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How did soldiers get to the Western Front?

Soldiers sleeping and reading on the deck of SS Ballarat, some appear to be suffering from sea sickness (AWM A00887).


Posted on 14 July 2018

During the First World War, the Australian Government requisitioned dozens of merchant ships from commercial companies to use them as troopships.

As well as carrying troops, horses and military stores, the vessels transported wool, metals, meat, flour and other food, mainly for Britain and France.

The fleet was made up of British steamers and a few captured enemy ships, and all were given the title ‘His Majesty’s Australian Transport’ or ‘HMAT’.

For most Australians who volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force, the journey to the Western Front in France and Belgium was the longest and most significant journey they had undertaken in their lives.

Lieut. John Maguire from Bowen Vale, Victoria, went to Europe in two stages, first aboard HMAT Afric on 5 January 1916. He disembarked for training in Egypt and in March boarded the converted British passenger liner Megantic and headed for the port of Marseilles in southern France.

In his diary, Lieut. Maguire wrote:

“And now I have time to describe the Megantic. She is a fine boat originally a passenger but now a troopship. She has one funnel and has about 16,000 tons displacement. She has four decks … we are pretty high out of the water. The gun is mounted on the stern and there are also four machine guns posted on both port and starboard sides …”

The main danger to troopships was from German submarines and U-boats. Maguire reported there was a watch around the clock for submarines during the voyage to France.

There was not much to do during the seven-day trip other than holding inspection parades, mount guards and taking part in look-out sessions for U-boats.

At Marseilles, Maguire encountered the French people for the first time: “The French have quaint uniforms. Baggy looking red trousers with sky blue overcoats with the flaps buttoned back and postman’s caps, also blue. A Frenchman with a cocked hat, like Napoleon, came aboard to change our money …”

From Marseilles, Maguire made the long train journey north to St Omer and his billet near Amentières.

On the way, he passed through the Rhone Valley and the city of Lyons: “The people … gave us a great reception. I could see them waving towels, hats, etc. in all directions … Passed through Lyons on Sunday mid-day. By Jove, it is a great city. From what I saw a bit, it puts Melbourne in the shade. Broad clean streets with magnificent buildings and gardens.”

Maguire’s journey from Australia ended with a march of 15km from St Omer to a village about 8km behind the front line: “We are now billeted in a barn … I can hear the big guns booming like thunder. At night it is the worst. It makes our barn tremble and shiver.”

Lieut. John Maguire was killed at the Battle of Broodseinde, Belgium, on 4 October 1917.

Maguire has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium. His diary is kept at the Australian War Memorial.

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