|William Edwin Davis. Source NAA uploaded by Faithe Jones|
One of the soldiers aboard the ship was Colour Sergeant William Edwin Davis. This is his story.
William Edwin Davis - Engine Driver, Trade Unionist, Husband and Father
Fitzroy-born William Edwin Davis was 40 years old when he enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force, His mother writes in William’s service file that he was her only son.
Married to Maud, William’s address on enlistment was 8 Mount Street, Prahran.William and Maud had seven children. He recorded his religion as Wesleyan.
Prior to enlistment William worked as an engine driver.
Before enlisting, William had a prominent role not only in his own trade union but in the Victorian union movement. He was also an active trade unionist.
He was not only a member of his trade union – the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) - but he had been the Victorian Branch President and a delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
Committed to improving the working conditions of his fellow workers, it would appear the William played a major role in the industrial history of both his union and the Victorian labour movement as a whole.
During the famous 1911 Arbitration Court case heard by Justice Higgins, William was joined by his wife giving evidence in support of the union’s claim for a wage increase. Maud’s evidence of the cost of living for a family living on an engine driver’s wage was cited by Justice Higgins for the awarding of significant increases for skill and various other workers tasks.
He enlisted not long after the outbreak of war - on the 15th August 1914 – and given the enlistment number of 1096 and allocated to the new 6th Battalion, G Company. A hand written note in his service file records that Williams was “one of the first volunteers.”
His enlistment form records his service in the 49th infantry militia. This may explain his apparent induction to the rank of Colour Sergeant either on enlistment or soon after.
The 6th Battalion was among the first infantry units raised for the AIF during the First World War. Like the 5th, 7th and 8th Battalions, it was recruited from Victoria and, together with these battalions, formed the 2nd Brigade. The battalion was raised within a fortnight of the declaration of war in August 1914 and embarked just two months later.
The 2nd Brigade was commanded by Colonel McKay.
Prior to embarking from Australia, William was promoted to Colour Sergeant while at the Broadmeadows training camp prior to his departure from Australia.
|Attestation or Enlistment Form of William Edwin Davis, NAA.|
William and the Battalion embarked from Melbourne’s Princes Pier on the 19th October 1914 aboard the HMAT Hororata (the A20). There departure is captured in the picture below.After a brief stop in Albany, Western Australia, the battalion proceeded to Egypt, arriving on 2 December. They sailed into Alexandria harbour on the morning of the 3rd December.
William and the Battalion proceeded to the great Anzac training camp at Mena.
The photograph below shows the 6th Battalion’s encampment in “The Valley of the Nile."
Over the next three months or so the Battalion undertook more training – route marches, musketry and other military drills.
infantry embarking on HMAT Hororata (A20), at the Port Melbourne pier. At left
is HMAT Orvieto (A3), the flagship of the convoy. Note the train on the rail
tracks beside the troops marching along the pier. AWMC02491 |
|Mena Camp, Egypt, 1915, Camp of the 1st Australian Division, AIF, with the tent lines of the 6th Battalion in the centre, YMCA Building on the left and the valley of the Nile in the background. Donor J Thomson. AWM A05747|
In either late March or April, William and the Battalion sailed from Alexandria for Lemnos’ Mudros Bay. They arrived in the harbour aboard the transport ship Galeka. A photograph from the time shows the Battalion in Mudros Bay. Photographs from the time show the vast array of Allied shipping - some 200 warships and transports of many nations – British, French and Russian – filling Mudros Bay. Many diggers wrote in their diaries of their wonder at the huge armada.Tasmanian Lance Corporal Archibald Barwick, of the AIFs 1st Battalion, described the scene:
“The entrance to Mudros Harbour was netted [against submarines], so a destroyer came and showed us the way in. …. When we got round the last headland we could see the
harbour was a mass of ships..."
William would have spent the time as all other diggers did on Lemnos – training. He would have taken part in the various disembarkation and landing exercises undertaken to prepare the troops for the coming landing. He may have landed on the shores of the bay and undertaken route marches and other military training.
|Probably Lemnos, Greece, April 1915. Australian soldiers on the decks of the troop transport ships Galeka (6th Battalion) and Novian (7th Battalion), probably waiting to participate in the Gallipoi landings. Donor A Thomson AWM A05749|
The day before the landings was sunny on Lemnos, the Australian soldiers are said to have enjoyed this “real Australian sunshine”. On the morning of the 24th April the Anzacs readied for the landings of the next day. The 1st and 2nd AIF Brigades sailed for the Bay of Pournia on Lemnos’ northern shore to anchor until their departure in the early hours of the 25th. Just before dusk on 24th they would watch as their comrades in the 3rd AIF Brigade sailed past them after leaving Mudros Bay earlier that day, led by warships including the mighty HMS Queen Elisabeth. As the Australian’s departed for Gallipoli, it was reported that they could be distinguished from other Allied troops by their “wallaby call”. They would be followed by the rest of the Australian troops anchored in Pournia Bay. And so the Australian troops in April 1915 sailed to war in the wake of Homer’s Odysseus, who in legend had sailed from this very bay on his voyage to Troy.
