“Dear Father – just a few lines to let you know I have done my duty – Sydney. Good-bye all.”

Sydney John Penhaligon, Third Field Ambulance (Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

Sydney John Penhaligon, Third Field Ambulance
(Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

These were the words written by Private Sydney John Penhaligon on a postcard addressed to his father, slipped inside the notebook he carried with him to the First World War. Sydney was hit by shellfire shrapnel on 13 May 1915 and died of his wounds on the hospital ship Gascon the following day. He was one of over 350,000 men killed or wounded in the allied attempt to seize the Gallipoli Peninsular and secure the straights leading to Constantinople and the Black Sea.

The following is a summary of the presentation made to the October 2014 meeting of the Indooroopilly & District Historical Society by Beverley Walker, Sydney’s great niece. The talk was based on the content of Sydney’s diary and additional research undertaken by Beverley and Natalie Moffitt (Beverley’s daughter). Marilyn England transcribed the extracts from Sydney’s diary published in the Queenslander on 21 April 1917. Sydney’s personal account is supplemented below with background information and selected short extracts from ‘The Body Snatchers, a History of the 3rd Field Ambulance’ by Sue and Ron Austin.

Only days after the declaration of war with Germany, Sydney, a twenty year old postal worker from Kenmore, volunteered to serve with the AIF. His notebook/diary outlines his experiences from when he started his adventure at Enoggera Army Camp, to his last entry on 13 May noting two of his fellow stretcher bearers had been wounded.

Sydney was born on 15 July 1894 at his family’s farm ‘Rosedale’ on Moggill Road, Indooroopilly, the area where the Kenmore Tavern stands today. ‘Rosedale’ was approximately forty-eight acres and run mainly as a dairy farm. His parents William Henry Penhaligon and Christina (nee Ruska) had twelve children, three dying in early childhood. Sydney was the youngest son and loved riding, no doubt following in the footsteps of his father and his Uncle John who had supplemented their farm income by breaking in stock from the Darling Downs for Brisbane’s horse drawn trams. John Penhaligon had a farm on the other side of Moggill Road (Kenmore Anglican Church area). Sydney’s brother William was a member of the first contingent sent to the Boer War in 1899 and survived that conflict.

Sydney attended Indooroopilly Mixed State School and later Kelly’s College Brisbane. He was quite athletic being involved with the local Cricket Club and also Secretary of Kenmore Amateur Athletics Club.

Kenmore Boys cricket team 1913, Sydney far left (Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

Kenmore Boys cricket team 1913, Sydney far left
(Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

At the time Sydney volunteered he was a Postal Assistant at Indooroopilly Post Office. When he enlisted, with Service Number 77, he was appointed to ‘A’ Section 3rd Field Ambulance initially as a ‘Driver’, probably reflecting his experience with horses on the family farm.

At the outbreak of war the Australian Government committed to provide an expeditionary force of one infantry division. The Australian 1st Division comprised three infantry brigades of approximately 6,000 men each. Each brigade was to have its own support units including a mobile medical unit referred to as a Field Ambulance.

Field Ambulance units had been introduced by the British Army c1906 following lessons learned during the South African War. The intent was that initial response, retrieval and first aid for casualties at the front line was the responsibility of the infantry unit, from the Regimental Aid Post (immediately behind the front line) the FA took over.

Each FA was to have a complement of 10 Officers and 224 Other Ranks arranged into three sections. Each section, with three medical officers, was considered adequate to cater to the needs of 50 sick or injured. The three sections were further broken down into ‘tent’ and ‘bearer’ sub-divisions. The sections could operate as three small dressing stations (common at Gallipoli) or combine as an advanced dressing station (Europe). The ‘tent’ sub-division looked after establishment and tended the wounded, the bearers the logistics of getting casualties from the front and subsequently to casualty clearing stations (Gallipoli) or main dressing stations (Europe). At Gallipoli, stretchers were carried by two bearers (not forgetting Simpson’s donkey – John Simpson Kirkpatrick served with 3rd FA), more common four in Europe.

Permanent Medical Officers where appointed in each State to recruit for the FAs, one each from NSW (1st FA) and Victoria (2nd FA), 3rd FA a composite from Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. The Light Horse had a separate FA.

