First convoy of Australian troops in World War I
The Australian Government formed the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) within 2 weeks of the war starting. Thousands of men volunteered to enlist in the AIF and received basic military training in their home state. Over 21,000 men, as well as medical staff, horses and supplies, sailed from Australia in a convoy of ships in November 1914. They were destined for Europe, but events unfolded as they sailed that would change their fate.
Setting off for Europe
The first contingent of soldiers destined for the war in Europe left Western Australia on 1 November 1914.
The men sailed in a convoy of 38 Australian transports or troopships (36 from Albany and two from Fremantle) and 10 New Zealand transports.
The ships were mostly converted merchant ships that had embarked from ports around Australia and New Zealand. The merchant sailors who crewed the ships were unfamiliar with wartime conventions, such as:
- sailing in formation
- darkening night lights for added safety
Precious cargo on board the troopships included about:
- 21,500 Australians
- 8500 New Zealanders
- 12,000 horses from both countries
- medical and military equipment and supplies
A German warship, SMS Emden, was a potential threat on the Indian Ocean. The British Admiralty ordered an escort of four warships to protect the convoy:
- HMAS Melbourne
- HMAS Sydney
- HMS Minotaur
- HIJMS Ibuki (a Japanese battle cruiser)
HMA Ships Sydney and Melbourne had recently helped to capture German New Guinea.
On board the ships, the 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) included:
Private Archibald Barwick of the AIF 1st Battalion, who served with his unit for the whole war and returned home in 1919, wrote:
... all that day we watched the Australian coast fading away, till darkness shut it out, and when we got up in the morning we were out of sight of land, and nothing but the calm blue sea all around us, like a sheet of shimmering glass, and at last we felt we were fairly on the way to England.
Destruction of the SMS Emden
A landing party of 50 Germans from the SMS Emden had destroyed the wireless station on Direction Island, now part of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
The subsequent Battle of Cocos between HMAS Sydney and SMS Emden was an exciting diversion for soldiers in the convoy.
By the end of the battle:
- four of Sydney's crew had died and 12 were wounded
- 134 of Emden's crew had died, 65 were wounded and 157 captured
The German landing party escaped in a sailing ship commandeered from the island. The men eventually reached Germany, via Sumatra, Arabia and Constantinople.
Some of Sydney's crew checked the situation on the island and reported a gruesome sight of '[b]lood, guts, flesh and uniforms'. The men returned the next morning to help the wounded survivors.
Emden was well-known in the British Empire so its sinking was widely reported in newspapers around the world. The Royal Australian Navy enjoyed positive publicity, and Australians felt proud of their new Navy.
The first convoy proceeded without further incident to Colombo and then to Egypt's Mediterranean coast. The ships docked in Alexandria on 3 December 1914.
Diverted to Egypt
The men and women in the first convoy thought they were going to England and then across the English Channel to France. But the ships were ordered to disembark the force in Egypt. The soldiers and the horses were transported to British military camps around Cairo.
Of the Australians and New Zealanders who trained in the desert beneath the pyramids, few would have heard of a place called 'Gallipoli'. Between December 1914 and March 1915, a new situation developed in the war. Most of the men and nurses were destined to serve in the Gallipoli Campaign, against the Ottoman Army.