Alan Forbes Anderson and the First Battle of the War.


Alan Forbes Anderson – Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force ,    1st Pioneer Battalion


When war was declared in August 1914, the British asked the Australian Government to raise an army and sail to German New Guinea. Their task was to destroy the German radio stations in the colony. Because they were used by the German East Asian Cruiser squadron, these radios were seen as a threat to merchant shipping in the Asian region. A volunteer force of about 2000 men was assembled. It was known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force and consisted of an infantry battalion of 1000 men who enlisted in Sydney, and 500 reservists and ex-sailors. There were also 500 volunteers from Queensland. One volunteer was Allan Forbes Anderson. He enlisted as a 23 year old electrical engineer.

The force embarked on HMAS Berrima on 19th August 1914. They sailed up the eastern Australian coast, waiting at Palm Island off Townsville until a New Zealand force and the navy ships, fromAustralia and a France joined them. The flotilla first sailed to Samoa which was occupied on 30 August. It arrived in German New Guinea on 7th September. The Melbourne sailed on to Nauru and destroyed the German radio station there while the Berrima, Australia and HMAS Sydney sailed to Rabaul. There were no German troops at the port when the Australians landed on 11th September.

Did the undefended port give the Australians a false sense of security? With so many troops available, why were only twenty five naval personnel sent to capture the radio station at Bita Paka? As the party advanced along a narrow road surrounded by jungle, they were attacked by snipers. An able seaman from Melbourne and a Doctor from Sydney were killed. These were the first Australian casualties from World War 1.

Troops were despatched to support their naval colleagues. They encountered a small German force supported by Melanesian warriors.   In the ensuring fight another four soldiers were killed before the radio station was destroyed. One German and thirty Melanesians died in the battle. Troops from the Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force occupied German New Guinea for the remainder of the war.

Alan Forbes Anderson took part in this venture. What did he think of his first battle? After this baptism under fire, did he regret adding three years to his age so he could join the Expeditionary Force?

Alan was born in Melbourne in 1895 so he was only nineteen years old when he enlisted. He was almost six feet tall with blue eyes and blond hair. He had been educated at Sydney Boys High-school, his military training confined to that provided in a part time cadet corps. Nevertheless, he was eligible for officer training in 1913. He rose quickly through the ranks. Having enlisted as a private on 11th August 1914, he was promoted to Sergeant on 18th August and 2nd Lieutenant on 20th November.  From the end of October 1914, Allan was attached to the Treasury Department in Rabaul. In December he was promoted to Garrison Adjutant. How easy it would have been to remain there for the duration of the war.

Lieutenant Andersen returned to Sydney and was discharged from the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force on 4th March 1915. On the 10th of May he reenlisted in the Australian Army with his correct age of twenty years. He was appointed to the 18th battalion with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.

When did he have time to fall in love? Was it a whorl wind romance? Was a child conceived? Whatever the case, Allan married eighteen year old Thelma Blanch Reed in St Luke’s Church of England; Liverpool just days before he set sail for Europe at the end of September.

He arrived at Suez in December 1915. In February 1916 he was wounded by shrapnel in Egypt. Since his battalion did was not fighting in Egypt at the time, he was probably wounded on a training exercise. Did this incident serve as a warning? Alan had been assigned to the 18th battalion and then transferred to the 3rd battalion. Both battalions had suffered heavy losses in Gallipoli. Obviously the war in Europe was going much more dangerous than the skirmish in New Guinea. Did Alan ask for a transfer from a front line contingent or did his superiors think that, with his Electrical Engineering background, he would be more suited to a pioneer unit? Whatever the case, Alan Forbes Anderson transferred to the 1st Pioneer Battalion on 12th March 1916. Shortly afterwards, on 1st April, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Later that month he and his unit joined the 1st Division of the Australia Army in the Somme valley.

Pioneer Battalions were responsible for the construction and maintenance of roads, railways and communications to and at the front line. They were responsible for providing arms, food and other supplies to the troops. The engineers and tradespeople in the Pioneer battalions mostly worked at night. They worked in muddy quagmires and under shell fire to build roads and light railways to the front line, to repaired bridges and lay the duck boards that provided access along the front line trenches.. Captain Anderson and his unit were mainly responsible for building and maintaining light railways. They laid the track and keep the engines operational. If a line was breached, a tunnel collapsed or a train derailed it was their job to fix the problem no matter how heavy the enemy bombardment. It made not have been front line fighting but was nevertheless very dangerous work.

As a reflection of the hard work and danger he endured, Major Alan Anderson was awarded the Croix de Guerre. This award was established by royal decree in Belgium in 1915. It was awarded for bravery or other notable deeds at the front. Alan was awarded the Croix de Guerre for “consistent good work and efficiency since joining the Battalion in March 1916. He skilfully carried out all works allotted to him as company commander under arduous and dangerous conditions. He has on many occasions displayed great initiative in directing the construction of light railways, tunnels and defence systems that his company was engaged in carrying out.”

Alan was given his medal at the end of the war in January 1919. He had had a lucky war. Except for a brief say in hospital for a dislocated shoulder, he was not sick or wounded. He had been promoted to the rank of major in August 1917. He was trained at the Royal Engineering Training school at Rouen in France. He was granted leave in England for two weeks at the end of January in 1918 and another holiday in Paris in September 1918. He was still only twenty three years old.

Once the war was over such a young man could look forward to a prosperous future. He had a young wife and a child that he had not seen. You would think he would have been eager to return to Australia. But, when the war was over, not everything went according to plan.

Alan remained in Belgium on court marshal duties. At the end of May 1919 he was arrested and charged with selling German machinery to a Belgium civilian without permission. He was found guilty of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” For his crime he lost thirty two days pay. He was immediately sent back to England. He returned to Sydney on the 9th September 1919 and his army career officially ended on 7th November 1919.

When his ship sailed into Sydney, you would expect Alan’s wife, Thelma, to be waiting at the wharf. This was not the case. He went to live with his mother in Kings Street, Randwick.  Later he joined his older brother, Mervyn, on his farm, Peasant Banks, near the hamlet of Lietinna in the far north-east of Tasmania. Lietinna, near Stockdale, is a prime farming area and was noted for its dairy products and hops used for brewing beer. Alan failed to find his feet in this rural community. By the end of 1922 he had given up farming and was on the move again.

In 1921 his wife Thelma sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. In October 1924 Alan was charged with the non-payment of child support. At the time Allan was described as a labourer. His, whereabouts was unknown. The police eventually caught up with him in October 1927. He was arrested at Castle Hill. His father had died in September and he was found living at the family home on Castle Hill Road, with his mother and brother. By the time of his arrest, he owed £112/5/- in child support . To avoid a gaol sentence, Alan agreed to immediately pay £37/10/- and to pay the remainder at the rate of 5/- a week.

What caused his matrimonial problems, was it the war or something else?

Until the end of the war Thelma Anderson lived North Sydney. In 1919 she wrote to the Australia Army asking where her husband was. Was he on a ship coming home? She needed the answer ungently. She would contact him by cable. She had moved to Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst.

In 1923, Thelma married her second husband Stephen Charles Ottoway. She was Stephen’s second wife. The question is whether Thelma knew Stephen Ottoway during the war.

Stephen Ottoway had married Veronica Halpin in Beaufort near Ballarat, Victoria in 1912. They divorced her in 1922. He accused his wife of being an alcoholic who drank perfume if whisky was not available. She had also had an affair. She accused him of cruelty and insinuated that he was also unfaithful. The Judge granted the divorce on the grounds of Veronica’s infidelity. Stephen Ottoway was a Pharmacist. He had chemist shops in Darlinghurst and Kings Cross. So did Thelma move to Darlinghurst to be close to Stephen? Did they both divorce their partners so that they could marry?

In 1928 Thelma and Stephen sailed to England. A daughter, Edith Ottoway, born in 1917 accompanied them. Where was the child was that Alan Anderson was paying child support for?

Stephen Ottoway died in 1933. Thelma then married her third husband, Frank Robson. She died in 1966.

Eventually Alan Forbes Anderson settled in Gladstone, Queensland. In 1930 he was working as a carpenter and by 1936, he was a building contractor. In his late forties he returned to farming, settling between Ayr and Bowen in north Queensland. He initially farmed sugar cane at Guthalungra on the Eliot River and then further north at Down River near Home Hill on the Burdekin River. Towards the end of his life he lived in Port Moresby, New Guinea. He died in 1966 at Royal Brisbane Hospital.