Two recruits in the AN&MEF during World War I


Australia formed the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) in the first week of the war. It consisted of Royal Australian Naval reservists and a battalion of troops. The men were recruited, equipped, trained and embarked within 10 days. Their mission was to capture the German outposts in the Pacific. Most of the men were enthusiastic and committed to serving their country. Each had their own story of service.

Heartfelt loss of sailor 'Little Bob' Moffatt

20-year-old Able Seaman Robert Moffatt was a Signaller in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Moffatt was a slightly built boy who only weighed about 38kg when he joined the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) at the age of 17. He was barely 4 foot 10 inches (149cm) tall at the time.

While in the Naval Reserve, Moffatt worked as an engineer in his mother's business in Waverley, New South Wales. His family and friends affectionately called him 'Little Bob'.

In August 1914, Robert volunteered to serve in the war overseas. He joined the Naval Brigade of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF).

Portrait photo of sailer in uniform
Portrait of Able Seaman Robert Moffatt, a signaller in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) AWM J00510

He eagerly looked forward to participating in the action to seize the German outposts in New Guinea.

Under Lieutenant Rowland Bowen, Moffatt was in the party of 25 naval reservists who landed at Kabakaul on 11 September 1914.

The group trekked through the dense jungle towards Bitapaka, some 4 miles (7km) south of Kabakaul. On the way, the Australians were ambushed by three German officers and a patrol of 20 Melanesian soldiers.

Moffatt was shot by a sniper early in the action now called the 'Battle of Bitapaka'. He was severely wounded when the gunshot fractured his spine. One crew member wrote:

As soon as he was hit, he sang out for his mother.

Moffatt was carried 3km back to the shore and evacuated to HMAS Australia for medical treatment. He died the next day from his wounds.

Moffatt was buried at sea with naval honours on the same day that he died - 12 September 1914. He had been popular with his shipmates, who enjoyed his good humour. The deck of HMAS Australia was crowded for Moffatt's memorial service. This was the first burial at sea for an Australian killed on active service in the RAN.

A crowd of peole standing on the deck of ship
Ship's company of HMAS Australia gathered on deck for the burial of Able Seaman Robert Moffatt, 12 September 1914 AWM P01715.005

100 years later, his great, great nephew, ABC reporter Nick Grimm, traced Moffatt's footsteps. Grimm explored the impact of Moffatt's loss on his family in his 2014 article for ABC Online.

Back home in Sydney, Moffatt's widowed mother Eva never recovered from the news of his death. She suffered deep depression for many years. In 1918, before the war ended, she reportedly drowned herself in the waters of an old quarry near her home.

How Clegg missed the action in New Guinea

Corporal Alfred Henry Clegg was a slightly built 20-year-old man with blue eyes from South Townsville. 'Harry' was an ardent worker for his local church, was a member of the church choir and taught one the Sunday school classes.

When the war started, Clegg worked as a storeroom clerk in the Railway Department at Townsville. He was also a Corporal of the 2nd Infantry Battalion, Kennedy Regiment, in the Commonwealth Military Force. Harry was already committed to serving his country.

The Kennedy Regiment was mobilised for war service within 2 days of the war starting. With his unit, Clegg embarked at Cairns on 8 August 1914 to undertake garrison duty at the Thursday Island war station, Fort Milman.

Crowds of people stand on the dock next to a ship also filled with passengers watching from the ship's deck
Troopship HMAT Kanowna is farewelled at Townsville wharf, 8 August 1914 AWM P00481.001

On 16 August 1914, Clegg's unit re-embarked at Thursday Island on the troopship SS Kanowna. While at sea, Clegg was one of 500 men who signed up for active duty overseas.

Colonel William Holmes, commander of the newly formed AN&MEF, inspected the new Kanowna recruits on 5 September 1914. He considered them to be unfit for immediate service, despite their enthusiasm. He recommended that the men be returned to Queensland.

Despite Holmes' recommendation, the recruits joined the AN&MEF on 6 September 1914 as the 2nd Battalion. While still on board Kanowna, the unit was ordered to take part in the capture of German New Guinea.

But Clegg didn't participate in the capture of New Guinea as he had hoped.

Some of the firemen and stokers on the Kanowna mutinied. When they refused to do their duties, the troopship was ordered to return to Townsville.

The men of the 2nd Battalion - including Clegg - were discharged from the AN&MEF when they landed in Townsville on 18 September 1914. They had served only 12 days in the AN&MEF.

The unit became known as the 'Dirty 500', but men like Clegg were more affectionately called 'the Kanowna boys' in the Townsville region.

Clegg returned to his work as a clerk. In January 1915, he transferred to the Railway Department in Cairns. Still wanting to serve overseas, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 13 March 1915.

Clegg joined the 26th Battalion (Queensland and Tasmania) as part of the 7th Australian Infantry Brigade.

By coincidence, Clegg sailed again on the Kanowna, to begin basic training in Brisbane:

Mr A H Clegg, clerk in the Railway Department, Cairns, left by the Kanowna on Monday to join the concentration camp at Enogerra.

GOSSIP. Townsville Daily Bulletin, 24 March 1915

In May 1915, the 26th Battalion (Queensland and Tasmania) arrived in Egypt as part of the 4th contingent of troops from Australia.

After months of training near Cairo, Clegg landed on Gallipoli on 12 September 1915, where he remained until evacuation to Egypt on 12 December.

With the 26th Battalion, Clegg arrived in France on 26 March 1916 to fight on the Western Front.

Portrait of soldier in uniform
Studio portrait of Sergeant Alfred Henry Clegg, 26th Battalion AIF AWM P05301.009

Clegg was killed in action at Pozières on 29 July 1916, a month after being released from hospital for influenza. He was aged 22 years.

In one newspaper report, a friend of Clegg's said he was shot in the neck while leading his men in a raid on the German trenches.

A well-attended memorial service was held for Harry Clegg at St John's Church in South Townsville on 24 September 1916. Clegg's relatives remained active in the community throughout the war. They donated to patriotic funds and the Red Cross Society and helped on tea days at the Townsville Soldiers' Rest Room.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Two recruits in the AN&MEF during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 June 2024,
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