A Navy Anzac – William Hunter, 111
William (Bill) Hunter was born 19 February 1891 in Yarraville, Victoria, to Scottish parents James Hunter and Mary Neilson. He was brought up on a farm in Beenak, Victoria, with siblings Janet, Christina, David, Mary, Thomas, John, Jane and James.
Prior to the war Bill had been active in the Citizen Forces (part-time reserves), serving for 3 years in the 34th Fortress Company, Army Engineers. In 1915 Bill was employed as an electrician by Colonial Sugar Refinery at Yarraville, Melbourne, Victoria.
When war broke out, Bill applied to join the Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train (RANBT), a unique force formed in Melbourne as a horse drawn engineering unit to serve in Europe. On joining Bill was classed as a “driver” with the duty of driving horse drawn wagon-loads of timber and engineering equipment to the Western Front. Whilst in the RANBT, Bill rose to the rank of Petty Officer.
The RANBT unit sailed in the “Port Macquarie” on 4th June 1915 from Melbourne bound for the Western Front, but they were diverted to Egypt arriving 17th July. Their new orders were to prepare the beaches for the British landings at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and provide engineering support. Suvla Bay is the next beach north of ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli. The unit was placed under British command but in effect retained much independence under Australian Commander Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle.
Kangaroo Beach – Gallipoli
The 300 men of RANBT went ashore under heavy fire on the morning of 7th August 1915. They set up at Suvla Bay, now known as Kangaroo Beach. They immediately set about building a pontoon pier to enable British troop landings. They undertook a wide range of duties, including building and operating wharves and pontoon bridging trains for the landing of troops, desperately needed supplies and evacuating causalities. They repaired engineering equipment, were responsible for supplying water to the troops and devised ingenious methods for its collection and distribution. They even built a light railway for the movement of equipment and goods. Their work was carried out under constant enemy shellfire.
The RANBT played a vital role in the “secret” operation to evacuate 105,000 troops and 300 guns from Gallipoli. The RANBT built pontoons in full view of the enemy to make the Turks think they were preparing to land more troops. The Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train enabled the only successful operation in the whole Gallipoli campaign – the evacuation of troops and equipment. The RANBT have the distinction of being the first unit into Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, and the last unit out. The evacuation took place between the 10th and the 20th December 1915.
Return to Australia
The RANBT deployed to Egypt where amongst other things the they built a series of swinging pontoon bridges that allowed troops, horses and vehicles to cross the Suez Canal. By this time there was disquiet in the unit about the non-combatant, non-navy type of work they were doing. This led to the RANBT being disbanded in early 1917. Bill immediately joined the AIF 36th Artillery Brigade in Egypt with the rank of Corporal. He served in the Artillery Brigade for only a short time before he was returned to Australia and discharged on 5th December 1917. The war had taken a severe toll on his health and he was admitted to the MacLeod Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Melbourne. It was at MacLeod that he met his wife, a highly decorated Australian nurse.
Elizabeth “Gertrude” Fleming
William Hunter and Elizabeth “Gertrude” Fleming were married 17th April 1922 at Malvern Presbyterian Church, Melbourne.
Prior to the war, Gertrude was Sister in Charge of the Medical and Surgical Wards at Melbourne Hospital.
She enlisted in 1914 as part of the first Australian Army Nursing Service and served throughout the war returning to Australia in February 1919 aboard the “Miltiades”. Gertrude was awarded the “Royal Red Cross Decoration” in 1917 for “conspicuous services”. She was also mentioned in Dispatches “London Gazette no 31089/252″. Gertrude served as Head Sister at a number of hospitals including No. 1 Australian Stationary Hospital in Egypt. She also served in hospitals in London, France and in the Field (Western Front).
On her return to Melbourne, Gertrude became Matron of the MacLeod Sanatorium Hospital where Bill was a patient.
At the time of her marriage, Gertrude was Sub-Matron of the Melbourne Hospital, but after her marriage the couple moved to Ballarat where they lived in Burbank Street.
William Hunter died at his home in Ballarat on Christmas Day 1935, aged 42. Gertrude lived another 34 years and died in Melbourne 26th March 1969.
William Hunter’s ANZAC Commemorative Medallions. The medallions were issued in 1967 to surviving members and/or relatives of non-surviving members of the Gallipoli campaign.
William is my father Allan Hunter’s first cousin and my first cousin once removed.
Lest we forget
National Archives of Australia
NAA: B2455, Fleming E.G.
NAA: B2455, Hunter W 111