Marking Anzac Day has been a challenge in these pandemic times. But, whatever the recent logistical obstacles, spare a thought for the circumstances encountered by those on board the HMAT Ballarat on April 25, 1917.
Forged in the Glaswegian shipyards in 1911, the troopship had started life as the P&O passenger liner SS Ballarat before it was requisitioned for the Great War.
Sailing from Port Melbourne on February 19, 1917, the ship had almost reached its destination by April 25. There were 1,752 on board, along with a cargo of Tasmanian apples, as the vessel ploughed into the waters of the Channel.
The ship's name was not the only local link. Privates L. R. Scott, and W. Hellyer from Beaufort, as well as Private A. McDougall from Trawalla and L. Thompson (Buangor), were among those listed on board.
Conditions were idyllic as the men prepared to dock in England. The still seas, sunny skies and the prospect of land lifted the troops' spirits more than the threat of the feared German unterseeboot (U-boat) could oppress them.
Graphic details that are coming to hand show that the story of the sinking of the transport Ballarat is one of the most stirring chapters of the story of Australian heroism at sea... The assembled men said that Australia would be proud of her soldiers bearing themselves without any blemish.Newspaper report, published April 30, 1917 in the Ballarat Courier
Mostly ready to disembark, many were gathering on deck at 2pm for an Anzac Day service. As one account says: "The very fact of being within a few hours of port gives a sense of security to all on board."
The danger, nonetheless, was real. The Germans had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in January, and three American merchant vessels were sunk in March. It was another spur for the United States to declare war on Germany, which they did on April 6, less than three weeks before the SS Ballarat entered English waters.
Let's allow Sergeant W.R. Armstrong and Corporal J.J. Moriarty to take up the story, as they did in an account included in The Book of The Ballarat (along with that zealous wartime editor, 'The Censor'). The book, according to the Australian War Memorial, was published before hostilities ceased by Wightman & Co., Ltd in England.
Setting the scene for 2pm that day, the authors wrote: "A few hours should find us at the end of our nine weeks' wanderings. On every deck the troops are preparing for disembarkation. Most important on this day... are the Anzacs on board. In a few minutes they are to take part in a memorial service. Already the padres are preparing for it.
"This tribute paid, they are to sit down to a simple repast, intended to remind them of their first soldier's meal, eaten on Gallipoli's grim heights. Bread and bully beef, washed down with water. (This was to be the frugal fare, and no Anzac would have exchanged it for the sumptuous banquet the ship had offered to provide)."
"Never since our first day on board has there been such bustle. Excitement is in the air. Anticipation is on tip-toe. That which for nine weary weeks has been to us a land of dreams is about to become a reality."
And then, five minutes after two o'clock, the mood changes in an instant. "Boomp!" the account goes. "The ship shivers from stern to stern. No need for any bugle to call. Though few have heard the dread sound before, there is no one ignorant of its meaning."
A poker enthusiast appears from below, having salvaged a pack of cards. 'Come on cobbers,' he says, 'who'll take a hand in a little game of poker while they lower the boats?'
"All we dreaded and planned to avert has happened. The ship has been torpedoed!"
And so proceeds Sergeant Anderson and Corporal Moriarty's account - most likely under the watchful eye of the wartime censors - painting a striking, and almost certainly varnished, picture of orderliness and good humour.
Attempts to tow the ship to safety are abandoned, and the rescue gets underway, with soldiers ordered into lifeboats to be picked up by the accompanying destroyers and British trawlers.
"But there is a total absence of profanity which falls so lightly from the lips of soldiers," the Anderson and Moriarty story continues, describing how the troops assembled into the lifeboats.
So unfussed are those on board about the prospect of a second torpedo strike that some decide to take advantage of a bit of unexpected leisure time.
"A poker enthusiast appears from below, having salvaged a pack of cards. 'Come on cobbers,' he says, 'who'll take a hand in a little game of poker while they lower the boats?'"
Ballarat Courier account
Despite the loss of the ship - including the cargo of Tasmanian apples - there was no doubt much to celebrate. No lives were lost, with even the ship's mascot - a squirrel - reportedly rescued. Troops boarded destroyers and trawlers, and made their way to England, not quite how they expected, as their ship disappeared beneath the still waters off the coast of Cornwall. The wreck remains there today in about 80 metres of water.
The news took a few days to filter across the world and find its way into The Ballarat Courier, where clearly the event was of particular interest given the name of the vessel. Many of those on board were Victorian too.
It was reported at length on April 30, supplied by the United Service and Reuter cable services. The report is less varnished than that presented within The Book of The Ballarat, although only marginally so. It appears with the subheading of "Australian heroism/ A stirring story" then continued:
"Graphic details that are coming to hand show that the story of the sinking of the transport Ballarat is one of the most stirring chapters of the story of Australian heroism at sea."
The report, however, did include details that don't seem to have been permitted in The Book of The Ballarat.
Readers of the latter were assured: "On the rescuing ships, the soldiers are in high spirits. Not a single casualty has occurred and the mail-bags containing their home-letters are also safe."
