Monday, April 15, 2013

Military Monday - 2013 Trans Tasman ANZAC Day Blog Challenge - Alexander Joseph McDonald

"I turned around to get the second tow ready, when a man just in front of me dropped, hit in the head. This was the first casulty and very soon there were several other's hit.  There was some difficulty in getting the second tow ready but eventually when a naval cutter came alongside, we got in and started for the beach; three men were hit before the boat struck the shore.  When she hit the beach, I gave the word to get out the men got at once, in water up to their necks in some cases, men actually had to swim several strokes before they got their footing.  It was almost impossible to walk with full marching order, absolutely drenched to the skin and I fell twice before I got to the beach where I scrambled up under cover of a sand ridge.  I ordered the men to dump their packs off, load their rifles, and waited a few seconds for the men to get their breath.
It was just breaking dawn and, as we looked towards the sound of the firing, we were faced by almost perpendicular cliffs about 200 feet above sea level, and as we were of (the) opinion that most of the fire was coming from this quarter, it was evident that this was the direction of our attack.  Therefore, after a minute or two, having regained our breath, we started to climb."

The 11th Battalion & 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, 24th April 1915AWM A02468
This powerful description of the landing of the 11th Battalion and 1st Field Company of Australian Engineers at Gallipoli, by Captain I.S. Margetts in his diary entry on the 25th April 1915*, sets the scene for my blog today. My great uncle Alexander Joseph McDonald was among these troops as they attempted to land on the beach of Gallipoli.

Today I  would like to to tell his story as part of the challenge set by Auckland Libraries' Kintalk Whānau Kōrero: family history blog, which invites  bloggers to share their family military stories, on the 2013 Trans Tasman ANZAC Day Blog Challenge.

This is a great opportunity to tell some our family's military stories.  My attention was caught recently when reading the obituary of my great grandmother Annie Shepherd (nee McDonald). Mentioned in the obituary, was the death of her brother Alexander on the 25th April 1915 at Gallipoli. With ANZAC day approaching, this is an obvious choice for my first story in the 2013 Trans Tasman ANZAC story.

Alexander Joseph McDonald was born in Braidwood in 1882, the last son of Donald McDonald and Margaret Hanlon.  I started my research on the Australian War Memorial Site, and found the details his service number, Unit, Rank, and date of death. Corporal Alexander Joseph McDonald (Service Number 132) was a member of the 1st Field Company Australian Engineers. A picture of his grave in (Row 3, Grave 8) Schrapnel Valley (about 400 yards SE of Anzac Cove) can be found on the Australian War Memorial web site.Using Alexander's service number I looked up his military record on the National Archives of Australia Service Records web site. 

His service records provided a mine of information.  He is described as a 30 year old, natural born Australian, from the small town of Braidwood, NSW. He was employed as a plaster and painter and had served his apprenticeship under the guidance of his father Donald McDonald.  His brother Dennis McDonald, a policeman based at Randwick Sydney, is listed as his next of kin.  At the time of his enlistment, he was single, however, before leaving Australia he married to Ms Eileen Abrams**.  His sense of duty to defend his nation must be noted as his enlistment date is 19th August, 1914, just a few days after Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914.

Looking through Alexander's record I noted an entry under previous service "18 months in the NSW Mounted Rifles and was discharged at the completion of service".  What did this mean??? With a quick google of the NSW Mounted Riles, I found that Alexander, along with his brother Dennis and Donald, had served in the The Boer War as members of the 2nd NSW Mounted Rifles This regiment was established in early 1900 and was composed of men from New South Wales.
"Preference was given to trained men who were good shots and good riders, subject to tests as ordered. The age limit was 20 to 40 years; standard height, 5 feet 6 inches and upwards; minimum chest measurement, 34 inches. Applicants were also required to be single men and to pass a military medical examination.  Rates of pay as for Citizen's Bushmen".*** 

You can only imagine how Donald and Margaret McDonald would have felt when three of their sons all left at the same to fight in a war on the other side of the globe.  Fortunately, Alexander, Dennis and Donald returned from South Africa, and it seems that the town of Mogo, on the South Coast of NSW celebrated accordinging.  The Tilba Times, reported their return:

Mogo - "we have much pleasure in chronicling Sergeant Denis McDONALD's safe arrival after 12 months soldiering in South Africa. Denis was invalided home owing to bronchial catarrh contracted after the enteric fever. Pte. Alex McDONALD, his brother, is returning at the end of this month [c5.1902] and still another brother, Donald (otherwise 'Yank'), has volunteered and sets out at the end of this week".****

The small town opened its arms at their return and a function was organised at the local hall to welcome the McDonald brothers home.

