The assassination on June 28, 1914, of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Serbian nationalist, triggered events which led to the four blood-soaked years which were The Great War.
A little over a month after the assassination, Australia’s Minister for Defence Senator Edward Millen publicly stated, “Australia will recognise that she is not merely a fair-weather partner of the Empire, but a competent member in all circumstances.” (1)
Two days before Britain declared war on Germany on the morning of August 5, 1914 (AEST), Australia’s Federal Treasurer Sir John Forest declared dramatically: “If Britain goes to her Armageddon, we will go with her.”
Thus the die was cast for thirty-eight per cent of Australia’s total male population aged eighteen to forty-four – the 416,809 men who flocked to recruitment centres eager to go into battle for ‘Mother Britain’. (2) Of that contingent, 58,961 died, 166,811 were wounded, 4098 were missing or held as prisoners of war, and a mind-boggling 87,865 suffered from sickness.(3) In fact, only twice during the whole Gallipoli campaign did the proportion of men being evacuated from Anzac because of wounds outnumber those being taken off for reasons of illness. In some ways this was the ‘main personal experience of those serving on Gallipoli’. (4)
One of the 57,705 World War I enlistments from Queensland was Percy Ashton, a Coalstoun Lakes labourer aged twenty years and two months. He volunteered into the Light Horse at a recruiting drive staged in Gayndah on March, 19, 1915, and was pronounced medically fit for duty the same day by Gayndah’s medical practitioner Dr Phil Townley. The medical document described him as ‘159 lb weight, dark complexion, grey eyes, dark brown hair, Church of England religion, and scarred on both shins’.
Before the war ended Percy would see service on the Gallipoli peninsula, at Romani and Gaza in Egypt and, after the Turks admitted defeat on October 18, 1918, through the Sinai Peninsula to Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Percy was with his squadron in Mons, Syria, before moving down the Syrian coast to Tripoli when the general armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
Battles against the Turks weren’t the only ones Percy had to fight. Along with a host of others involved in the carnage at Gallipoli, he shared with Australia’s last Anzac, Private Alec Campbell (1899-2002) a considerable amount of sickness.
A healthy seventeen-year old before his overseas’ posting, Campbell was in and out of military hospital throughout his entire war service. His maladies included influenza, jaundice, scabies, mumps, palsy and paralysis to the right side of his face. He was ‘always rejoining his unit on discharge but … never able to remain with the battalion long before again falling ill’. (5) And like Campbell, Percy’s post-war life returned him to physical health and activity. Alec went bush as a jackeroo in Tasmania, trained in carpentry, built motor bodies, houses, and boats, took up boxing and won the Tasmanian flyweight championship, married and started a family. Percy went scrub falling, bought a farm, married and started a family.
After his enlistment, Percy was absorbed into B Squadron of the 11th Light Brigade Regiment, 4th Light Horse Brigade. He was sent for basic training at Fraser’s Paddock Camp just outside Brisbane in May, arriving in the early afternoon about two and a half hours before a large crowd of fellow recruits poured in. From among them, Maurie Cunneen was allocated to Percy’s tent.
An only son, he arrived in camp carrying a girl’s basket and was immediately nicknamed Marmaduke.
Maurie was a shipmate but assigned to C Squadron, when Percy was sent overseas on HMAT A30 ‘Borda’ on June 16, 1915. Maurie’s unit headed for England the day before Percy was dispatched with B Squadron to Alexandria then Cairo. While in England, Maurie learned to enjoy the taste of beer so, on rejoining Percy, was inclined to borrow money from his mate’s gambling wins to buy supplies.
After the war, the pair lost touch until April 26, 1973, when Percy spotted a picture of Maurie in Rockhampton’s Anzac Day Parade story in the Morning Bulletin. They met several times at Maurie’s home not far out of the city. In August 1915, the Eleventh Light Horse’s B Squadron embarked for Gallipoli on HT ‘Marquette’ from Alexandria, Egypt.(6) On August 29, Percy’s squadron was transferred temporarily to the Fifth Light Horse Regiment. The regiment played mainly a defensive role for the Gallipoli campaign, but did engage in several minor attacks until its evacuation from the peninsula on December 20, 1915
Because the Light Horse was considered unsuitable as a mounted unit for the initial operations at Gallipoli, it was later deployed without horses to reinforce the infantry. Percy’s squadron was restored to the 11th Light Horse in January 1916.
