By Steve Meacham
Who were the first Australian servicemen to die in the Great War, and where did they die? You may be surprised to discover they weren’t at the Gallipoli landings, nor did they fight in the trenches of the Western Front.
Able Seaman William Williams and Captain Brian Pockley – a medical graduate of the University of Sydney – were shot within minutes of each other in New Guinea on 11 September 1914 – seven months before the first Anzac Day.
They were members of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force which landed near Kaba Kaul on the island of New Britain and unexpectedly encountered enemy soldiers defending what was then a German colony.
When Williams was shot through the stomach, Pockley went to his aid. Knowing the sailor’s only chance of survival was to be evacuated from the battlefield, Pockley handed over his Red Cross armband to another seaman, Stoker William Kember, ordering him to wear it as protection while he carried Williams to safety.
Soon afterwards Pockley, no longer identified as a medical officer, was himself shot. He was 24. Both Williams and Pockley died aboard HMAS Berrima later that afternoon.
So Captain Brian Colden Antill Pockley, educated at Sydney Church of England School and St Paul’s College, became the first Australian officer to be killed in the First World War. His heroism in protecting “another man’s life at the price of his own” was noted by the campaign’s official historian.
On 11 September, the centenary of Pockley’s death, the University of Sydney is launching an innovative research website, the Book of Remembrance Online. Its noble ambition is to track down and acknowledge everyone connected to the University who played some part in the First World War – in or out of uniform.
In doing so, it will provide scholars and the wider public with a remarkable interactive tool to explore not only the war’s profound impact on the University, but its own impact on the war and on the post-war rebuilding of Australian society.
Associate Professor Julia Horne, University Historian and Senior Research Fellow, is one of the key drivers of the project. She explains that, unlike other conflicts in which Australians fought, the Great War involved an unprecedented number of tertiary-educated men and women.
“The Australian government realised certain academic expertise and professional knowledge was crucial,” she says. “They needed doctors, engineers, geologists – even people who had studied the humanities: linguists who could speak German, for example.
“The government began pleading with the universities to look among their students, graduates and staff members for suitable volunteers. The same thing was happening in Britain and Germany.”
The first attempt to acknowledge the University’s broader contribution to the First World War was the publication of the Book of Remembrance in 1939 – ironically on the eve of the Second World War.
Supported by a generous grant from the Chancellor’s Committee, the Book of Remembrance Online has been in the making since 2012, and is a rich research source, containing the service details of 2092 people connected with the University who served abroad in either the Australian or British armed forces.
But it does not include those civilians, also connected to the University, who contributed to the war effort through their research and intellectual endeavours, particularly in science and medicine.
Only 23 women are named in the Book of Remembrance, for example. Most served as doctors, pathologists or field nurses, though there was also a dentist and a woman who had completed the University’s massage course (now physiotherapy). Pathologist Emma Albani Buckley-Turkington worked in London, researching a strain of dysentery isolated during the Gallipoli campaign, while Elsie Jean Dalyell OBE spent part of the war in Syria in an infectious disease hospital. But there were also other female students, graduates and staff members whose connection to the war effort was less formal and so went unacknowledged.
It will provide a tool to explore the war’s impact on the University and the University’s impact on the war.
The 1939 Book of Remembrance also only listed basic facts such as the school, degree and service record of each entry. Yet the University had collected an enormous trove of more personal biographical material that has never been mined – until now.
“University Archives holds 16 boxes of research files which were donated to the University on the understanding the original documents would remain with the University,” explains Horne. Both the residential colleges and the faculties have separate records. “With such a rich wealth of archival resources, it seemed crazy not to do something.
“We have journals and letters relating to the war, but also photographs, family correspondence, personal letters and diaries that relate to what happened to these people after the war.
“The ‘after war’ story is what makes the Book of Remembrance Online different to the websites of the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial, which largely contain material relating to a soldier’s war service. We have designed this project to complement those other databases, not compete with them.”
Horne points out that for many Australian servicemen and women the war continued long after the first Armistice Day on 11 November 1918. It took up to 18 months to ship them home.
“The Commonwealth government realised returning veterans had to be reintegrated into society. This university led the way in creating a program to admit veterans to University, relaxing the entry qualifications for ex-servicemen.
“And this university, unlike Melbourne University, always had from the 1880s a higher proportion of students coming from state schools, and from regional and rural areas. We had a broader social base.”
If you have any information or queries, contact the Reference Archivist at or phone (02) 9351 2684
See sydney.edu.au/arms/archives/war_records for additional records on the University and the First World War.
Online resource for all
Who will use the website? Military, social and local historians, people investigating their family trees, and – most importantly, says Horne – school children from all over NSW.
As she points out, the University has a social inclusion program that already targets low socio-economic schools across the state. Once the site goes live, children from such schools will be invited to take up local projects as part of their Year 9 – 10 studies.
Thanks to the specialist software developed by University IT experts, schools and other members of the public will become what Horne calls “mobsource collaborators”, encouraged to add whatever new information, photos or other documents they can to the database as soon as they discover it.
Already the web version lists 500 more names than the 1939 book, and Horne expects other names to emerge when the site goes live.
Users will be able to search by name, by regiment, by town of birth, by degree or any other key fact. So they can either concentrate on a single individual, fleshing out the personal timeline with photos, journals and other memorabilia, or they can investigate wider themes.
CHOIR TO DEBUT AUSTRALIAN WAR REQUIEM
Despite Australia’s experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, the First World War has not yet inspired a major classical music work. This gap will be filled on 10 August, when the Sydney University Graduate Choir premieres An Australian War Requiem, by Christopher Bowen OAM.
This major composition by its Music Director, a distinguished composer (and Honorary Fellow of the University), has been commissioned by the Graduate Choir and is timed for the centenary of the start of the war. It will be performed in the Sydney Town Hall by soloists, orchestra, large choir and children’s choir.
The text by Mr Bowen and librettist, Pamela Traynor, has been inspired by letters exchanged between mothers at home and their sons at the front, and the Stabat Mater, which describes the sorrow of the Virgin Mary at the loss of her son, Jesus.
The soloists are Celeste Lazarenko and Ayse Goknur Shanal (sopranos), Andrew Goodwin (tenor) and Adrian Tamburini and Christopher Richardson (basses).
The composer and the librettist have received assistance from the Australian War Memorial in sourcing this material. Support for the performance has also come from the University, the City of Sydney, the RSL, Westfield, the Turkish community and the Belgian and German governments.
Date: 3pm 10 August; Venue: Sydney Town Hall.
Tickets: Seymour Centre 9351 7940; Ticketmaster 1300 723 038