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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 3 years, 7 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918


Haynes Park, Bedford, England. 1918. Cadets of the Signal Cadet School.  George

Gibson Paterson, MC, MM, 1st Australian Divisional Signal Company, is in the back

row, third from the left. AWM Collection P02367.009.


Paterson G G         Sapper    120    George Gibson         1 Div Sig Co    19    Clerk    Single    Pres

Address:    Essendon, Nicholson St, 50, “Lauriston”   

Next of Kin:    Paterson, Hutchison Gibson, 50 Nicholson St, Essendon   

Enlisted:    19 Aug 1914    

Embarked:     A10 Karroo 20 Oct 1914

Re-embarked with  2 Div Sig Co A32 Themistocles 28 Jan 1916

Prior service:     26 Sig Co (AE) 

Awards:  Military Medal, Military Cross


Relatives on Active Service:

Paterson-A-B-Sapper-17861 brother


Lieutenant George Gibson Paterson MM MC


Rod Martin


George Paterson, a nineteen year-old clerk from Nicholson Street in Essendon, was one of the first Australians to enlist when war broke out in August 1914. He signed up on the nineteenth of that month, easily passing the exacting fitness tests set by the military.  At 182 centimetres tall and weighing sixty-nine kilos, he was a perfect specimen for the Australian Expeditionary Force.  To add to this, he had already spent fourteen months in the signal engineers, so he had skills and experience that would be very useful to the army.  In particular, he obviously passed the Morse reading test that budding signallers had to sit.   As a result, he was duly assigned to 2 Division Signals Company with the rank of sapper.


George and his compatriots sailed on A10 HMAT Karroo with the first convoy of Australians on 20 October 1914, ostensibly bound for the newly dug trenches of the Western Front in France and Belgium. 


HMAT Karroo at Port Melbourne, 1916    (AWM PB0504)


While at sea, however, the Australian commanders received orders to divert to Egypt to take on the Turks in the Middle East.  The British government, adopting a plan proposed by Winston Churchill, had decided to invade Turkey to force that country out of the war and provide an open, warm water channel through which to supply its Russian ally.  British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops were to land on the seaward side of the Gallipoli Peninsula if the allied navies were unable to force their way through the Dardanelles Straits and capture Constantinople.


Karroo (right) at Alexandria, 7 December 1914      (AWM C02573)


While at Mena, south of Alexandria, George was chosen to pose as a despatch rider on a motor bike.


Paterson  on a Precision Big Four motorcycle at the Mena House stables. 

(AWM P02367.008)  


Naval forces attacked the Dardanelles in mid-April 1915.  However, with Turkish resistance proving stronger that expected, the allied troops were landed on 25 April 1915.  George was amongst them. Once safely ashore and regrouped after the first few, chaotic days, the signallers began setting up communications facilities.  Because of the rugged terrain in Anzac Cove, they were limited in the types of equipment they could use.  Motor bikes were of little or no use!  They initially resorted to such methods as smoke signals, semaphore and heliograph (solar reflection) equipment.  As soon as trenches had been dug, they began to lay telephone lines to them.  It was dangerous work, especially when running such lines up the many gullies of the cove.  The Turks constantly bombarded them with high explosive and shrapnel shells (one gully, the main route from the beach to the Anzac front line on the heights, was called Shrapnel Valley because of the high casualty rate from those types of shells), and Turkish snipers were a constant menace.


Signallers laying telephone line at Anzac Cove (AWM H17024P)


There was also another problem: the heavy shelling often broke the lines, requiring regular repairs.  As can be imagined, this was a very dangerous task, as was the one of running messages throughout the trench system.  As one sapper recorded,


It was across [a particularly] exposed spot that many times I had to run despatches. The ridge, where shrapnel [could] be seen bursting, was thick with snipers, who had this patch so well set that they rarely missed their mark.


 [Ellis Silas, ‘Dead Man’s Patch’, Anzac, May, 1915]


George may have been carrying out one of these tasks when he was shot in the leg on 28 June.