In the article published in The Courier, the report did not shy away from including the detail of the one unlucky crew member: "The only injury received was by a private who sustained a broken shoulder from flying metal when the torpedo struck the vessel."
There is also a reference to what the troops said was to blame for the demise of their vessel - beyond the obvious U-boat torpedo.
"The voyage was uneventful and slow, owing to the reduction of the Ballarat's speed by the use of bad coal," the report goes.
"While steaming with all the lights out at night the Ballarat had a great beacon flame nine feet above the funnel, owing to the quality of the coal.
"The men ascribe the torpedoing of the vessel to the fact that they were unable to use good coal."
But the narrative of heroism still shines through from the report's outset.
"Details regarding the sinking by a submarine of the Australian troopship Ballarat (11,120 tons) indicate the troops showed excellent discipline."
Later, once the calm disembarkation has been described, the report continues: "The men landed late at night. They were sent to Salisbury on Thursday. When the ship sank, the only living aboard were the cats and puppies which swam around the decks. The assembled men said that Australia would be proud of her soldiers bearing themselves without any blemish."
"It is stated that later it brought tears to the eye to see the straight lines and the cheery faces of the men. Nowhere was seen the slightest sign of haste or panic."
In The Book of The Ballarat, meanwhile, the farewell is described in a similar vein, as the first-hand account of Sergeant W.R. Armstrong and Corporal J.J Moriarty concludes with the shipwrecked Australians preparing to move on elsewhere in the war effort.
"At 3 o'clock, the companies fall in again, prior to going on our various ways. Amongst the men, goodbyes are being said. Unfortunately we are going to different camps.
"The companies are formed up in a hollow square. In the centre stands our fatherly C.O [commanding officer].
"'Good-bye, boys, and good luck. I am proud of you all. You have behaved like Australians. I wish I could shake hands with each one of you.'
"For a few seconds, there is a strained and significant silence. 'Form fours, left, quick march; eyes right.'
"The order given by an officer to his company breaks the spell. It is the end of a play which had nearly been a tragedy."
- Thanks to David O'Donnell of Stawell, who sent a reminder of the incident, and a later account published in The Examiner in Tasmania. Mr O'Donnell's great, great uncle Dave Parry was on board when the HMAT Ballarat was torpedoed.
- Thanks too to Peter Wills of Lydiard Furniture and Antiques, who loaned his personal copy of The Book of the Ballarat for this article. The Soldiers Hill store has a wide collection of antiques, including a variety of historic military books. The store is located at 205 Lydiard St North (5332 6841).
FULL BALLARAT COURIER REPORT
Loss of the Ballarat
A stirring story
Details regarding the sinking by a submarine of he Australian troopship Ballarat(11,120 tons) indicate the troops showed excellent discipline. They remained at their posts, singing "Australia Will Be There" and "It's a Long, Long Trail".
The vessel remained afloat for 14 hours and all on board were saved.
The first consignment of apples allowed from Tasmania was on the Ballarat and was lost. The insurance was good but not sufficient to cover the profit which would have been realised.
A STIRRING CHAPTER
Graphic details that are coming to hand show that the story of the sinking of the transport Ballarat is one of the most stirring chapters of the story of Australian heroism at ea.
The Ballarat carried troops, practically all Victorian reinforcements for the 2nd and 4th Brigades. Throughout the voyage Col R. M. M 'Vea, formerly of the Scottish Regiment, who saw service in Gallipoli, was in command.
The troops maintained boat station drill on the voyage until they had reduced the time required for it to four minutes.
The voyage was uneventful and slow, owing to the reduction of the Ballarat's speed by the use of bad coal. While steaming with all the lights out at night the Ballarat had a great beacon flame nine feet above the funnel, owing to the quality of the coal.
The men ascribe the torpedoing of the vessel to the fact that they were unable to use good coal.
ANZAC Day Celebrations
The Ballarat men had arranged extensive celebrations for Anzac Day, commencing with a memorial service at 2.20pm.
The men were beginning to muster fully dressed at 2.05pm when a torpedo was seen on the port side. The look-out man in the stern telephoned to the bridge and the great vessel swung round quickly.
Another two seconds would have saved it, but a dull thud, followed by a rending sound, told that the torpedo had struck.
The vessel quickly settled down by the stern. It was discovered that one of the propellers had been torn off, and there was a gaping hole. No one saw the submarine. A few of the men saw a periscope 500 yards away, but it was not seen from the bridge.
Meanwhile the bugle had called the men to their stations. With exemplary cheeriness and behavior (sic) all fell in, and inside four minutes everything was ready for the abandonment of the ship. The men sang a little, but the parade was principally noticeable for the absolute calmness and cheeriness of the men.
The sea was slightly swelling, otherwise it was calm, while the day was bright and sunny.
The men knew that the steamer was adequately supplied with boats and floats, while all had lifebelts, which had been worn continuously for some time by order.
