Baird Brothers- A Fiji Connection
John Robert Baird – 3rd Battalion
David Murray Baird – 6t Light Horse Regiment
Following a vacancy In June 1896, Captain John Baird was appointed Pilot of Port Macquarie. Captain Baird was born in Ayr, Scotland 1859. He went to sea at an early age and was a ships master by the time he was thirty years old. After sailing the oceans of the world in clipper ships, Captain Baird immigrated to Australia in 1884. He became a coastal trader, plying his trade along the east coast of Australia. In 1891 Captain Baird married Jane Horn, settled in William St, Port Macquarie and obtained employment as the master of the tug ‘Alert’ assisting shipping in and out of the port and around its bays. In 1892 his first son, John Robert was born. His brother, David Murray, was born in 1894.
John Robert attended King’s school in Sydney. It was there that he had his first military experience as a school cadet. When he left school he went to Southport in northern NSW where he trained as a telephonist and joined the Southport Rifle Club. Then he went to live in Fiji, where he worked as a telephonist, and spent three years in the Fiji defence forces. In 1916 he returned to Sydney, enlisted in the AIF on 17/01/1916 and married his Fijian sweetheart, Elsa Helene Porges. John left for the war in Europe in September 1916. Like many other young men, he left his young wife pregnant. His son was born in 1917. Elsa and her son returned to Fiji and spent the war living with her mother in Suva.
John arrived in Plymouth, England with the 3rd Battalion in October 1916. He was sent to Officer School in Cambridge, graduated and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the general rifles Infantry, on 5th October 1917. Then he left for France to join his battalion, arriving at the front in Belgium in early November just after the battle of Passchendalele. Winter was closing in. The Germans were using mustard gas on an almost daily basis. That month over 500 soldiers were gassed. What an introduction to the War.
The first winter spent on the Western Front would be difficult for any soldier who spent the previous years living in tropical Fiji. The bottoms of the trenches were covered in ice and slush. The surrounding ground was covered in snow. The front line needed to be defended. Repairs had to be made on the structure of the trenches and the barbed wire that protected them. Supples, such as ammunition, had to be transported to the front line and stored for the battles that would come after the thaw.
In the spring of 1918, the Germans made a concerted effort to break the stalemate that had existed from almost the beginning of the war. They had won the war on the Eastern Front at the end of 1917 and could now transfer a half a million men to the Western Front. The Germans were determined to push further into France and have an advantage before the Americans arrived. They attacked a weak part of the Front in late March and rapidly conquered the Somme, where the Allies had lost so many men in previous years. They advanced so far that they could shell Paris. In April, the Germans also advanced in Belgium. They wanted to capture Hazebrouck, an important rail and supply centre for the allied forces in Flanders. If captured, the Germanys thought they could move on Ypres and then push the British forces to the coast. At first the Germans were successful. Then they came up against the Australia 1st Division. The 3rd Battalion was in the thick of the fighting. Several waves of German troops attempted to break the Australia line but were repulsed by artillery, mortar and machine gun bombardment. John Baird had been promoted to Lieutenant on 1st April and no doubt led his men bravely in battle. This lasted from the 12th until the 15th of April. The German failed to occupy Hazebrouck. The rail head and supply centre was saved. Lieutenant Baird was appointed Liaison Officer for the 3rd Battalion towards the end of the month.
Stalemate returned. The German advance came at a high price. Their casualties were estimated at over 230,000. They had advanced so quickly that their supply lines reached breaking point. The German soldiers were demoralised. Many were in danger of starving and were running short of ammunition. The well defended German front trench line was now broken, soit was now possible for a raiding party to circle an enemy position and attack them from behind. In late April and May, the Australians began using this tactic, known as Peaceful Penetration, with the aim of harassing the enemy and capturing as many Germans, weapons and ammunition as possible. The 3rd Division was carrying out raids on an almost daily basis. Sometimes they failed but most were successful. On 22nd of May, John Baird led a patrol against a nest of Germans south of Merris. His patrol came under sharp fire and had to retreat. Two men were hit.
In June John Baird was sick in hospital and in August he had two weeks leave in England. He returned in time for a major allied attack on the Hindenburg Line.