Lt Col Alfred Sutton was appointed the PMO for Queensland. When requested, he nominated himself to command A Section 3rd FA with Capt GP Dixon and Capt HV Conrick as the other two officers. Enrolments commenced on 15 August and by the 18th (the day Sydney joined up) they had selected the first 16 men. Conrick signed Sydney off as fit and Sutton approved his application, appointing him to A Section 3rd Field Ambulance. ‘A Section’ paraded at Enoggera on 13 September and training commenced.

Sydney records his unit boarded the Rangatira at Pinkenba Wharf and departed Brisbane on 25 September 1914, calling at Melbourne for three weeks, then on to Albany, Western Australia where the Australian and New Zealand ships assembled. The fleet departed on 1 November, crossed the Equator on the 13th, called at Colombo, Aden, Port Suez, Port Said and Alexandria before reaching their destination, Cairo, on 11 December 1914. Most had anticipated their destination to be England and then on to France, however, Turkey’s entry into the war in early November is likely to have contributed to the change of plan.

Part Mena Camp, Cairo. Sydney notes his unit was on the extreme right of this photograph, and the view represented only a quarter of the full extent of the camp (Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

Part Mena Camp, Cairo. Sydney notes his unit was on the extreme right of this photograph, and
the view represented only a quarter of the full extent of the camp
(Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

Mena, near Cairo, was the first opportunity for 3rd FA to combine as a unit, they had been shipped on separate transports. Initially the FAs provided personnel to assist convalescent, infectious disease and venereal disease hospitals until such time as the Medical Corps arrived in mid/late December. The 2nd Australian General Hospital was based at Mena House Hotel, the nearest to where the First Division was encamped. Sutton considered this activity a distraction to 3rd FA’s more specialised training requirements.

In his notebook Sydney not only included notes on the training they received, with diagrams of anatomy and remedies for various ailments, but also many young women’s names and addresses, likely nurses from both Australia (mainly Melbourne) and England. He also had his uncle Nat Gould’s address in England (Gould married Christina’s sister). He was a popular author having spent over ten years in Australia before returning home, his many books popular with the diggers particularly when boredom set in waiting around for weeks before moving on to action. Unfortunately Sydney would never have the chance to visit him, nor the young ladies.

Sydney’s diary provides a day by day account of life whilst at Mena Camp during January and February of 1915 including the cool weather, sand storms, training and manoeuvres. On the lighter side, sporting competition with other units and visits to local attractions. In early January Sydney and his mate Chips paraded before the Adjutant and Captain Conrick to request a transfer to bearers. It was granted the following day.

With such a concentration of men and somewhat primitive facilities it wasn’t long before communicable diseases became an issue and Sydney notes that three cases of smallpox were discovered as part of a routine exercise. The unit’s first death occurred whilst stationed at Mena, through illness, the military tradition of auctioning the deceased’s kit observed. Proceeds were sent to his next of kin.

The Roos, Egypt 17 February 1915. (Left to right) H Sheppard (Shep), PH Frazer (Percy), Sydney J Penhaligon (Pen), AJ Adams (Chips), FJ Thorpe (Thorpy), OP Kenny (Ken), John Lang, F Eichstadt (Ikey), Owen Hansen and W McNeill . Photographer believed to be Harry Lawder
(Penhaligon family archive, courtesy Beverley Walker)

The order came to strike camp at the end of February, and following a march to Cairo, 3rd FA caught a train to Alexandria, boarded the troop transport ship Malda and sailed to Lemnos Island on route to the Dardanelles.

Sydney notes that Mudros Bay where they anchored was busy with lots of ships and naval cruisers including the French troopships. After a couple of days of settling in, intensive training began, Sydney being picked for the boat crew. They practised disembarkation (including the horses) and did landings and route marches on the island.

He also acquired the job as postal orderly which appears to have extended to working with the CO censoring outgoing mail. His postal duties involved visiting various ships in the fleet so he had a good appreciation of the force that was being assembled.

3rd Infantry Brigade was chosen for the assault on Gaba Tepe accompanied by 3rd FA, the bearer sub-division with the pre-dawn landing. By 10 April Sutton noted that 3rd FA was up to full strength but still missing their 10 horse drawn ambulances. He was unhappy with the instructions for MO’s to be un-armed, even though under the Geneva convention it was acceptable for them to carry small arms.

