Off to War (Part 2)

The main event of the Albany Anzac weekend took place on Saturday, 1 November, when naval ships from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan departed from King George Sound in a symbolic reenactment of the first convoy. It was something which I’d been excited about for months. And we were in a good position to watch it unfold. We were staying in a small cottage that abutted the sand dunes of King George Sound, near Emu Point. In a moment of foresight that is completely out of character, my father had realized this was going to be a popular event and booked accommodation 18 months in advance. Thanks, Dad.

Emu Point and King George Sound

After the celebrations of the previous night, it was nice to be able to relax on Saturday morning. It was a warm day in Albany – one of the first sunny days of the season. Garreth, Adam, and I walked down to the beach and, on a whim, went for a swim. The beach was deserted – nothing but golden sand and the cold waves of the Southern Ocean lapping at our feet. We plunged into the waves, letting out a string of swear words at the frigid Antarctic water. The fleet of warships were anchored in the middle of the harbour, only a few hundred metres away. It was an strangely jarring sight. Their steely grey hulls and angular shapes were a stark contrast to the rolling hills and cliffs of the harbour. They didn’t belong there. They seem ominous, predatory, watching over us while we played in the waves. I didn’t know whether to be comforted by their presence or intimidated by their sheer power. It was sobering to realize that each one of those ships had more firepower than the combined escorts of the first Anzac convoy. I wondered what my grandfather would’ve thought of these sullen grey behemoths.

A rather blurry photo of HMAS Sirius. 1 Nov 2014

We drove into town and joined a Commemorative Service in the late morning, where the Prime Ministers of both Australia and New Zealand gave a speech about the departure of the Anzac Convoy. It was, thankfully, an event that focused less on political point scoring and more on simply remembering the sacrifices of the soldiers. Sitting on the grass in the morning sunshine, as the gulls flapped overhead, we seemed so far removed from the horror of the war. It was too much of an abstract concept, something too dark for a day like this.

Finally, it was time for the ships to depart. We drove back to Emu Point and climbed to the top of the sand dunes. My parents were already waiting for us in a small gazebo that commanded a superb view over the Sound. The tranquility of our morning swim had been completely shattered. The warships were charging around the harbour, surrounded by a flotilla of boats and yachts. Every boat owner in Albany must have been out there. Helicopters hovered overhead, and the wind carried the cheers of the crowd from around the peninsula. We could see the four Royal Australian Navy warships: HMAS Anzac, HMAS Arunta, HMAS Stuart, HMAS Sirius, and the sleek black conning tower of the submarine, HMAS Rankin. They were joined by the New Zealand ship HMNZS Te Kaha, and JDS Kirisame from Japan.

As we watched, the ships circled around the harbour and headed towards the open sea. It was a poignant moment, seeing their blocky forms against the headland, sea churning in their wake. The sight united us across a century. The first Australians going to war. And their descendants, here today, honouring their memory.

The dramatic coastline can also produce some dramatic sunsets. Taken 1 Nov 2014.
The dramatic coastline can also produce some dramatic sunsets. Taken 1 Nov 2014.

For the Anzac convoy, the voyage to Egypt was a tedious routine punctuated with moments of excitement. Just 9 days after leaving Albany, the HMAS Sydney detached from the convoy and defeated the German cruiser Emden in the Battle of Cocos. A few days earlier, news had reached the convoy that the Ottoman Empire had joined the war. None of the soldiers had any clue that they would end up being deployed on the shores of Turkey.

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Off to War (Part 1)

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.

A diagram of the formation of the first convoy. Photo taken in an exhibit at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
A diagram of the formation of the first convoy. Photo taken in an exhibit at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

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.

The rugged southern coastline of Western Australia. 2 Nov 2014.
The rugged southern coastline of Western Australia.
2 Nov 2014.

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.

Garreth and Adam lead the way to the harbour. 31 Oct 2014.
Garreth and Adam lead the way to the harbour.
31 Oct 2014.

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.

The light show on the side of the Entertainment Centre, 31 Oct 2014.
The light show on the side of the Entertainment Centre,
31 Oct 2014.

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?