Australia became an independent nation in 1901, albeit part of the British Empire. Although we were involved in the Boer War, it wasn’t until 1915 at Gallipoli that our forces en masse were tested in battle to such a scale. At the start of World War I, the Empire’s call to arms was answered swiftly in Australia with men enlisting almost from every corner of the country right from the start of the war.
My husband’s great uncle, Sydney Pentland, 21 years old and from Galaquil in rural Victoria enlisted on 19 September 1914 with the 8th Light Horse Battalion. His attestation documents state he was a 21 year old farm hand, 5ft 5.5inches and 10 stone with ruddy complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair, and a Presbyterian.
While the men’s primary motivation may have been responding to the call of the British Empire, at least some was a response to economic conditions, poor seasons, and the chance for what they thought was a grand adventure. As they set forth it was common for the men to be given some special gifts by the local community, in Sydney’s case that was a wrist-watch.
Sydney disembarked at Gallipoli in May 1915. The Light Horse Battalions had not been deemed suitable for the initial Anzac landing. During his time on the peninsula Sydney had repeated bouts of influenza. He was first taken to hospital in Malta in June 1915 with the flu, however his family were advised by letter that he had been wounded. Sydney returned to Gallipoli once again on 31 July, which was obviously premature because he was once again evacuated in August, this time to Alexandria: the terrible conditions on Gallipoli were taking their toll on the men’s health.
He returned to Gallipoli on 25 October 1915 after he was deemed recovered. Sydney died on Gallipoli of shrapnel wounds to the skull on 1 November 1915. Sydney Pentland’s name is among those on the Lone Pine Memorial which we were privileged to visit in 2014.
Donald Black PENTLAND
Sydney’s younger brother, Donald Black Pentland, aged 19, enlisted in June 1916 and he must almost have been a look-alike for his brother Sydney because they have almost the same details on their attestation forms: 5ft 6.5inches, 10st 1 lb, ruddy complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. Donald was taken on strength with the 21st reinforcements of the 6th Battalion and embarked on 2 October 1916 and landed at Plymouth on 16 November 1916. He was not sent to France until March 1917 but died on the Western Front at the battle of Brookseinde Ridge on 4 October 1917.
Donald Black Pentland has no identified grave but is remembered at Ypres on the Menin Gate. We were fortunate to attend the nightly memorial service in 2014…an emotional experience. The sheer scale and number of names is sobering.
Throughout her life my husband’s mother blamed Winston Churchill for the loss of her uncles, and no doubt the effect on her mother, Ellen, who I imagined shared her sentiments. She was a very calm woman but this personal vendetta and loathing burned undiminished over the decades.
In many ways Sydney and Donald were typical of the Australian troops where many men came from country areas: the men were capable and skilled in their horse riding (hence so many Light Horse regiments), and also their use of rifles. For all their practical experience, they were innocent in so many ways, as evidenced by the simplicity of the games played on the long voyages to Europe and, for those fortunate enough to return, on the journey home. The ship’s voyages are a great resource that can be searched online at the Australian War Memorial.
Uniquely, the Australians were all volunteers – even in the defeated mid-war referenda of 1916 and 1917 the serving soldiers believed that service should be voluntary even though they thought more men should answer the call. The Anzacs were known for their casual response to military discipline and rank and often found themselves in bother. However, they were not subject to the British firing squads if they were court martialled.
It would be a rare family in Australia who had no one serving as an Anzac in World War I, and almost certainly no community was unaffected by loss, and memorials are scattered the length and breadth of the country. Many families had more than one son serving and some families lost more than one son, as did the Pentlands. How they must have struggled to come to terms with the ambiguities of their loss when it could take months before the details of a death to be delivered. Perhaps the Pentlands were fortunate that another son, Percy, was discharged unfit to serve, because his life-long toe conditions were unsuitable for walking – a necessary attribute for soldiers.
Australia’s disenchantment at the motherland probably started in World War I as the military strategies and planning of the British generals were called into question. At least 8,141 Australian men died during the Gallipoli campaign and there were over 26,000 casualties. War memorials inscribed with the names of those who died are found in almost every tiny town around Australia.
For the men who returned there was no real understanding of what they’d gone through, as there never really is after war…how can there be? National, home and local celebrations were held to honour them and in some places they were gifted with special memorial medals donated by the local community. As the surviving men returned, it must have once again opened the emotional wounds for the many families who had lost sons, brothers, husbands and friends.
LEST WE FORGET
For those who would like to know more, these web sites are your first ports of call, though there are many others:
Australian War Memorial for embarkation lists, nominal rolls, war diaries and ship records.
Australian National Archives for digitised copies of the men’s service records.
Trove for stories sent home which lend a personal touch to the circumstances, and also letters sent back to family members at home.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission for information about the cemeteries where our ANZACS are buried or commemorated.