A Mother's Lament: An ANZAC story | Great Australian Story

A Mother's Lament: An ANZAC story

A Mother's Lament: An ANZAC story



A Mother Waits


In 1883 the Renshaw family, John Charles, his pregnant wife Sarah, their four-year-old son Peter, and baby James were leaving England. On the way to Australia, baby Joseph was born aboard shop and baby James died. They undertook a journey that would change their lives; little did they know that their family would become part of Australia’s ANZAC legacy.

October 27th, 1886 Albert Edward Renshaw, also known as Bert, was born in Ipswich Queensland. He was the first Australian son to John and Sarah. Albert enlisted in the Great War to fight for King and Country. This is his story, the ANZAC legacy and his mother and family languishing, waiting and worrying at home for news of their son. The military history of Sapper A.E. Renshaw contains facts intermingled with family stories and First A.I.F. 2nd Field Company Engineers war diaries.

Albert had voluntarily enlisted in Melbourne on 20th August 1914 only just sixteen days after Britain had declared war on Germany and a mere two days after the Second Field Company had been formed. From the War diaries, from 8th October 1914, the 2nd Field Company Engineers were stationed in tents at the Barracks in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. The First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) was the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army during World War I and was disbanded on 1 April 1921.

Heartbreak dealing with the death of eight children from England to Melbourne created anguish for Sarah who had now only five children to love and cherish. With the death of Albert, she was to mourn nine.

This story is of a mother’s lament, disbelieving her son had ceased living even when receiving many conflicting cablegrams and always desperately listening for the knock on the door for a telegram. Years after the war ended, countless enquiries by the Army and Red Cross ensued, then the Army finally pronounced “Albert Edward Renshaw had died from wounds at Gallipoli on 26th April 1915”. Sarah finally realising the truth, never smiled again, and died the next year of a broken heart.

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Albert Edward Renshaw was a 27-year-old boilermaker prior to enlistment. He enlisted 20th August 2014 and embarked for overseas on 21st October 2014 aboard HMAT Orvieto A3. Albert was five foot nine and a half inches tall, weighed ten stone six pounds, and had a fair complexion with blue eyes and brown hair.

20th August 1914, Thursday. I remember this date. After work on a cold Melbourne winter blast, I met up with my mate Macca (William McIntosh) we decided to enlist and go to war. I do not know who was more excited, Macca or me, we were going to look good in uniform. Everyone was talking about the war, there were even big signs put up around the streets; enlistment booths were being opened all over Melbourne and the Town Hall has been giving out recruitment papers for the last ten days.

War had just been declared between Britain and Germany and orders came through to the Battery at Port Nepean to prevent any German flagged ships attempting to leave Port Philip Bay. It took just one shot across the bow of the German steamer, Pfalz to convince the captain to stop and the vessel was impounded, the crew were disembarked at Portsea. We were at war and yes, we were needed!

We joined the queue at Alexander Parade and with our engineering background thought we could enlist as engineers and be officers and see the world together. We must have been an incongruous couple as best mates go; both of us were 5ft 9½ inches high but there the similarity ended. Whilst I had blue eyes, light brown hair and fair complexion, Macca had brown eyes, black hair and dark complexion, I was more handsome than Macca but I am not sure the girls thought so. As volunteers, we had to go through strict physical fitness guidelines and when we enlisted I was surprised at the paperwork.

“Name?” the voice boomed across the table “Albert.”
“State full name son.” “Albert Edward Renshaw.”
“Date of Birth?” “27th October 1886.”
“Occupation?” asked the soldier without looking up. “Boilermaker” I replied.

More and more questions were being fired at me and as I looked around I saw soldiers organising and directing men and boys to fill out more forms. It was very orderly.

“Take this form with you and sit down and wait in front of those screens at the far end of the room where you will be examined by the doctor” directed the soldier.

I spied a ring of chairs where already candidates were waiting by the screens, some of whom were already in deep conversation. I looked over to find my mate Macca and saw he had already been through the process. Soon it was my time for the medical. I was prodded, coughed, measured and checked for scars, height, weight and he even checked my teeth.

After my session I met up with Macca and asked “Did you get a number, mine is Sapper 178 in the 2nd Field Company Engineers” Australian Imperial Forces. Macca replied “My number is Sapper 172 in the same company. Well, are we going to be officers?” “No, just Sappers”, I patted him on the back like an older brother; our adventures were about to begin.

We were told, on signing up, it was only to be for six months. It will be like a holiday and will be back in Melbourne next summer for the cricket. Dad will not miss me at the engineering business in South Melbourne as my brothers Peter and Joseph will be there.

Being the only sibling still living at home, 95 Glenlyon Road East Brunswick; I was Mum’s favourite, living with her for 27 years. My sisters had already left and Peter and Joseph were married. I was so anxious; I had to go home to tell Mum and Dad! They didn’t know! My excitement abated. 

Joining up without telling anyone I wasn’t sure what Dad would say to me! Mum was still grieving for the children she had lost, my brothers and sisters. All were very young and Mum never talked to us about these memories but I knew Mum was always sad.