After rendezvousing at Imbros close to the Gallipoli peninsula, the first Australians would make their landings at Anzac Cove at 4.30am on Sunday, 25th April.
William and the 6th Battalion landed with the rest of the 2nd Brigade later that morning, between 5.30 and 7am.
One digger who later wrote home describing the landings was Tasmanian Private Archie Muir of the 12th Battalion. It gives some idea of what William experienced as he approached the shore:"On a glorious Saturday afternoon we left Lemnos at 2pm and sailed for the Dardanelles. We arrived off the Isle of … [Imbros] about 10pm. Transshipped from transport to destroyers, traveled after midnight, seven miles, in perfect silence, arrived off the shore of … [Anzac Cove]. We approached the beach very quietly. ... Suddenly, out of the stilly darkness came the sharp crack of a few rifles, and in a few minutes the air was thick with thousands of bullets, flying here, there and everywhere …"
The 6th Battalion along with the rest of the Australians at Anzac Cove then marched inland to secure the landing area, facing numerous Turkish counter-attacks.
William’s service during this period was recognised with his promotion in the field on the 28th April, barely 3 days after the landing. William was now commissioned as Second Lieutenant.
|Australian troops being towed ashore in lighters to land at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. In the background is the transport ship. 1915. AWM C01890|
Ten days after the landing, the 2nd Brigade was transferred from ANZAC to Cape Helles to help in the second attack on the village of Krithia, north of Cape Helles on the southern front of the Gallipoli battlefields.The first attack by the British 29th Division on 28th April had failed and the Allies had suffered Turkish counter-attacks.
The aim of the battle was to capture the village of Krithia and the Achi Baba Ridge, its intended success would overcome Turkish control of the Peninsula. It was felt that if these objectives were reached, the whole Turkish front would collapse.
The Brigade made its departure from Anzac Cove in the early hours of the 6th May, heading for Cape Helles, sailing in destroyers, minesweepers and other craft. By 9am that morning the Brigade had arrived a V Beach. The transports moored near the wreck of the beached River Clyde and as the diggers made their way along the side of the wreck they read an instruction chalked on the side of the vessel referring to the danger of enemy fire “Duck Your Nut”. They then moved off at 9am to reserve positions where they remained until the 8th May.
When it arrived at Cape Helles the unit diary records that the 6th Battalion totalled 22 officers and 703 other ranks.
On the morning of 8th May the Brigade was ordered forward.
At the same time the New Zealand Brigade undertook the first assault of the Battle, supported by an attack by French forces on their right. By midday the strength of the Turkish defence had led to the halt of the New Zealand attack. The New Zealanders suffered many losses and failed to reach the Turkish trenches. The attack of the French on the right had similarly failed.
The overall Allied commander General Hamilton ordered that the advance should re-commence at 5.30pm, the whole Allied line, reinforced by the Australians, “should fix bayonets and storm Krithia and Achi Baba.”
It was not until 4.55pm – barely 35minutes before the intended attack - that the 2nd Brigade Headquarters received its orders:
“You will be required to attack at 5.30pm precisely between the valley you are now in and the valley just south east of Krithia-Sedd El Bahr road….The objective is the ridge beyond Krithia.”
The diggers of the Brigade meanwhile had been resting and preparing dinner a mile to three quarters of a mile behind the front. It was not until between 5.10 and 5.20pm that the battalions received Colonel James McCay’s operational orders. The 6th Battalion would take up a position to the left of the 7th Battalion, next to the New Zealand Brigade. The 8th and 5th Battalions would be held in reserve. After taking their objective, the Australians were to link up with the British Naval Brigade and French forces who would be attacking to the right of the Australian positions.
The Battalion diary records that D Company was positioned on the left front, C Company on the right, with A and B Company’s behind these respectively in support.
According to his Service Record, William by thus stage was with the Battalion's D Company. He would therefore have been in one of the advance companies of the Battalion.
