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Biographies & voyages

Clarence Derby McKENNA

1888 - 1975 Perth, Western Australia



This memoir of Derby's experiences during the first World War in Egypt, Gallipoli & France, as a Driver with the 12th Field Ambulance AIF, is transcribed from a 1974 audio recording when he was at our home for a roast dinner.

Official records show that Derby enlisted at age 26 on 10 September 1914 in Perth. His occupation was stated as Farmer. He married Mabel Baker on 9 October 1914 and his records were updated to include Mabel as his next of kin. Derby had served for over two years with G Company of the Australian Infantry Reserve before resigning to go on the land.  He was appointed on enlistment to C Section of the 4th Field Ambulance as a Driver. The unit was equipped with horse drawn ambulances that accommodated four stretcher cases and two sitting wounded. There were also general service wagons.

Following enlistment Derby went to Blackboy Hill, Western Australia for training.  Blackboy Hill Camp comprised lots 100 and 115 of the Blackboy Hill Estate (North of Innamincka Road between Bellevue and the old Swan View Tunnel). It was owned by a Mr Woods and "commandeered" by the Commonwealth Government as a training camp in about August 1914.  There were few amenities for the first trainees.  Australian author, Frank Clune who trained there recalled a man in the next bunk actually dying of the cold.  It wasn't until a freak storm blew down all but one of the tents that a decision was made to throw up more permanent wooden barracks. 1

In the Spring of 1915 a large YMCA Social Centre was erected on the camp by a 'busy bee' made up of local residents and Midland Workshop employees.  A crowd estimated at 5000 attended the opening of the building.  The ceremony was performed by Sir John Forrest on 16 October, 1915.

Over four bloody years of that "war to end all wars", 32,000 members of the AIF received their initial training at Blackboy Hill.  Soldiers from "The Hill" made history wherever the fighting was the thickest; at the Gallipoli landings; at Pope's Hill, Dead Man's Ridge and Leane's Trench at Gallipoli; at Fromelles, Mouquet Farm, Bullecourt, Pozieres, Messines, Passchendale, the Somme and the Hindenburg Line in Flanders; at Gaza, Jerusalem; and Damascus in Palestine. Ten of them won the Victoria Cross.

On 30 December 1914, Derby embarked from the port of Fremantle on on Transport A31, HMTS "Ajana" for Egypt.  After disembarking at the port of Alexandria, on the Nile Delta, the bulk of the AIF were transported by rail to a camp adjacent to Mena, a village located in the shadow of the Pyramids, about 10 miles to the west of Cairo.  The men of the Light Horse were settled about 20 kilometres to the east, at Maadi, on the Banks of the Nile. 

We know that Derby embarked with the 4th Field Ambulance arriving in Mudros Bay, Lemnos before subsequently sailing to Gallipoli.  Due to the terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsular the horse drawn ambulances could not be used and they remained on board ship together with their drivers.  The ship remained just off the shore for some weeks before the ambulances and drivers were returned to Egypt and used to transport the wounded to hospitals.

Derby was transferred from Alexandria to Maadi on 25 November 1915.  On 29 February 1916 the 4th Field Ambulance became part of the 12th Field Ambulance and on 2 June of that year the 12th Field Ambulance embarked on the HMTS "Kingstonian" from Alexandria to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, disembarking at Marseilles on 11 June 1916.

The next entry in Derby's Statement of Service is not until 22 May 1917, when he is reported as still being with his Unit.  On 21 December 1917 he went to England on leave from France, rejoining his Unit on 6 January 1917.   During his leave, according to his diary, he visited his maternal Grandmother Ellen Smith nee CREED in Ipswich.

On 2 March 1918 his Unit was instructed to report to Administration Headquarters of the AIF in London.  On 6 March 1918 the Unit marched in at No. 2 Convalescent Depot Weymouth "ex furlo from France".

(With thanks to Reg Schryver & Neill Garland)


Derby's Narrative


We left Egypt on the tenth of June 1915 (sic).  We'd been in Egypt training.  We used to go down the Suez Road.  We went to Lemnos Island, that's about 30 miles away from the Gallipoli Peninsula, and that's where all the assembly took place.  There were French and two 9th Division English.  There was a Russian War Boat - Sydney Harbour is nothing compared to this - Lemnos Harbour.2  There was a narrow inlet where they used to put a net across every night in case of any German submarines, because there were about 90 warships in there, the British, French and also one Russian.

We were all assembled there and then on the 24th of April, they started off.  There were two submarines, they went out first, you know they were camped all levered ... we were going out but we had a suspect case of small-pox on board so they pulled us up at the early opening and took the case off, he was took to shore.  We weren't going to go, they weren't going to let us go, because of this suspect case, to join the fleet that went out.  We were there and saw them all go.  There was the Queen Elizabeth ... she was the first Queen Elizabeth - she was the biggest ship in the British Navy. She had eight fifteen inch guns.3

Any way this suspect case turned out to be German Measles, but all the fleet had gone.  We saw them all go out and we counted the ships.  Then we left and ... the engines never stopped.  You couldn't see, it was pitch dark.  I don't know if we went to sleep or not but when the engines stopped we got up and went up on the deck and we sat up on the deck up against the railings with a blanket around us.  Wilf Walters 4 - he and I were great pals - we were supposed to sleep down below on the iron deck - we had our blankets and our water-proof sheets.  As soon as the engines stopped we were awake, and Wilf says 'Aye, what about coming up on the deck?', and I says 'Right'.  So we wrapped our blankets around us and we got up on the deck of the ship.  It was an old Liberty Ship, all steel. They used to build one a day, the emergency service turned around one a day, it was all steel deck everything. We had this blanket over our coat and by the time we got on deck it was about midnight.

