Henry Biggs was born to Stephen and Margaret Biggs in September, 1871 at Balmain in New South Wales. He was the seventh child born into the family. There are few records that would help to paint a picture of his early adult life, he never married and his name does not appear on any census or electoral records .
His medical records show that he initially worked in a grocery business, possibly in partnership with his brother Frank, but “took to the bush” as “he wanted to get away by himself” and sometimes felt anxious around people. He preferred the quiet and isolation of the Australian bush to the hustle and bustle of the cities and towns and his occupation was described as Bushman on his medical records.
Given that Henry, was educated and his family would have been considered to be upper middle class it seems a strange path for him to choose. However, the bushman was seen as a hardy, resourceful and independent man preferring to spend his life under the open skies. The title encompassed shearers, stockmen and rural labourers. According to his enlistment records Henry was a labourer. While the title of bushman is possibly a fairly romantic stereotype it does allow us to develop some understanding of Henry and his life.
In 1915 when recruitment propaganda was at its peak. Henry enlisted even before the then Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, sent a letter on 15 December 1915 making a personal appeal to every eligible man in the 18 to 44 year age group to enlist: ‘Australia turns to you for help. We want more men. Fifty thousand (50,000) additional troops are to be raised to form new units of the Expeditionary Forces’.
In researching Henry’s military history and his Battalion I have accessed records held by the Australian War Museum, the National Archives of Australia and a book written by H R Williams, An ANZAC on the Western Front: The Personal Reflections of an Australian Infantryman from 1916 to 1918, who was also in the same Battalion on the same dates and locations which gives a very personal view of conditions and experiences.
It does not appear that Henry was pressured to enlist but rather after the casualty lists of Gallipoli were published, responded to a sense of duty to country and the fallen ANZACs. For Henry, like many others that enlisted after Gallipoli, the war now seemed less like a great adventure and more of a moral decision.
If he had been living in the bush town of Bingara near his sister, Jessie, who had married into the Wearne family, he may have been prompted by the enlistment of two of her young nephews, Walter (19 years old) and Darcy (25 years old) Wearne.
Both her nephews enlisted in October 1915, and Henry left his life as a bushman behind and signed his attestation papers at Holdsworthy, in New South Wales, on 12 October 1915.
In seeking to raise enlistment numbers the authorities modified requirements for service. Initially only men between the ages of 19 and 38, at least 5 foot 6 inches tall with chest measurements of at least 34 inches were accepted. This change meant that Henry was accepted at almost 43 years of age and as his enlistment papers show he fell far short of the earlier requirements.
Training in Egypt
On 20 December 1915, Henry now part of the 13th Reinforcements, 2nd Infantry Battalion (New South Wales) joined over 1800 men embarking on the HMAT “Aeneas”. Contrary to expectations, the reinforcements did not go straight to Europe, but disembarked from the ship at Alexandria in Egypt and went by train to Zeitoun, near Cairo. It was here that Henry was assigned to the newly created 54th Battalion on 16 February 1916 and moved to the training camp at Tel el Kebir. The Battalion was made up of experienced soldiers from the Gallipoli campaign and recently recruited personnel, like Henry, who had been dispatched as reinforcements from Australia. The 54th Battalion became part of the 14th Brigade attached to the 5th Australian Division.
Along with around 40,000 other Australian troops, Henry settled down to life in the tent city at Tel el Kebir while preparations and training were undertaken prior to the Australians joining the main theatre of war on the Western Front.
The days at camp started with ‘physical jerks’ followed by inspection. Rifle exercises, bayonet practice and drilling in the heat of the desert sun were part of the intense training. The extent of the drilling did cause some problems as the men had been issued with khaki drill uniforms and the trousers were as hard as boards. Even routine marches caused chafing and many of the men returned saturated with perspiration and with bleeding thighs from the rough cotton material.
Henry’s records show that, unlike many of the other Australian troops, he did not go AWOL nor was he charged at anytime with drunken and/or disorderly behaviours. Although the camp was in the middle of undulating desert, it did have some positive aspects. The railway brought a steady stream of new recruits and supplies to the camp and the salt waters of the Suez Water Canal flowed nearby with the sails of dhows breaking up the desert landscape. Although the days were hot and the sun glaring, the clear skies at night were ablaze with stars.
When the time came for the men of the 54th Battalion to be moved to Ferry Point in readiness for embarkation to France a decision was made to have the brigades undertake a three day March under service conditions, meaning they had to march with full packs and water bottles, and (in the case of the infantry) with 120 rounds of ammunition. The whole force was just recovering from the passing sickness caused by anti-typhoid inoculation a few days before. Although doubts were raised as to its feasibility, trains were not available and the orders were carried out regardless of objections.
