08 November 2011

Allan Wickham's war

Allan Wickham was originally in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve before he enlisted, and upon enlistment was placed into the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train unit. The RANBT built piers and wharves etc to enable the landing of troops and supplies. Allan was well suited to this as he was a carpenter. The unit sailed from Port Melbourne on the Port Macquarie on 3 June 1915. On the voyage Allan noted that they lost 80 horses and they stopped off at Bombay on 29 June to unload the rest. He spent much of his time suffering from sea sickness until he noted on 11 July "First day I have been really free from sea sickness." They sailed on to Port Said in Egypt, where they took on coal and water and 3 British and 3 French seamen, and then sailed to Lemnos on July 18 with mounting war tension - "Everybody bitterly disappointed not going to England. Official. Armed guards put on. Sleep abreast our boats with arms and life belts. In the submarine area. All lights out, even steaming lights."

July 20 [1915]: Entered Lemnos Harbour pioloted (sic) by torpedo boat, the first I have seen. As we entered three destroyers were appearing on the horizon. Evidently our escort although we never saw them. Fine harbour. About 30 men of war, British and French, as well as torpedo boats and destroyers and twice as many transports. No town, small villiages (sic) scattered about. 120 000 troops camped around the shores. 4 large transports besides outselves arrived crowded with troops and 3 left. Do not know whether we land or not. A good object lesson to those who are crying out what is the British Navy doing. Only 30 mls from the Dardenells (sic).

July 23: Troops embarking and disembarking all day. Something definite at last. Orders to be prepared to land at a moments notice tonight or tomorrow morning. We are to do a fortnight's training and then to leave to build piers and suchlike for disembarking troops and guns. Where we are not told but surmise Dardenells (sic). Two monitors arrived from Dardenells (sic). Have been in action for 3 days. Marvellous how news travels around fleet. Fifty days out from Melbourne and only had 3 hours ashore. What with the uncertainty as to our destination are glad of the move, though all are disappointed at not going to England. But I'm confident we'll get there before it's all over. No mail from home yet.

They sailed on to Imbros to do their training there, and then on to Suvla Bay, where they landed under fire and got straight to work. He soon saw the awful reality of war: "Went for a walk over ground taken. Saw some of the Turk trenches and entanglements. Came across some of the Manchesters killed by shell fire. Awful sight. Ground very broken. Wounded arriving on beach all day. Terrible suffering among wounded for want of water. Turks reinforced and we are driven in. The Munsters and Royal Irish suffer heavily. Built two piers. Snipers busy round the camp. Very daring."

The camp was frequently shelled by enemy fire and killed a number of people, including Chief Petty Officer Edward Charles Perkins: "Shell fell in Perkin's dugout, struck him and wounded his mate. Buried him at 8 o'clock at night." Further details about CPO Perkins can be seen here. Allan himself was (on this occasion) luckier, on August 20: "Ships cannot find battery that is annoying us. Had a narrow escape this morning. Shell burst within 10ft of me, covered me with sand. Killed one and wounded two. Several others injured throughout the day", and again on December 1: "Hit in head with shell splinter. Lucky." I can imagine his mother weeping, reading those entries.

By December of 1915 the decision had been made to evacuate the area. On December 15 Allan was told that he was in a party which was to remain behind and destroy the stores. He was disappointed to find out two days later that others would be staying behind and he was to leave that day. They were on Lemnos for Christmas, and then from January 13 to February 4th the RANBT mutinied over (a lack of) pay, and they were placed under armed guard, under arrest. Allan was appointed as a representative to state their case to the commander who had just returned from a stay in hospital for malaria. Once the situation was resolved they carried on as normal.

In February they returned to the Suez Canal to work there. Allan applied to transfer to the 5th Engineers in March but his request was turned down, then on April 1 his request to transfer to the artillery was affected to the 12th Field Artillery Brigade, and he was posted to the 48th Battalion as a gunner. He was made an acting Bombardier on May 19.

On June 3, on the anniversary of his sailing from Melbourne, Allan sailed from Alexandria for France. "Ship pretty rotten, tucker worse." They arrived in Marseille on June 9/10 and left for Le Havre aboard a train on June 11. Arriving in Le Havre on June 13, they stayed a few days and then moved to a camp closer to the firing line, somewhere in the north of France (he didn't really give precise details). He transferred to the 24th Field Artillery Brigade on June 15, though this is not noted in his diary. The diary details the fighting in his area and he certainly seemed much busier there than he was in Suvla Bay, and the fighting much more frenetic. His diary ended on September 17 with "Came back to the guns last night."

Allan's service record then shows that he transferred, still in France, to the 11th Field Artillery Brigade on January 25, 1917, and was posted to the 42nd Battalion. He was killed in action on May 3, 1917, at the second battle of Bullecourt, France.

I don't know if his diary made it home before the news of his death - I have no knowledge of when he posted it home from London as his service record does not show any visit to London. That his diary made it home and he didn't must have been small comfort for his mother.

Further information on the RANBT can be found here, and the second battle of Bullecourt here.


  1. Prue, you have some excellent stories and finds on here. I've put your blog on my Google+ and Twitter links...not masses of followers but it may promote your site. Have you let Geneabloggers know you're out here?

  2. Hi Cassmob, thanks for the visit and the link! I was only just googling other Australian family history blogs today for the first time, so I hadn't come across Geneabloggers until today. To some extent I had always assumed that anyone who wanted to read my blog would find it because they would be researching the same people as me... : ) I'll give them my details anyway though!

  3. Prue what relation is this fellow to me...was he my father's father? Same name!