You couldn't see a ship a hundred yards away from you, but you could see an outline of the shore.  We were only about a mile from Cape Halles.  Then before it was daylight, just like in one second, there were about sixty warships opened fire on Cape Halles, and it lit it up like daytime. You could see movement there, because the Queen Elizabeth, she was about half a mile from us and every time she fired her big guns (she was firing at Sedd el Bahr Forts5, we were behind in what they call the narrows, and she was firing at them) and every time she fired our ship used to quiver like an earthquake.

Well we stopped there and we had the 6th Artillery from New South Wales with us.  They were on our boat too.  See, we had 500 horses on our boat, there were only about 250 men and every man had two horses.  Anyway we were up there and we watched this until daylight.  We had attached to our boat, I forgot to tell you, overhanging the side of the boat, four big flat-bottomed launching barges.

When we got up on deck they came over and started to take them [the barges]away from us.  They took them all away, and then as this bombardment opened, we waited for daylight.  As soon as the daylight was peeping, here were all these other boats had barges going on too.  Here they were going past us, full of troops - all standing up. There was no room to sit down, because they only had to go about two miles.  The water was calm and the day was coming clear but it wasn't clear as they were going by.  They were being towed by Naval pinnaces.

Then, you've heard of the River Clyde have you?  The boat that ran to the shore.  Well she went straight out in front of us.  She came from behind, and she was going full steam for the shore.  She went up, it was about a mile from the entrance to the peninsula, and she ran as hard as she could until she grounded.  Well, she grounded, must have been about twenty yards from the shore. 

They had some of these barges behind and the little pinnaces too, and they hauled these barges as far as they could.  There were two thousand troops on the River Clyde and at the front of that bow they had a great big door but of course it was closed, they couldn't open it.  The men were jumping off the back - the thing had stopped in about ten to twelve feet of water ... 6

Well then they made this arrangement because of the dangers to health, an armistice.  The Turks, weren't to come past a certain point.  Some of our fellas carted them [the Turkish dead] over to the line where the Turks couldn't cross and left them there and the Turks picked them up, but we couldn't see that, we were out at sea.

[Questions about Simpson]. Well they shot him in the end.  I don't think they meant to, because they were pretty fair.  He used to go up to the trenches but he couldn't take the donkey in the trenches, he was going up the hill, up - I can't think of the gully.7  It was a dangerous place - how many did we lose there?  Simpson was attached to the 11th Battalion - that was the 1st Field Ambulance.8

The Skipper on our boat was a foreigner, he was always right out in the front closer to the shore.  We could see the bayonets flashing and the fellas going through the scrub there down at Cape Halles the first day they landed.  We went up there to where the Australians were that afternoon and they took our stretcher bearers off the boat.  They couldn't take us 'cause we were looking after the horses and they couldn't get footing for the horses.  That's why we stayed there [on the ship] for about five weeks.  The closest thing we ever got was a shell from the Sedd el Bahr Forts that landed about twenty yards behind the boat.

There was a very strong tide there and the boat used to make it end on end parallel to the coast and when it was a big [shell] it splattered us with water the whole lot, and the old Skipper, he never waited to get the anchor up, he was moving while the anchor was coming (laughs).   When they dropped the shells into the water they did make a splash - they only got very few downstairs - a repercussion and then she flies!  Talk about a water spray!

Unknown to the British authorities we were there about five to six weeks. I think it was about June we went back to Egypt. Our warships and destroyers used to go up and down and they were shelling wherever they could see movement and not only that they had an aero-plane there, Madcap Sampson I think he was. He used to go over and let them know where to fire.

This one morning the Germans had two submarines that came by there in parts, trying to get to the Sea of Marmara.  They came out and they got this warship and that was the scatter that took all the transports with horses back to Egypt.  Then these two submarines, I don't think they ever got them, they sank several boats going and coming from Gallipoli to Egypt.  When you travelled to there from Alexandria you went through islands, none of them inhabited, but they were only as big as that rock outside Fremantle Harbor, Fisherman's Rock, about the size of two houses, scrub on them but not inhabited.  You were going between them all the time between Gallipoli and Egypt.

France - The Western Front

When it came winter time there ... we were in Pozières ... November I think it was, and they were going to send us down to a little place named, Eau - no Aux, I think it's a coastal resort like Rockingham sort of, oh, what was the name of the town that we went to - there was a big long shed there and we had twenty odd horses.

