Monday, August 19, 2013

Blackboy Hill is Calling

11th Battalion marching out of Blackboy Hill

Can you with calm, unruffled mien
Peruse the war news daily,
And go about, on business keen,
And take your pleasures gaily? 

Your countrymen in hundreds fall
Before Great Britain's foemen,
Will you not answer to the call,
You stout Australian yeomen?

For Blackboy Hill is calling, ever calling,
At Gallipoli our boys are falling, falling;
But we'll soon drive out the Turk,
If your duty you don't shirk,
So come and lend a hand, for Blackboy's calling.


During the course of the First World War, some 32,000 Western Australian men marched away to fight. The majority had one thing in common- their initial training took place at Blackboy Hill Camp, in the Perth hills.

The first troops marched into Blackboy Hill on 17th August 1914, twelve days after the declaration of war. Western Australia’s 11th Battalion was the first raised in this state, and such was the enthusiasm that there were far more volunteers than were initially needed. As a result, the first 1400 chosen were considered particularly fine specimens of Australian manhood, as were those recruited immediately into the reinforcements, and the beginnings of the 12th and 16th Battalions.

They were the boys from the Western State
Brave Battalion Eleven;
They did not tarry, they did not wait,
When the call was given.
First to respond to their country's need
Nothing they feared, nor death did they heed
Brave Battalion Eleven

The location of the camp had been chosen in part for the train-line that ran nearby, allowing easy movement of the troops from around the state, to and from the city, and eventually, to the harbour at Fremantle, where they would board the HMAT Ascanius on the 31st October to depart for the other side of the world.

The 11th Battalion Unit Diary records the commencement of training on August 17th
(Source: AWM)

The land had originally been part of the estate granted to Captain James Stirling, who established the Swan River Colony in 1829, but from August 17th 1914, the site was host to a swarming mass of activity as the camp was established and the enthusiastic volunteers arrived from around the state. Amongst the first to arrive were a group of navvies and labourers who had been working on the Trans-Continental Railway Line in the goldfields, but on hearing that the call for volunteers had been made, downed tools on the 14th of August to get on board. They were passed as medically fit and duly signed up in Kalgoorlie on the 16th, and hopped straight on a train to Perth, where they would assist in establishing the camp.
It says a great deal for this draft that the men were able to tumble out of the train at Bellevue Station and fall in under Captain R. L. Leane, who marched them off to Blackboy Hill. There was no camp there at that time, and the first thing the boys had to do was to draw tents for shelters and start to pitch camp. Cooks and other details were allotted. The cooks were so only in name, and, after trying their effort, nearly all the boys cleared off to Perth for a feed. At least, that was the excuse given.

Eight companies of men were formed from those who came from Perth and all over Western Australia, with many having served in the civilian reserves under the compulsory Universal Service Scheme that began in 1911. When they first arrived, though, fine physiques or no, the men were for the most part totally untested as soldiers.
The men had been passed as medically fit. The minimum height was 5ft. 6in., but otherwise they were a mixed bag-- clerks, sleeper-cutters, miners, prospectors, tradesmen-in straw hats, "boxers" and felts, serge suits and dungarees, with shining suitcases and dilapidated swags.

Blackboy Hill was to be the making of a battalion that has gone down in legend as one of the strongest, toughest, and most highly respected of the entire Australian Imperial Force. Their initial training was limited, focussing heavily on marching, drilling, musketry practice, and other basic military tasks. In his serialised history of the 11th Battalion, first published in the Western Mail in 1937, Belford shared a letter that described a soldier's average day at Blackboy Hill:
As the battalion took shape, and became accustomed to its routine, the training became more intense, and few of the succeeding units were given more work than the original 11th Battalion. From a letter dated September 24, 1914, the following extract is taken:
"Last night we were aroused at 9.30 o'clock for roll call, dismissed, aroused again at 11 p.m. for an alarm; had to dress, fall in, and march to the parade ground without lights or talking; were dismissed again, and then aroused at 1.30 this morning for a march; each time without previous warning. We marched seven or eight miles out to where 'H' Company was bivouacing, and attacked their lines at daybreak, taking them completely by surprise. They were mostly asleep, and, of course, were all made prisoners. On our return we fought an action with 'G' Company. This was a draw. When we reached home it was just 2.30 p.m."
Which makes the slightly bitter little camp ditty quite understandable, really:

"I'd love to live in Blackboy for a week or two,
And work all day, and get no pay, 
And live on Irish stew."

Members of the 16th Battalion drilling
The weeks had never gone on so long, or at the same time, flown so fast. From the moment the uniforms arrived, it all changed. No more games, no more mucking around like lads gone wild- it was as real as could be, without an enemy to face. They suited up in khaki, and all of a sudden the days went racing by in a blur of drills and gun cleaning, fixing bayonets and jamming them into sandbags, and marching practice- the endless bloody marching practice. He could have walked down from the farm and he'd only have travelled half as far.