The lateness at which the troops had received their orders led to hurried deployment and some confusion. As soon as the 6th Battalion troops were in position, Major Gordon Bennett led them off in the attack. Meanwhile the 7th Battalion were hurrying to reach their starting positions. It was only at this moment that the latter Battalion’s officers were informed that they were about to attack the enemy. They would be led by their commander Colonel Gartside.As they emerged into open country, the diggers adopted “artillery formation”, spreading out into smaller groups. They now faced Turkish bullets fired at a long distance and shrapnel as artillery shells began to burst above them. The 6th and 7th were now advancing at rapid walking pace loaded down with full marching kit against a growing storm of rifle-fire. Shovels were used as some protection from bullets.
The 6th Battalion Dairy records the attack:
“At 5.30pm the advance commenced under very heavy shrapnel, rifle and machine gun fire, we pushed on, under verbal orders of Brigadier. Losses were heavy, especially among officers.”
As the 6th Battalion advanced within 600 yards of the Turkish trenches – the latter finally became visible. While Allied artillery exploded shrapnel over these trenches, the Turkish skirmishers laying 200 yards in front and the machine gunners on the flanks were not harmed.
The ferocity of the resistance of the Turkish forces is evidenced in the 2nd Brigade Diary repeatedly citing “fiercely attacked “and “heavily attacked.” All Brigade staff was reported as casualties. Calls were made for reinforcements. Food and water were urgently needed. Many officers were killed or wounded – including the Brigade commander Colonel William McKay who was reported wounded in the early hours of the following day.
Finally, 400 yards from the Turkish trenches, with only small groups of men remained, laying down and firing from their positions. Major Gordon Bennett, the senior officer at the front, decided that any further advance would lead to the Brigades extermination. He ordered the remaining 6th and 7th Battalions to dig in and by 6.30pm the attack stopped. They were 600 yards from their starting positions – and 2,000 yards from the village of Krithia.
As the Australian Official Historian Charles Bean concludes, in little over an hour the Australians had advanced 600 yards across open moorland under heavy fusillade and lost 1,000 men – an army had been expended “in merely approaching the enemy."
Meanwhile the New Zealanders to the Australians left had met a similar fate and halted 400 yards from the Turkish trenches. Before 7pm Hamilton issued the order to suspend all attacks.
|7th Battalion troops behind mud ramparts at Cape Helles prior to the 2nd Brigade attack. Photo by Harold Arthur Barker. AWM J05583|
|Sketch Map showing the advance of the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade up the Central Spur on 8th May 1915, from Ron Austin, The White Gurkhas, 1989, p. 111|
|Map of the advance of the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade at Helles on 8th May 1915, from CEW Bean, Official History, Volume 2, Map 2a. AWM|
|Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 9 May 1915. A trench dug by the 2nd Australian Brigade at Helles, at a point reached the previous night. Krithia Nullah is seen on the left. The New Zealanders occupied the heights beyond. Photo CEW Bean. AWM G00966|
|Helles, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 9 May 1915. Ground over which the 2nd Brigade AIF (mostly Victorians) advanced. Photo CEW Bean. AWM G00967E|
|Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 9 May 1915. The Headquarters of Colonel Bennett of the 6th Battalion in the firing line at Helles. Photo taken by CEW Bean. AWM G00967|
William would have advanced across the open ground leading his men forward into the murderous fire of the defenders. William’s service record states that he was killed in action during this battle, on the 8th May.
He most likely would have fell sometime between 5.30pm and 7pm.
The 2nd Brigade lost a third of its strength in the battle. Out of 2,900 men who commenced the battle, over 1,000 were killed, wounded or missing.William’s Battalion suffered more than the others in the Brigade. At 5.30pm the 6th Battalion had 22 officers and 703 other ranks. By 7pm, over 50% were killed, wounded or missing. 14 officers were killed or wounded. Four of its men who had been promoted to officer rank since the landing at Anzac – including William – had been killed in the advance.
Both of the 6th Battalions leading company commanders – Major Wells and Lieutenant Keiran were mortally wounded in the attack.
Other 6th Battalion officers killed included Second Lieutenant L Pozzi and Lieutenant J Dangerfield.
But the 6th Battalion’s Major Gordon Bennett who had personally led the Battalion in the advance and was left as the most senior officer at the front line survived the attack unscathed. By seniority, Bennett was now in command of the Sixth Battalion.
And one of the 6th Battalion’s diggers - Private AM Kirkwood - was awarded the
Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery (as was the 7th Battalion’s Private William Birrell.
