This blog is a companion to the Database of Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

His Heart's Blood. Alex McArthur of Ascot Vale

Pte A J McArthur, courtesy of Kim Phillips of The Spirits of Gallipoli
website. Source:  The Australasian, 3 July 1915, page iii.

Alex McArthur grew up in Ascot Vale, running with other boys around the playground of the Ascot Vale State School.  He attended the Ascot Vale Presbyterian Church in Maribyrnong Rd, Moonee Ponds, with his brother and sisters.   He  undertook his compulsory military training while still at school as a cadet, and as he grew older moved on to the Citizens Military Forces, serving with the 58 Infantry (Essendon Rifles) where he was promoted to Sergeant.  He worked as a salesman, and joined the Maribyrnong Lacrosse Club, associated with the Ascot Vale Presbyterian Church. 

Alex was a slight lad of five feet four inches (162 cm), 8 stone ten pounds (55 kg), with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and auburn hair, aged 19.  He was noted for his cheerful disposition. When the call came for recruits, Alex joined the excited queue of young men, many of whom he knew well,  down at the Essendon Drill Hall, and joined the 7 Infantry Battalion, to be commanded by his old CO of the Essendon Rifles, Colonel H E (Pompey) Elliott

CAREERS OF THE FALLEN (1915, June 23). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954), p. 13. 

Alex was assigned the Regimental number of 475, and the page of the Embarkation Roll in which he appeared was crowded with names of other young lads from the suburbs around his home, many of whom he would have known from the Essendon Rifles.  He got to know them better in the following months.  They embarked on the Hororata, leaving from Albany in WA in a convoy for what they thought was Europe, but changed en route to Egypt.   Training took place in the dry desert sands, but their immediate objective was the scrubby  shore of Turkey, on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The troops were intended to disembark into rowboats which were then to be towed by pinnaces to the landing point within a few hundred meters of the shore, but on the night there was a long delay with the pinnaces not arriving to take the 7 Battalion ashore.  When sporadic fire began just before dawn the captain of the Galeka, standing off the coast, was reluctant to remain in the area to be a target for shelling, and the men of the 7 Bn  were ordered into the Galeka lifeboats to row themselves ashore, despite the lack of experience in rowing.    Alex was one of the D Company men who scrambled over the side of the Galeka and took up an oar. 

Alex’s boat soon came under fire, and men struck by bullets collapsed into the boat.   The only account of Alex’s death came from Colonel Elliott himself, though he was not an eye witness, not being in the boat.  It was a story Elliott liked to tell to extol the selfless bravery of the young men who lost their lives that day.  

Private Danaher was in one of the three leading boats on the day of the landing. He was not one of the oars men, and was consequently facing the enemy. He received a machine gun bullet in the face, just above the mouth. The bullet passed out of the back of his head, and he fell forward, dead without making a sound.   Private McArthur was in the same boat, and was one of the crew. The boat was caught in the machine gun fire, and a bullet passed clean through his neck as he rowed, and then through his thigh, severing the artery. Sergeant Bastin, the Platoon Sergeant, saw the blood spurt out, and attempted to rise to render first aid, but was so encumbered by the bodies of the fallen, that he could not get to his feet. McArthur saw his face and read his intention. "Don't bother with me, Sergeant,"- he called out "I am done for," and it was so. In about four or five minutes at the outside, he fell forward dead but until death relaxed his grasp on the oar he kept on rowing and keeping the stroke. He was a member of the Essendon Rifles - a Sergeant--and I am proud indeed of him and the manner of his death, which deserves to be recorded in the annals of his regiment for all time”.

The Ascot Vale State School “Book of Noble Deeds” refers to Alex as Corporal McArthur.  His army record of service is bare.  It records his date of joining, 17 August 1914, and the next entry is “Killed in Action”.  It may be that Alex was indeed promoted to Corporal, but there was no-one left to record it.

It would appear that Alex’s body was brought to shore, because he has a grave at No 2 Outpost Cemetery at Gallipoli.  He lies in company with other young men from the local area with whom he lived, ate, trained, enjoyed the sights of Cairo, perhaps together swam in the bright waters of the Aegean sea.  

These  young men all died on or shortly after 25 April 1915.

The shock of these and other deaths and casualties back in Essendon and Flemington was immense as the lists of names began appearing in Melbourne papers.  Grieving was meant to be private, it was not the done thing to complain.  Only tributes to bravery and sacrifice were acceptable as public expression.   Alex’s family expressed their sorrow in short but heartfelt notices in the paper. Alex’s bible class friends remembered him along with his classmates, in another notice.  And in the egalitarian way of the Australian army, Lieutenant William Robert Ferguson Love, his mate Billie, paid a tribute of love to the memory of his boyhood friend with whom he played lacrosse in the joyous days before the war.

Lenore Frost
25 April 2018 

You can see more of Alex McArthur's story on the Empire Called website.

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