George (right) in a dugout at Anzac Cove, May 1915.  Note the shell

                           bursting on Plugge’s Plateau in the distance.   (AWM P02367.010)


 He was evacuated to Cairo for hospital treatment and later moved to one at Mena, south of Alexandria.  The wound was obviously quite serious and taking a long time to heal, so it was decided to repatriate him to Australia, at least for a while.  He sailed in A72 HMAT Beltana on 13 October.




Once back home and recuperated, George attended the signal training school at Broadmeadows on 4 February 1916.  It was then that a strange thing happened.  It is unknown if the military records office lost the communication about this assignment, but it seems too much of a coincidence that his record initially indicated that he had gone absent without leave on that day.  The powers that were obviously did not know that he was out at Broadmeadows.  Anyway, he was officially assigned to 1 Reinforcements of 2 Division Signals Company on 22 February and then loaded aboard A38 HMAT Ulysses on 1 March, headed once more for Egypt.  The supreme irony was that, while he was at sea, a court of inquiry was held in Melbourne on 8 March and he was struck off as a deserter.  He was a wanted man, and listed as such in the Victorian Police Gazette on the twenty-third of that month! The message finally got through to headquarters because the notice in his record about desertion and conviction was eventually crossed out.  Had it not been it would have been a serious blot on what was to become a very impressive set of documents.


PATTERSON, GEORGE GIBSON, private 120, 19 6-12 years of age, 5 ft. 11½ in. high, fair complexion, dark hair, grey eyes, three vaccination marks. Born at Bacchus Marsh; enlisted at  Melbourne. Next of kin-H. G. Patterson, 50 Nicholson-street, Essendon. Deserted 4th February, 1916.




George arrived back in Egypt on 24 April 1916.  By that time, Gallipoli had been evacuated, the Australian army had been reorganised and enlarged, and the first division of troops had already left for the Western Front in France.  George had transferred to the reinforcements for 1 Division Signals Company and he and his new compatriots duly followed the earlier departures at the end of the next month.


When George arrived in France, 1 Div. Signals Co. was based at Sailly, in the so-called ‘nursery sector’ near Armentières.  The men were laying telephone cable, and they continued to do this for the rest of the month and into early July.  They then moved into the area around the Somme River to provide support for the forces fighting in the greatest battle of the war, which had begun on the first day of the month.  Their task was to lay, check and repair cable where required.  While doing so, they were under constant threat of bombardment from the ground and the air, and sniping if they were close to the front line.  They were also responsible for establishing signals offices at various places along the battlefront.  While they were in the area, 1 Division was involved in its first major battle at Pozières on the Somme, beginning on 23 July.  It suffered 5 285 casualties in the first two days in an attempt to capture the ruins of Pozières village and the strategic ridge behind it.


1 Division Memorial at Pozières   (‘The long, long trail’: www.1914-1918.net)


1 Division was relieved on 27 July.   During the battle the signals company had laid lines in

the wake of advances by the infantry and heavy artillery, and ensured that good communications were maintained.  That was often no easy task, given that heavy rains and heavy shelling during the conflict turned the area into a boggy mess.  George and his compatriots had to deal not only with the German attempts to kill them, but also the other great enemy of the Somme: the mud.


After being relieved, the company took over signals offices at Rubempre and Canaples.  Between then and the end of the year it moved between sites along the front, providing support when needed.  1 Division did not take part in any other major battle for the rest of 1916.


The beginning of 1917 found the company in the area of the Somme again, enduring what was described as the wettest, coldest winter in forty years.  Major Mackay of 4 Battalion summed the conditions up thus:


Trenches very wet, narrow boggy.  In some places, mud up to a man’s fork.  The mud is so sticky that it is almost impossible to lift one’s foot out of it.  The effect on a weak man would be disastrous. (Quoted in Travers, p.132.)


In February, the Germans began a strategic retreat to their heavily fortified Hindenburg Line.  The attrition of the war was affecting their numbers quite considerably by then, and they decided to consolidate their line and defences, reducing the number of salients (bulges) that had to be manned.  The Allies naturally moved forward to occupy the territory left vacant, and 1 Div Signals Co. was called on 24 February to prepare a signals office for a new, advanced divisional headquarters at Bazentin.