Nevertheless, the ship seemed to be sinking fast, and there was anxiety on the officers' bridge. The officers called down several times to each side. "We are all right, boys: keep steady."
The men replied, "It is all right sire; we are all right".
ORDER TO ABANDON SHIP
After the engineers' first report the commander gave the order to abandon the ship and nine boats were lowered in perfect order.
While embarking in the boats, the men remained cheerful. One officer told a company: "You may smoke on this parade, boys."
Many had cigarettes, while others carried battalion pets, including a squirrel, dogs, puppies and parrots.
When the men were afloat in the boats, "Australian Will be There" was sung in unison by many boatloads.
After a few minutes, however, the engineer reported he was able to go ahead with the remaining damaged propeller.
The boats were recalled and the men again boarded the vessel A call was made for volunteers to go into the stokehold.
Hundreds volunteered, including the whole of the Railway unit. Forty were selected from these, but they were not sent below, because the water had gained rapidly and the vessel seemed to be steadily settling down. The engine room was flooded. The men reformed their stations and were ordered aboard the trawlers, which had come to the rescue.
During the whole time, the only nurses aboard were the Sister Tatlow of Victoria, and Sister Lord, of Tasmania.
They had been great favorites (sic), and had shown splendid courage by visiting the companies and trying lifebelts... a work whereat Chaplains Goller (Presbyterian), Buckley (Anglican) and Ryan (Catholic), were also employed.
FINAL PARADE PHOTOGRAPHED
One hundred men were photographed on the sinking ship on final parade, but the officers did not allow the men to break their ranks to get their valuables.
Great cheers were given when the patrol boats moved away. The men transhipped down the rope ladders. The only injury received was by a private who sustained a broken shoulder from flying metal when the torpedo struck the vessel.
The men landed late at night. They were sent to Salisbury on Thursday. When the ship sank, the only living aboard were the cats and puppies which swam around the decks.
The assembled men said that Australia would be proud of her soldiers bearing themselves without any blemish.
It is stated that later it brought tears to the eye to see the straight lines and the cheery faces of the men.
Nowhere was seen the slightest sign of haste or panic.
SOUTHLAND AND ANZAC MEN
There were many coincidences. Three were aboard who were aboard the Southland in 1915. Fifteen had participated in the landing at Gallipoli. The men are convinced that the Germans especially set a trap for the Ballarat on Anzac Day, thus wishing to avenge the landing.
The soldiers are none the worse for their experience, though they are without their kits. Big-Gen Anderson is arranging for the special issue of clothes and comforts. Hundred of men cabled to Australia that they are safe, and many added, "But broke; send some money"
Further particulars state that an inquiry was being commenced concerning the last disciplinary cases on a particularly decorous voyage, when a smothered sound indicated the torpedoing.
The adjutant, the son of a clergyman of Melbourne, and the Assistant Adjutant, were amongst the last soldiers to leave the ship, sliding down the rope with the contents of the strong room. The men have sent representatives to London to get some souvenirs of the sinking printed. The last number of the "Ballarat Beacon" was being distributed when the boat was torpedoed.
EFFECT OF THE EXPLOSION
Officers and men interviewed at Salisbury said that the explosion shook the ship from stem to stern, causing her to roll, and creating the impression she was toppling over. The first boats were away in five minutes in some cases.
The crew, including the stokers, rushed the boats off before they were filled. The damaged propeller caused the ship to circle. Within half an hour a rescuing patrol boat had appeared on the horizon Many officers and men assert that they saw the submarine's periscope an hour after the torpedoing. They expected a second torpedo; but apparently the tubes were empty, the submarine was scared by the patrols, or had decided to give the men a chance for their lives. Cot cases from the hospital were gently lowered to the boats.
ATTEMPT TO TOW THE VESSEL
Tugs attempted to tow the ship to port, but were unsuccessful. She sank at 4'o'clock on Thursday morning/ The captain and first officer remained to the last.
The ship's military papers were saved. Some soldiers had most scanty clothing on. Those aboard the trawlers had a cold night. They arrived at 4'o'clok in the morning.
CARDS AND TWO-UP
The calmness of the soldiers was remarkable. Some while awaiting their turn to go to the boats resumed their interrupted game of cards. Some sang and played the piano.
The lowering of the lifeboats was mostly done by Australians.
A lieutenant relates that a group were playing two-up when the first warning came.
The thrower calmly examined the coins and said, "Here, never mind the ship; I have got two heads."
INSTANCES OF BRAVERY
Number individual instances of bravery are recorded. Australians on their own initiative climbed over the bows, which are 40 feet in the air, and went down the ropes. Another descended teh rope and rescued the mascotte (sic), a squirrel, from the water.
Sir Newton Moore provided hot meals at Salisbury and subscribed money for the comforts.
The "Times" correspondent at Plymouth stated that when the Ballarat was torpedoed, the shock was felt all over the ship, which was badly holed.
Wireless messages were instantly sent out, and a large number of vessels quickly responded. The Ballarat was taken in tow, but it sank before it could be beached.
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