to her. When all the oranges were despatched, she waved goodbye and, like her compatriot on their arrival, semaphored them 'Good Luck'. This so touched the watchers that they, like many before and after, took up a collection and sent her a gift from England. This served, it seems, to increase even more her admiration for the Anzacs - her 'heroes to the core' - whom she had already eulogized in heartfelt (if amateurish) verse:
We can't do much, I own it;
But give them a passing cheer,
While the real elite beat a shocked retreat;
Why? They saw one drinking beer!
Oh God! could we show these misers
The path the Anzacs went!
Could they rest in their beds at night-time,
And live in their d--d content?
Could they talk with a sneer of Australians,
When one or two get drunk?
I'd rather a drunk Australian
Than a wealthy Durban funk!
(Cited in the East Charlton Tribune, 14 February 1917).
The ship sailed without an escort to Cape Town and then along the west coast of Africa and across the equator. They were now in 'dangerous waters' and were not allowed to smoke or show lights of any kind on deck after sunset. This was for good reason. Much to the trepidation of the soldiers on board, a German submarine began stalking the Port Lincoln and chased it into the port of Freetown in Sierra Leone where, without a pilot, it ran onto a sandbar luckily within the harbour. This was no isolated incident. The 1 August 1917 edition of the Quambatook Times cites a letter sent home by a Private J. Jury of Ultima who was on the SS Ballarat when she was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean on 25 April that year. Jury's account gives us a sense of what the boys and their colleagues narrowly avoided: 'Orders were at once given to proceed to our lifeboat stations, and we were quickly put off. Subsequently we were picked up by a destroyer making straight for Plymouth. Steaming about 40 miles an hour we reached our destination in 7 hours, and although the cold was intense, felt safe on land. All I possessed I stood in ... as we had no time to go for our kit and all our treasures were consigned to 'Davy Jones' locker'.
Sam and Bert and their colleagues were hastily disembarked from the Port Lincoln and, unlike Jury, spent a pleasant week in Freetown seeing the sights, having their photograph taken (the one on the left shows Sam - third from the left in the rear row - and his colleagues with two locals) and waiting for a replacement transport ship. This was the SS Ulysses which left in a convoy from Sierra Leone on 5 December and arrived at Devonport in the United Kingdom three days after Christmas. The troops travelled by train from the port to a small siding on the Salisbury Plain from where they marched, in a long loose column, to their transit camp some four miles distant. Cold, but cheerful and dry, the men sang and whistled as they swung along the country lanes, peering with interest at the neat farms and buildings they passed, and shouting greetings to the few villagers they espied. It is possible that they, like Private James Edward Allen of the 49th Battalion, which followed the same route a year later, were welcomed at the halfway point by the Mayoress of Exeter and her retinue and given tea and cakes which they 'thoroughly appreciated'. On arrival at the camp they were numbered off, 22 to a hut, given blankets and a straw mattress, and told to be up to receive orders at 6.30 the next morning. The following day Bert and Sam were allocated to the 4th Machine Gun Company of the 10th Infantry Brigade and began training for active service on the western front.
The camps comprising the Australian training base lay, in the words of C.E.W. Bean's official history, 'in the folds of the rolling grassy country, ten to twenty miles from Salisbury, some of them within sight of Stonehenge'. The reception and training of Monash's 3rd Division, the official history continued, would take place at 'Lark Hill, from which a British division was moving out, leaving 19 camps for 30,000 men'. For the incoming training units, Australia's London headquarters staff had selected four camps at nearby Rollestone, four at Parkhouse and eight at Perham Downs as well as a 'section of the new and excellently appointed barracks of the British Army at Tidworth'. As a whole, the bases covered some 25 square miles and accommodated over 43,000 men (Vol III, p.168). Their personal records indicate the Free brothers and their colleagues were based at one of the Perham Downs camps during their time on the Plain. They probably did most of their specialist training at Tidwoth, where the Machine Gun Corps Depot was situated, although they may also have attended classes at the British Machine Gun Training Centre at Belton Park near Grantham in Lincolnshire. They remained at Perham Downs until 11 May 1917 when they were shipped to France for further training before joing the 10th Machine Company on active service.
Click here to read about Sam and Bert's experiences in Belgium and France, and here to see more photos and momentoes of the boys' wartime experiences.
Sent by Sam not long after arriving in England, this postcard is of Percival Street in Freetown
in Sierra Leone. On the back Sam had written: 'This is the town where we stayed a week
when the old Port Lincoln ran aground'. On England in winter, he simply said:
'all well, not even much of colds'.
Perham Downs canteen
During this time, life at Lalbert went on. The winter frosts and fogs were followed by propitious rainfalls that saw the Wimmera transformed in spring into a brilliant, rolling green landscape. Samuel and his younger sons carried on with caring for their horses, fallowing, fence-mending, shearing, dipping, crutching and, towards Christmas, harvesting another bumper crop of wheat. Fanny and her daughters joined others in the district in attending and organising sewing circles, dances, flower day celebrations and other gatherings to provide goods for the troops and raise money for the war effort. The boarders at the Lalbert Coffee Palace agreed to be fined for breeches of etiquette. The money generated was given to the local Red Cross Society which, at Christmas, distributed the £14/14/11 it had collected to the Belgian infants fund and Lady Munro-Ferguson's Government House-based Central Depot (East Charlton Tribune, 24 January 1917). Encouraged by the Education Department, the local schools held colourful bazaars at which there were be-ribboned stalls packed with goods of all kinds, and people partook of such amusements as sheaf tossing, sack racing and ladies nail driving.
Like thousands of others across the country, the Free family also eagerly awaited letters and cards from the brothers which, in addition to their own news, often contained that of relatives or other families' sons and, to the delight of the younger children, photos of strange places and exotic peoples. Indifferent to the dangers their brothers were soon to face, and younger family members would have basked in the awe and excitement these mementos generated at school, and felt pleased and proud that their older brothers were upholding the family's name within the district. Their parents would have written or spoken more circumspectly of their sons' happenings. Although distracted by home and community responsibilities, Fanny especially, would in quiet moments have experienced the pangs of anxiety felt by all mothers, wives and sweethearts of men gone to war: the fear that their paths will soon run from one danger to another; the worry that they may suffer from pain or distress; and the sudden, despairing thought that they might never return. Like many men then and since, Samuel probably preferred not to dwell too directly on his sons' prospects lest it bring on the very events he feared, and require him as a consequence to deal with emotions he might not be able to control.
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