Tomorrow, as the nation stops to commemorate Anzac Day, ELIZABETH MACKIE reports on the World War I soldiers who undertook their training at camps in Maitland’s backyard – at the showground and at Rutherford.
They were members of the 34th Battalion, but on the battlefields of war-torn France and in the pages of history books for decades to come, they would become known simply as Maitland’s Own.
They enlisted with pride and would fight with honour. The men, some barely more than boys, had taken part in the great Wallabies recruiting march that had left Narrabri in the state’s north-west on December 8, 1915, making their way over the next month to a camp at Broadmeadow, their numbers swelling along the way.
From the yellowed pages of the Maitland Mercury, Hunter-based military historian David Dial OAM, has chronicled the remarkable story of the 34th Battalion – Maitland’s Own – for his book, which will be released for the centenary in 2016.
On the evening of Monday, January 10, 1916, the Hunter River Agricultural and Horticultural Association agreed to a request from the Defence Department to use Maitland Showground as the training camp for the newly formed 34th Infantry Battalion, of which the Wallabies were to become the nucleus.
The Wallabies alighted the train at Victoria Street station, where Maitland citizens had assembled to welcome them, then marched to the showground.
They stood, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the grandstand where Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson MP welcomed them: “Remember, you are going to represent sweethearts, wives and mothers, and the children of this great Commonwealth.”
As Dial noted in his account of the battalion, they had tired of waiting to go into camp and would now be able to devote themselves earnestly to training for the “stern business ahead”.
They had “enlisted for a purpose, and should be prepared to shoulder their responsibilities and duties like the soldiers they hope to become,”
Dial said. “Many of their compatriots, after a period of strenuous training in Sydney and Egypt, have acquitted themselves gloriously, and it can confidently be hoped that the men of the Maitland district, who are now filling the gaps, will as cheerfully and willingly do their share both here and abroad as those who proceeded them.
“At times they might feel their work irksome and strenuous, but they should remember it is for their betterment, and in accepting the inevitable they can do so knowing that the hardships of their comrades, in the trenches at Gallipoli were 10 times greater,” he said.
The camp filled quickly; by February 23 of that year it was home to 1125 men, prompting the establishment of a bigger camp at Rutherford.
The transfer of the 34th Battalion from Maitland Showground to the new camp near the Methodist Cemetery took place on the morning of March 10, 1916.
Crowds lined Devonshire and High streets, as the loyal residents cheered encouragement to the soldiers. Children waved flags. The military band played.
Dial said: “The morning was warm and the men in their uniforms perspired freely, but were given a spell on the Long Bridge.”
Comradeship grew quickly among the men and the arduous training was interspersed with church services, cricket games – including one with Douglas Grant, an Queensland Aboriginal who took 12 wickets for 23 runs – and a reminder to not tarnish their good name with “foolish conduct” while socialising in Maitland. But the reason they were in camp was never far from the surface.
Dial quotes a Colonel Jobson as impressing upon them that they were “not fighting for five shillings a day ... but for the protection of their homes – their mothers, their wives and children, and for the liberty and freedom of the world”.
But all too soon their training would come to an end and the camps at the showground and at Rutherford that had become their home away from home would be no more.
Tough as nails and patriotic to the bone, Maitland’s own set off from Farley railway station to Sydney on May 1, 1916. At 4pm the next day the 34th Battalion bade farewell to Australia’s soils and set sail for England on board the transport ship Hororata, disembarking on June 23, and headlong into more training.
On November 22, 1916, the battalion was sent to France; five days later they were in the trenches of the Western Front.
The men endured a terrible winter in 1916-17 and bloody confrontations including the Battle of Messines and Passchendaele – the latter in which they suffered a brutal defeat and more than 50 per cent casualties. Still they fought on.
In the spring of 1918 the battalion joined the many other brave soldiers who were sent to fight as a part of the Allies defensive at the Battle of Amiens and later the battle of St Quentin Canal, the operation that breached the Hindenburg Line that brought about Germany’s defeat.
The 34th Battalion, Maitland’s Own, disbanded in May 1919, leaving behind a legacy the city will continue to remember with pride.