On 1 November 1915, the soldiers of the first Anzac convoy departed from King George Sound in Albany, Western Australia. It was a spectacular sight – 38 convoy ships carving through the gentle swell, smoke and steam rising into the grey dawn. Their decks were lined with 20,758 Australians and 8,427 New Zealanders. In the cargo holds were 11,294 horses, as well as a few examples of native Australian fauna that soldiers had smuggled aboard. There was some anxiety amongst the soldiers; the German cruiser Emden had been attacking shipping in the Indian Ocean, and the slow ships of the convoy were prime targets. But they were well-protected. At the head of the convoy was the HMS Minotaur, once the flagship of the Royal Navy’s China Station. The cruisers Sydney and Melbourne, stalwarts of the Australian Navy, joined the formation as they left the harbor. They would soon be joined by IMS Ibuki, the Japanese battlecruiser that had been hunting for the Emden. Together, they began their journey into the west.
Aboard the HMAT Geelong, William Henry Cameron – my grandfather – was enthralled by the sheer display of naval power. He was fascinated by ships, and these magnificent behemoths which sliced through the waves captured his imagination. He wrote in his diary, “Left Albany. Most beautifull [sic] sight. 42 vessels in 3 rows. New Zeal at rear. HMAS Sydney is off our starboard side + looks lovely.” For many of the men aboard, as the coastline became lost below the hazy horizon, it would be the last time they would see their home country.
Given its significance in the Anzac legend, Garreth and I were thrilled to visit Albany in November last year to commemorate 100 years since the departure of the convoy. It was a good excuse for a weekend away. We loaded the car with a few cartons of beer and enough meat to feed the entire town. We were accompanied for the weekend by our mate Adam, who is great to keep around because he keeps Garreth and I out of trouble. Well, sometimes. We left Perth on Friday morning, 31 October, escaping the metro area before traffic congested the roads.
Albany has long been one of my favourite destinations in Western Australia. It is the small town nestled amongst the hills and harbours of the southern coast, surrounded by rugged cliffs and windswept scrubland. It has a fascinating history as the state’s oldest permanent settlement, and the old whaling station there is a glimpse into our past. But it’s the landscape that really captures my attention. Standing on those rocky cliffs, with the ponderous swell of the Southern Ocean thundering against the rocks, stinging my face with salt spray, it’s not hard to imagine that I’m standing at the edge of the world. No matter what time of the year I visit Albany, my memories are always the same: low scudding clouds, frigid nights, squally thunderstorms, grey seas, and that unforgiving Antarctic gale. And this trip wouldn’t be any different. It has some of the most dramatic scenery in Western Australia – an appropriate backdrop for an occasion of such importance.
On the drive down, we had heard varying estimates of the number of tourists expected to descend on Albany. Twenty thousand. Thirty thousand. Even eighty thousand. So I’d been prepared for a large crowd, but I hadn’t quite expected the town to resemble a festival. Roads had been turned into giant markets, with food and fresh produce available from across the south-west. There was a band playing on a large stage, while a mixture of artists and craftspeople from around Albany plugged their products. The streets were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists; it was a struggle for our group to stay together. It wasn’t the sleepy little town that I remembered, and I wondered for a moment how the locals had reacted when nearly 30,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers had flooded their town a century ago. Before long we retreated to the comfort of the pub, where we spent a lazy few hours playing pool and throwing occasional glances out at the Anzac commemorations.
In the evening, we went down to the shore of Princess Royal Harbour, where a light show was being projected onto the side of the Entertainment Centre. It was a freezing night, with the wind from the harbour cutting straight through my winter coat. But the crowd was in high spirits, almost giddy with excitement. The lights flickering across the side of the building slowly transformed from bright Aboriginal paintings to grainy sepia photos of Anzac soldiers marching along the streets of Albany. The town looked so different, so diminished, but now and again I could recognize a few buildings and, lifting my eyes back towards the darkened hillside, I could see them still standing there.
I’d been expecting the weekend to be a solemn occasion, like the somber memorial services I’d attended on Anzac Day. But it felt like a carnival. The audience clapped and cheered as the story unfolded on the building in front of us. I couldn’t stop smiling. There was a sense of shared purpose amongst the audience – we weren’t just there to commemorate the soldiers, but to celebrate their legacy. The Anzac legend is so inextricably linked to Australia’s history that it felt like we were celebrating the birth of the nation itself. Here’s where it had all started. Those soldiers – whose faces were flickering above us in the night – had helped forge our national identity. And they had been standing right here, on this very spot, 100 years earlier, about to embark on the most harrowing and dangerous and thrilling experience of their lives. It wasn’t a time for silence. It was a time to roar and cheer.
It was a surreal experience, knowing that my grandfather had been there 100 years ago. And, as I stood on that freezing shore, I wondered what he had been doing on his last night in Albany. Asleep on the Geelong, most likely, but I wondered if he got the chance to have a final beer at the pub, or a final walk along the beach. His diary entry for that day is typically undescriptive, with only a brief comment about the weather. Did he stand at the railings of the Geelong, studying the twinkling lights of the gathered fleet in the inky darkness of King George Sound? Could he hear the waves pounding against the nearby cliffs? And did he feel the same excitement and trepidation that I felt 100 years later, knowing that he was about to embark on a great adventure?