Australian Red Ensign at Bega

The Red Ensign believed to have flown at Gallipoli in 1915. Found in a fragile state, the flag needed expert attention to clean and conserve the torn fabric. [Bega Pioneers' Museum]

Bega Pioneers' Museum
Corner Auckland Street and Bega Street
Bega NSW 2550

In 1919, an Australian Red Ensign was bought to Australia by Sergeant Norman Bignell, who served with the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station on Gallipoli and the Western Front. Now a prized item in the Bega Pioneers' Museum, the flag is believed to have flown in both Türkiye and France.

Norman Bignell of Bellerive, Tasmania, enlisted in June 1915 and was attached to the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station. He arrived at Gallipoli on 30 October 1915, where he worked assisting medical staff in the care of the wounded and sick. After the heavy fighting of the August Offensive there were fewer men wounded, but the strain of illnesses, appalling living conditions, and the onset of heavy snowfalls in the winter ensured significant casualties. The unit's War Diary for 19 December 1915 indicates that 37,100 Allied soldiers had been evacuated to Mudros sick and wounded since the landing on 25 April 1915.

Private Bignell left Gallipoli in the withdrawal of all Australian troops on the night of 19 to 20 December 1915, and his unit transferred to the Western Front in early 1916.

During World War II, Norman Bignell was a public servant in the Manpower Officer for the Bega area, controlling employment and liaising with military authorities. Before his death, he gave the flag to the Gowing family, who subsequently donated it to the museum.

How the flag had come into his possession is unknown, but it's possible that he would have had contact with merchant navy ships as a shipping clerk before his enlistment, and may have taken the flag with him when he left Australia.

During the war, Australians fought under the British Union Flag and both the Australian Blue and Red Ensigns. The Blue Ensign was intended for official and Royal Australian Navy purposes, while the Red Ensign was the official flag for Australian registered merchant ships. Historically, the Red Ensign was also used by civilians on land and was taken onto battlefields by soldiers. Confusion over the use of the flags was resolved with the Flags Act 1953, which proclaimed the Blue Ensign as the Australian National Flag.

References

  • Australian flags, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. https://www.pmc.gov.au/government/australian-national-symbols/australian-flags
  • 'Letters to the Editor: Portrait Confirmed', Bega District News, 9 April 2009. http://www.begadistrictnews.com.au/story/1076747/letters-to-the-editor/
  • Service Records for Private Norman Fraser Bignell, No. 2291, NAA: B2455, BIGNELL N F.
  • War Diary, 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, AWM4 26/62/11 PART 2, December 1915. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1013822
  • Plugge's Plateau Cemetery, Anzac. https://www.cwgc.org/visit-us/find-cemeteries-memorials/cemetery-details/66900/PLUGGE'S%20PLATEAU%20CEMETERY,%20ANZAC/

Last updated: 16 November 2022

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