On 23 April Sydney notes the men were practising disembarking onto a torpedo destroyer. On the following day their ship left Mudros Bay at 2pm arriving at Imbros Island at 10.00pm. His diary continues:

‘The ships dropped anchor well out of sight of any Turkish outposts who might be on the lookout, for it was known they were expecting us, as the places where they thought we would land were bristling with entrenchments and barb wire entanglements.

All was well, we had a hot meal about 9 pm after which we transhipped on to destroyers. We sailed away about midnight, the night being very still and cold, with a three-quarter moon. All went well till we came in sight of land, when we could hear firing. We steamed in to within a few hundred yards of the beach and dropped anchor.

Already a good many of the Infantry were making their way towards the shore under a heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Orders were given for the men to get into the lifeboats (which had been towed behind the destroyers). The first boatloads had just started when several men were hit by bullets. The destroyer was under fire all the time, and bullets were falling thick and fast.

Myself and a small party were left behind to attend to the men who were wounded on the destroyer and those returning in boats from the shore, in all we had 20 wounded and two killed on the destroyer.

As the boats neared the shore the Turks, who were on the tops of the ridges, opened fire with machine guns and rifles. Had they been good marksmen I doubt if any of the men would have reached the shore alive. As it happened they were either bad shots or else they were too surprised to shoot straight, and our men landed.

Some boats had very few casualties while others suffered very heavily. In one place, two boatloads tried to land at one point when a machine gun opened fire on them. The result was that only 16 out of 60 got ashore without casualties. It was an awful sight, men were hanging over the sides of the boats and lying about in all sorts of positions. One man who had his arm shattered was in the bottom of a boat under a good many dead men. Something worthy of mention was the bravery of the wounded men, those who were only slightly wounded would say “I’m all right, attend to the others who need it more than I do.”

As soon as the men set foot on shore the order was given and they stormed up the steep ridges. What few Turks they could see were running for their lives. The first man to reach the top of the ridge, a man called Reid, had a Turk on the end of his bayonet.

Our men had not been ashore half an hour when they had captured several machine guns and howitzers. I may say the troops did not have landing stages, as soon as the boats neared the beach the men jumped into the water. In some places it was nearly over their heads, and with wet equipment it was no easy matter running to cover.

As soon as we landed we collected as many wounded as possible and carried them to cover, where they received medical attention. Most of the wounded were lying along the beach or a little way inland. While we were attending to the wounded we were being sniped at continuously, and several of our men were wounded. All went well till about 1 o’clock in the afternoon when our dressing station was shelled, and we were compelled to evacuate to a position further along the beach.

In two hours we had moved in all about 80 wounded to safety. This part of the work was by no means easy or safe, as shells were bursting all around us, and occasional shots from snipers would come marvellously near. You had to keep on the move, for if you stopped you would make an easy mark for a sniper.’

Sydney praised the Australian troops for what they achieved in the first few days and the work of the sailors and First Australian Clearing Hospital in evacuating and treating the wounded. His diary recounts their activity over the next three weeks, an ever constant danger being shellfire and snipers.

The Body Snatchers notes that from an Allied point of view the nature of the ground at Anzac Cove severely restricted the use of artillery. Such a restriction, however, did not apply to the defenders who were able to rain shells down on the Australian positions, almost at will. The only consolation was that the majority of the shells were shrapnel, rather than high explosive. If the Turkish artillery had been supplied with large quantities of HE shells, supplemented by modem trench mortars, the Anzac position would have quickly become untenable.

To facilitate the Australian response, the placement of field guns, 3rd FA relocated on 11 May to a new location. Unfortunately, the move had been observed and the Turkish artillery soon commenced shelling their position. Colonel Sutton and Captain Buchanan were sheltering under a four feet bank when a shell burst nearby. Buchanan noted “We were quite dazed, blind and deaf from the flash and roar, and dirtied but uninjured.” An exasperated Sutton immediately decided to move his unit to a less vulnerable area.