In after years Percy spoke so rarely about the war and his overseas’ experiences that, except for a silk souvenir banner he’d sent back to Australia from Egypt with ‘Gallipoli’ ‘Romani’ and ‘Gaza’ embroidered on it, a photo of two of him in uniform, and his medical reports, there was little to go on for this record. But he did open up to some degree in 1973 when his youngest daughter Jean wanted to record aspects of his life. He told her a horse ‘that wouldn’t walk’ was assigned to him for his Light Horse duties. Instead it jogged an inconvenient and infuriating rhythm for a rider burdened by a heavy pack and rifle. Another mount destined for a high ranking officer was allocated to Percy because she habitually stumbled. One day he simply let her have her head. She stumbled and hit the ground heavily head first – and never tried the trick again. He considered himself lucky to be issued with an excellent saddle which had been used in the Boer War. His first weapon was a .303 but he also had a revolver which he described as so heavy he couldn’t have hit the house he was born in if he was ‘inside and the doors were shut’. At some stage, he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel but it did little damage because it was already spent. Percy also was selected to go to Port Said for an instructor’s course in Hotchkiss machine gun use.
Conditions at Gallipoli were atrocious. In summer the heat, poor sanitation and flies were unbearable. Corpses of slain men left unburied ‘bloated and turned putrid’, and ‘the precarious
Allied bases were poorly situated and caused supply and shelter problems’. A dysentery epidemic spread through the Allied trenches in both Anzac and Helles. Autumn and winter brought relief from the heat, but also led to gales, flooding and frostbite.(7)
Percy fell victim to dysentery and, on November 4, 1916, was admitted to the hospital ship. Five days later his condition was diagnosed as severe amoebic dysentery, by which time he had been transferred to the British hospital ship HS ‘Galeka’ (8) bound for the 21st General Hospital at Alexandria. Six days later he was admitted to the Second Australian Hospital in Alexandria. By November 20, 1915, he had undergone fifty-three days of treatment but not until November 22 did Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks telegram his father about his condition.
Percy recovered from the dysentery attack but on December 26 was re-admitted, this time with enteritis, to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Heliopolis. On January 1, 1916, he was transferred to Helouan’s convalescent hospital then, three weeks later, discharged to duty and ‘taken on strength’ (9) into the Eleventh Light Horse Regiment.
Percy’s medical records tells us he ‘marched out to CT & GB, Tel el Kabib’ on April 30, 1916, and on July 7 the same year, ‘marched in to Moascar’. Nineteen days later he was ‘taken on strength’. The 11th Light Horse was remounted to join the forces defending the Suez Canal on July 20, 1916, and in the following months conducted patrols and participated in several forays into the Sinai Desert.
In April 1917, the 11th Light Horse moved into Palestine to join the main British and dominion advance. It took part in its first major combat on April 19 when it attacked unmounted as part of the ill-fated second battle of Gaza.(10)
In June, Percy qualified as an instructor in the use of the Hotchkiss machine gun and, on August 17, was once more hospitalised, reason unstated. He suffered from a long series of medical conditions during 1917, including an outbreak of septic sores, a large ulcer on his left shin (after being kicked by a horse), ringworm, Dhobies Itch and severe rashes. Then, in early February 1918, he was reported dangerously ill with appendicitis and underwent surgery the same night. Not until March 4 was a telegram sent to notify his father, with the added message that mail to Trooper Ashton while he was in hospital should be addressed, ‘Australian Imperial Force, Abroad’.
The telegram announcing he was out of danger was dated March 21 and by April 3, his family had been informed he was convalescing and they should now address their mail to ‘No 402, Pte P Ashton, 11th LH Regt, Abroad’.
