The 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train

by
John Perryman & Commander Greg Swinden, RAN
Commander Leighton S. Bracegirdle, DSO, RAN. Commanding Officer 1st Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train.
Commander Leighton S. Bracegirdle, DSO, RAN. Commanding Officer 1st Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train.

Conception

The 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (1st RANBT) was formed in Melbourne on 28 February 1915 and was intended to be a horse drawn engineering unit attached to the Royal Naval Division (RND), then serving as infantry on the Western Front. The term ‘train’, in its title, was a direct reference to the horse-drawn wagons that would, in theory, form and move ‘in train’ to carry the unit’s heavy lumber, building materials and engineering equipment to the front.

The unit was manned by members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve for whom there were no available billets in seagoing RAN ships. Many of the sailors serving in the 1st RANBT were rated ‘drivers’, and again, this refers to wagon drivers as opposed to motor vehicle drivers. Other seamen were rated as ‘artificers’ or ‘sappers’, the latter being a military term traditionally used to describe army engineers.

Appointed in command of the 1st RANBT was Lieutenant Commander Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, RAN. Bracegirdle was ideally suited to command the unit, having seen active service with the NSW Naval Brigade during the Boxer Rebellion in China as well as serving as a military officer in the South African Irregular Horse during the Boer War in 1901. He had also recently returned from German New Guinea where he had served as a staff officer in the joint Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) responsible for the capture of the German colonies in the Pacific in September 1914.

Three hundred naval reservists, including 50 men who had recently served in New Guinea, were selected for the 1st RANBT and they began their training in horsemanship, engineering and pontoon bridging at the Domain in Melbourne. By late May 1915 a decision was made to send the unit to Britain to complete its training and then to join the RND on the Western Front. The plan, however, never eventuated.

 

Uniform

Due to the nature of their work ashore, the men of the 1st RANBT were dressed in the khaki uniform worn by soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Special badges were adopted to distinguish them as a naval unit which included oxidised brass anchors that were worn on the hats, caps, sleeves and collars of ratings’ tunics. Chief petty officers retained the normal naval pattern cap badge worn at that time. Varying patterns of AIF styled colour patches, depicting a red anchor on a navy blue background, were also sewn to the shoulders of tunics and army badges of rank (chevrons) were sometimes used on sleeves to denote rank if naval equivalents were not available:

            Three chevrons – Chief Petty Officers

            Two chevrons – Petty Officers

            One chevron – Leading Seamen

The adoption of these distinguishing marks was approved by the Naval Secretary on 28 May 1915. Officers attached to the 1st RANBT continued to wear naval pattern badges on their caps coupled with naval pattern shoulder boards, worn on khaki, military-styled tunics.

Deployment

On 4 June 1915 the 1st RANBT sailed from Melbourne in the troopship Port Macquarie bound for active service. While crossing the Indian Ocean new orders were received diverting the ship to Bombay where their horses were disembarked due to an outbreak of illness. The 1st RANBT was then sent to Egypt arriving at Port Said on 17 July where its men were instructed to stand by for new orders concerning their future. A few days later the unit reembarked in Port Macquarie with instructions to proceed to Mudros, on the Greek island of Lemnos. On arrival Bracegirdle learned that he and his men were to provide engineering support in connection with the British landings at Suvla Bay to the north of ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula. During that time they were to be under British command and control. From Mudros the 1st RANBT transferred to the Greek Island of Imbros which was used as a staging area for the landings at Suvla Bay.

Men of the 1st RANBT in Melbourne prior to deploying for overseas service in 1915 (Angus Lang collection)
Men of the 1st RANBT in Melbourne prior to deploying for overseas service in 1915 (Angus Lang collection)

Service at Gallipoli

Early on the morning of 7 August 1915 the 1st RANBT landed under fire at Suvla Bay from the transport Itria. Its first task was to construct a pontoon pier to enable supplies and reinforcements to be brought quickly ashore. The campaign ashore at Suvla was ill-conceived and poorly led with the advance soon becoming bogged down and dissolving into trench warfare, similar to that experienced at ANZAC Cove and Cape Helles.