"Mr. LJ Hurley in a few words also welcomed 'the boys'. Mr. D McDONALD on behalf of his brother and comrades, heartily thanked those present for the manner in which they had been welcomed home. The school children, instructed by Miss O’Connell, then sang "The Sons of New Britannia" in stirring style, and the chairman called on those present to join in singing "For they are jolly good fellows". The hall, which is a credit to the town of Mogo, although somewhat far removed, was decorated, and above the stage were the words "Welcome, Home, Sweet Home"."****

The politics of the world was unsettled and volatile over the coming years, with war finally being declared on the 4th August 1914.  Alexander was quick to answer the call to arm, enlisting into the 1st Field Company of Australian Engineer In just over a month his leadership skills were recognised and he was promoted to Corporal. He and the rest of the battalion soon left for duty overseas, his new bride farewelling a husband not knowing that she would never see him again.
Soldiers disembarking into the boats, AWM A01829
25th April 1915.  It was just before dawn when the 1st Field Company and the 11th Battalion climbed into the boats that were take them to shore.  The first wave was led out by Major J.F. McCall,  Corporal Alexander McDonald was to lead the second wave once the first wave landed.  However, he was hit as he stepped off the deck of the Torpedo Boat onto the ladder leading to the boat. Corporal McDonald was supervising the disembarking of his men, watching that they did not expose themselves when stepping from the deck of the Torpedo Boat onto the ladder. Major McCall describes his bravery,

"The enemy was pouring in a heavy shrapnel and machine gun fire onto the boats, they had to get ashore, and someone with a big heart had to superintend, a man with cool head and brave heart only was of any use and Corporal A.J. McDonald was the man. It was almost certain death for the man doing the job yet he took it on, stepped onto the breach and calmly and cooly directed operations until he received his wound. Even while lying on the deck of the Destroyer waiting medical attention he gave some directions just as cool as ever."*****

Alexander was taken to the hospital ship "Clan McGillivray" but died later that day from the wounds he had received. The medical war diary for that day reports describes the chaos of the day and the difficulty in dealing with the numbers of wounded.

“Unit land with main body of attacking force in three rows from 10.00am to 12 noon. On reaching beach were allotted position for establishing casualty clearing station.  The number of casualties and wounded to be treated was great.  They came in so quickly that nothing more than first aid could be done.  Cases evacuated to Hospital ship “Gascon” which carried 250 seriously wounded to transport Glen McGilloway which our  to take highly wounded. Cases were load into boats for transport to ship by navy.  The whole charing staff worked splendidly throughout the day and most of the following night.  Owing to pressure of work and the necessity of keeping the beach clear of was impossible to keep record of all cases treated."

Corporal Alexander McDonald was among the serious wounded who was transported to the Glen McGilloway.

What is really poignant, his records show that a small brown parcel was returned to his wife and family on the 4th February 1916.  This parcel contained a prayer book, letters, cards and handkerchief.  Such small mementos for a family and wife who mourned the loss of this brave soldier.

RIP Corporal Alexander Joseph MacDonald
 *  Extract from Captain I S Margetts, Diary, 25 April 1915, AWM 1 DRL/0478, viewed on Gallopili and the ANZACS,, viewed 9/4/13.
** NSW Birth Deaths and Marriages, registration 16617/1914
*** The Light Horse Studies Centre, , viewed 9/4/2013.
****Australians in the Boer War - Oz-Boer Data Base Project,, viewed on 15/4/13.

***** Letter to Donald MacDonald, from Major J.F. McCall , received 27/12/15.


  1. While researching my own great uncle and finally finding him after 25 years of searching , he was also in the 1st Field Company engineers like your own very heroic great uncle, hence i found your blog. Alfred Taylor returned home to Australia in 1919 after full service throughout the war. Like yourself, I will be dedicating some blog time to him and his 2 brothers who also served in WW1.
    Your post is great and I really enjoyed it, He was a very brave man your great uncle.

  2. Thank you, glad you like the story. I am looking forward to seeing a blog on your uncle. Check out the links above, you might find some more info on him. They were so brave, weren't they.