Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Sir William T. Bridges, First Commander of the 1st Australian Division, KIA

Major General Bridges

By James Patton

William T. Bridges KCB CMG (1861–1915) was born at Greenock, Scotland, the son of a navy officer. As a boy it was intended that he become a midshipman, so he attended the Royal Naval School at New Cross, although for less than two years, because his family moved to Canada. Young William then spent three years at Trinity College at Port Hope, Ontario, before entering the newly created Royal Military College (RMCK) at Kingston, Ontario, as a member of its second class (he was Cadet No. 25). He failed to graduate because in 1879 the family moved again, this time to his mother’s family home in Moss Vale, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. However, upon payment of C$100 by the family, William was granted a Certificate of Military Qualifications from the RMCK, which enabled him to be hired as a civil engineer with the NSW Department of Roads and Bridges. 

He returned to military service in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery with the NSW Militia, and also in that year he married his wife, Edith (1862–1926). For the next few years he held various positions at the NSW School of Gunnery and then attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the Royal School of Gunnery at Shoeburyness, both in England, passing out everywhere with distinction. 

Bridges was one of four Australian officers seconded to the British army in South Africa in 1899.  He saw combat at Kimberley, Paardeberg, and Driefontein, but he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. 

In 1901 the Australian Army was formed and all of the militias were amalgamated into it. As a ranking officer in 1902, Bridges became the first chief of Australia’s general staff, and in 1909 he was Australia's first representative to the British General Staff in London. The next year he was tasked with founding Australia's first military college, at Duntroon in the recently designated capital territory. In 1914 he became the army’s inspector general.

At the beginning of the First World War, Bridges was picked by Lord Kitchener to organize the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for service in Europe and was promoted to major general. He traveled to Egypt with the first contingent of the AIF in October 1914. In November the Australian and New Zealand Corps (ANZAC) was created in Egypt under the command of the distinguished Englishman, Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood GCB, GSI, GCMC, GCVO, CIE, DSO (1865–1951), and Bridges was given the command of the 1st Australian Division within ANZAC. 

Bridges started to record his experiences in a diary in early 1915. From this account, we can see the evolution of the planning for the Gallipoli campaign, including his meetings with senior commanders like Birdwood and General Sir Ian Hamilton GCB, GCMG, DSO, TD (1853–1947) as well as various Australian commanders such as then-Brigadier General Sir John Monash GCMG, KCB, VD (1865–1931), who would rise to prominence later.

Bridges's 1st Australian Division was the first ashore at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915, and very soon thereafter he argued for immediate evacuation, owing to what he saw as a hopeless situation, but he was overruled. He paid routine visits to the firing lines, showing blatant disregard for his own safety, and on 15 May a bullet severed his femoral artery. He died of sepsis three days later on board the hospital ship HMHS Gascon

Coincidently, three days after he died, his appointment as a Knight Commander of the Bath came through, thus he is known to posterity as Sir William Bridges. 

He was the first Australian officer—and the first cadet from the RMCK—to reach the rank of major general, the first of same to command a division, and the first of same to receive a knighthood. He was also the first (of two) Australian generals to be killed in action. 

The Interment of General Bridges, Duntoon

Bridges is one of only two Australians killed in action in the First World War to be interred in Australia—the other is the Unknown Soldier buried at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. After a state funeral held on 3 September 1915 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Bridges’s body was buried on the grounds of the Royal Military College at Duntroon. He is also commemorated on a memorial tablet at St. John the Baptist Church in Canberra, on the memorial arch at the RMCK and in the Canadian Book of Remembrance.

General Bridges’s favorite horse (he had three) was a “Waler” named “Sandy” and was the only Australian horse to be returned to Australia. 

One of his sons, William F. Bridges DSO (1890–1942), served with the 2nd Australian Division, rising to the rank of brigade major. After the war he resumed his work as a surveyor in Malaya, becoming the Surveyor General there in 1938. He was lost when his evacuation ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on 28 February 1942.

Source: Australian War Memorial

1 comment:

  1. As always, a well written and researched biography. Thank you!
    Joe Unger