[Whenever we got to a town] there was always a French Mayor, and he'd tell us 'put your horses in here'.  They used to arrange it and they'd know we were coming.  Anyway [this time] the Mayor wasn't home you see, and a Frenchman  (he knew the horses were coming) started to talk French to the Colonel and the Colonel couldn't speak French you see.  Well of course there were very few officers ever went down to the stables, but this time the Colonel came down to the stables .. and he said to me 'look I can't understand this fella, see if you can understand what he wants'.  Well we had 20 odd horses, I think we had 30 horses and he wanted to know how much we were going to pay and I said well what he wants to know is how many horses we've got and how much 'chaque un' or each per day or week I forget what it was he was going to get.  Oh, the Colonel said, 'tell him everything's arranged with the town Mayor'.  So the old boy was satisfied.

The Mayor of Poperinge, his daughter got very friendly with an English soldier ... and this fella evidently worked in the Light Horse, and they had a wedding while we were there.  We were happy to be camped in the town and we went to it.  Gerry9 was always very good at French, and there was one of his other officers ... this girl was getting very keen on him and he was very keen on her, but this fella only knew odd words of French and Gerry was the interpreter for their love-making.  Gerry used to get into a conversation of three and one would say something to the other, this boy and the girl. There was never anything wrong said, but Gerry used to interpret and she'd go and kiss him and he'd go and kiss her.  Gerry always talked about that.  But he was very good, he went a year further in French than I did.

[Derby recalls the French children]  ... poor little kids, they were in the war zone, you know.  You could get odd shells in these villages five miles behind, long shells.  There was one little kid, she took a great fancy to me, and we used to go there nearly every night.  We used to have our tea about five o'clock, in these villages, and we used to go out and you know, you could go and have a cup of coffee.  This little kid used to wait for me.  She used to come and I used to pick her up and I told her one day I was going to take her back to Australia with me.  She was a lovely thing and a pretty little thing, oh dear.  For no reason whatsoever, she took a fancy to me, and I'd go there and she'd be alongside me while we were having [tea]. [What eventually happened to her?]  Oh God knows, well she'd be now, she was about five then, that was about 1916, well she'd be now 69. [Did you know her name?] Yes, Emilianne (?) Dolbeque (?), in the village of Le Doulieu.  I suppose the village would have had a population of a couple of hundred but a kilometre away there was a another village.

The closest town was Baillieul.  The first place we ever stopped at when we got there was about 2,000 metres away from Baillieul and ... what was her name, Veronique, I don't know what her surname was we never got that.  Her husband, he was too old for service, but he was at Dunkerque.  We used to take our rations there and we used her stove to cook, 14 of them as a matter of fact and we used to share our rations, especially cheese.  They'd give us about ten pound of cheese nearly every day and we used to give her all that cheese.  We used to post it, we had like a four gallon drum but bigger ...

[How many other places were you in France?]  Good God!  We landed at Marseilles and then we went right up through France to Belgium by rail. [Did you get to Paris?]  No, we were within twelve miles of Paris on the rail line. [Which particular unit were you attached to?] We were attached when we went away to the Anzac Division, the 16th Battalion, a section of the Ambulance.  There were three sections to the Division of Ambulances.  [Where did the 16th Battalion originate?] All the 16th Battalion originated in Western Australia, then the 12th Battalion, originated partly Western Australian, about 50% West Australian, but they didn't go away with us, they came a bit afterwards, the next ones, and partly South Australian.  The 32nd Battalion was partly West Australian. Wally Baker10 went away originally with them and they were partly other states, New South Wales or Victoria.  But after the Gallipoli campaign was over, we were all in our old Divisions.

When we were in France we were with the old 16th but we changed.  Tel el Kebir, you've heard of Tel el Kebir?  That's the place in Egypt where Kitchener made his name in the battlefield, before the War, and we were all re-organised there.  We went with the 4th Field Ambulance [but] we were transferred, our section.  There was A, B, C Section in the Corps.  In Tel el Kebir there was a re-organisation because there were a lot of reinforcements came in and we were transferred to A Section, 12th Field Ambulance, which went to France.   B and C ... were nearly all West Australian

[... and then the roast was cooked and ready to carve - and Grand-dad finished his story.]


1. Elliot, Ian, "Mundaring A History of the Shire", 1983, ISBN 9 9592 776 0

2. Mudros Bay

3. Battleship, British Dreadnought Class

4. Possibly Pte. Wilfred Richard WALTERS, 6th. Field Ambulance. Left Australia 3/2/1915. Died of Wounds 3/5/1917

5. Old fortress

6. Dublin & Munster Fusiliers and the 2nd. Hampshire Regiment suffered dreadful losses.

7. Shrapnel Gully. Simpson was shot by a sniper located on Dead Man's Ridge.

8. John Simpson KIRKPATRICK, "the man with the donkey" was with the 3rd. Field Ambulance.

9. Lieut.Gerald Patrick McKENNA, 11th. Battalion (Derby's brother). Left Australia 9/9/1914. Returned 3/7/1919

10.Pte. Walter Roland BAKER, 34th Battalion, (Derby's brother-in-law). Left Australia 10/12/1915. Returned 11/5/1919