Baggott Brothers – Story of a Meat Preserver’s Family

In 1897, Archibald Baggott and his family migrated from New Zealand to Robe in South Australia. Archibald became the manager the local cannery. It was a meat preserving works and the main product preserved, was rabbit. Archibald Baggott was well qualified in the trade. For many years he managed and operated a similar cannery near Dunedin in New Zealand.

Archibald was the son of Nathaniel Baggott and his wife Eleanor Ingram. They lived near Invercargill on the southern tip of New Zealand. In 1880 Archibald married Mary Jane Edwards. She was the granddaughter of NSW fugitive Ashley Laurie and Maori princess Te Rangiat. Ashley was one of four men found guilty of committing fraud.   One was hung. Ashley escaped to the north island of New Zealand. He drowned in the 1840’s. Te Rangiat died giving birth to her daughter, Annie. She was Mary Jane’s mother.

Archibald ran a rabbit canning business near Palmerstone, north of Dunedin. Son Archibald Ingram was born in 1884, Charles William in 1888, Herbert Henry in 1892 and Alan Fredrick in 1895. In 1892 the canning business began to run into financial difficulties. In 1895 the business closed and Archibald was declared bankrupt. Then he brought his family to Australia and began canning rabbits at Robe in South Australia. George Edwin Baggott was born in Robe in 1898.

Canning and preserving became somewhat of a family trade. In the 1930s, the oldest son, Archibald Ingram invented a process for sealing cans. He spent many years in the preserving business. He worked for Bovril in Argentina, 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 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 of this unit, the artillery brigades from the 4th Division 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 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 intricates of field guns and howitzers. He endured endless hours in firing practise. In the meantime, the officers, who were almost equally untrained, spent an additional four hours a day learning how to command an artillery battery.

Meanwhile, his brother 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 ensured that this did not happen.

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, where less experienced troops could become acclimatised. The artillery units gradually replaced 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 there were 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.

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 bandaged and emergency 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. After the Battle of Pozieres, the 4th Division was part of an Australian force given the 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 artillery shells 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 bloodier experience.

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 divisions. A week after arriving in France, the division 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. From their high ground, the Germans 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 of war.

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 on their underground bunkers. When the Australian left their trenches about 6pm, the enemy was ready and waiting. The battle lasted for less than twenty-four hours. The Germans won a decisive victory. The Australian troops were slaughtered. They suffered 5533 casualties. The British lost 1549 men, 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. For a time, they served with the 4th Canadian Division, in Belgium. They re-joined 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 in the Somme. All the Australian divisions served there during the winter of 1916-1917. When they arrived, the weather was closing in. It was wet and cold. By November snow covered the ground. The weather, not the armies controlled the front.

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 became ill with pleurisy and 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 in hospital for most of 1917.

He returned to his unit in France in on 1st December. Once again it was winter. At the end of January 1918, he was again transported from the front with fever. Very ill, he returned to hospital in England.

Imagine life with an artillery battery during winter. For many days men lived outside, exposed to the elements. It rained and snowed on them. Their beds were on duckboards laid to prevent them sinking into mud. They had a blanket and possibly a make shift tent to protect them from the weather. They were shelled by enemy artillery and shot at from planes overhead. They huddled together for warmth and swapped body lice from one to another. The lice infected them with trench fever. With flu like symptoms, men like George shivered so much that they fell over.

Trench fever was often followed by depression. Whilst many recovered relatively quickly, others were ill for months. It was almost half a year before Private George Baggott returned to the Western Front. After he re-joined his unit on 4th June 1918, he was transferred to the 11th Field Artillery Battery. In August, George was slightly wounded. The only injury he received during the war.

On 17th August 1918, George returned to hospital. It was not the war wound but another bout of illness that caused his return to England and admission to the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Millbank, London. He was suffering from a fever, diarrhoea and anaemia. George was in and out of hospital until the end of January 1919.

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 Hamel 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. (AWM28 1/240 Part 4 Recommendation file for Honours and Awards AIF 1914-1918 4th Division 5.8.1918 to 12.8.1918 Part 4, Australians War Memorial)

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 developed an abscess on the groin and was hospitalised until he returned to Australia in May 1919. He slipped back into civilian life and continued 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 moved to 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.

At the end of the war, George was still only 21 years old. He returned to Australia in March 1919 and lived at Mt Gambier until he married Clare May Hunter in Northwood, Adelaide in December 1921. They moved to the suburb of Unley, where George lived for the rest of his life. Initially he worked for Adelaide Tramways. For a period, he worked for an oil company and then for Holden in Woodville in South Australia. At this time Holden was making and supplying car bodies for General Motors in Australia. Together George and Clare reared a son and two daughters. 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 sergeant 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 years as a cadet, 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.