The Passage To War


Melbourne Dec 1914 - Australian War Memorial

Melbourne Wharf December 1914


Melbourne dockside revellers battled with arctic weather as they broke down the barriers to catch a final glimpse of the nations sons leaving for war.  Cheering and singing, they helplessly watched the troopships fade away like ghost ships into the fog that engulfed Port Philip Bay.  With fog horns sounding every three minutes, an uneasiness fell upon quivering loved ones as they watched their shivering sons weather  an eerie passage into the unknown.

The ships that left Melbourne on 23rd December 1914 joined  the remainder of the 2nd Australian Convoy of troopships in Albany on 28th December 1914.  The contingency of 20000 men were not allowed to go ashore whilst anchored in the bay, however many threw bottles containing messages for loved ones into the water in a last minute effort to say goodbye. Then on 31st December, the people of Albany witnessed the impressive departure of the convoy of 16 ships that stretched for seven and a half miles as it steamed away from Australian Shores.

The new year was announced the following morning by the tolling bells of death.  The first on-board fatality of the journey took place on the “Borda” the previous night.  That morning, mourners stood to attention in full dress uniforms, silently staring fate in the face as they watched their mate’s body, sewn into a canvas bag, drop feet first into the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.  For the first time since enlisting, they watched the illusionary war they had so blindly embraced, slip away into a deep inky void.

For the men of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment aboard the SS Persic there was little time for idle contemplation of one’s fate during the voyage.  William Lyons and his shipmates, when they weren’t rostered for stable duties, were kept busy with a systematic regime of training. Regular musketry practices at landscape targets were conducted along with courses and lectures given to and by officers.  William took part in non-commissioned officer training and spent much of the journey sitting for examinations.  Before the end of the journey he had earned the non-commissioned rank of Lieutenant.


Stables on SS Persic 1914 – Photo: William Lyons

Reaching the shores of Ceylon on 13th January, the town of Colombo was barely discernible through the early morning haze.  As the convoy anchored at the breakwater the ships were met by Ceylonese hawkers in small vessels selling papers, fruit and jewellery.  In return, the men  of the Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Forces embraced the foreign culture, the exotic sights, the movie theatres and souvenir shops during the next two days.  However, the mood of frivolity dissipated upon departure from Colombo. The winds of war were blowing dark clouds of gloom onto their horizon.


Postcard from William Lyons’ collection.


As the line of ships continued to plot its way across the world, constant messages and reports of German ships were cause for rising tension and nervousness amongst the men for whom the reality of war was creeping upon them at a racing speed.  Four of the ships in the convoy were armed and had orders to immediately attack an enemy ship at first sight.  Morale amongst the men was also tested with each death on board.  Six men had died before reaching Aden Harbour on 23rd January.

Ferry-Post-1917.suez canal (AWM P11220.0021)

Ferry Post, Suez Canal



SS Suffolk (HMAR A23) passes thru the Suez Canal 1916 (AWM P00998.027)

SS Suffolk sailing into Suez Canal.

Steaming into the intense heat of the Suez Canal on 28th January was a sobering experience for those green men in khaki.  The seas had become a busy highway of warships and gunboats.  All boats were barricaded with chaff bags and bales of hay.  Surrounded by sandy desert, the banks of the canal were minefields of trenches in readiness for the Turks who were reported to be making attempts to block their passage.  Fighting was reported from the bridge; aeroplanes were constantly buzzing back and forth across the skies; and reports of wounded being brought in from the distant battlefields began to reach the ships. Nerves were frayed.  Ships’ crews were on alert. The enemy was near. For those 20000 men from Australian and New Zealand, the war was an imminent force of which they had no control.


Suez Canal – William Lyons’ postcard.



  1. History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment by Brig. Gen. L.C. Wilson & Captain H. Wetherell
  2. Frank Smith Diary




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