The advances made by the Germans during the Spring Offensive bulged into France and gave the depleted and exhausted German troops a much longer defence line to hold. Their generals decided that the situation was untenable and retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, giving up the ground they had won in the Somme. To seize the advantage, the allies planned to attack and break the Hindenburg line in September. The 1st Division AIF was positioned near Hargicourt. The 3rd Battalion was ordered to capture the Cologne Farm Spur to the north of the town. John Baird was told to lead his platoon out quickly behind the artillery barrage. He charged right through the farm without seeing a single German. He continued on to capture the objective along with 60 German prisoners, four field guns and a number of machine guns. For this endeavour and his later efforts until November, Lieutenant Baird was awarded the Military Cross.
After the war there were not enough troop ships to immediately take all the Australians home. Most of the troops remained in England for at least part of 1919. So many idle, cashed up soldiers became unpopular with the English populous because of their drinking and womanising. The Army authorities attempted to occupy them. Sporting tours were arranged. John Baird toured with a Rugby team. Back in Fiji, his wife thought he was on his way home. She wrote that she was surprised that he was playing football and suggested that he should look for some form of employment. She doubted he would find work back in Fiji. His old job would no longer be available and he was really not qualified for a post war career. Maybe he could approach his uncle in Scotland for employment. He took her advice. In May 1919 Lieutenant John Baird was offered employment at the Clyde Valley Engineering Co Ltd in Glasgow. As a proviso for his job offer he was required to resign from the Amy. He was discharged on 6th July. The engineering company was part of Clyde Valley Ship Building. John wanted to establish a branch of the company in Australia. However the dream did not eventuate.
In 1921 John found employment with the Pacific Cable Board in Bamfield Pacific Colombia, Canada. The Board, with representatives from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, was responsible for laying the telegraph cable across the Pacific. In 1902 the cable started to be laid. It left Canada at the tiny village of Bamfield on Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island. A small cable station was constructed there in 1902. It was replaced by a more substantial building in 1926. This is and was a very small community of about 200 people, quite isolated on the west coast of the island. It was here that John, Elsa and their small son lived in the early 1920’s. They then moved to Comox on the other side of Vancouver Island. Although larger than Bamfield, it was still a very small community. Eventually the family settled in Auckland New Zealand. John Robert Baird died in Auckland in 1962.
Captain Baird’s second son, David Murray, joined the AIF at the beginning of the War. He signed up in Liverpool on 17th November 1917. He was a twenty years old clerk with three years experience as a volunteer in the citizen’s military force. David joined the Calvary and was appointed to the 6th Light Horse Regiment, part of the 2nd Brigade. In the beginning he led a charmed life. He suffered from little illness only being admitted to hospital once, in February 1915, with a back injury.
After a few months training, the 6th Light Horse embarked for Gallipoli. The horses were left in Egypt. The Calvary agreed to serve as foot soldiers providing reinforcements to the infantry. The 2nd Light Horse Brigade arrived in Gallipoli towards the end of May and were assigned to the far right sector of the ANZAC line. They were to defend the line and continued to do this until the ANZAC’s withdrew in December 1915. Men from the 6th Light Horse dug tunnels under the Turkish positions opposite Lone Pine and Johnstone’s Jolly. They built a trench system at Chatham’s Post. They took part in two feint attacks in the area in June and July and sustained some casualties. On 6th August there was fierce fighting when the Turks attacked in an attempt to re-occupy Leane’s Trench, which was occupied by the Australia 11th Battalion on August 1st. Several members of the regiment were killed and wounded. David was lucky. He was uninjured. Subsequently he advanced up the ranks, being promoted to Lance Corporal on 8th August and Temporary Corporal on 11th October. His rank as Corporal was confirmed on 24th November 1915.
As winter approached the troops prepared their winter quarters. Deep trenches and tunnels were dug. These had meters of soil above them and contained barracks and kitchens. They would allow the 6th Light Horse to survive the fierce winter. As it was they only had to survive until the end of December when the troops retreated and were evacuated from Gallipoli. David and his mates finally left their post at Chatham’s Post at Wilson’s Lookout at 2.25pm on the night of 20th December.
After returning to Egypt, the 6th Light Horse participated in the defence of the Suez Cannel. In April 1916 the Ottoman Army marched across the Sinai Desert and attacked the Suez Cannel. The 6th Light Horse was part of the defence. They fought at Romani in August and then were part of the Army that pushed the Turks back across the desert. On 12th November 1916, Corporal David Baird was promoted to the position of Lance Sargent. He was then sent on training until 23rd December, when he was promoted to Sargent.
