FIRST SENT MARCH 25
By Tim Clarke
ALBANY, WA, AAP – They arrived unannounced.
Thousands of troops from across Australia and New Zealand, primed for war.
Gathered together aboard dozens of warships, laden with horses, typewriters, ambulances, provisions and tonnes of weapons, they sailed serenely into the idyllic King George Sound, on Western Australia’s south coast.
And for the next week, the town of Albany – population 4000 – became the last Australian home many of these young, fearless men would ever know.
It was late October, 1914, and the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – the ANZACs – had been deployed to Europe.
Just days earlier, it had been resolved they would cross the Indian Ocean on board nearly 40 ships, but they needed somewhere to gather.
Albany is the oldest permanently settled town in Western Australia, pre-dating Perth and Fremantle by two years, when in 1826 it was colonised as a military outpost as part Australia’s resistance to French ambitions.
The 110 square kilometre sound is sheltered on all sides from winds and heavy seas – and so, was big enough, deep enough and calm enough to house the biggest fleet the Commonwealth had ever assembled.
And so they came.
“Here were gathered innumerable vessels of every line trading in the Southern oceans. Not painted uniformly grey like our ships, but taken in all their glory of greens, blues and yellows, they rode on the calm water of King George’s Sound, packed with the adventurous spirits of the First Australian Division,” wrote Major Fred Waite, author of ‘The New Zealanders at Gallipoli’.
The equally sheltered, secluded townsfolk of Albany had never seen anything like it.
“It was one of those things that snuck up on the people of Albany, and they did not know it was happening because of military censorship,” recounts Malcolm Traill, public programs officer at the WA Museum in Albany.
“They woke up one morning in late October to see that ships had begun to arrive in our waters … and the war had started.”
The numbers of troops, like the task awaiting them, were huge.
Thirty six ships gathered – 26 from Australia, 10 from New Zealand – to be joined later by two sailing from Fremantle.
An escort convoy of six warships and one Japanese cruiser would protect the precious cargo – 20,000 soldiers, 2000 sailors and 7000 horses.
Behind the fleet command vessel Orvieto would sail in the Hymettus, the Geelong, the Pera, the Omrah, the Clan Maccorquordale, the Medic, the Argyllshire, the Shropshire, and dozens of others.
And for days, as the Albany townsfolk watched from the land, the ships and the men sat and waited in the harbour, while coal and fresh water were replenished.
“They were bored, sick of training and waiting for decisions; they were told when they signed up their Empire needed them and they were very keen to go and do their bit,” Mr Traill said.
“But they had little idea of what they were in for in the weeks, months and years ahead.”
To help expend the nervous energy and relieve the boredom, troops were ferried ashore daily to exercise, to drill and march.
Their impending sacrifice was embraced.
“One of the breweries set up a stall to help refuel the marching men, and a couple of men from the brewery took a keg down and encouraged the men to get a top up to send them on their way,” Mr Traill said.
“And the townsfolk presented the troops with sprigs of wattle, which some placed in the Slouch Hats and that was a memory of Albany, and Australia, they would take away with them.”
Then just as quietly as they arrived, in the early hours of November 1, the troops left, headed for Egypt, the Dardanelles and Gallipoli.
Steaming out under the gaze of Mount Clarence, one-by-one the ships passed Breaksea Island and its lighthouse, occupied by its keeper Mr Howe and his teenage daughter Fay.
And one-by-one, she signalled to the departing fleet in morse code, becoming for many young soldiers, the last human contact they would ever have with Australia.
Weeks later, after a second convoy had also departed and Albany was returning to normality, postcards began arriving from the Middle East addressed to “The little girl on Breaksea Island”, from the men who had hung onto that final memory of home.
This year, 100 years on from the departure of the fleet, the memory of those men and what they faced will be honoured.
Troops will march on Albany’s streets, as they did in 1914.
Ships will gather in the sound, as they did in the days before battle.
And on November 1, the day of the centenary of the first convoy’s departure, the National Anzac Centre will open, perched overlooking the waters from where the troops departed.
“Albany has a special place in Australia’s history. And hopefully we learned our lesson, sending thousands of troops to war in one convoy knowing they would not return,” Mr Traill said.