Australian World War 1 hospitals included large base hospitals with two hundred and fifty, five hundred or one thousand beds and a number of auxiliary hospitals. The first Australian General Hospital (1AGH) was located in various buildings in Cairo and dealt with all war cases—physical injuries, diseases and shell shock. Stationary hospitals were smaller and generally based in forward areas, while casualty clearing stations were usually established at a railhead or similar transport hub in forward areas. They offered emergency treatment and moved casualties back to stationary and general hospitals. Convalescent or command depots were half-way houses for casualties returning to the front – those men who no longer required hospitalisation but were not yet fit enough to rejoin their units.
Peace was declared on November 11, 1918, but not until March the following year was Trooper Percy Ashton relieved of duty and shipped home – invalided out of the AIF on a diagnosis of ‘debility & malaria’. He arrived back in Australia on HT ‘Port Sydney’ on April 11, 1919, and on being issued with the three service medals – the 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal – was formally discharged on June 23. He was twenty-four years old and prescribed strychnine treatment for a ‘weakened heart’ – the debility that took him out of the military. The cause was described in his medical chart as –
diarrhoea (with blood present at times) on and off since the November 1915 dysentery attack, plus onset of headaches, general pains, cough, chest pains, weakness, weight loss, pyrexia and debility post-pyrexia.
It’s little wonder then that one of the few comments Percy ever made about his role in World War I was that he ‘was sick a lot’.
As a matter of interest, the kit issued from the store to each enlisted man included gaiters, gloves, handkerchiefs, haversack, complete head-dress, hose-tops, shorts, ammunition rounds, bayonet and scabbard, waist and pouch belts, binoculars, water bottle, wire cutters, brassard, dirk and scabbard, field dressing, fork, haversack, hold-all, entrenching implements, iron ration and cover, clasp and table knives, a tin of mineral jelly, pull-through, pistol, rifle, rifle sling, straps, tin, mess and cover, web equipment (carriers for water bottle, cartridges, entrenching tool, frog, haversack, pack and supporting straps), whistle, tin of blacking and devotional books.
The official list of authorized items of clothing supplied by AIF comprised one hat badge, two collar badges, a bag Kit Universal, a bag kit, one pair of boots, a pair of braces, a shaving brush, razor, toothbrush, soap and hair comb, a pair of MS breeches, cap comforter, disc identity with cord, MS great coat, fur khaki hat, white hat, holdall, ‘ housewife’ (sewing kit), cardigan jacket, SD jacket, pair of leather laces, pair of puttees (dismounted troops only), two flannel shirts, three pairs of socks, a chin strap, working suit, pair of spurs (mounted troops), two hand towels, four titles ‘Australia’.
Clothing crossed off Percy’s list when he was demobbed were one pair of leggings, two singlets and two pairs of drawers. Prior to each AIF member’s return home, the Australian Government undertook to supply them with a new uniform – service jacket, breeches, hat and puttees or leggings – either while they were on board ship, at the first port of call in Australia, or immediately on disembarkation. All ranks were asked to ‘carefully preserve their regimental colour patches, chevrons, etc, from all discarded jackets so as to have them available to place on new jackets supplied in accordance with the arrangement’.
When Percy’s brother-in-law Lawrence Sylvester enlisted for overseas duty in World War II in 1940, Percy told him to take a look around the places he’d been to in the Suez Canal and Palestine during World War I.
“The first time I ever met Percy, he was on horseback heading to our place to see Liz. I was about ten years old and walking home along the main road. He told me get up behind him, indicating I was to place my foot on his boot where it was in the stirrup. Then he grabbed my hand and, with one strong pull, he had me behind him on the horse. He said later it was a well-rehearsed move in action in the Light Horse to pick up a soldier who had lost his horse.” Lawrie said.
3 Patsy Adam-Smith, The ANZACS (West Melbourne, Vic.: Thomas Nelson, 1978)
6 In October the same year, the ‘Marquette’ was torpedoed and sunk by a U35′ nearly sixty kilometres south of Salonika Bay while carrying the 29th Division and the New Zealand Stationary Hospital. 7
8 HS ‘Galeka’ was sunk in October the following year in the English Channel off France’s Cape Le Hogue.
9 ‘Taken on strength’ means ‘taking up a posting’, therefore due for rations, bedding and ammunition.