The troops left at 6am on the 27th March for the first stage of the journey, bivouacking for one night, at the oasis of Mahsama, where arrangements had been made for water and food to be deposited. The day started with heavy fog but as the sun broke through, the scorching heat of the day made itself felt. The weight of their packs meant the men sank deep into the sand with every step and they perspired profusely leaving white stains on their uniforms as the sweat dried.
The men marched for 50 minutes at a time with an 8 minute break and 2 minutes to fall in. The men were only permitted to drink during this break. Few could resist emptying their water bottles early in the day and with no additional water available it is not surprising that a number of men fell out on the first day. The Brigades reached their respective places of bivouac in good time covering 14 miles on the first day. Their evening meal was bully beef, hard biscuits and sweet tea.
The next day was hotter, with no breeze. The second day’s march meant that the 14th Brigade had to traverse the most difficult stretch between Mahsania and Moascar. The dust rose in fine white clouds covering them like flour, choking them and making breathing difficult. About 11 a.m., when the midday halt was called, some of the men began to wander in search of the undrinkable water which was all that lay within reach, and, possibly for this reason, the march was recommenced shortly after midday, the hottest time of the day.
At this point there lay ahead some difficult sandhills, and, to avoid them, the brigade detoured towards a desert ridge which would afford a firmer surface. After an hour’s advance up the steep hill in the intense heat of midday the brigade began to reach this ridge in a state of utter exhaustion. Pushed beyond their limits, troops and officers alike began to drop, collapsing from dehydration, exhaustion, and sunstroke, delirious or unconscious. When those troops that had managed to complete the march reached Moascar the men from the New Zealand camp hurried out with water, stretchers and ambulances to rescue those that had collapsed. There is no record of Henry being hospitalised or receiving treatment following the march but even for those that managed to complete the march it was a terrible experience.
Williams described the scene:
At each halt we looked back. Away to the skyline, we could see forms of men lying huddled in the sand, as though machine gun fire had swept the columns. As we looked some would rise and totter a few paces, to collapse again. The desert was strewn with clothing, equipment and miscellaneous items.
The last day was an easier march of 6 miles through the tree lined streets of Ismalia and across the Suez Canal. and the brigade was reviewed by the Prince of Wales as it passed along the road to Ferry Point. They reached their final camp about noon but it was not to end there. In his book, H Williams reported that some days after the march the battalion was reprimanded for their behaviour and for punishment were made to march in circles, under full pack, for two hours to teach them march discipline!
On 19 June 1916, Henry, along with other members of the Brigade, boarded a train with long open shallow trucks to travel from the camp at Port Ferry to Alexandria. He then embarked on the “Caledonia” for France. Enemy submarines were active in the Mediterranean during the passage of the Anzac Corps from Alexandria to Marseilles. The transports, most of which now carried a gun on the poop, were escorted part of the way by destroyers. Guards of soldiers, stationed on the upper decks, kept watch for any sign of a periscope. The troops observed the then universal precautions: in the day-time they wore their life-belts, and at night used them as pillows. During the dark the ships moved without any light visible from outside, all dead-lights being shut. The ship made it safely and on 29 June 1916 Henry disembarked in Marseilles.
The Western Front
Moving to France in June 1916. Henry was with the 54th when it fought its first major battle on the Western Front at Fromelles, on 19 July. It was a disaster. The divisions chosen for this battle were both new to the sector and lacked local battle experience. The men had to assault over open fields criss-crossed with drainage ditches and in the face of heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Many fell, while others were overwhelmed by German counter-attacks.The whole countryside was torn and shattered with shellfire. Australian infantrymen who had been taught that “the bullet and bayonet are the deciding factors in fighting” saw the destructive power of artillery that now dominated the battlefield. Shrapnel tore men to pieces, high explosive blew them to bits and destroyed trenches, smoke covered the churned and foul smelling ground.
Henry was not wounded in the battle but he was thrown into a shell hole by a blast. The experience of being exposed to blast force is evoked powerfully and often in the diaries and letters of this era.
“There was a sound like the roar of an express train, coming nearer at tremendous speed with a loud singing, wailing noise,” recalled a young American Red Cross volunteer in 1916, describing an incoming artillery round. “It kept coming and coming and I wondered when it would ever burst. Then when it seemed right on top of us, it did, with a shattering crash that made the earth tremble. It was terrible. The concussion felt like a blow in the face, the stomach and all over; it was like being struck unexpectedly by a huge wave in the ocean.” Exploding at a distant 200 yards, the shell had gouged a hole in the earth “as big as a small room.”
