HMAS Minotaur at the front of the convoy formation in early November, with the Ibuki just behind it, spewing out its enormous plumes of black smoke. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial G01549
HMAS Minotaur at the front of the convoy formation in early November, with the Ibuki just behind it, spewing out its enormous plumes of black smoke. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial G01549 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

The 7.5-mile convoy that carried our first troops to war

"AT 6.25AM on the morning of November 1, in bright sunlight, with the harbour glassily smooth, the Minotaur and Sydney up-anchored and moved out between the sun-bathed hills to sea."

It sounds like an idyllic sailing expedition, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

These were the words of Charles Bean, in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, as he documented the departure from Albany, WA, of the 7.5 mile-long convoy of ships that made up the first contingent of the 1st Australian Imperial Force.

They may have left in perfect conditions, but they were bound for a bloody war.

There were 36 transport ships in all - carrying the 20,000 troops promised by the Australian Government, members of the army medical corps and nursing service, and almost 8000 horses - accompanied by three naval cruisers for protection, the Minotaur, Sydney and Melbourne.

Two days later, the convoy was joined by two other transport ships carrying troops from South and Western Australia, accompanied by the Japanese cruiser Ibuki.

Bean, who was sailing on the Orvieto with commanding officer General William Bridges and his general staff, had been appointed Australia's official war correspondent and wrote a detailed account of the convoy's voyage as it steamed away from the Australian coast.

As it snaked through the Indian Ocean, the convoy was forced to set its pace by the slowest ship, the Southern, which could only make about 10 knots (about 18kmh).

This was said to have frustrated General Bridges, who was keen to leave the Southern behind and let her follow the fleet at her own speed. The vessel was carrying mostly field ambulance officers and just 30 combat troops - if there were no troops on board, she could have sailed as a hospital ship and been afforded protections under the Geneva Convention.

But Prime Minister Andrew Fisher had insisted that not a single ship incur any foreseeable risk, so the Southern remained with the convoy and the pace remained slow.

That wasn't the only cause for concern.

The first Australian and New Zealand convoy cross the Indian Ocean on November 1, in this picture taken by official war historian Charles Bean. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial G01547
The first Australian and New Zealand convoy cross the Indian Ocean on November 1, in this picture taken by official war historian Charles Bean. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial G01547 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

To avoid betraying the fleet's presence on the ocean, other precautions were being taken.

No high-power wireless telegraphy had been used since leaving Albany, with only the leading ships in each line permitted to use their radios to talk to each other briefly, and even then only using a signalling system that could not be detected more than 15 miles away.

But the game was being given away by the Ibuki, which chewed up about 200 tons of coal a day, and whose enormous plumes of black smoke thrown up by her four funnels could be seen from at least 40 miles away.

At night, the convoy's ships were supposed to kill all lights except for their red and green side and stern lights, while only the leading ships in each formation were permitted to carry a masthead light. Hoods were also supposed to be prepared for stern lights, so that only a narrow, downwards glow could be seen by the following ships to track.

Bean said the cargo ships largely observed these precautions well, but for the first week at sea the ships carrying mostly troops - especially the Orvieto on which he was a passenger - "twinkled like floating hotels".

The convoy received a wake-up call, however, on November 7.

News arrived that the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had sunk two British ships off the South American coast, and HMAS Minotaur was diverted away from the AIF convoy to deal with that potential threat.

The Melbourne took her place at the front of the formation.

That night, all lights in the fleet were extinguished for half an hour - including cigarettes and pipes.

As the first AIF contingent continued to make for the coast of the Cocos Islands on the way to Europe, there were a couple of things they could not have known then.

Only one in three of the soldiers who sailed in that first convoy would return physically unscathed at the end of the First World War.

And in about 36 hours, a German vessel whose whereabouts had been unknown for weeks would finally become clear - and the answer was not good news for the Anzacs.

 

Horses just as important as troops onboard the AIF's

It was the duty of soldiers to exercise horses on deck and regularly clean out their stalls. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial PS0063
It was the duty of soldiers to exercise horses on deck and regularly clean out their stalls. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial PS0063 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

LIFE onboard the AIF's first convoy didn't just revolve around the troops.

With a total of more than 7800 horses onboard the ships sailing for the First World War, there was much work to be done to keep the animals in good health and condition.

For the ships carrying mostly infantry troops, days were often spent on extra drills and training in preparation for the daunting task ahead.

But for those carrying mostly horses, it was the daily duty of the soldiers - usually those in the light horse, artillery or transport corps - to walk the horses around the decks (or rub them down as a substitute for exercise), ensure the animals were fed and watered, and to regularly clean out the stalls.

All of this took a great deal of effort, but the care shown by the Anzac troops was worthwhile.

By the time the convoy reached Egypt, it had lost about 220 horses during the voyage, or about 3% of the number they left with. This compared to an average of 15-20% losses by armies from other countries.

War historian Charles Bean recounted an episode in Alexandria, Egypt, when a French horse transport ship came in to port shortly before the Gallipoli campaign.

"Her smell preceded her up the harbour," he wrote.

The Australians were horried to learn later that the ship's stalls had not been cleaned since she sailed, and the horses were standing in about half a metre of manure.
 


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