A CREATIVE NON-FICTION, based on his grandfather’s life, by Ralph Devlin
The humble farm and seasonal linen bleaching works on the banks of the River Bann near Banbridge Town had fed the Devlins of Northern Ireland for generations. The work was hard, the rewards meagre. That Bill’s Catholic forebears had hailed from the rebellious South in earlier times was neither here nor there to him. Bill was compelled by his fascination with the military from the Church of Ireland devotees in the tiny village of Tullylish eventually to the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Armagh, a boy of 15. Bill told them he was born in nearby Castle Hill, Gilford. His escape was secured, adventure and danger awaited. It was November 1896.
Bill was not given to deep reflection about his childhood in the County Down. The only thread he recalled was his path to military life, the fragments which held the vision of the scarlet tunics and dark blue trousers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, ‘The Faughs’, marching for Armagh along the dusty road that wound along the River Bann. These were the thrilling scenes that first drew him at the age of 14, further South, strangely, away from Armagh, to enlist. Bill’s first attempt was thwarted. Samuel, the father, tracked him down before his second son could get too carried away with this military life. Bill never did work out how the father found him, perhaps his confidences with his eldest brother Alexander had been revealed. Bill didn’t ponder that which he didn’t know. Fact was, he was found, Samuel paid for the release of his wayward son and order was restored for a while.
Less than a year later Bill broke the shackles again. This time he headed for Armagh, more determined than ever to make his escape. This time Samuel did not go in search despite Hanna’s protestations of loss and fear.
Arriving at the Regimental Garrison Depot at Armagh, no taller but thicker of build, Bill signed the paper and an inevitable path in life lay before him. Bill remembered the 20 mile walk of hope from Tullylish, that first feeling of arrival, of elation. This would not be the first time that Bill would lie about – ‘miss-state’ – his age to gain the tunic. It would be the most spectacular though. At just under 5 feet 6 inches, the blue-eyed dark-haired boy of just fifteen looked the Adjutant straight in the eye. “18 years and 1 month,” he firmly replied, “born on October 27, 1878.” Not a bit of it, try 1881. A thrilling lie which was to profoundly mark out Bill’s life.
Number 5778 lad. Here’s your Little Book, keep it up as a record of your faithful service to Her Majesty.
The boy-soldier did not return to his home for 20 years; when he returned, it was with his English (and Catholic) bride. He had traversed the world as a British and Australian soldier – Egypt, South Africa, India, Australia, Turkey and…England.
THE WILD ROVER
Bill spoke sometimes and ruminated often about his young life in the ‘Faughs’. Embarkation for Alexandria after 2 years of home duties was his first step into the unknown. By now skilled as a heliograph operator, he saw foreign service for the first time. Bill sometimes spoke about the spectacular sea journey through Gibraltar and Malta to garrison duties in Egypt. Exactly a year later the certainty of garrison life suddenly became the tumult of war with the Boer in South Africa. Another sea journey from Alexandria to Durban saw ‘The Faughs’ ready to confront the Boer in a fight that would drag on for 3 long years.
Days before Bill was to ‘celebrate’ his eighteenth birthday he was in the lines near Talana Hill, about 40 miles to the north-east of the strategic town of Ladysmith. Whatever Major-General Sir William Penn Symons knew beforehand, the crash of Boer artillery shells from atop Talana Hill into the British encampment surprised the encampment and signalled the first bloody skirmish of the Boer War. British Artillery units scrambled to reply. After what seemed an eternity their batteries opened up on the well-positioned Boers, with their state-of-the art Krupps canon. The 5th Royal Lancers galloped away to the right in great alarm towards the enemy. Then the Infantry of Foot mobilised – “Dublins the first line, Rifles the second, Fusiliers the third!”, came the order. At last the British counter attack.
The fear of his first battle with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers remained with Bill for the rest of his life. It was a bloody affair in which a victory of sorts was secured but at a high cost. Many of his Battalion were killed or captured. Parts of Bill’s 1st Battalion took Talana Hill – after at one time being shelled by friendly fire – only to find that the Boers had fled their positions. A hollow victory, because the British then withdrew into Ladysmith in atrocious weather conditions and a new phase of the conflict began: the Boers laid siege to the town for 4 months over the Christmas of 1899. Bill’s company defended ‘Red Hill’ faithfully thereafter. His first war medal was to be ‘the Defence of Ladysmith’ Medal.
Bill sometimes told the story of the Christmas pudding hurled into the lines in an empty artillery shell by the persistent Boers. “‘Merry Christmas’ the card said, Merry bloody Christmas!”, Bill would regale in his soft, distinctive brogue. “The bloody officers got to eat it, not the bloody ranks. Sure we were after eatin’ our boots to survive. The most miserable bloody Christmas I ever saw….” The ragged British troops saw in a new century yet scarcely noticed. Bill was promoted to Sergeant 6 days later. He was just 18.