The company followed 1 Division as it advanced further during March, being relieved late in the month.  In April, the war diary records that it was ‘keeping up communications under adverse circumstances.’  No doubt the Germans were giving the Allies as good as they were getting.  It was during that month that George received a promotion to lance-corporal.


Also in April, 4 Division was ordered to attack the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt.  This assault was supposed to be in support of a larger British offensive further north at Arras.  In a poorly planned offensive, the division lost 3 000 casualties, including 1 300 taken prisoner.  The following month, General Gough, commander of the British 5 Army, decided to have another go, this time using 1 and 2 Divisions.  The attack began at 3.45 am on 3 May, and 1 Div Signals Co. was involved in providing support to the advancing troops.  The unit diary records that


Communications were maintained with a high degree of efficiency under difficult circumstances, as in these operations there were many casualties amongst the personnel of [the] Signals sections.  When telephone cable communications could not hold, Power Buzzers and Amplifiers were used to great advantage.


(A power buzzer was a device that used ground induction to send Morse messages.  The messages were received by using a receiver attached to a metal spike that was prodded into the ground.  They were useful when telephone wires or cable had been cut.  However, anyone, including the enemy, could receive the messages if they had the right equipment.)


2 Bullecourt was a qualified success, a small section of the line being taken and held.  However, the cost was high.  In a battle lasting fourteen days, casualties amounted to 7 000.  At the end of the month, 1 Division was relieved and moved into reserve at Baizieux .  It stayed there for the month of June, the signallers training in such aspects as the use of pigeons for communications and also supporting the divisional artillery when it went into the front line on the twenty-fourth. 


In July 1917, 1 Division began moving north towards Belgium.  After the lack of real success at the Somme, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, decided to concentrate his efforts in Belgian Flanders.  His ostensible hope was to capture the Belgian ports that were under occupation and the German submarine bases along the coast.  To do this, the Germans would have to be pushed back from their position along the ridge just east of the town of Ypres.  The village of Passchendaele, on top of the ridge, was the main target.  The battle began in earnest at the end of July – and so did the rain that, along with the more than a million shells fired by both sides, turned the naturally marshy ground of Flanders into an absolute quagmire.  Men, machines, animals and materiel were sucked into a muddy abyss, bogging the battle down and turning it into yet another war of attrition.  Haig’s grand plans were soon forgotten as the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was officially called, degenerated into a wholesale slaughter on both sides.  George and his companions were in Flanders and involved in the conflict by 16 September.  On that day, they were located near the town of Hooge and assigned to carry cable to the front line.  A lieutenant and a carrying party came under heavy shellfire and suffered many casualties.  The cable was laid nevertheless, various signal posts established and repairs carried out, all under heavy shell fire, even during the night.


The Ypres area.  The black line indicates the front in June 1917.

                  (Gibbs, Philip: From Bapaume to Passchendaele, London, Heinemann, 1918)


Third Ypres did have its successes, however, two notable ones being carried out by Australian forces.  On 20 September, troops of 1 and 2 Divisions attacked at Menin Road, just outside Ypres, and pushed the Germans east to Polygon Wood.  The signals company followed up to establish new communications.



1 Division signallers at Menin Road, 20 September 1917    (AWM E00859)


The battle was a small-scale operation, but the cost was still large: 5 000 casualties.


The company was relieved on the twenty-third, but was preparing for the next operation by the last day of the month.  On 1 October, it was laying cable in trenches at Dickebusch, and suffered heavy casualties during the night.  The work was in preparation for an attack on Broodseinde Ridge, Polygon Wood having been taken by 5 Division late in September.  The attack began at 6.00 am, the company being fully occupied from that time mainly because shellfire cut most of the cables the men had already laid.  The signallers followed up for the next two days, by which time the ridge had been taken.  The cost was high again, however, 6 500 casualties being suffered.