Sun up to sunset, it was work, and work, and more work. Enough that he hardly had to think at all, from the minute his eyes popped open at the call of the bugle, to the moment he fell into a boneless sleep as the colour washed out of the sky and the darkness came down.

Claire Gregory (2013)

Ptes Darcy and Pratley entertaining themselves
Despite it all, the soldiers maintained their larrikin sense of humour, with all manner of hijinks and good-natured misbehaviour reported in the historical sources, as in this account of the rough-and-tough Kalgoorlie railway recruits, who came to be known as The Shovellers. 

Their three abiding passions were beer, biff, and bad language, and they indulged in all liberally. Was a soldier awakened out of his beauty sleep by the sole of a No. 10 brogan imprinted firmly upon his countenance he knew without asking that it was a Shoveller. Did an Indian file of lurching forms-- each hilariously brandishing a beer bottle-- swim into a sentry's ken he merely sighed, and said, "Pass, Shovellers." 

And if they couldn't entertain themselves in camp, the men were not shy about wandering off to greener pastures for an evening. In Wes Olson's excellent history Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story, he mentions (pg. 13) that as many as two or three hundred men were rounded up at one point, having broken camp in search of relief from their boredom.

In an effort to avoid these situations as the numbers increased and the weeks of arduous training wore on, entertainment was put on in the form of musical performances and other shows, and visits were allowed from family, friends, and the general public.

But by October, the troops were thoroughly restless. The endless marching practice was taking a toll, and patience was being taxed by repeated false alarms that embarkation was imminent. By the time the call really did come on the last day of the month, the boys were more than ready to leave Blackboy Hill behind.

One of the soldiers who marched into Blackboy Hill camp in the first week, and out with the rest of the 11th Battalion on October 31st, was Frank Seccombe.

SECCOMBE, Frank William (Sgt)
SERN: 497
Age: 32
Occupation: Piano Expert

(Source: NLA)

Frank Seccombe has to be one of the most interesting characters I've come across in researching individual stories of the First World War. When I first noticed his record, listing him as having joined up on 17th August 1914, I wondered just what a "piano expert" did for a living. I half expected him to be a piano maker or tuner.

But he was in fact quite a renowned musician around Western Australia, described during a tour in 1907 as "one of the most gifted vocalists Albany has possessed for many a year". He both played the piano, and sang basso-baritone in innumerable individual and group performances all over the state, and was to be a bandmaster for the 11th Battalion. Besides his reputation for musical talent, he was also well-regarded for his willingness to roll up his sleeves and jump into the fray when the occasion warranted action. Just the kind of man you'd expect to be first to front up for a war, and there's no doubt he would have been one of the great characters of Blackboy Hill in those early days.

Frank Seccombe is officially attached to D Coy, 11Bn- signed by commanding officer Lt-Col Lyon Johnston
(Source: NAA)

Just the kind of man you'd imagine would make it through to tell the tall tales, too. But Frank Seccombe was, instead, one of the first killed during the Gallipoli landing on April 25th, 1915. His official record gives his date of death as the 2nd of May, but other sources say he was killed on the beach on the first day, including fellow D Company soldier Albert Facey, who would later write the well-known autobiography A Fortunate Life. Facey stumbled across Frank's body as he landed on the beach.
Facey recalled, 'Bodies.. were lying all along the beach and wounded men were screaming for help. We couldn't stop for them-- the Turkish fire was terrible and mowing into us.'
Olson (2006) Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story
Pg. 48, quoting Facey's A Fortunate Life (pg. 256)

Frank's obituary in the Sunday Times reveals a glimpse of an extraordinary man.
The late Frank Seccombe, killed on the field of honour at the Dardanelles, will be remembered by numerous amusement seekers in Perth. [He] Was born in South Australia, and from an early age was a musical enthusiast, being in after-years the possessor of a magnificent bass voice ... More than once down in the jarrah country, when a mill hand or sleeper-cutter had allowed his tonicked tongue to outrun common decency, it was Seccombe who warned him to desist, and it was the same Seccombe who, when the lout repeated the obnoxious epithet or expression, put him to sleep for half an hour with one of the piston punches he kept handy for such occasions. Apart from such affairs, F. D. was a breezy, good-natured Bohemian, and was splendid company at a private festivity or smoke social. The present war gave him not his first baptism of fire. Frank acquitted himself well in the Boer War, having sustained a slight injury to one of his eyes through a small splint from a shrapnel shell.

Frank left behind wife Sarah, who he'd just married in 1914, and step-daughter May. His wife had remarried by 1921, and with no children of his own, the memory of him has faded from public view.

His fate was shared by many of the others who called Blackboy Hill home. By 1st May 1915, the Unit Diary records that the 11th Battalion commanders were only able to gather together some 450 of their troops, with the rest of that incomparable first 1400 having been killed, injured, or otherwise lost in the madness that was the first week after the Gallipoli landing.