The description of Bill’s first battle, its ‘victorious’ outcome and its protracted aftermath was to be recounted in the mess tents of Ladysmith, Lemnos, Gallipoli, the hospital in Manchester and two decades later still, on the ‘Queen Mary’, at night, as it sailed back to the Middle East in early 1941. And of course the Anzac Day Reunions Bill attended before he died in 1952. The victory and the uselessness of his first battle and his first siege he did not consider for a moment; nor the awful loss of man, beast and materiel. Instead the memory of it stirred the Bill’s blood as the fear and the privation were recalled.The description of it mostly remained an internal conversation, sometimes shared with the men he chose, when the empty minutes and hours had to be filled with soldiers’ tales. The detail was not shared with his wife Nell, nor with his sons, except to explain ‘Talana Cottage’ at 89 Middle Street Randwick. “My first battle, I was eighteen, ” Bill would say as if it explained everything. His words explained everything he needed to explain: ‘I was, I am a soldier.’ Explained everything and nothing.
There was a thread, though, a fateful thread, that changed Bill’s life profoundly: during the frustrating guerrilla warfare on the harsh South African veldt, where Bill saw out the Boer War, he met his first Australians. These tall, tanned horsemen with the laconic careless drawl were a revelation to the young soldier from the North of Ireland. In camp at night they recounted tales of the endless Australian bush and of a new nation which was emerging from its colonial beginnings. A new national military corps was in formation, they said.
Bill sensed an opportunity but had to find a way. These Australian mounted riflemen, with their extraordinary skills, matched it with the Boers in sporadic skirmishes that to Bill seemed to serve little purpose. The Australians nevertheless left a deep impression on him. They presented the possibility of a new life for the man from Tullylish. Even his brief return to Belfast at the end of the war only sharpened Bill’s desire to escape again, this time to Australia.
An unexpected promotion to Company Sergeant of the magnificent Faughs, in the dying days of the South African skirmish – for that is what it had become – failed to dampen Bill’s desire to uncover for himself the mystique of the Colonials. Bill reasoned that if these men were like no others he had seen, then their Homeland held the widest possible promise. As in the days of his teenage years on the River Bann, a fresh desire to escape became an unshakeable article of faith for this stubborn Soldier of the Queen.
The first thing to be savoured was the startling blue-green bands of the Arafura Sea spanning away to the north towards German New Guinea. By now Bill had seen Port Philip Bay and Sydney Harbour, wondrous sights, even for a military man who by now was much-travelled. Thursday Island was different – Torres Strait Islanders had an easy dignity and such a love of this breathtaking sea and of their scattered islands. Though Bill did not think himself a seaman, he admired the seafaring ways of the Islanders. More comfortable for the Soldier-Signaller was military life at Victoria Barracks, sprawling high on a hill on tiny tropical Thursday Island.
There was a job to be done: the erection of a radio mast 185 feet 7 inches high near Milman Hill Fort was the priority. How swiftly the military communications ‘revolution’ had swept him from the heliograph at Ladysmith and Bloemfontein to the radio telegraph in the Torres Strait. The specialist training in wireless telegraphy he completed, while he was briefly back in Belfast after the end of the South African conflict, had fitted Bill perfectly for secondment to the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery. He brought sought-after skills with him. It would not be the only time it would happen this way. After 8 years at the Fremantle, Queenscliff and Sydney Coastal Artillery batteries, Bill felt he was now at the leading edge of the new wireless radio technology. He was acquiring the skills that would propel him through the greater part of two World Wars, if only he knew it. For now, in 1912, in Australia, his skills and his military experience were required in this exotic place. Bill relished his new posting and the fresh task at hand.
Major Horace ‘Robbo’ Robertson, Commanding Officer of the TI battery, was one of a new breed of Australian soldiery. Robertson had seen the transformation of the disparate Colonial Artillery units into the Royal Australian Artillery. He too had served in the Boer war. Robbo was delighted to receive William Devlin, a Company Sergeant from the Faughs, on secondment to his remote station. The CO readily saw the benefits of taking on strength a battle-hardened veteran of the same conflict which had so nurtured his own style of soldiery. ‘I have some very young men here, CSM, I need you to show them some smart and efficient soldiery. You will be required for basic gunnery training as soon as your principal task here is complete, do I make myself clear? Good luck, Devlin, on behalf of the Ninth Military District Commander, welcome.’