1 Div Signals Co. was relieved on 10 October, but not before being attacked by German aircraft, so much so that a Lewis (light machine) Gun was mounted at the cable head and used by the men there.  they were successful on the seventh, bringing a ‘plane down on the Passchendaele-Gheluvelt Ridge.


After various forms of training, the men returned to the front on 24 October and were subjected to heavy shelling for the rest of the month.  During that time, George was made a temporary corporal – a position noted for its generous provisions: extra responsibility, but no extra pay!  On 12 November, Third Ypres grinding down to an anti-climactic ending with the eventual capture of the ruins of Passchendaele on the fourth, the men began to move south again towards France.  They spent the rest of the year in reserve in France.  However, George received a pleasant surprise on 12 December when he was awarded the military medal for bravery in action.  The citation no longer exists, but we can assume that it was for meritorious behaviour above and beyond the call of duty some time during Third Ypres.  This award was followed up by his promotion to full corporal on 1 January 1918.


January and February 1918 saw 1 Div Signals Co. operating near the Franco-Belgian border, moving in and out of the front lines.  On 5 March, while based at Scherpenberg in Belgium, George’s obviously exceptional quality was recognised when he was transferred to an officer training centre in England.  To move from the rank of corporal to that of second lieutenant was quite a rare occurrence.  On 15 March, he was sent to the Royal Engineers Signal Service Training Centre, located near Bedford.  He worked there for five months before being officially appointed as an officer and then posted to France, arriving on 9 September and joining 1 Field Artillery Brigade as a signals officer.  By that time, Germany’s last offensive had failed and the Allies had mounted their own one, beginning on 8 August.  It had been a resounding success.  By 10 September, the brigade was in action at Tincourt, near Rheims, supporting 1 Division.  On the eighteenth, George was involved in supporting the division at the Battle of Epeney.  George’s task was to ensure communications between the various field batteries.  As the division moved on, it engaged the Germans at Bellicourt on 29 September.  On that day, George organised and maintained all of the communications for the brigade’s right group of artillery.  These were also used by 117 American Regiment and tank corps, as well as four other brigades.  As his citation notes, this was because


". . . these communications . . . were practically the only means by which this immense amount of work could be carried on . . . [T]he greatest credit is due to him in the fact that they did not break down during the whole operation. This was due to his untiring energy, courage, and devotion to duty throughout the day".


For his action, George was awarded the Military Cross (the officer ranks’ equivalent of the Military Medal).


A German trench in the Hindenburg Line, near Bellicourt.  (AWM C04933)


The Australians’ war effectively ended with 2 Division’s attack at Montbrehain on 5 October.  Along with the rest of his brigade, George went into reserve and eventually returned to England.  On 7 February 1919, he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant, and he was repatriated to Australia in May before being finally discharged in August.


George had survived the whole war, fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front, been wounded, decorated twice and given four promotions.  All this from a man who at one time was mistakenly thought to have deserted his post and been considered a criminal. 


George was a genuine hero.





Australian War Memorial


Gibbs, Philip: From Bapaume to Passchendaele, London, Heinemann, 1918

National Archives Australia

‘The long, long trail’, http://www.1914-1918.net

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

                             ABC Books, 2008   



Mena Camp, Egypt. c. 1915-01. Sitting on a makeshift step in front of a tent pitched

in the sand, two members of the 1st Australian Divisional Signal Company read

letters from home while two other unit members look on. Sapper George Gibson

Paterson, a despatch rider is at the back on the left.  (AWM P02367.001


Mentioned in this publication:

St Thomas' Parish Magazine April 1915 p2

Follow the Gleam: a history of Essendon Primary School 1850-2000. Adrian Jones.  p 121.


War Service Commemorated

Essendon Town Hall L-R

Essendon State School [Patterson G P]

Flemington Branch ANA

Patriotic Concert 1914

St John's Presbyterian Church

St Thomas' Grammar & Carlton College (G)

Essendon Gazette Roll of Honour Wounded

Regimental Register

“Send off to the Essendon Boys”


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