Heading home; I always had a feeling of content but today as I opened our sturdy front door through to the kitchen I saw Mum, my heart sank. Mum was at the sink, washing cutlery. She had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her blue eyes as she turned to me to say hello. Her apron was covered in flour and her silky hair had fallen out of the bobby pins she had placed there. The table was set with same plates we had used from as far back as I could remember and a loaf of bread was at the end of the table. Dad had changed into his worn slippers and brown cardigan and was stoking the stove; I could see sparks flying around inside the hearth. Time seemed to stand still.

I gently told them both I had enlisted to go to war! Mum rushed to me and hugged me tightly whilst moaning and crying, she broke down, dropping to the floor, tears shining like diamonds and I hugged and cried with her. She told me I was special, being her first boy born in Australia and wished I would not go. Then Dad put his arms around us both and reluctantly gave me his approval; Mum was still crying, I think she would be heartsick until I returned.

We were stationed at the Engineering Barracks, and marched, drilled, made bridges and kept up our physical training. We route marched down Flinders and Collins Streets; this was a way of recruiting more enlistments as we looked so good in our uniforms, muskets and bayonets on our shoulders, our perfect lines and hats were mentioned by many in the crowd. Mum always came to see these marches! Back to barracks and more training and route marches, bivouac and tactical exercises in the bush at Templestowe, Macca and I soon tired; we thought we were fit! We had become a fighting team, there were two hundred and seven in our unit and most of us were locals; five of us were from Brunswick, more from every corner of Victoria, more enlisted men were from Queensland and Tasmania.

The first to join up in our unit; Number One was John Probert from Broken Hill in New South Wales, he wanted to see the world! As we trained we learned each other’s history, why we enlisted; so many stories were heard! Time passed, we were sure we never leave, we thought “The war will be over” before we get there!

21st October 2014 was another memorable date. Two hundred and seven 2nd Field Company Engineers marched to Port Melbourne to embark for England on the Ship A.3. HMAT “ORVIETO”. We marched from the barracks to the ship; other soldiers were coming by train from Broadmeadows. Dad even closed the business to take Mum and my brothers and sisters to Railway Station Pier at Port Melbourne and they waved me on my way.

The boarding of the A3 Orvieto was orderly, and as well as our 2nd Field Company Engineers there were many other Units and it took hours for us all to get aboard carrying our kits in our cloth bags with all our worldly goods, treasuring our muskets and bayonets and wearing our uniforms including our puttees. Some even had their musical instruments. Governor General Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson and his wife came on board the ship to farewell us.

The 5th Battalion band played the National Anthem and we stood to attention when we sailed at precisely 15.45, off to see the world! The smoke billowed over the crowd as we sailed, we all watched the crowd, many waving handkerchiefs or putting up large umbrellas so they could be seen by their loved ones, I am sure I saw my family, all cheering as if this noise would make sure that we would all arrive home safely.

As we sailed out into Port Phillip Bay Lieutenant Colonel William Throsby Bridges, Commander of the First Australian Division stood on the deck. I had a great position on deck to watch Melbourne recede into the distance. We still continued our daily routine of all our exercises including many push-ups and by now we were all very good but a strict eye was upon us if we made a mistake. Sometimes when we were on the deck it felt like we were packed so tightly that we couldn’t have fallen over. The officers were continually checking on us and even filming us. We were told this film was to be called the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces, Life on Board the A3 (Orvieto) A3 HMAT Orvieto.

I could not believe how young some of my fellow troops were; surely some could not be eighteen! As one of the oldest of the group I think they felt they could talk to me and tell me their fears. Many were from country Victoria and this was not only the first time at sea but the first time away; how homesick they were! Around the Great Australian Bight we were seasick. I took the Mothersill pills that we were given out but until we reached Western Australia I could not find my sea legs, by the time we sailed to King Georges Sound Western Australia in November, we were trained and ready to fight as we were the First Convoy of twenty-eight Australian transports, which carried troops not only from Australia but also New Zealand.

Arriving at Albany, Western Australia, we stayed about a week. Troops came over to us from overcrowded ships; I couldn’t believe we could hold more! The convoy also consisted of ten New Zealand Transports and the Warships, HMS Minotaur, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne and the Japanese Battle Cruiser Ibuki.

November 1st, 1914. The AIF departed Albany in Western Australia what a sight! 

We were originally to set forth England, however, we had several delays due to the presence of German naval vessels in the Indian Ocean, so we sailed instead to Alexandria, Egypt.

No slacking any day, we kept training, more knotting, lashing, infantry drills, and musketry exercises. Many were still seasick but both Macca and I were amongst the lucky ones. Sometimes you could hear somebody crying, we kept a lookout for the younger soldiers. They had confided in me that some of them were only fourteen, they had put their ages up so they could come on this adventure!

November 13, 1914, We were in blackout training, the fleet stopped and had no lights on whatever and we did our boat drill with lifebelts on. Little did we know that the “Emden” passed but did not see the fleet? It was later the “Sydney” sunk a coal collier that was loading the gunboat, then we heard that the boat was the “Emden”

3rd December 1914. Another date to remember. Must write to Mum and Dad, what a lot I have to tell them, Peter and Joe will be amazed.

