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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 4 years, 8 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918


James B P    Pte    6878A   Benjamin Phillip            Embarkation Roll    23 Inf Bn    40    Labourer    Single    C of E       

Address:    Carlton, Drummond St, 167 

Next of Kin:    James, Horace F, brother, 444 Queen St, Melbourne   

                                                            C/o Fairbairns, Ardock Towers, Brewster St, Essendon    by 20/12/15

                                                            C/o Mr Slattery, 444 Queen St, Melbourne  by 22/9/19

Enlisted:    10 Jul 1917       Sportsmen's 1,000

Embarked:     A71 Nestor 21 Nov 1917   


Date of Death:  25/11/1918

CWGC: "Son of William and Margaret James. Of Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia".




Private Benjamin Phillip James


Rod Martin


By 1917, recruitment numbers for the Australian Imperial Force were at a low ebb.  Desperate for new recruits, the Hughes Labor government had attempted to introduce conscription the previous year.  However, a plebiscite held in order to gain the public’s support for such a radical move failed to gain the necessary numbers.  In light of this, ‘Billy’ Hughes introduced two recruiting campaigns, one of which was called the Sportsmen’s Thousand.  In Victoria, the image of Victoria Cross winner Albert Jacka was used to suggest that, being a sportsman (a boxer) made him a better soldier.  It was argued that, by playing sport, young men developed specific skills and qualities that could be used efficaciously on the battlefield.  The aim, obviously, was to recruit at least one thousand men through this propaganda.


(AWM ART V00026)


Just how successful this program was is uncertain.  Indeed, Hughes attempted another plebiscite later in the year, again unsuccessfully, so numbers did not increase significantly or at all.  However, the propaganda obviously captured the imagination of at least one man (or was he listed as a Sportsmen’s Thousand man along with others to make it look as if the program was successful?) – and he was not young by any means.  Forty year-old labourer Benjamin James signed up on 10 July that year and was allotted to 23 Battalion.  Whatever sport he was supposedly involved in, it was not listed on his attestation papers or in his army record.  To the army, he seemed to be just one more needed recruit for the slaughterhouse that was the Western Front.


Benjamin was a short, stocky man,  163 centimetres tall and weighing sixty-four kilos.  It would appear also that he was not in the best of health.  While training at Broadmeadows in August that year, he was taken ill on the ninth and was out of action for eight days.  There does not seem to have been a recurrence, and he continued with his training, being allocated to 20/21 reinforcements of 23 Battalion.  However, he may have been in some kind of trouble two months later.  His record indicates that a warrant was issued on 23 October.  A perusal of the Victorian Police Gazette reveals that he went missing on 17 October and was labelled a deserter.  Did he discover that the ‘sporting’ aspect of his recruitment was just a sham and decide that the military was not for him?  Unfortunately, there is no information available about this matter.  All we do know is that the warrant was withdrawn on 3 November, so he had obviously been apprehended and given a second chance.  Eighteen days later, he sailed for Europe. 


A71 HMAT Nestor  Courtesy of Jennifer Worledge.


HMAT Nestor sailed via the Suez Canal and Taranto in Italy, and docked at Southampton on 23 January 1918.  From there, Benjamin and his compatriots moved to join 6 Training Battalion at Fovant, on Salisbury Plain.   It is obvious, however, that by this time, Benjamin was still unhappy about something.  Just over a month later, on 27 February, he went absent without leave.  On 21 March, he was declared an illegal absentee by an inquiry held at Fovant .  He was finally apprehended in London on 23 April and a court martial held at Fovant in the first week of May (at which he pleaded guilty) handed down a hefty sentence: 151 days of detention in a military prison.  However, this was commuted to a total forfeiture of 119 days’ pay.  It may be that the army preferred to have Benjamin swelling the ranks at the front, rather than sojourning in prison.  Just what Benjamin thought of this is unknown.  He may have gone AWOL because he did not want to fight.  If so, the option of prison for as long as possible may have been his preferred one.


Nevertheless, Benjamin spent another three months in England before finally going to the Western Front on 10 August.  By this time, the great Allied counter-attack was in operation, having begun two days earlier.  The Germans had launched a do or die offensive in March that year, hoping to use recently released troops from the Eastern Front after signing a peace treaty with the new Soviet government in Russia and split and defeat the British and French Armies before American troops could arrive in overwhelming numbers (America had joined the war in April 1917).  The Germans almost succeeded in their bold venture, but were stopped at the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April.  The Allied attack on 8 August – the Battle of Amiens - was the culmination of a steady build up of British, French and American forces and a brilliant battle plan devised by Sir John Monash.


Members of 23 Battalion inspect a captured German 28 centimetre railway gun east of Amiens on

9 August 1918.  (AWM A00006)


Whether Benjamin reached 23 Battalion in time to see this gun is unknown.  Indeed, he may not have arrived there at all.  His war record indicates that, on 17 August, he was transferred to 22 Battalion (probably to balance the numbers in each unit), so perhaps he stayed at a base camp near the coast after his arrival from Folkestone.  When he did arrive at his new battalion, it was located near Herleville, south of the Somme River and west-north-west of the town of Harbonnières.  It had been ordered to make an attack on the outskirts of Herleville.  At 4.15 am on the eighteenth, after a two-minute bombardment, the troops attacked.  The assault was successful, but the battalion lost eight dead and twenty-five wounded.  By this time in the war, the Australians and Canadians were being used as shock troops.  British commander Sir Douglas Haig had more faith in them than in his own, by now mainly conscript, forces.  A heavy price was being paid by the Australians for this ‘honour’, however, and would continue to be paid until the start of October, when their units were finally withdrawn from the conflict.