Ratings of the 1st RANBT at Domain Camp, Melbourne 1915, prior to embarkation for overseas service
Ratings of the 1st RANBT at Domain Camp, Melbourne 1915, prior to embarkation for overseas service
Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, where the 1st RANBT landed in August 1915
Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, where the 1st RANBT landed in August 1915

The 1st RANBT set up its camp at what became known as Kangaroo Beach. It was responsible for a wide variety of tasks including: building and maintaining wharves and piers, unloading stores from lighters, controlling the supply of fresh water to front line troops, stock-piling engineering equipment, building a light railway for stores movements and carrying out repairs in an open-air workshop.

Engineering materials were scarce on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and faced with a lack of suitable bolts and iron dowels essential for pier construction, the men turned to a wrecked sand dredge to acquire the necessary material. It’s artificers removed guard-rails and rungs cut from steel ladders to fashion their own fasteners using a portable forge.

From time-to-time men of the 1st RANBT involved themselves in other affairs as revealed by the following account told by a sergeant of the British 32nd Field Ambulance, stationed at Suvla Bay:

Fairly late in the day, as we all lay sprawling on the rocks, I saw a small party staggering down the defile leading to this point. There were two men with cowboy hats and between them they helped another thin and very exhausted looking fellow, who tottered along holding one arm which had been wounded. As they came nearer I recognised my little lance-jack [lance corporal], very pale and a little thinner than usual. The other two were sturdy enough, one short and the other tall, with great rough brown hands, sunburnt faces and bare arms. They wore brown leggings, riding breeches and khaki shirts. They carried their rifles at the trail and strode up to us with the easy gait of those accustomed to outdoor life. ‘Australians’ said someone. “Where’s your boss” asked the tall colonial. “The adjutant is over here” I answered. “We’d like a word with him” said the man. I took them up to the officer and they both saluted in an easy going sort of way. “We found him up there” – the Australian jerked his head – “being sniped at and could not get away; he says he belongs to the 32 Ambulance, so here he is”.

The two were about to slope off again when the Adjutant called them back. “Where did you find him?” he asked. “Up behind Jefferson’s Post; there were five snipers potting at him and it looked mighty like his number was up. We killed four of the snipers and got him out”. “That was very good of you. Did you see any more? We lost some others and an officer and a sergeant.” “No, I did not spot any, did you Bill?” The tall man turned to his mate leaning on his rifle. “No” answered the short sharp-shooter, “He’s the only one. It was a good afternoon sport, very good. We saw he’d got no rifle and was in a tight close-hitch, so we took the job on there and then, finished four of them, but it took some creeping and crawling.” “Well, we will be quitting this now” said the tall one. “There is only one thing we would ask of you sir, don’t let our people know anything about this”. “But, why?” asked the astounded Adjutant, “you saved his life and it ought to be known”. “Yes that may be so sir, but we are not supposed to be up here sharp shooting – we just done it for a bit of sport. Rightly we don’t carry a rifle; we belong to the bridge building section. We only borrowed these rifles from the Cycle Corps and we will be charged with being out of bounds without leave and all that sort of thing if this becomes known.” “All right, I will tell no one, but all the same it was good work and we thank you for getting him back to us,” the Adjutant smiled.

The two Australians gave him a friendly nod and said “so long chaps”, and strode away along the defile.

Turkish artillery bursting beside one of the piers constructed by the 1st RANBT at Suvla Bay
Turkish artillery bursting beside one of the piers constructed by the 1st RANBT at Suvla Bay

These activities took place under frequent enemy artillery fire and occasional air raids which, during their five months at Suvla Bay, killed two and wounded over 30 of its number. Two more men succumbed to disease and many others became sick or were injured in the course of their duties. Despite the regular arrival of reinforcements from Australia the unit was always under strength due to illness or casualties. Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle provides a unique insight into life on Gallipoli in a letter written in October 1915.

In my dugout

Suvla, Gallipoli

Sunday 3rd October 15

To my Comrades of the Naval Reserves at Newcastle Naval Depot

Just a few lines to say that we are all well, and have done and are doing good work, so much so that both the Admiral & General have congratulated me on it.

It’s hard work, very hard, and one has to get used to shells & bombs all day. So far we have had 2 months of this and our casualties you know of from the daily press.