We arrived in Alexandria Egypt and Macca and I began our training in the desert. How hot it was. I cannot remember a Melbourne day this hot, glad we had our hats but our heavy uniforms stuck to us and we were always looking for water and shade. After training for hours in the heat of the desert a few had to be ten to the hospital with heat exhaustion and dehydration. Then the night came and the cold seeped into our bones. Some caught pneumonia. We went to Mena Camp and did more marching, general field work, siege musketry, and testing war equipment. There we helped construct girder and suspension bridges and received lectures on demolition.

2nd February 1915. I was charged for using insubordinate language to a superior officer and was awarded fourteen days confined to camp.

I only told “Sergeant” in uncertain words that I would not do what he wanted me to do. His suggestion wasn’t right and I knew it, he wasn’t a trained bridge builder. Dad had us building bridges like these so many times in Melbourne, so I told him so! Learnt my lesson here! Never answer back, even if you are in the right!

9th April 1915 We steam for our destination, ANZAC Cove; the next six days are a blur.

From the 2nd Field Company Engineers War Diary:

25th April 1915 - it’s a Sunday

7 am ANZAC Cove 

Second Field Company disembarks in two parties. One with Major Martyn in charge and the other under Lieut Dawkins. The latter was divided into two squads. One, under Capt. Williams proceeded up Shrapnel Gully, whilst the other remained at the foot of the gully. These two parties had been detailed for water supply and commenced to sink tube wells in various places. Whilst engaged in his work a barge laden with ammunition drifted ashore near Hells Spit, and the sappers took steps to unload same at once.

11 am. Whilst engaged in this work a barge drifted ashore near Hells Spit which was found to be laden and contained ammunitions and sappers took steps at once to unload same. This was carried on under heavy shrapnel fire and Sapper E.A. Edwards was wounded in arm. This was done under heavy shrapnel fire and Sapper E.A. Edwards was wounded.

4 pm. No 1,3 and 4 sections of the Coy commenced immediately on landing to construct roads in direction of Kaba Tepe and towards the firing line and one track to the summit of Maclagan’s Ridge was completed at 4 pm and used to place first field gun in position. Gun was hauled into position by sappers. Good progress was made on road to Shrapnel Gully despite our being subject to heavy fire from direction of Gabe Tepe. During the afternoon a party was detailed to report to St. Col Elliott for pier construction. The remainder of the company immediately after disembarkation commenced the construction of two roads. One from the landing place to Gabe Tepe, which became the main road to Shrapnel Valley and onto the summit on Maclagan’s Ridge. The road was completed by 4.00 pm

4.30 pm. The first field gun was hauled into position by 4.30 pm on McClaggins Ridge by the same sappers and placed in position.

7 pm. At 7 pm two and three sections constructed a trench along Pluggers Plateau and held until relieved by the New Zealand 3rd Infantry, Taranaki Rifles and then remained as reserves to this battalion until 11 a.m.

12 pm. Whilst constructing trench Sappers A.E. Renshaw and J.F. Richards were wounded. Before 12 pm, 25th April A.E. Renshaw was hit from behind digging trenches. He was carried down through the scrub with much trouble by 171 Sapper MacIntosh (2FC) and Sapper Crawford (6FC).

Sapper Renshaw was left in the care of Army Medical Corp on Anzac beach. 171 Sapper MacIntosh saw Sapper Renshaw onto a boat towed by a pinnacle to the Hospital ship at about 2 am, 26th April.

Sapper Renshaw was not seen again. “Slight rain fell during the night”

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I have been hit whilst digging a trench in the dark with my shovel, I fell down screaming, I had been shot and Macca and Crawford carried me as carefully as they could through the scratching bushes and down the uneven path we had recently made. I hurt bad, so bad I am not sure where I was hit, blood is everywhere.

My mates carried me, heavy fire all around us, with difficulty they put each of my arms on their shoulders whilst they locked their arms under my legs, my blood soaked into their uniforms.

When we arrived at the beach it was crowded. No space between the men who were lying where they had been hit, other wounded soldiers being lifted into small boats and above was the noise of the artillery and shouting of the medical team for stretchers. The darkness was illuminated with light from the guns, helmets and backpacks were lying on the sand. More and more men were arriving in small boats from the sea, drenched but with their arms held high to keep their guns dry. I could hardly hear Macca above the noise of the sea the moaning and the gunfire when he said: “I won’t leave until you’re seen by the medical team, we are mates”. I told him I was OK and to get back to the trenches he was needed, but he would not leave!

Crawford said he would go back; keep my chin up; I could see he was terrified. Glad it was dark as I started to moan and didn’t want them to see my face, I couldn’t help it, I was suffering! Macca kept saying, you’ll be alright mate, you’ll be alright. I could hear him saying this over and over as I was placed by the medics on a boat towed by a pinnacle. “Goodbye Macca see you in England”.

I tried not to move but the pain is growing and I am feeling worse. I cannot hear anything now and it is getting darker. I keep thinking of Mum, my darling Mum, I love you, Mum.

26th April 2018 unofficially the 103rd anniversary of the death of Sapper Renshaw.

LEST WE FORGET