In the wake of Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914, the Australian Government promised 20,000 troops to the Empire’s war effort by the end of the year. Infantry and Light Horse units, along with supporting arms, were raised around the country as the young Australian nation rallied to the cause.
Within months, tens of thousands of men were mobilised, most of whom, having sailed from their state capitals, joined a convoy of ships gathering at Albany to take them to the battlefields of the Northern Hemisphere. As the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) gathered in King George Sound, they were joined by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) – creating a joint military formation – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – which, within a few months, became known by the acronym Anzac.
Albany, the oldest permanently settled town in the West, with its idyllic inner harbour, sheltered on all sides from the Southern Ocean, was large enough to accommodate the biggest convoy to have ever left Australia. For many of the troops, route marches around the town and its environs were the last time they set foot on Australian soil.
Shrouded in secrecy demanded by military censorship, the convoy’s arrival must have perplexed the residents of the normally quiet town. In the course of a few days, they witnessed the arrival of more than 20,000 men, 8,000 horses and tons of materiel – from tents and provisions to the weapons of war.
The flotilla of 36 troop transports arrived at the rendezvous between 24 and 28 October. Requisitioned by the Commonwealth, they still bore the insignia of their civilian owners. All that distinguished them from ordinary passenger liners or cargo ships was a large white square near the bow and stern on which the letter ‘A’ and the transport’s number was painted. The New Zealand transports were painted uniform grey, with the letters H.M.N.Z.T. and their number on their sides.
Cruising ceaselessly within and outside the harbour, keeping watch over the crowded vessels was HMAS Melbourne, one of the convoy’s four naval escorts. Nine days after leaving Albany, Melbourne’s sister ship, HMAS Sydney won the Royal Australian Navy’s first victory at sea when she broke away from the fleet and destroyed the hitherto elusive, and very dangerous German raider, SMS Emden.
In the days before departure, amid the feverish preparations, many of the troops went ashore to take part in route marches. The people of Albany thus became the last to see some of the AIF’s original units parade through Australian streets.
The convoy weighed anchor at 5.30am on the fine Spring morning of 1 November. The men were delighted to be on the move again, and over the next three hours the ships moved in single file beyond the sanctuary of the heads. As the ships passed Breaksea Island, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Faye Howe, signalled her best wishes to the departing fleet.
The fleet’s flagship and lead transport was HMT Orvieto, carrying 94 officers, 1,345 other ranks and 21 horses. A gap of roughly 800 yards was maintained between each vessel, and the convoy covered an area of ocean some seven and a half miles in length. Their sailing speed was determined by the slowest ship, HMAT Southern, at approximately 10.5 knots.
Two days out of Albany, the ships were joined by the Japanese battlecruiser HIJMS Ibuki and two more transports, HMAT Ascanius, carrying the 11th Infantry Battalion, and HMAT Medic, carrying the 8th Field Artillery Battery, both Western Australian units, and some South Australian troops. They had sailed from Fremantle to meet the convoy at sea.
Life on the troopships consisted of drills, lectures and a degree of boredom. Men on the horse transports spent their days caring for the AIF’s mounts, cleaning out their stalls, and rubbing them down as a substitute for exercise.
The convoy was originally ordered to sail to England via the Suez Canal, but in late October received instructions to sail by way of the Cape of Good Hope. A Dutch revolt in South Africa threatened that country’s government and the Australasian contingents were the only forces able to provide quick reinforcements. But by October 30 the rebels had been defeated, and on the evening before the convoy was due to sail, the Suez route was reinstated.
This last minute decision to stick to the original route was one in a series of circumstances that determined the AIF’s fate. Had the force sailed around the Cape, and disembarked in England, Australians and New Zealanders may never have taken part in the Dardanelles campaign. They may instead, like the Canadians, have been thrown straight into the Western Front fighting. But after the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war on the side of Germany in November, the force was disembarked for training in Egypt and were available to take part in the assault on the Gallipoli peninsula in April.
At Gallipoli, the AIF earned a lasting place in Australia’s history. The men who fought there have been credited with helping define elements of the national character, and for their part in that historic campaign were honoured for the rest of their lives.
This coin from The Perth Mint’s The ANZAC Spirit 100TH Anniversary Coin Series commemorates 100 years since the departure of Australia’s first convoy of military ships from Albany, Western Australia. Struck from 1/2oz of 99.9% pure silver in proof quality, the coin is issued as Australian legal tender.
The coin’s reverse portrays two ships in the convoy as they set sail from King George Sound in Albany, and a list of the 39 ships that sailed from Albany’s shores.
The Perth Mint will release no more than 1,914 of The ANZAC Spirit 100th Anniversary Coin Series – First Convoy 2014 1/2oz Silver Proof Coin.