The sad fate of the 11th Battalion at Gallipoli
 (Source: AWM)

After those original soldiers sailed away to their fate, Blackboy Hill was home to the reinforcements, as well as the originals and reinforcements of many other battalions, including the 12th, the 16th, and the 28th, in which the majority of other Western Australian soldiers were to serve. In the decades after the war, it also saw service as a camp for the unemployed.
Today, most of the site has been overtaken by suburban housing, schools and industry, and there's only a small portion remaining intact, where a Commemorative Site and War Memorial now exist. But even amidst the modern world, with all the changes that have taken place here, there are aspects of the site that remain familiar. The photographs below juxtapose images of Blackboy Hill from 1914 against the current site. They're not the same locations, but you can still see the similarities.

Perth archaeologists continue to study the area to learn more about the lives of the men who lived at Blackboy Hill, and in a future follow-up blog post, we'll hear more from one of the experts who's involved.

On the eve of Anzac Day each year, the setting sun aligns with all elements of the monument, which includes a sculpture representing the Australian Imperial Forces' rising sun emblem, and a pine tree transported from Gallipoli in Turkey. It's a simple but beautifully symbolic memorial.

In the 1950s, when the site was first slated for a new housing development, there was a bit of an outcry, and the push was made to preserve this little piece of the land in memory of those who trained here. And it is small, and there's not a great deal to see, but for me, it was well worth the trip out to the hills to stand on the same soil.

If you're a Western Australian with an interest in the First World War, there are no more significant places in the metropolitan area than this little sliver of history, where men from all walks of life passed through on their way to meet their fate.
They come from the distant stations,
    bushmen bold and free,
The silent men of our silent land, knights
    of the saddle tree.
They come from the rush of the gold
    mines, steady and strong and true--
Sons of the Southland, one and all, ready
    to see it through.

They leave the desk in the city, they come
    from the survey camp,
The pearling boat on the north coast, the
    garden by the swamp.
From every part of the country, from
    every sphere of life,
Eager they come to the training camps,
    longing to join the strife.

Further reading:

Olson, W. (2006). Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story. University of WA Press: Crawley, Western Australia.

Belford, W. C. (1940). "Legs-Eleven": Being the Story of the 11th Battalion A.I.F in the Great War of 1914- 1918. Imperial Printing Company Limited: Perth, Western Australia.

Facey, A. (1981). A Fortunate Life. Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle, Western Australia.

Also, Bedford's original serialised printing of the 11th Battalion history can be found in the Western Mail, with links to all parts in the series here on the Trove digitised newspaper archive.


  1. Perfect, Claire! This is so deep with detail that takes the reader into the reality. Thank you again.

  2. Congratulations Claire ... excellent research and wonderful reading :)

    Sandra Playle

  3. Thanks Zan Marie and Sandra! Glad you enjoyed :)

  4. Love your tone in this Claire. It makes it all the more heart wrenching somehow.
    Larrikin! There's another new word for me. Biff, too.
    I'm glad the memory of Seccombe can live on. Was just rereading Tey's Daughter of Time and she mentions how her MC Grant, in reading history, was unable to feel empathy with the nameless faces of history - but as soon as there's a name and an individual story, a time period and action becomes all too real.
    (If Frank was in the Boer War, didn't he marry kind of late in life? Even that little facet is interesting.)
    I'd like to read Facey's autobiography.
    I didn't know you had a Gallipoli pine tree there! Hope it's got cicadas too [bg]

  5. This is wonderful Claire, I love the merging of pictures, poetry and letters. It is beautiful and insightful. Note we at KSP Writers' Centre are putting together a book on Blackboy Hill for the Anzac Centenary 2015 - if you'd like to be involved or are interested please visit We'd love to hear from you.

  6. James Alexander Gordon enlisted at Blackboy Hill WA on 4th August 1915. He was aged 19 years and was born at Mount Pleasant in South Australia (hence my interest). He left on the Benalla on 1 November 1915 and was killed in Action 3 October 1918. Buried Bellicourt British Cemetery (Plot II, Row C, Grave No. 6), France

  7. Having just found this website, I have printed it off to read at leisure. Having had family (from both sides) train and Blackboy Hill, and having had one board the HMAT Ascanius, Im looking forward to a good read. thank you.

  8. I love your blog. I have just discovered it by searching for "Ballad of the Anzacs" by Winifred May (sister of Henry Frank May who lost a leg on the Western Front during WW1). I found his story while researching my great-grandma Lizzie Basford. In 1920 she was an honorary member and only female member of the Returned Maimed and Limbless Men’s Association of W.A. Lizzie Basford lost a hand while doing war work in England some time between 10/11/1916 and 21/11/1919. Henry (Harry) May (11th battn) was the secretary then president of the association. In 1953 he was arrested for being drunk in a public place. Thankfully the judge had some compassion & sent him to hospital, not gaol. Thank you for this blog! Judith Harris