Using massive ‘shear legs’ to hoist the tower, the work on ‘TI’ was slow and hot. The men were permitted ‘Shirt Sleeve Order’, shedding their tunics and rolling up their shirt sleeves in strict military fashion. Bill insisted on it. He was seen by the fit young Australians as already a veteran to be heeded and emulated, even though he was one of them. They knew he had been wounded in the Battle of Talana Hill, that he had been a soldier at 15. Bill was now 31. B Section was the smarter for his quiet presence, they all knew that. His Irishness didn’t bother them. Many of the other ranks had Irish parents or grandparents, especially those who hailed from Brisbane. Bill was for some a reminder of hearth and home, many days’ travel to the south.
Almost as soon as the radio telegraph was operational on Thursday Island there was talk of approaching conflict in Europe. Tensions were running high in the Balkans. Austrian and German aggression towards Russia and France appeared to be the prelude to a declaration of war. On 1 August 1914 it came. For Australia, the proximity of German New Guinea assumed strategic significance. In the ensuing few months there were skirmishes between Australian military elements and German forces on Islands across the Region. The 6 inch guns of the Green Hill and Milman Hill Forts on TI remained on high alert. Britain and, as a consequence Australia, were at war with Germany.
As news of the burgeoning conflict trickled into Thursday Island, Bill increasingly took to walking the musketry parapet at Milman Hill Fort in the warm evenings. His ‘principal task’ with the radio communications had been completed half a year before. There was a growing unease that he was required elsewhere. He would gaze northwards, as if to discover what the Fusiliers were doing at home – or perhaps abroad already? Bill was becoming impatient for the fray. There were no letters from home, no messages from a humble family of barely-educated bleacher folk on the River Bann. He had left so long ago, he had for the moment forsaken them and they him. He tried to shake such thoughts of separation and loss, instead ruminating on the ‘Faughs’ and their fate.
It did not take long for these thoughts to be put aside to make room for an urgent search for the German Raider ‘Emden’. For 2 months Bill was in the thick of it as the senior signaller on TI. This period of high alert at the battery was ended by high drama and glorious victory on the high seas.
The ‘Emden’ was a serious distraction to the Australian Artillerymen in the early months of the war. ‘Emden’ became a lethal force in the Indian Ocean, sinking 17 British merchant ships in the second month of the conflict and 25 in all, including 2 warships. Disguised as a British battle cruiser by adding a fourth funnel, ‘Emden’ attacked on-shore installations and shipping in order to disrupt communications between Britain and Australia.
Thursday Island was very much on edge. Where would ‘Emden’ strike next? In November 1914 her Captain Von Mueller chose the radio communication station at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean as his next target. It was to be his last.
The first Australian and New Zealand troop convoy bound for the European theatre of the war had departed Albany, escorted by ‘HMAS Melbourne’ and ‘HMAS Sydney’. That convoy included the first elements of the 2nd Battalion AIF which was part of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Australian Division. Bill was to join the 2nd Battalion as part of the ‘Second Reinforcements’ in just over three months’ time.
‘Melbourne’ intercepted a distress call from the Cocos station just before it was silenced by a raiding party from the ‘Emden’. ‘Melbourne’ ordered ‘Sydney’ to investigate. The quarry was 50 miles to the East. Ultimately the guns of the ‘Emden’ were no match for those of the Australian light cruiser. Von Mueller beached his stricken warship. Some of the crew escaped in a sloop and made their way back to Germany. ‘Sydney’ picked up 190 survivors.
For the Australian Garrison Artillery the emergency was over. Some personnel could now be spared for the war effort in Europe. Bill saw his chance.
In early March 1915 the HMAT ‘ Seang Bee’ lay at anchor at Thursday Island. The Burmese merchant ship, on lease to Australia as a troop transport, had sailed from Sydney the previous month, calling at Brisbane and Townsville to load a vital cargo – the ‘Second Reinforcements’ for the Gallipoli Campaign. With the ‘Emden’ emergency over it was now possible for Gunners and ancillary personnel, such as skilled soldier-signallers, to redeploy from the Garrison Artillery into combat units bound for the Dardanelles.
Bill paraded before ‘Major Robbo’, together with other NCO’s bound to enlist in the new war: ‘I wish you well in this important new theatre. The Empire requires our best soldiers at this most dire time in its history. Men, you have contributed mightily to the security of Australia and Her Territories, but now it is a greater thing you do, in the name of the Empire forces. Would that I were going with you. I shall always remember your service here. You have been smart and efficient soldiers, you will do well. Good luck and God bless.’