Dyson, Will: 22nd Battalion men awaiting relief, near

Ville sur Ancre, 1918. (AWM ART 19603)


22 Battalion was relieved by 1.30 am on 19 August and went into reserve at Vecquemont on the Somme, not far from Amiens.  The men enjoyed five days of rest, training and recreation before moving back to the Harbonnières area and relieving 10 Battalion in the front line on the evening of the twenty-sixth.  At 2.00 am the next morning, it successfully moved forward 1000 metres, but lost two officers in the process.  From then until the end of the month the men moved steadily forward and were involved in a mix of semi-trench and semi-open warfare.


Brigadier-General ‘Pompey’ Elliott standing at the door of a captured German divisional headquarters

near Harbonnières, August 1918 (AWM E02855)


The battalion commander noted in the war diary that reinforcements arriving from the brigade training battalion during the month, and presumably including Benjamin, had all been diverted to 22 Battalion.  He made the comment that ‘these men have proved themselves to be a very fine stamp of Australian soldier and their work during the latter half of the month has been highly satisfactory.’ 


In the last days of August and in early September, the battalion assisted in the capture of Mont St. Quentin, supporting other units of 6 Brigade until the fourth, when it moved out of the trenches, crossed the River Somme and bivouacked at Boscourt.


Howie, Laurence: Mont St. Quentin from I.8A.80. 1919 (AWM ART93083 ©Australian War Memorial)


The men then went into reserve for the rest of the month, participating in Battalion sports competitions as well as training in such things as assault tactics.  Their war was not over, however.  On 1 October, they were based at  Marquaix, and were ordered to move east to take up a part of the Germans’ Hindenburg fortified line at Bellicourt.  This they did without incident.  After moving to some trenches a short distance away they waited for further orders.  On 3 and 4 October, as part of what was to become known as the Battle of Montbrehain, 22 Battalion moved up to the Beaurevoir Line (another German trench line) and attacked from there at 6.30 am.  Once they had gained their objective, they settled in and waited to be relieved by American troops.  The battalion commander described the action as ‘one of the most successful stunts the battalion has ever taken part in.


 Montbrehain, 6 October 1918 (AWM E03775) Montbrehain proved to be the last battle in which the Australians were involved.  On 6 October, while 22 Battalion was being relieved, the Germans made an offer of peace that ultimately led to the armistice on 11 November.


Once relieved, the battalion moved west to billets at St. Vast, near Amiens.  There the men rested, had baths, played sport and trained for the remainder of the month. They were still there and actually practising long-range firing and grenade-throwing (‘bombing’) when news of the armistice came though on 11 November.  The war diary informs us that ‘the Battalion Band marched through the village playing national ans.  The Australian & French flags were hoisted on the spire of the St. Vast church.’  In what may have been a bit of an anticlimax, the afternoon was devoted to sports!


After that, sport seemed to be the order of the day for much of the remainder of the month.  It may have been conducted in order to keep the men occupied – and tired.  After all, one can imagine that, having fought through and survive the most bloody of all wars, the men would want to celebrate in their own ways.  For many, playing sport would not have been their preferred option!


Benjamin did not have long to enjoy this or any other form of relaxation, however.  His war record indicates that, on 22 November, the day the battalion moved to Valenciennes near the Belgian border, he was dangerously ill in hospital at Abbeville, north-west of Amiens, suffering from pneumonia.  He died there three days later.  The cause of death was listed as bronco-pneumonia.  However, the symptoms of that disease are very similar to those of Spanish Flu.  This pandemic, which started to take effect in early 1918, and which may have been responsible for up to 100 million deaths worldwide in the two years it raged, was caused by a group of three genes that enabled the virus to weaken the bronchial tubes and the lungs, and lead the way to bacterial pneumonia.  It was known for the speed with which it killed its victims.  A person could be well at breakfast and dead by evening dinner time.


Benjamin was laid to rest in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension.  After a couple of false starts, he had done his duty.


(Commonwealth War Graves Commission)  




Australian War Memorial

Frost, Lenore


National Archives Australia

Travers, Richard: Diggers in France: Australian soldiers on the Western Front,

                             Sydney, ABC Books, 2008




The following verses were com

posed by Private B. P. James, now

in the recruits, in memory of the

landing of the Australian troops at

Gallipoli on 25th April, 1915. Private

James will be a member of the Sports

men's Unit, and when he gets up our

end he will find plenty of subjects for



The Battle of the Dardanelles,

Some few words I must say

About the landing of our Troops,

That sad but glorious day;

They fought and died like heroes,

In the thickest of the fray;

For Honour, King, and Country,

They won that Fatal Day.

Now, when our boys had landed,

Right at the Turks did go;

They never flinched, but went right on

To Vict'ry they've proved so;

They fought with Bulldog courage,

From trench to trench did go,

To fight for good old "Britain"

And to lay the Turks out low.

Our gallant "General Bridges'"

Shall never be forgot!

He fought his last fight gamely,

Though death had been his lot:

No notice had he taken

Of a warning just before;

Dying like a soldier,

Within the cannon's road.

"Australia's Roll of Honour;"

In years to come and go,

Shall never be forgotten

If e'er they meet a foe;

With shot and shell around them,

Their duty they did do;

For the honour of Australia,

And the good Red, White, and Blue.


ROLL OF HONOUR. (1917, August 3). Broadmeadows Camp Sentry

(Vic. : 1917), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88196434





War Service Commemorated   

Christ Church Roll of Honour*


No In Memoriam notices in The Argus to 1920.

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