By 8am on 20 July 1916, the battle was over. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, rendering it incapable of offensive action for many months. It was a cruel introduction to major combat, one from which the 5th Division was a long time recovering. Williams described the chilling aftermath of the fight
At last daybreak came and in its light we saw the battlefield in all its ghastliness. In the long dank grass that covered No Mans Land of yesterday were lying the dead and wounded. Many of the latter were trying to crawl back to us and in doing so made of themselves target for the German machine gunners. ….The ordeal of the night was plainly visible on all faces ghastly white showing through mask of grime and dried sweat, eyes glassy, protruding and full of that horror seen only upon men who have lived through a heavy bombardment
Despite these losses the Division continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector for a further two months. But even when there were no battles raging along the Western Front, when things were truly ‘quiet and normal’ hundreds of men died; it was called ‘normal wastage’.
The Onset of Winter
After a month of rest, the battalion returned to the Somme in October, occupying the trenches around Flers, where they suffered further losses before being moved to the trenches around Le Transloy and Beaulencourt. Over the winter months, trench duty, with its shelling and raids, became almost unendurable, and only improved slightly when the mud froze hard. They had to hack into the trench walls for a place to sleep, living in the rain and knee deep mud. The mud covered everything, it sucked at their weary legs, almost drowning in it and it caked their clothes and kit, weighing down their greatcoats.
They lived a life of misery, disease and fear, facing enemy machine guns, shells and flame throwers and the ever present possibility of gas.The wet and the cold made life wretched. There was rampant disease in the trenches caused by fleas and lice as well as respiratory diseases, “trench foot” (caused by prolonged standing in water), rheumatism and frost-bite.
By the 10th December 1916 Henry was stricken with dysentery and admitted to hospital. By the 11th February 1917 he was well enough to rejoin the Division and he was reassigned to the 5th Sanitary Section. While it may seem that undertaking these duties would remove him from the front line, that was far from the case.
Some of his responsibilities would have included the preparation and care of latrines; the collection, removal, and disposal of refuse; supply of drinking water; and the fumigation of blankets and clothes to eliminate disease carrying lice and other vermin. All critically important day to day functions in preventing disease following in the wake of an army. Where this could not be done whole regions would become foul with putrefying flesh, both human and animal, poisoning air and water.
During the fighting the Sanitary Section would also be called on to act as stretcher bearers. Stretcher-bearers worked to exhaustion, usually exposed to fire, carrying men to the aid posts close behind the front line. Sergeant Albert Coates recorded:
Many men buried and torn to pieces by high explosive. For a mile behind the trenches it is a perfect hell of shell fire. Terrible sights. The stretcher-bearers are having a terrible time, some blown to pieces together with their living freight.
The ordeal faced by fighting men during World War I was both physical and mental, and more than most could put up with for very long. Courage made little difference, what each man needed was endurance and luck. Henry’s luck ran out at the end of May 1917.
On the 29th May 1917, after almost four months with the Sanitary Section, Henry was once again admitted to hospital, this time with neuraesthesia or what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. Henry was now diagnosed with severe melancholia. He was found to be partially deaf and the medical officer described him as having the following symptoms: stupor, memory loss, hallucinations, nervousness and suicidal tendencies. Henry was transferred from a field hospital by ambulance train to the Base Hospital at Rouen, then to the hospital ship “Panama” for England. He was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley on 18 June 1917.
Men arriving at Netley Hospital (for servicemen suffering shell shock) were greeted with silence: people were described as hanging their heads in ‘inexplicable shame’. The military approach was to link ‘shell shock’ to a moral deficiency or cowardice. Sufferers had no choice but to acknowledge that their reputations as soldiers and men had been dealt a severe blow. For Henry, it was the awful conditions and memories of battle that altered his life forever.The British Medical Board confirmed that his condition was due to his active military service and the stress of the campaign.
Return to Australia
Henry returned to Australia on HT ‘Ulysses’, 10 September 1917; and disembarked in Melbourne, 13 November 1917; Henry was discharged as permanently and totally incapacitated and transferred to Broughton Hall, a twenty-four acre estate next to the grounds of Callan Park in Sydney, a treatment centre for soldiers afflicted with shell shock. His treatment,would have included sedatives and possibly electric shock therapies. Participating in work was seen as an important component in recovery, particularly in the cases of damaged returned soldiers, whom it was thought would improve if they felt physically capable of labour.
Broughton Hall functioned as No. 13 Australian Army Hospital until 1921. At this stage any remaining veterans were transferred to Callan Park. A correction in the Sunday Times stated:
In an article in the Sunday Times of Feb. 27 1920 on War Hysteria we referred to Broughton Hall as a place where military mental cases were treated. It has since been pointed out to us that this military hospital, which is now closed altogether, was for the treatment of nerve cases, such as neurasthenia. Other arrangements are and were made for mental cases.
Henry was transferred to Callan Park but any thought that he might return to normal once back in Australia with family and friends was not to happen. I have not accessed Henry’s medical records from Callan Park but I do know that the conditions there were overcrowded and grim especially for male patients. He was to stay at Callan Park for the next 30 years and died there on the 25th September 1951. He was 80 years old.
Lest We Forget