Jim Bolton almost didn't make it to war

Name: Jim Bolton
Date: 1914-1918
Unit: 2nd Field Co, 7th Btn, Australian Engineers

Jim Bolton almost didn't make it to the fighting war. Apart from the threat of an attack by the German ship Emden, while travelling to the Middle East, he survived a near miss when a colleague's rifle accidentally discharged and the resulting shower of metal pieces caused by the bullet, hit him in several places.

He was treated for the wounds on board Orvieto, the flagship which led the convoy of 38 ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war.

Over the next few years he spent his fair share of time in hospital, suffering from influenza and severe dysentery while on Gallipoli and later surviving wounds received in France. In between times he received a field commission as 2nd Lieutenant in August 1916.

On arrival in Egypt in 1915, he wrote a fascinating letter to his mother describing the events which led to the beaching and capture of the Emden.

Cairo, Egypt, 27/12/14

My dear Mother,

I have just received your letter of Dec 11th. I am writing this in camp in the desert, about a quarter of a mile from the Pyramids. I am enclosing a post card of the Pyramids but it does not show the exact spot where we are camped. One of the men has taken a photo of the camp but has not any developed yet. I will send that on as soon as I can get one.

I have been going to write ever since we arrived; but have put it off from day to day expecting to be able to tell you something definite as to what we are going to do.

Jim was obviously distracted at this point and continued his letter the next day.

I suppose I might as well begin at the beginning. As I believe I told you before, we left Melbourne on Oct 21st on the Orvieto, the flagship. The other transports had left some days before. We had a fast passage as far as Albany were we picked up the rest of the boats, including the New Zealanders. In all there were 38 troopships. We sailed in this order as far as Aden.

From Albany we travelled at night with all lights out. The weather was absolutely calm the whole way. On Monday the 9th Nov at 6am the Orvieto intercepted a wireless message from Cocos Island stating that there was a strange ship at the entrance. It was rather extraordinary how the Cocos station came to be suspicious of the warship. The evening before, they saw a four-funnelled battle cruiser outside the entrance & took her for a British boat. The next morning early, this boat started to steer into the anchorage when to the astonishment of those watching her from the roof of the cable station, her rear funnel suddenly heeled over and fell overboard. This at once raised their suspicion, hence the message we received. It appears, the funnel which they saw fall was the dummy one which the Emden used when she sunk the French and Russian cruisers some time before.

When we received the wireless from Cocos, the Sydney was at once despatched to see what was up. You have probably read of the engagement & the subsequent beaching of the Emden and sinking of her collier. At the time we were only about forty miles NE of Cocos Island, and there was naturally some excitement when the Sydney suddenly turned and headed in their direction and later on at 8.30 when the Melbourne & Ibuki (A Japanese ship) did the same. The Melbourne & Ibuki had received a wireless to the effect that the Emden was making towards us, and they went to head her off.

We arrived at Colombo on Nov 15th & took on board 40 German prisoners from the Emden including the Captain and officers, and Prince Franz-Joseph Hohenzollern, some relation to the Kaiser. None of the officers would give their parole, so had to be kept under an armed guard. We arrived at Aden on Nov 25th left on 26th. On the 28th we received orders by wireless to land in Egypt. The Orvieto, being the fastest boat left the others and went on to Suez alone.

While at Suez I was one of the guard over the prisoners. We had loaded rifles. When we came off guard and while unloading our rifles, the fool next to me pulled his trigger. The bullet struck a girder over my head and small pieces splashed back. Six small pieces about the size of a pin head, hit me in the neck. They only entered under the skin and were easily got out. Another larger piece went through the rim of my hat and out at the top. Another grazed my left hand and another hit my right hand index finger about half an inch above the knuckle And lodged on the bone. It is still there but does not cause any inconvenience.

While going up the Suez Canal, which we did at night, orders were issued to keep to the left side of the deck, as it was possible we would be fired on from the other side. However, nothing exciting happened. We stayed two days at Port Said and then went on to Alexandria, from which place we took train to Cairo. We are camped by the Pyramids about 8 miles from Cairo. There is an up-to-date train service between here and Cairo. We are right on the desert, It has one good feature, and that is it is clean. It is awful stuff to walk about on. I have been up to the top of one Pyramid, inside two, the second of which two of us went through yesterday afternoon, alone. Not many of the ordinary tourists usually go through this one as its much more awkward than the first. In places we had to crawl as the passages are choked up with fallen rocks. In one place we had to climb down about eight feet through a hole two feet in diameter. We have also been to the Sphinx and to some new excavations about five miles away. It is all very marvellous.

We read the other day about the bombardment of Scarborough and Hartlepool by German ships also yesterday of the aeroplane over Dover. These, although bad in themselves, ought to do good as far as recruiting is concerned. I can't understand why it is taking so long to get the required number of men. I should have thought they would have them within a week. I have not heard from Percival and did not write to him as I was pretty well certain he would have volunteered.

Beside ourselves and the New Zealanders here, there are in barracks in Cairo and along the Suez, the Westminster Dragoons, Hirts Yeomanry & Lancashire Territorials, besides some regulars & Indian troops.

Dec 31st. 11.30am. We have the morning off work as we were working all day yesterday up to 1am this morning, trench digging, mining and sapping. I have not yet received the parcel. Don't trouble to send anything more as I have pretty well everything I want. Already I have two body belts, two balaclava helmets & plenty of socks.

Sir George Reid, the High Commissioner for Australia arrived last week from London. This afternoon we are having a review for his benefit.

Love to all. Your loving son, Jim.

(The last two sentences are unreadable)

During the fighting in France, Lt Bolton picked up a piece of the bell from Pozières Church. In April 1939, he presented the piece of bell together with a photograph he is thought to have taken of the landings at Gallipoli, to the fledgling Australian War Memorial and received an elaborate certificate from the authorities.

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Ann Kilgour of New South Wales

Last updated: 31 May 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Jim Bolton almost didn't make it to war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 October 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/jim-bolton-almost-didnt-make-it-war
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