I suppose you laugh when I tell you I live like a rabbit underground; but really when a 10 [inch] shell bursts just outside one’s front door  it’s better to live like a sewer rat in the earth than in the best brick villa in Newcastle – try it and see for yourselves.

It’s quite astonishing also what one can make in the shape of furniture and a dwelling out of mother earth. Assisted by a few empty biscuit boxes & tins, some sandbags and a water proof sheet, now don’t all run away and think you can get married and ask your wife to such a home. I’m only referring to the “dirty, dusty, sunburnt and don’t care a hang 1st R.A.N.B.T.” of which I have the honour to be a member.

The boys from Newcastle with me have done well, some were wounded, but names are not allowed in private letters, only through official channels. I’m hoping that the bully beef & biscuits will keep me so thin that they won’t be able to hit me.

I did have a nasty smash up & in consequence I can only limp round on two pick handles as sticks. I was salving a store lighter ashore on a reef, bottom upwards, and as it was in view of the Turks I did it at night from a life boat. Well I just got my boots over green slime & wet through, and a fellow – I won’t mention names – was holding the life boat close to the lighter for me to get aboard when a small sea took charge and I got into the boat like some people I have seen get into our cutters at Newcastle, only I got in with a torn left leg and my bone showing. Quite a nice evolution eh? Oh well it will be better soon and I’ve not been off duty for it & hope I never shall, but all the same I could not walk for days, and did my job from my hole in the ground. Now that’s rather too much about myself.

I want to know if it’s a fact that the Turks say CPO Nye only weighs 10 stone, because I would love to call them liars. As for PO Austin they say in Berlin he is only 4 feet 6 inches high – now surely that’s a Hun lie of the first water.

Well comrades, play the game each and all, volunteer if you can, and if you can’t the do your bit faithfully at the Depot. Remember my great wish to you all is “Keep your cloth clean and be proud to wear it”.

Your Old Comrade

L.S. Bracegirdle

Lieut Commander RAN

Commanding 1st Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train

 

Bracegirdle seated outside his 'hole in the ground' L-R: Staff Surgeon Morris, RANR, Lieutenant Commander LS Bracegirdle, RAN, Lieutenant T Bond, RANR, Captain McRitchie, Major Jellicoe. (AWM P01326.002)
Bracegirdle seated outside his 'hole in the ground' L-R: Staff Surgeon Morris, RANR, Lieutenant Commander LS Bracegirdle, RAN, Lieutenant T Bond, RANR, Captain McRitchie, Major Jellicoe. (AWM P01326.002)

In December 1915 the decision to abandon the Gallipoli Peninsula was made and Allied troops were soon being evacuated from the beaches under the cover of darkness. The operation required the wharves to be in constant use and the men of the 1st RANBT were kept busy repairing damage caused by enemy artillery, the elements, normal use and through accident.

The bulk of the men of the 1st RANBT were evacuated from Suvla Bay on the nights of 16 and 17 December 1915, but a small group of 50, under the command of Sub Lieutenant Charles William Hicks, remained behind at Lala Baba Beach, in the southern part of Suvla Bay, to maintain the wharf over which the British rearguard would leave from. These men were kept busy maintaining the wharf, often damaged by shell fire, and were not evacuated until 0430 on the morning of 20 December 1915; thus the sailors of the 1st RANBT became the last Australian's to leave the Gallipoli Peninsula. The last AIF troops having left ANZAC Cove at 0410 the same day.

A motor light loaded with troops leaves a pier built by the 1st RANBT during the first stage of the December 1915 evacuation.
A motor light loaded with troops leaves a pier built by the 1st RANBT during the first stage of the December 1915 evacuation.

Redeployment and Unrest

Following the evacuation of Gallipoli, the 1st RANBT was reconstituted at Imbros in December 1915/January 1916. During that time there was considerable unrest among its men. The weather at Imbros was cold with driving wind and rain and many men did not take well to carrying out route marches, rifle exercises and company drill in light of their recent service on the front line. Compounding this general unrest was an administrative oversight, of which few were aware, that resulted in the men not being paid for over five weeks. This unrest fermented and on 13 January 1916, 189 men refused to parade or turn-to for work that morning.

Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle was at that time recovering from a bout of malaria in an Egyptian hospital and the unit was under the temporary command of the brave but taciturn second-in-command Lieutenant Thomas Arthur Bond, DSO, RANR who had distinguished himself in German New Guinea in 1914. The unfortunate incident was quickly labelled a mutiny, a serious offence under naval law, and those involved were disarmed and placed under close arrest. Eventually the situation was resolved, due largely to the intervention and diplomacy of Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, RN, who after carefully considering the charge of mutiny concluded it a ‘wash-out’. The pay issues were investigated and resolved after which the admiral addressed the men on the matter of discipline before complimenting them on their excellent work at Suvla Bay.

Left: Able Seaman Driver Ben Thompson. Right: Able Seaman Driver Andrew Johnson
Left: Petty Officer Ben Thompson. Right: Able Seaman Driver Andrew Johnson. Note the use of military style tunics and accoutrements.
Left: Able Seaman Driver Carl Schuler. Right: Chief Petty Officer Henry Offer
Left: Able Seaman Driver Carl Schuler. Right: Chief Petty Officer Henry Offer. Note the use of RAN pattern cap badges.

The following month the 1st RANBT was sent to the Suez Canal Zone to operate various 'swinging' pontoon bridges in use there at that time. These bridges were used to allow men, horses, camels and vehicles to cross the canal before being 'broken' to allow ships to pass through it. Again, the 1st RANBT was placed under British command during this period.

The events of 13 January, however, coupled with what many viewed as nugatory work, had an adverse affect on the morale of the unit and in April 1916 some 98 disgruntled seamen were permitted to transfer from the Naval Reserve to the AIF for service on the Western Front. Reinforcements from Australia continued to arrive in dribs and drabs but the 1st RANBT was never more then 300 men strong at any one time.

Throughout 1916 the unit carried out the dull but necessary work of maintaining and operating its assigned bridges over the Suez Canal. This service was punctuated with infrequent bombing raids by German aircraft and on one occasion a 1st RANBT patrol captured a small number of sick Turkish soldiers who had become lost in the desert.

On 7 August 1916 Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle posed with those members of the 1st RANBT who had landed at Gallipoli the previous year.
On 7 August 1916 Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle posed with those members of the 1st RANBT who had landed at Gallipoli the previous year.

The tedium of the work they were undertaking led a number of the Bridging Train men to submit repeated requests to transfer to the AIF so that they could play a more active part in the war effort. On one occasion Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle attached a number of them to a British Army unit for a period of one week to 'experience' front line service. It did not, however, have the desired effect and men in the unit frequently complained that they were not being effectively used and that their work could be done by civilian labourers.

RAN Bridging Train at El Arish Dec 1916.
RAN Bridging Train at El Arish Dec 1916.

This disenchantment was exacerbated by a number of deaths due to illness and accidents.  Two able seamen died from Enteric Fever during late 1916 while a third drowned in the Suez Canal.

The pace of the fighting in the Sinai, in the second half of 1916, quickened and soon the front line troops were pushing the Turkish forces back and the re-supply of food, water and ammunition for these forward units became a problem. A plan was subsequently developed to conduct an amphibious assault in late December 1916 and seize the Turkish coastal town of El Arish which could then be used as a forward re-supply base. The 1st RANBT was directed to provide a 50 man detachment to land with the troops and construct a pier over which supplies could be landed from ships.

On 22 December the 1st RANBT detachment landed at El Arish from lighters and quickly built two piers. Fortunately the town had been abandoned by the Turks a few days before and no resistance was encountered, but the coastal waters were mined and the men ashore were also still within the range of Turkish artillery. Due to the good work done at El Arish the 1st RANBT was advised by British authorities that they were to be relieved of their duties on the Suez Canal and were to be attached to the forces advancing into Palestine. It was then, however, that events took a dramatic turn for the 1st RANBT.

RAN Bridging Train with Arab workmen in Suez.
1st RAN Bridging Train engineers with Arab workmen on the Suez Canal.

Disbandment

The complaints about the non-combatant work being done by the men had been raised in Federal Parliament and following consultation with the senior Australian officer in the Middle East, Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, a recommendation was made that the unit be disbanded and its men used as reinforcements for the AIF. Consequently, Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle was advised that his unit was to be dispersed; its men transferring to the AIF or being returned to Australia for discharge. On 27 March 1917 the 1st RANBT was officially disbanded.

