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Sapper Alfred Galbraith, AIF (1895-1916)

Identification Discs - Sapper Alfred Galbraith, World War 1, 1915-1916

Image: Identification Discs - Sapper Alfred Galbraith, World War 1, 1915-1916

Source: Museum Victoria

Born in Maryborough, Sapper Alfred George Finlay Galbraith was the son of Amy and Alfred Galbraith, of Victorian Railways Institute, Flinders Street, Station Buildings, Melbourne. Alfred began his military service as a Senior Cadet in January 1911 at the age of 16, when he was not yet fully grown - he was just over 5' tall and six stone in weight. Two years later he was 5'9? and almost nine stone.  He served for 12 months as a signal engineer and 18 months in the infantry. These roles took him a little over two weeks each year, undertaken while training to be an 'electric fitter' then working as an electrician. 

He enlisted in the Australian Army at Broadmeadows the age of 20, on 15 July 1915 - service #3648. Australian soldiers had been fighting at Gallipoli for four months and news of the assault had filtered back with heroic tales of 'The Baptism of Fire' of the new Australian Nation. Alfred was rejected by the Army at first; however, selection requirements became less rigorous after the Gallipoli landing and his second attempt to enlist was successful.

To enlist in 1914 a man had to be 19-38 years old, at least 36? chest size and at least 5'6? tall, and other minor issues could also stop him enlisting - such as unfilled teeth, flat feet or corns. The standards were so high that the '1914 men' still stood out in 1918. In July 1915 - when Alfred successfully enlisted - the enlistment standards were lowered, for example, to 5'2?. Enlistments in Victoria went up from 1,735 in May to 21,698 in July, when Alfred signed up. (Carlyon, The Broken Years, pp.9 & 14)

Alfred's father gave written permission for him to join 'the Military Forces to serve the Empire abroad' (his mother had by that time passed away). The army utilised his existing skills and, after signals training at Broadmeadows, he was made a Sapper in the Signal Engineers. Sappers were responsible for running out cable in shallow trenches for wire and radio communications. Alfred was placed in the 2nd Division Signals Company, Australian Engineers. He embarked from Melbourne on 23 November 1915 on the 'Ceramic', bound for Egypt. As he was leaving he thought of his little brother, and said to his family 'Don't let the little bloke forget me'. His family never forgot those words.

Alfred arrived in time for Christmas and wrote home to his family about the delicacies purchased for a celebratory dinner and life at Ismailia training camp. Alfred had a strong connection with his family and sent letters and messages home regularly. In early 1916 a new division of the Australian Army was created from available troops in Egypt. Alfred joined the 5th Division in its Signal Company. The new Division was trained at Tel-el-Kibir and held a section of the Suez Canal defences.

In June 1916, the 5th Division sailed to Marseilles - Alfred was aboard the 'Canada' - and travelled by train north to Hazebrouck, France. The men were billeted and trained 40 kilometres from the front line in French Flanders. They lived in barns and outbuildings that ranged from clean, dry and warm to very uncomfortable. Training included musketry, bayonet fighting, fitness drills and the use of gas masks, in preparation for the trench warfare of the Western Front.

On 9 July the Signals Unit moved to the vicinity of Croix du Bac. On 12 July they moved again, to Sailly (presumably Sailly-sur-la-Lys). On 15 July 1916, the 5th Division took over a section of the front known as the 'nursery', favoured as a place to introduce and initiate troops to the trenches. At 8pm, on his first day at the front, Alfred received a wound in the thigh and a 'penetrating wound in the neck' from an exploding shell whilst moving from one dugout to another. His death was noted the same day at the 8th Australian Field Ambulance. It had been less than a month since he had arrived in France and a year to the day since he had enlisted. Alfred and a man near him were probably the first soldiers of the 5th Division to be killed on the Western Front.

The unit diary for the 5th Division Signals records: '2845 Sap Johnston T. [Thomas] A. and 3468 Sap Galbraith A.G.F. Killed in Action 8pm. Both men were proceeding on line duty at Fleurbaix.'

A fellow soldier described his death in more detail: 'The fatality occurred last night about eight o'clock, as he and three others were moving from one dugout to another; one shell passed over their heads and they took no notice, but the next minute a bigger one exploded right beside them; two escaped injury, one named Johnson was killed outright, and poor old Alf lived but a few minutes.' 'Did' writes that he was told this account by an eyewitness, and stresses that Alfred 'died as a soldier and a hero and I am sure that you are more proud of him now, than if he had stayed a slacker at home.'

If Alfred had not died on the 15th, he probably would not have survived much longer. On 19-20 July his Division was involved in the Battle at Fromelles with appalling losses. The inexperienced 5th Division was crippled by this battle; it suffered 5,533 casualties in 24 hours and many men were taken prisoner.

He was buried in the Sailly-sur-la-Lys Canadian Cemetery, France. His two diaries were amongst his belongings that were sent to his father. His other belongings were listed as: a New Testament, two wallets, letters, cards, photographs, a pipe in a case, a cigarette holder pouch, a tie clip, a hone, a steel mirror and six coins.

Alfred was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

References:

War service records, National Archives of Australia

Jillian Galbraith, personal communication with Deborah Tout-Smith, March 2011

Museum Victoria collection

Les Carlyon, The Broken Years, 2010 edition

Unknown sources (from original, unnamed author of narrative)

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