From the Antipodes to England
When war was declared in August 1914 thousands of Australian and New Zealand men rushed to join the Army Corps, not only hoping for excitement and a trip overseas but also because there was a feeling of solidarity with The Old Country and a deep-seated loyalty to our shared sovereign, King George V. These never-to-be-forgotten men became known as the Anzacs.
But the war wasn’t over by Christmas as had been hoped and ensuing months saw the Anzacs fighting on every front, experiencing their countries’ nemesis in 1915 at Gallipoli. Some among those who survived the various theatres of war were sent to England to help train thousands of young recruits who were still enlisting in Australia and New Zealand and were on their way to join the fray. Like their predecessors, a few weeks’ limited training in their home countries soon led to the boys, for that is what they were, setting off in convoys of troopships on the seven-week voyage to England and the great adventure that lay ahead.
Once landed at Southampton the men began final training at military camps around Bulford, Boscombe and Salisbury Plain in Hampshire. When those camps overflowed other locations were sought and in 1916 an Australian Engineers’ Training Depot was set up alongside an already-established British training centre and naval base on the east coast in Brightlingsea, Essex. Chosen for the soft mud and tidal creeks that were perfect terrain for practice in bridge, pontoon and road building and trench and dugout digging, Brightlingsea already formed part of the East Coast garrison.
At first glance the Anzacs thought Brightlingsea a cold, wind-swept, unattractive little town but they were to discover that it was inhabited by wonderfully kind and good-natured people who did all in their power to entertain their visitors in any way they could, especially socially. Men who could dance were in great demand, others less advanced in social graces had to content themselves with the Empire Theatre amateur variety shows and dramas. Anzac orchestras and bands were set up and football, rugby and cricket flourished between the newcomers and the English, Scots, Welsh and Canadian naval and military men already in the town.
Likewise, the many companies of uniformed men from ‘foreign parts’ were initially met with scepticism by the Brightlingsea people. They were taller, broader and suntanned; they dressed differently and had a strange accent. But they soon became very much respected and admired by the locals, especially in winter when the men moved from their summer tent camp on the town’s Recreation Ground into private houses and billeted with the families, in fact several marriages ensued.
Some Brightlingsea homes already had strong connections with Australia and had family members in the Australian forces who, if not billeted in Brightlingsea, like one Australian who had been born in Brightlingsea, at least came to visit their relatives from wherever they were stationed. Reports returning to the town of friends that had been made being killed or wounded in action caused as much pain to Brightlingsea as it did in the casualty’s home town.
Our Anzacs have not been forgotten.