Left: Able Seaman Driver LJ Smee. Centre: Military style shoulder titles adopted by men of the 1st RANBT. Right: Men of the 1st RANBT pose before the great pyramid of Giza (Angus Lang collection)
Left: Able Seaman Driver LJ Smee. Centre: Military style shoulder titles adopted by men of the 1st RANBT. Right: Men of the 1st RANBT pose before the great pyramid of Giza (Angus Lang collection)

This, however, was not the end of its involvement in operations. On 24 March 1917 British authorities, still in control of the detachment at El Arish, sent them to Gaza in the troopship Proton, where an attack on the city by Sir Archibald Murray's forces was planned to take place on 26-27 March 1917. Unfortunately the attack failed preventing the 1st RANBT from landing and building piers but they were briefly involved in salvaging a British aircraft that suffered engine failure during the attack ditching near the Proton.

By mid April 1917 the various 1st RANBT detachments had been co-located at Kubri on the Suez Canal where a further 127 men transferred to the AIF. A number of others transferred to other services including the RAN, RN, Royal Flying Corps and the Egyptian Labour Corps. The remaining 177 men elected to return to Australia for discharge and on 29 May 1917 they embarked in the troopship Bulla which arrived in Melbourne on 8 July 1917. The bulk of the men were discharged on 22 July although some later re-enlisted in the AIF or the ANMEF for garrison duties in New Guinea.

During its brief existence the 1st RANBT’s men served five months on the Gallipoli Peninsula, took part in the amphibious assault on El Arish and participated in the abortive First Battle of Gaza.

In recognition of his leadership Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Mentioned in Dispatches on three separate occasions. Sixteen of his men were also Mentioned in Dispatches and several others went on to distinguish themselves in the AIF and RAN winning a number of bravery awards.

Left:Left: A postcard commemorating the RANBT's service at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Right: AB Drivers Spry and McKenzie with unknown friend
Left: A postcard commemorating the 1st RANBT's service at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Right: AB Drivers Spry and McKenzie with unknown friend

Eight of the 1st RANBT’s number died while serving overseas on active service.

Rank

Name

Fate

Date

Lieutenant

Thomas Addis-Black

DOD

07 Apr 1916

Chief Petty Officer

Edward Perkins

KIA

06 Sep 1915

Petty Officer

Phillip Le Sueur

DOD

16 Aug 1915

Able Seaman

Robert Armstrong

Drowned

01 Jan 1917

Able Seaman

John Barry

DOD

07 Aug 1916

Able Seaman

Keith Jarvis

DOD

30 Dec 1916

Able Seaman

Thomas McDonnell

DOD

27 Aug 1915

Able Seaman

Charles Schenke

DOW

08 Sep 1915

Left: Able Seaman Charles Shenke and a fellow 1st RANBT Driver (identity unknown)
Left: Able Seaman Charles Shenke and fellow 1st RANBT Driver David Robertson Boyd.
Left: Able Seaman Driver Arthur Lang and a fellow 1st RANBT Driver (identity unknown)
Left: Able Seaman Driver Arthur Lang (Angus Lang collection) and a fellow 1st RANBT Driver (identity unknown)
The men of the 1st RANBT ensured that when the unit was disbanded their achievements were appropriately commemorated. (Angus Lang collection)
The men of the 1st RANBT ensured that when the unit was disbanded their achievements were appropriately commemorated. (Angus Lang collection)

Post Script

After the war most of the men from the 1st RANBT returned to Australia to resume their civilian lives. Some took up soldier settlement farms such as Lieutenant Reginald Buller who founded Bullers Calliope Winery at Rutherglen. Another, Able Seaman Driver James Patrick Dunn entered politics as a member of the Labour Party and served as a Senator for NSW from 1928 until 1935. Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle remained in the RAN and ended his distinguished career as a Rear Admiral. He served as the Military and Official Secretary to the Governor General of Australia from 1931 to 1947 and on retirement from this post was Knighted. He died in 1970.

Rear Admiral L.S. Bracegirdle

Members of the 1st RANBT who had previous service with the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force to New Guinea in 1914 (Angus Lang collection)
Members of the 1st RANBT who had previous service with the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force to New Guinea in 1914 (Angus Lang collection)