Robbo was emotional and sincere. As the lighters took the men from the wharf across to the ‘Seang Bee’ to sign the papers and to seal their fate, Bill reflected only briefly on the forces that had impelled him to this moment. Eighteen years as a Soldier of Empire brought an emotional response unfamiliar to him. Later he was to recognise the thrill of yet another escape, the embrace of the unknown and the burden of service. Such emotions rarely saw the light of day later in Middle Street Randwick. Bill’s emotions remained a personal possession, rarely shared with Nell, rarely seen by his soldier sons. Emotion was weakness, enough said.
This time, when Bill signed on, it was with a young Lieutenant who looked nervously upon a soldier almost old enough to be his father. Bill thought of the boy-soldier signing the paper in Armagh almost 20 years before. The horizons were too wide, the adventure too beckoning, to think too deeply on the past.
Bill, in the stroke of his pen, became a soldier of Australia. The moment was not lost upon him.
As the ‘Seang Bee’ steamed northwards to the Suez Canal the ‘Second Reinforcements’ of the 2nd Battalion AIF were kitted up as far as possible. Bill enjoyed the distinction among the men of having served in Egypt, South Africa and India. The younger men especially pressed him eagerly for details. This was to both pass the time and to prepare themselves as best they could for what lay ahead.
Bill was not expansive in his many replies but patiently told part of his story. Among the handful of Boer War veterans he was a little more forthcoming but still measured in his demeanour. Bill maintained the reserve of a military man who had attained – and then surrendered – high rank and standing in the Faughs. Every soldiers’ instinct told him that the lowly rank of Private would not be his for long. Modesty and circumspection were his watchwords. Deployment in the planned campaign in the Dardanelles couldn’t come soon enough.
Arrival in Port Said, almost exactly a month before the Gallipoli landings began, brought back memories of almost 20 years past for Bill. There was no shore leave and no time to reflect upon the experiences of the teenage boy soldier. Bill would have liked to have again walked the hot, noisy streets and markets, but a sense of urgency seemed to have taken hold; the ‘Seeang Bee’ abruptly set sail for the Greek Island of Lemnos.
Moudros Harbour on Lemnos was a spectacular sight in early April 1915, as their troopship eased its way into a makeshift wharf to discharge its human cargo. Bill would later say that he had never seen two hundred ships in one place before, or since. The naval panoply quickly gave way to the steamy, sweaty business of disembarcation. Then it was a short march to the makeshift 2nd Battalion lines. Lemnos had hurriedly been developed into a bustling military encampment. The 1st Australian Division had been gathered on Lemnos for less than a week. Events were moving swiftly towards battle.
The ‘Second Reinforcements’ paraded before the RSM as soon as their black kitbags could be discarded. Each man was immediately assigned to various elements of the Battalion which from the latter part of 1914 had encamped and trained at Mena Camp near Cairo in the shadows of the Pyramids. Bill had a strong sense he was joining a fighting force which was ready to go to war. There seemed to be an air of grim determination, even impatience, about the Lemnos camp.
Bill found himself in B Company and on promotion to the rank of Corporal. Of the postings in this soldier’s career this was the most fateful of all. For the rest of his long life Bill regaled his fellow soldiers about Talana Hill and Ladysmith and the ‘Queen Mary’ when the occasion required it; but Bill’s chest beat faster and his pride was at its fiercest when he recalled the events at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 and the desperate days of fighting that followed.
To be among such fine men, to be with them in such a fight, to see and hear them fall around me. It was a desperate battle to be sure, but I was so proud…
At age 33 the soldier who had endured so much was to be tested as never before. Here he was, a junior NCO once again, with the duties of a signaller and with men to lead into battle. At 0900 on 25 April 1915 his Battalion joined in the Australian assault.
William was shot in the lower abdomen on day three of the battle for the Dardanelles. He was one of the lucky ones to be hospitalised in England. William married his nurse, Nell Burroughs, at Prestwich on 30 September 1915 – 5 days after his discharge from hospital.
There was a last journey ‘home’ to Tullylish as man and wife, but it wasn’t a happy one for the newly weds. William’s parents, uncomfortable with William’s Catholic English Rose, forbade them sleeping together in the family cottage. This was not the homecoming he expected after 13 years of soldiery. They returned to England and began the search for a passage to Australia.
Bill revisited those days on Lemnos and on Gallipoli as a pilgrim, until he died in 1952. He was there at the birth of Anzac, an Irish soldier in Australian battle dress. He lived long enough to see his own sons go to war in 1940. By then Bill’s ‘Australian-ness’ had long been confirmed.
Ralph is a Senior Counsel in Queensland. He has recently published a 3-volume Centenary history of the Maroochydore Surf Club and is working on a family history of the different war experiences of two generations of Devlin relatives, and another on the Fitzgerald Inquiry of the 1980s.
This piece on William is based on the known facts of his life.