This time he selected a site at the mouth of White’s Gully, which led into Shrapnel Gully from the south. The Bearer Division got to work in heavy rain, setting up the camp in readiness for the move of the remainder of the unit on the following day. Sutton was still wary of this site, and wrote “It is bad luck but I have no choice.”

The balance of the unit moved into position on the 12 May, and, despite delays due to periodical shelling, the new camp was completed by the 13th. The bearer squads resumed their usual tasks of collecting wounded from the infantry line and the dressing station was again taking in patients. But enemy shelling of the camp took its toll, four soldiers were wounded. As the CO’s dugout was nearby Sutton was quickly on the scene tending to his wounded men:

‘A shell burst in a dug out of two of our men. Penhaligon had his right thigh shattered and Jones had his left thigh ghastly gashed. It is pitiable – Penhaligon howled with pain, the shell bounced over our dugout and lodged in front. We gave Penhaligon morphine at once and fixed him up, big fragments of bone dropped out of the wound and a shrapnel bullet went through his left knee. We dragged him into our dugout and after we had fixed him up it was covered in blood, blood clot and bloody clothing.

We had to keep him two hours, the fire was too hot to move him. How long, how long O Lord ?’

Sydney’s final diary entry was on 13th, noting two of his colleagues had been hit by shellfire. The last two entries in the diary, in another hand, were ‘May 13th – Hit by shell’ then ‘May 14th – Died of wounds on hospital ship Gascon’. Sydney was buried at sea.

The advice of his death capped a tumultuous few months of bad news for the family. Sydney’s father William, on a visit to England, had arrived in Plymouth two days before the outbreak of war. During his stay he received the news of the deaths of three relatives, his nephew RJ Penhaligon, lost in a Royal Navy submarine, his only brother John, following an accident breaking in horses for the AIF, and Sydney’s brother Charles Frederick, from pneumonia. William had only been back with his family in Kenmore for a month when they learned they had also lost Sydney.

Sydney John Penhaligon is commemorated by inclusion on the War Memorial at Kenmore, the 1914-18 War Honour Board outside the Brisbane GPO, and the Lone Pine Memorial.

Beverley Walker, I&DHS  


[April 2016] Dear Editor, thank you for posting the article on Sydney Penhaligon. The reference to The Body Snatchers was particularly interesting as one of the illustrations, a photograph of a horse drawn ambulance with Sydney mounted on the lead pair, has my great-grandfather Ove Hansen mounted on the pair behind. Unlike Sydney he survived the Gallipoli campaign, continuing his service with 3rd Field Ambulance in Europe following the evacuation of the peninsula.  I have included below a brief summary of his life and a couple of photographs from our family archive which may be of interest.

Ove Thomas Martinius Hansen was born in Masnedsund, Vordingborg Parish, Denmark in 1886. At some stage he made his way to Australia and was naturalised in 1910. Ove enlisted in Gympie, Queensland in August 1914 and was assigned as a stretcher bearer with A Section, 3rd Field Ambulance. He served with 3rd Field Ambulance at Gallipoli (from landing to evacuation in December 1915), France, Belgium and on the Western Front. Ove was awarded the Military Medal, the citation in the Commonwealth Gazette reads:

‘During the operations at Westhoek, east of Ypres, on 4 October 1917, this stretcher bearer set a splendid example of courage, devotion to duty and enthusiasm under the most trying and dangerous circumstances.  He carried wounded continuously over the worst part of the route without haste and without rest for 48 hours, wet to the skin and through mud up to the knees.  He assisted in saving quite a number of wounded during the first two days and later, after a short intermission, until 10 October he carried for long intervals when pressure of work was great, without rest, and was an invaluable example to all bearers. He is reported by the officer in charge of bearers to have stood out most prominently in his high spirit and fortitude’

In October 1918 shortly before the end of the war, after receiving gunshot wounds to his face whilst serving in France, he was shipped back to Australia. On his return home he met Evelyn Cavaye the Matron at Gympie Hospital where he was a patient. Ove and Evelyn married in 1923 and lived at Ove’s farm in Carbeen, North Queensland. They had two children, a daughter, my grandmother Dorothy, and a son, Ian (who served in Korea). The family subsequently moved to Brisbane, Ove becoming a grandfather before passing away in 1958. Dorothy died in 2015 aged 90.

Scott Rath (Great Grandson)

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