“Anyhow, I have commanded an Australian Division for nine months…”
These are the reported last words of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges on board the hospital ship Gascon en route to Cairo on the 18th of May 1915. In the words of C. E. W. Bean1, “he knew he was dying.”
A few days earlier, he had been picked out by a sniper in Monash Valley. The bullet had severed several major arteries in his thigh. Now gangrene had set in. His doctors knew that immediate amputation for this 53 year old man would be fatal, and it was better for nature to take its course, which in William Bridges’ case was 3 days.
His last recorded instruction was “that his regret should be conveyed to the Minister for Defence that his dispatch concerning the landing was not complete — he was too tired now.”
We can only surmise as to the mental processes of this proud man as he slipped in and out of consciousness. He may have remembered his life experiences and those closest to him, memories of time spent with his family and friends around Sydney’s foreshores, in particular his posting to Middle Head.
C.E.W. Bean takes up the story.
Bridges … was in charge of the coastal batteries on Middle Head in Sydney Harbour. These were a part of the port defences and sited so as to fire on any hostile craft trying to enter between North and South heads, about a mile away. The task of preparing for that event was not an inspiring one, and the little group of buildings in the bush on Middle Head, connected only by a track with the then sleepy, scattered suburb of Mosman, might have been an isolated country post. There was no stimulating friends, little work, and apparently slight chance of progress in the small colonial force2. Bridges’ main occupations during the idle months at Middle Head were reading novels and sailing.
As he lay in waiting for the end, his thoughts may have turned to his family: his devoted wife Edith of 30 years who bore him 8 children (4 died young), whom he made anxious at times when he “cruised outside the heads” on recreational sailing trips with the commander of the South Head fort; his daughters, including one who drowned in a boating accident on the way to her 7th birthday party with her twin sister at Chowder Bay; and his sons, including Donald — “the apple of his father’s eye” — whose death “came as a dreadful blow” to both parents, and first son Francis Noel who was born in Mosman whilst his father was on duty at Middle Head and whom he saw for the last time when they met en route to Cairo on the ship Orvieto.
Bridges was sitting on deck reading a newspaper when someone tapped it. It was his son Noel, who was travelling by a British ship from Singapore to London to enlist. They were delighted to see each other, but if, as is possible, Noel sought some way of joining the Australian force, he was disappointed.
Noel continued on to London where he enlisted in the Royal Engineers and then received a commission in the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bean noted that Noel like his father “feared nothing and was determined to make his own life” — this included joining the ranks of his fellow countrymen. “After his father’s death six months later he applied for permission to be transferred to the A.I.F and became one of the very few men allowed to join it in England. He served on Gallipoli and on the Western Front, ending up his fine service there as a brigade-major of the 7th Infantry Brigade.” Noel Bridges was awarded a Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O) and was Mentioned in Dispatches (M.I.D) in 19173.
During his professional life Bridges remained aloof from any personal connection with those around him but was known to be fond of horses, especially his personal mount and war horse Sandy. The gelding was repatriated back to Australia after serving until 1918. Of the 121,324 horses sent abroad during the First World War, it is the only one to have returned4.
Sandy followed the gun carriage when Maj. Gen. Bridges was 1st buried among his soldiers at Alexandria. Later that year the body of Bridges was brought home. On 3 September 1915, the respected commander was given a solemn military state funeral in Melbourne, after which the body was taken to Canberra for burial. People lined the streets and railway towns along the way in a public display that was a counterpoint to private grief and anxieties emerging within the Australian community about the Gallipoli campaign.
His grave is now a permanent monument at Mount Pleasant in a spot chosen by Lady Bridges.
On his grave stone are inscribed the words ‘A gallant and erudite soldier.’
It overlooks the Royal Military College Duntroon. Bridges was instrumental in setting up this distinguished institution, based on the West Point and Sandhurst military academies, and he was its first Commandant. Whilst serving at Duntroon he reached the rank of Brigadier General, the first Australian do so.
Bean notes that Bridges was always media shy but on one occasion called him over and made the point that some of the artillery observers from the first day of the Gallipoli campaign were from Duntroon, and he was proud of the fact, and it should be known.
Bridges’ other huge achievement was the organization and recruitment of the 1st Australian Imperial Force, in fact he named it. Bean describes the event at one of his first staff meetings.
