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Postcard from Cairo collected by Douglas Ballantyne Fraser

Date: 1915-1917
Overall: 64 x 145 mm
Medium: Card
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Helen Clift
Classification:Posters and postcards
Object Name: Postcard
Object No: ANMS1290[053]

User Terms

    Egyptian postcard collected by Douglas Ballantyne Fraser
    SignificanceThis object is significant because it relates to a naval reservist who served in a little known and relatively unheralded unit of the Royal Australian Navy in WWI. These objects are a material record of the overseas service -on Gallipoli and in the Middle East- of a Petty Officer in the 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) during WWI. Very little material evidence associated with the RANBT has survived and most of the unit's history is known only in relatively small circles.

    HistoryAustralia's role in World War I is well known and the units that fought at Gallipoli and in France receive the lion's share of attention for their heroic deeds. Yet it was a small naval unit, the 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, which was the most highly decorated unit in the Royal Australian Navy in World War I. From their commander, Lieutenant Commander Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, and down through the ranks the men of the RANBT were decorated more than 20 times for their service at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsular and in the Sinai during 1915-1917.

    The origins of the RANBT began with the Royal Australian Naval Brigade, which oversaw all Naval Reservists in Australia. These reservists served mainly in Australia and operated Port War Signal Stations, harbour and dock defence, minesweeping, and other homeland defence duties. However, except for a RANB force sent to capture German New Guinea in September 1914 as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, which included the future commander of the Bridging Train, the Naval Reservists had little work to do. It was at this time that information received from England showed a need for engineers in the expanding trench warfare in France. The Naval Board and Commonwealth Government of Australia offered a Naval Bridging Train made up of RANB personnel to the Imperial War Council in February 1915 and was accepted that same month. Command of the unit was then appointed to two officers who had seen service in the New Guinea campaign, Lieutenant Bracegirdle and Lieutenant Bond.

    The Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train was officially formed in Melbourne on 28 February 1915 and set up camp in the Domain Gardens that would eventually house the unit's 300 members. The unit, made up of Naval reservists, many of them having served in New Guinea, immediately began training in horsemanship, engineering, and pontoon bridge construction but an acute shortage of material led to delays in training. When the men finally departed on June 3rd on the Port Macquarie they had not received all their training, most importantly pontoon construction, and it was decided that they would complete the training on their arrival in England. Immediately problems began when the ship moved into hot, tropical waters and the recently stalled horses, acclimatized for the Melbourne winter, began to die from heat and exhaustion. When the ship pulled into Bombay 79 of the unit's 412 horses were dead and were offloaded to be used by forces in India. The ship proceeded from Bombay up the Suez Canal to Port Said at which time the unit's orders were changed and the Bridging Train was ordered to the Dardanelles to help take part in the landings at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsular.

    From Port Said the unit boarded the troopship Itria to the island of Mudros, was attached to the IX Army Corps under the command of the British Army, and underwent five days' and nights' of training in pontoon construction. On 8 August 1915 the unit landed under fire at Suvla Bay to the north of ANZAC Cove and the Australian units that were fighting at Gallipoli. The unit's talents at building were evident from the moment they landed when they were ordered to "Old A" beach to build a pier to evacuate troops and had the pier built within only twenty minutes of arriving. The Bridging Train would continue to serve at Suvla Bay for the next five months and in that time they were responsible for "building and maintaining the wharves and piers, unloading stores from lighters, controlling the water supply for troops ashore”, repairing equipment, etc. During their time at Suvla Bay two men were killed, two died from disease, sixty were wounded and despite reinforcements from Australia the unit would remain under strength for the remainder of the war. Eventually the forces at Suvla Bay, including the RANBT, were evacuated along with the rest of the Gallipoli Peninsula except for a group of 50 men from the Bridging Train assigned to LaLa Baba Beach to maintain the wharf from which the British rearguard was leaving. Those fifty men of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train maintained the wharf and at 0430 on 20 December 1915 were the last Australian's to be evacuated off the Gallipoli Peninsula, twenty minutes after the last Australian troops left ANZAC Cove.

    Upon arriving back at the island of Mudros the RANBT was stationed in the town of Imbros for the rest of December 1915 and January 1916. The unit received high praise from Brigadier General E.H. Bland but did irreparable damage to their image when 189 men mutinied on 13 January after not being paid for over five weeks. The men were eventually paid and the situation was resolved. In February 1916 the unit was sent to the Suez Canal to operate 'swinging' pontoon bridges and was once again put under British command. It is at this point that many of the men began to request transfers to other units either because of lingering resentments from the mutiny or because they found working and maintaining the Suez Canal bridges dull and boring. Eighty eight men were allowed to transfer to the 1st Australian Imperial Force and departed for the Western Front, but a second request months later was refused by Bracegirdle.

    Action for the men of the RANBT finally came in December 1916 when a detachment of 50 men was ordered to participate in the attack of El Arish and construct a pier for the unloading of supplies. The RANBT detachment performed well at El Arish and as a result the unit was removed from duty on the Suez Canal and "were to be attached to forces advancing into Palestine”. However, problems arose when the complaints the men had made about their work reached Australia and it was decided by the Federal Parliament to disband the unit and allow the men to join the AIF. On 27 March 1917 the 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train was officially disbanded, men from the unit transferred to the AIF, the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Navy, and other combat units, and on 29 May 1917 the remaining 194 men of the unit embarked on the Bulla back to Melbourne to be discharged. The unit arrived in Melbourne on 10 July 1917 and were discharged, with some of the men going on to re-enlist in the AIF or the ANMEF.


    - Bean, Charles. Official history of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol. IX-The Royal Australian Navy: 1914-1918, 9th ed. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941.

    - Frame, T.R. and Swinden, G.J. First In, Last Out: The Navy at Gallipoli. Kenthurst: Kangaroo Press, 1990.

    - Swinden, Greg. 'The Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train', General RAN History. Sea Power Centre Australia. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia 2006. Accessed 13 February 2007.

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