In the Middle East, the Calvary troopers rode their horses in pursuit of the Turks but fought their battles dismounted. Their difficulties were now different to those experienced in Gallipoli. Instead of the icy cold conditions of the Turkish winter, they had to contend with the hot dry conditions of the desert. Instead of defending a small area from a trench, they endured long trying days in the saddle. They covered vast distances between battles with minor skirmishes fought in-between the major encounters. At the end of a long day’s ride, food and water had to be found for their horses. In the desert this was often difficult. Only when their horses had been cared for could they rest.
In March and April 1917, David and his fellow troopers were involved in the battles at Gaza. These battles failed to drive out the Ottoman Army. The Turks and British forces faced each other in a trench line that varied from about 400 metres to almost 4 kilometres apart. This ‘No-Man’s-Land’ was patrolled by the Australian Calvary regiments, including the 6th Light Horse. Each regiment patrolled for a month then had a rest on the beach at Deir al Belah. This is where David was stationed in June 1917. In October the 2nd Light Horse Brigade moved to Asluj. The allied advance against the Turks at Beersheba was imminent and David and his fellow troopers were given the task of repairing the wells of Aslui so that there would be enough water for thousands of troops and horses during the battle. On 29th October the task was complete. Beersheba was attacked on 31st October. It was taken after a charge by the 4th and 12th Light Horse Brigades. The implications of the speed and success of the charge lasted long after the battle was over. The Turks were left scattered and demoralised. Gaza fell on 7th November and then the allied forces began to push the Ottoman Army back towards Jerusalem. Sargent David Baird survived the battles without a scratch. The only medical treatment he had was a visit to the dentist.
There were continual skirmishes with the Turks along the way to Jerusalem. The allies were shelled, bombed and often faced machine-gun fire but they continued to move forward and the Ottoman Army continued to retreat before them. Now the heat of the desert was replaced by the chill of approaching winter. David and his fellow cavalrymen were cold and wet. They had been chasing the Turks continually for almost a month. Their supply lines were stretched; often there was insufficient hot food. The horses were tired and out of condition.
A s they approached the Holy City, resistance increased. The final battle for Jerusalem took place in the Judean Hills north east of Hebron. The 6th Light Horse Regiment was involved in a number of skirmishes in the last week of November and first week of December 1917. On one occasion they were advancing following a heavy covering bombardment. Synchronisation with the artillery was incorrect resulting in two soldiers being killed and twenty- two injured by friendly fire. Nevertheless, the raid was successful. Twenty Turks were killed and four taken prisoner. On another occasion Turkish soldiers advanced undercover of night with the aim of surprising the Australians. They were heard and members of the 7th Light Horse captured over 200 men. On 3rd December 1917, David’s luck ran out. He was severely wounded in a skirmish – shot in the abdomen, left thigh, both feet and several times in his right arm. He was evacuated to Jaffa, (Tel Aviv Israel) on the 8th December them to Abbassia, near Cairo, Egypt on the 13th. David was now reported to be dangerously ill. Six weeks later he was pronounced out of danger but still seriously injured. His war was over. He embarked at Port Said on 16th February 1916 to return to Australia. When informed that his youngest son was returning home, Captain Baird asked for advanced notice of the arrival of the hospital ship. He would take him home to Port Macquarie. For his bravery during the battle of Jerusalem, Sargent David Baird was awarded the Military Medal.
David recovered. He acquired a position as a clerk with the Colonial Sugar Refinery, (CSR). In February 1922 he married Isley Dangar Morton, daughter of a past NSW parliamentarian for Hastings and Mcleay on the NSW coast. David took his bride to Ba in Fiji. This little town, mostly inhabited by indo-Fijians was not proclaimed a municipality until 1939. When David and his wife arrived, it was the centre of sugar cane farming and Colonial Sugar (CSR), had refineries on the outskirts of the settlement. No doubt there was a small group of Australians associated with the company, but Ba was a remote environment for a young bride.
David remained with CSR until his death in 1848. He worked his way up through the company until he was a company official. By the 1930’s he and Isley had moved to Bondi. They lived in an attractive colonial semi in Penkivil Street until David died. After his death, his wife Isley remarried in 1954.
Captain Baird died at his residence in Willoughby in 1935.