About a dozen titles were suggested by those present “Too long!” he said to some of them. I want a name that will sound well when they call us by our initials. That’s how they will speak of us. We don’t want to be called B.U.M.F!” He himself suggested Australian Imperial Force. Though the day had not yet arrived when every military institution and many civil ones were tagged with capital letters, his foresight was as usual sound. By the letters A.I.F the force which he founded became known throughout the Empire.
Bridges was promoted to command the A.I.F even though there is no evidence, according to Bean, that he sought the position. In fact he had recommended someone else.
On paper Bridges was the man for the job. He had a background in civil engineering, expertise in artillery, gunnery and intelligence work, organizational skill, drive and ability to appoint competent staff. He also displayed physical stamina and bravery to the point of foolhardiness.
He did however suffer from a lack of what we would describe as people skills that affected perceptions of those around him. Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White, fellow founder of the A.I.F. and present on Bridges’ staff at Gallipoli, said:
He lacked just the little added touch which would have made him a big man. But he was a big soldier… General Birdwood has told me he came to value his advice and to depend on it. He was always thinking, and was independent enough to think for himself, and strong enough to hold his own view when others held differently.
This of course came into play on the afternoon of the landing at Gallipoli when he and New Zealand Major General Godley proposed to corps commander General Birdwood that Anzac be evacuated.
Although Bridges had pushed the troops to breaking point at their training camps in Egypt, Bean says they were genuinely shocked by his death as he had gradually earned their respect on his daily visits to the front line.
Overall Bridges remains a bit of an enigma, although Bean gives this interesting insight from the music room of the Orvieto after dinner.
Nothing pleased Bridges more than a brief discussion over a knotty point. At his table at dinner, to which he invited members of his staff in turn, I happened to say that long words were too often resorted to by writers either from haziness or laziness – to avoid the trouble of thinking out what they meant; it should be possible, I contended, to express almost any thought in words which a nursemaid would understand. “How would you write this then?” he retorted, rolling off at once three or four labyrinthine lines from an English version of the Critique of Pure Reason or some other of Kant’s philosophical works. Unfortunately I kept no note of the passage or of the attempted solution which I handed to him the next day.
Bean says that Bridges’ habit of exposing himself to danger made it unlikely that he would survive many months of fighting.
Had he done so, it is probable that he would have emerged the greatest of Australia’s soldiers, as he was certainly the most profound of her military students.
Bridges was awarded a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1909, and the day before he died a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB), and was twice posthumously mentioned in despatches.
The family home “The Mill” in Moss Vale was converted into a convalescent hospital for returning servicemen in 1916.
Bean, C. E. W. (Charles Edwin Woodrow) 1957, Two men I knew / William Bridges and Brudenell White, founders of the A.I.F., Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Ricketts, H G, History of Middle Head Barracks at Mosman, NSW, plus a chronological biography of William Throsby Bridges. Includes copies of plans of military surveys of the area and buildings. Manuscript, MSS0762, Australian War Memorial
Clark, Chris, Bridges, Sir William Throsby, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979
Major General William Throsby Bridges, Australian War Memorial
Anzac centenary: Anniversary of the death of Major General William Throsby Bridges, ABC News, 18 May 2015
Who’s Who – Sir William Bridges, firstworldwar.com
Coulthard-Clark, Chris, One came home / The waler’s tale touched a nation, but the facts are coloured by wistful fiction…, Wartime, Issue 19
Penhallow, Ann, Charging Home, AWM blog, 19 August 2008
1 Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from C. E. W. Bean’s book Two men I knew.
2 Bridges’ pace of life was soon to pick up as he left this backwater idyll. “In 1891 there had occurred a sudden change in this hitherto purposeless life at Middle Head. The Government decided to turn this little station into a school of gunnery. Bridges was sent to England to attend the long course… He took his wife and family with him… It was a turning point in his career. He threw himself into his work with an impulse which never again relaxed.”
3 After the war Noel Bridges returned to Malaya with his wife and was eventually made Surveyor General of the colony and Director of Military Surveys when war broke out in 1939. As Singapore fell he was ordered to go on duty in Java. “After a perilous journey of ten days,” writes Bean, “they reached Padang in Sumatra. They sailed thence in a small Chinese vessel, but were never heard of again.”
4 “As the official record says, [Sandy] was “pensioned off”, or turned out to graze at the Central Remount Depot in Maribyrnong. Blind and unwell, Sandy was put down in 1923.”