For the many diggers that lay wounded on the battlefield their suffering continued due to poor medical preparations. The few stretcher bearers that were available often had to carry their burdens all the way to the beach as there was no intermediate collecting station with wagon transport. The hospital ship arrangements were also inadequate so that once the wounded were taken off the beach they would have trouble finding a ship prepared to take them on board.
For four days the remaining Australians – the four battalions temporarily re-grouped as a composite battalion – held the positions they had reached on the 8th. Then on the night of the 11th May, the weary Australians were relieved.
The Second Battle of Krithia - An Assessment
William had been sacrificed as all who fought on that day as a consequence of the lack of military judgement and planning.William and the rest of the Australians that day were ordered to make a formal attack with but 25 minutes warning, or in the case of the actual Battalions, a mere ten minutes. The Brigade was ordered to attack over open ground against a well-entrenched enemy position. There was insufficient artillery support for the success of the attack. Added to this were poor communications and medical evacuation arrangements. As one historian of the Battle (Ron Austin) concludes, most of all William and his comrades were sacrificed due to inflexibility in tactical thought and planning by the Allied commander of the Helles front – Major General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston – resulting in the ordering of identical futile attacks over the three separate days of the battle.
It is both astonishing yet apt to read conclusion of the official British Historian of the Gallipoli campaign describe the efforts of the Australian's in the battle as Australia’s “unrecognised Balaclava."
|Krithia, 8th May 1915. The scene after an attack by the 2nd Infantry Brigade. Several bodies are lying on the ground and a rifle is in the left foreground. AWM C01079|
|Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 12 May 1915. A detachment of the 2nd Australian Brigade AIF going down to bathe after withdrawal from the trenches at Cape Helles. Photo CEW Bean. AWM G00969|
|7th Battalion disembarking on their return to Anzac Cove, 17th May 1915. AWM J02408|
But William would remain on the Peninsula along with the thousands of other Allied soldiers buried there. After the war his remains would not be found and his service and sacrifice are commemorated on Panel 201 at the Helles Memorial to the Missing, alongside that of his 6th Battalion comrades Second Lieutenant L Pozzi and Lieutenant J Dangerfield.
The Helles Memorial serves the dual function of Commonwealth battle memorial for the whole Gallipoli campaign and place of commemoration for many of those Commonwealth servicemen who died there and have no known grave. The United Kingdom and Indian forces named on the memorial died in operations throughout the peninsula, the Australians at Helles. There are also panels for those who died or were buried at sea in Gallipoli waters. Over 20,000 names are commemorated on this memorial.
William’s service is also commemorated on Panel 46 at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
|The Helles Memorial, Gallipoli. Note the listing of the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
|The Helles Memorial, Gallipoli. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
|The Helles Memorial, Gallipoli. The names of the missing - such as Williams - are etched around the Memorial. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
William's death at Krithia left his family back in Australia devastated.
After Maud had received news of her husbands death, a letter arrived from the Army informing her of his promotion to Second Lieutenant (below).
William was posthumously awarded the 1914/15 Star, The British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Then a few William's personal effects arrived back at his family home in Prahran via Thomas Cook - his name tag, a whistle, a belt and a testament.
She would also have received a Mothers and Widow’s Badge – as one of his fellow 6th Battalion comrades who was killed on the same day. Corporal 155 George Leslie Trevelian was killed on 8th May 1915 in the same attack as William.
William's death left behind a grieving wife and mother - and seven children now sudden without their devoted father.
He was of course also missed by his fellow trade unionists. In 1915 the FEDFA Executive Council's expressed of "their admiration for their late comrades who died fighting for the Empire" and "their sincere sympathy for those whose hearts were sad for their loss of their beloved ones."
The FEDFA journal - Safety Valve - paid tribute to William and other members throughout Australia who had served and died in war. The Victorian Branch Secretary expressed his "deep regret" at the news of the death of "Comrade Davis" and on behalf of all Victorian members "extend their heartfelt sympathy to Mrs Davis and her family in her hour of trial."
The service of this father and active member of his community is a reminder of the terrible consequences of war. Australia - and his family - were denied the future contributions of William. His death and its consequences are a reminder of the real impact of the First World War on Australian society.
Lest we forget.
|AIF Letter to Mrs Maud Davis 31st May 1915. NAA|
|The annual commemorative service held at the Helles Memorial in April. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
A big thank you to our Committee member Malcolm McDonald, a former official of the William's trade union, who has written a history of FEDFA. Malcolm was the first to inform me of William's service. Thanks Malcolm.
Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee