Baggott Brothers – War Stories of a Meat Preserver’s Family

Herbert Henry Baggott – 4th Field Ambulance, Army Service Corp 

George Erwin – 42nd Battery, 11th Artillery Brigade

Allan Fredrick – Medically Discharged

In 1896, Archibald Baggott and his family migrated from New Zealand to Robe in South Australia. He came to manage the local cannery. It was a meat preserving works, the main product being preserved rabbits. Archibald Baggott was well qualified in the trade as, for many years; he managed and operated a similar cannery near Dunedin in New Zealand.

Canning and preserving became somewhat of a family trade. The oldest son, Archibald Ingram invented a process for sealing cans in the 1930s. He spent many years in the preserving business in Argentina, working for Bovril, before returning to Australia and eventually settling in Hunters Hill, Sydney. Herbert Henry and Allan Fredrick also became preservers. Only the second son Charles William and the youngest son George Erwin chose different careers.

The three youngest boys all enlisted in the Australian Army during the First World War.

Herbert Henry was twenty-three years old when he signed up in September 1915. He served until mid 1919 and was never asked to fire a shot at the enemy. He trained as a motor driver and spent the war in the Army Service Corp. He delivered supplies to the front line troops and, for a period, served as an ambulance driver.

George Erwin enlisted in Adelaide on 9th October 1915. He said he was twenty-one years old and that he had spent seven years in the 74th Battalion of the Citizens Defence Forces. In actual fact, he was only seventeen. George was born on 15th February 1898. He was the youngest of the Baggott children and the only one born in Australia.   He was a clerk and worked in a bank. When he enlisted he was assigned to the 32nd Infantry Battalion. He sailed for Egypt on 7th February 1916 just a week before his 18th birthday.

Following the Gallipoli campaign, the structure of the Anzac forces was reorganised into ANZAC I and II. ANZAC I consisted of the 1st and 2nd divisions of the AIF and the New Zealand division. To bolster the artillery capacity this unit before it embarked for France in March 1916, the artillery brigades from the 4th Division of the AIF were attached to the new army. This left the 4th Division without an artillery unit. Each battalion in the division was asked to provide 100 men to train as gunners. While some of men came from experienced Gallipoli troops and from the cavalry troops stationed in Egypt, most were raw recruits who had recently arrived from Australia. One such recruit was eighteen year old George Baggott. He became a member of the 42nd Battery of the 11th Artillery Brigade.

The 11th Artillery Brigade underwent eight weeks of gruelling training. For eight hours a day George learnt the intricies of field guns and howitzers. He endured endless hours in firing practise. In the meantime the officers were almost equally untrained and spent an additional four hours a day learning how to command an artillery battery.

Meanwhile, Herbert left Australia for Egypt in March 1916. On arrival he was assigned to the 4th Field Ambulance. Thus both Henry and George were together in the 4th Division of ANZAC II. No doubt Herbert thought that when they arrived in France he would see his younger brother from time to time. Fate was to dictate that this would not be so.

Both brothers embarked for Marseilles in June 1916. When they arrived they were immediately sent to northern France. The 4th Division was ordered to relieve the 1st and 2nd Division troops near Armentieres. This was thought to be a quiet part of the Front, a place where less experienced troops could become acclimatised. The artillery units were gradually integrated into those of the 2nd Division. Battery by battery, the 4th Division gunners took control of the front allowing the 2nd Division men a well earned rest.   George moved to the Front on 27th June. By 4th July the 4th Division was completely in control.

In mid 1916 the British and French forces planned a major attack against the Germans along the Somme River. It began on 1st July 1916. From the very first day they experience heavy losses. The 4th Division AIF was ordered to join the 2nd and 3rd Divisions as reinforcements for the battle. Their first task would be to attack the Germans near the small village of Pozieres on 23rd July. The 4th artillery brigades were thought to lack the experience necessary for battle on the Somme and were left behind. So, the brothers were separated.

When the 4th division went into battle, Herbert was an ambulance driver. A field ambulance consisted of a forward field dressing station which received casualties from the stretcher bearers. Wounds were dressed and emergence care given and then the wounded soldier was sent to a field hospital in an ambulance. Henry Baggott drove the ambulance backwards and forwards between dressing stations and field hospitals at the Somme in 1916. In July he ferried the wounded from the Battle of Pozieres. Then the 4th Division was part of the Australian forces given task of defeating the Germans at Mouquet Farm on 5th August. Over a ten day period the Australians suffered over 4000 casualties. Still the Germans were not defeated. For Herbert, driving his ambulance for days on end, ferried the wounded to hospital, contenting with shelling landing about him and the worst possible roads, this must have been a horrific baptism of fire. Nevertheless, he was lucky. His younger brother had a much more bloody experience.

After the 4th Division left, the 4th Division Artillery Brigades were absorbed into the 5th Division which assumed control of the allied positions in the area near Armentieres. This was the newest and least experienced of the Australia forces. A week after the Division arrived in France it was ordered into battle.

When planning for battle on the Somme, the British conceived an idea of a smaller attack, a deceptive attack about 80km to the north near the village of Fromelles. It was hoped that the Germanys would think Fromelles was the site of a major offensive. The Battle of the Somme began without this feint attack but later the idea was reconsidered. There would be an artillery bombardment from 288 guns and 72 howitzers for three days. The Germans would think that a major attach was imminent and not transfer troops to the Somme. Just before the guns were due to begin firing, the plan was changed to include an infantry attack.

Fromelles was on the top of a rise behind the German trenches. These were on the high ground and overlooked no-man’s-land, a flat area of bogs and overgrown vegetation. At the site of the proposed attach, the ‘Sugarloaf Salient’ the trenches jutted outwards. They were heavily defended. The English, who were to attach from the right, were undermanned and battle weary. The Australians, who were to attach on the left, had only just arrived in France and most had no experience in battle.

The Artillery bombardment was reduced to seven hours. There were fewer guns than promised and less ammunition. The bombardment was entirely in the hands of the brigades from the 4th and 5th divisions. It would be their first battle.

On the 19th of July the bombardment was late starting. It failed to destroy the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. The Germans were well entrenched deep below ground. The Australian shells had no major impact. Thus the Germans were ready for the attack when the Australian left their trenches about 6pm. The battle lasted for less than twenty-four hours. The Germans won a concessive victory. The Australian troops were slaughtered with 5533 casualties. The British lost 1549men, the Germans, a little over 1000. This was 18 year old George Baggott’s introduction to war.

After the Battle of Fromelles, George and his fellow artillery men were withdrawn from the front for training. No doubt they appreciated the time to recover from the stress of battle which, together with the extra training, completed their education and formed them into a solid fighting force. They were then sent into Belgium under 4th Canadian command and finally rejoined the Australian 4th Division at Ypres to the south of the Comines Canal on 14th September 1916. They supported an infantry raid in October firing 1500 shells and were highly praised for their accuracy.

The brothers spent the next three months together. In October all the Australian Divisions in France were ordered back to the Somme. When they arrived the weather was closing in. It was wet and cold. By November snow covered the ground and it was the weather, not the armies that controlled the Somme. The winter of 1916-1917 was the coldest on record. Now the ambulances transported sick soldiers to hospital. They suffered from trench foot, fevers and lung infections such as bronchitis and pleurisy. In January George Baggott got sick with pleurisy. He was evacuated to hospital. Did his brother drive the ambulance? If he did, it would be the last time he saw his brother until the following December. George was transferred to England and remained there in hospital for most of 1917. He returned to his unit in France in on 1st December in the midst of the next winter. At the end of January 1918 he was again transported from the front with fever. Very ill, he returned to England and spent the remained of the war in and out of hospital. He did not return to France.

In September 1917 Herbert became ill with a groin infection. His records indicate that this was of the non-VD variety. Nevertheless he was hospitalised until late October. Then he was transferred to the Army Service Corp. He no doubt drove a three ton Peerless truck. Manufactured in Britain these were the most common truck used on the Western Front. They carted supplies to the front line for battles and food and mail to the soldiers. It was the thousands of non-combatants like Herbert, who allowed the fighting men to go into battle. This fact was recognised in August 1918 when Henry Baggott was recommended for a Military Medal. His citation read-

For devotion to duty and gallantry. During the operation in front of Hanvel on the 8th 9th and 10th  August 1918, driver Baggott showed great gallantry and devotion to duty in driving his box car with signal stores and cable up to the forward station continuously day and night under heavy machine gun fire and night bombing. On one occasion he penetrated so far as the sixteenth battery headquarters with wireless instruments and accumulators. This devoted work enabled the wireless and power buzzer stations to keep at work during a critical stage of operations. His work has always been at the highest order and he sets a splendid example of bravery and courage.

After Germany surrendered in November 1918 Herbert was given leave in England. In December he became engaged to Grace Media Hugall of Adelaide. Then he became ill with an abscess to the groin and was hospitalised until he returned to Australia in May 1919. He slipped back into civilian life, continuing to work as a driver. He married his fiancée, Grace, in September 1919. His brother George was his best man. Both proudly wore their army uniforms for the ceremony. In January 1921 he returned to the preserving industry. His father, who had been the manager of the Border Preserving works, died and Herbert was appointed temporarily as his replacement.

In the late 1920’s Herbert and his family settled in the North Island of New Zealand. In 1928 he was a ‘Motor Driver’ and lived in Auckland. Ten years later he was a labourer working for the Egmont Box Company. This company was originally established to harvest timber for crates for the dairy industry. In 1937 they obtained a contract to fell timber in the Taurewa State Forest near Mt Tongariro. The Baggott family lived in nearby small village of National Park. Eventually Herbert returned to the canning industry. In the 1940s he became factory manager of a cannery in Geraldton in Western Australia. He died in 1961.

George returned to Australia in March 1919. He lived in Mt Gambia until 1922 when he the left to worked for Adelaide Tramways. He married Clare May Hunter and they had a son and two daughters. George worked for Holden in Woodville in South Australia. At this time Holden was making and supplying car bodies for General Motors in Australia. For a period he also worked for an oil company. When World War II began, George again answered the call. He enlisted in August 1940 and worked as a clerk in the Medical Section of the Records Office. He held the rack of Staff Sargent when he was discharged. He died in June 1943.

The third Baggott to enlist was Allan Fredrick. He enlisted on 13th April 1917. He was a 21 years old fruit preserver. He had spent seven year as a cadets, so had some experience of military life. He trained as a gunner, learning the intricacies of field artillery and the machine gun. He learnt his trade well but was never able to put it into practice. On 18th October 1917 he was discharged from the army on medical grounds. He suffered from chronic Eczema which badly affected both feet.

Allan returned to the canning industry. For a time he worked in a cannery preserving fruit, then in the Corio Meat Work in Geelong. Later he worked for the South Australian department store, Harris Scarfe Ltd.   Alan married Alma Spears in 1919 and died in Adelaide in 1961.