By 1916 the world was deep in the throes of World War I.  Thousands of young Australian men had died on the battlefields.  Heavy early losses meant that the AIF faced a shortage of men[1] and conscription was already being debated[2].  It was against this background that 27-year-old Hubert Randall Chambers enlisted in the 10th Field Company Engineers.

Despite his short stint in active service, between November 1916 and January 1917[3], Hubert was away from home for over a year and received a gunshot wound to his left wrist. The reasons for his enlistment are unclear but events of that time would no doubt have been placing significant pressure on those who had not already done so, to enlist. His service in the AIF would have had a quite an impact on his family at home.

Hubert Randall Chambers, or Bert as he was known, was from an English protestant family.  His father, George, emigrated to Australia in the 1850’s[4]. Bert was born in Avoca, near Ballarat Victoria, on 5th September 1888[5] to George and Margaret Randall.  His parents were elderly and Margaret was George’s second wife. His family had already been touched by the war.  Two of Bert’s nephews had been killed at Gallipoli.  In fact, a newspaper report in the local Ballarat paper stated that “there were at least 14 members of various branches of the Chambers family at the front”[6].  The pressure would have been mounting for Bert to enlist.  His family would still have had a very close allegiance to king and country and possibly would have felt an obligation to encourage Bert to enlist.  Added to that was the proliferation of recruitment propaganda and the shame of being considered a “shirker”[7].  Conscription was being debated and there was soon to be a referendum on the issue[8].

The AIF had decided to raise a 3rd Division from new volunteers early in 1916[9].  Bert enlisted on 9th March 1916 in the 10th Field Company Engineers[10] which is interesting in itself as he was a draper [11] at the time he enlisted.  Hardly a good grounding for the hard physical and somewhat technical work required by Sappers.  The 10th Field Company Engineers were assembled at Domain Camp in Melbourne and then moved on to Seymour for training[12].

The day of embarkation arrived on 20th June 1916 and a train took Bert and his unit to Port Melbourne where they boarded the HMAT Runic[13].  The voyage was uneventful with stops at Cape Town and St Vincent, although there was an outbreak of meningitis and one sapper died.  “During the voyage, training, sports, lectures, boxing, euchre parties and swimming were indulged in to while away the hours”[14].  The ship arrived in Plymouth on 10th August 1916[15].

Once in England there was a further period of training at the Brightlingsea Royal Engineers’ Training Depot.  The community of Brightlingsea have fond memories of the soldiers who became a part of the community in their “free” time.  “​There were over twenty marriages to local girls and some men, like Sapper George Rickwood, ​never returned to Australia, raising families in the area”[16].  It seems easy to imagine that Bert might have enjoyed his time here in this friendly English community.  He was at the very start of his big adventure, overseas in a new country for the first time in his life and not yet having seen active duty.

Just prior to embarkation for France “the company was granted 3 days indulgent leave”.[17]  However Bert must not have made it back on time, as he was reported AWOL from 12th to 14th November and lost 9 days’ pay.[18]

The 10th Field Company Engineers finally embarked for France on 23rd November 1916 and arrived at Havre early the following morning[19].  They were eventually billeted at Armentieres on the Western Front and began their work which included deepening and shoring up trenches, drainage works and replacing duckboards.  The infantry assisted in this work, supervised by the sappers[20].

On the night of 9th January 1917, a team of infantry together with four sappers headed out to carry out a raid on a German trench.  The sappers carried explosives and one of the sappers was wounded as they returned to the lines[21].  That sapper must have been Hubert Chambers who received a gunshot wound to the left wrist on that day[22].  After passing through the casualty clearing station and the field ambulance he was taken to Brighton in England[23] where the 3rd Australian General Hospital was staffing the Kitchener Hospital[24][25].   He was there for 6 months[26] and underwent an operation to free the nerve in his wrist but apparently there was only a slight improvement[27].  He embarked from England to return to Australia aboard HMAT A71 Nestor on 22nd July 1917[28] and upon arrival he was admitted to the No 11 Australian General Hospital on 11th October 1917[29] and discharged from there on 22nd October 1917[30].  He was discharged from the AIF, medically unfit, on 5th November 1917[31] and was granted a pension of 45 shillings per fortnight[32].  He married Jessie Myers in 1918[33] and they had 5 children together.

Whilst Bert was recuperating in England, his mother Margaret died on March 27th 1917[34].  What anguish must she have experienced as she heard that her son had been injured and then waited to hear the seriousness of the injury. The first communication stated simply that he had been injured but the seriousness of the wound was not known[35].  Perhaps the cause of death as noted on her Death Certificate gives some indication – “Cancer of the Intestine, Exhaustion.” [36] His father was 86 when Margaret died and may also have been in failing health as he died two years later in 1919[37].  The family must therefore have been very anxious to know when Bert would return to Australia.  His sister Elsie wrote to the Officer in Charge of Base Records in August 1917 asking if he would be returning to Australia[38].  Whilst the Officer in Charge of Base Records acknowledged her letter and said that they had no official advise that he would be returning, it also noted that any further advise would be sent to the Next of Kin who was noted as his father[39].  Of course, his records indicate he was already on his way home aboard the Nestor.

Bert seems to have had a comparatively fortunate war.  He was only at the Western Front very briefly and his time there was in between major battles so he may not have experienced many of the horrors that others had.  His injury seemed fairly minor compared to others who returned to the front following injuries. It appears he had received a “blighty”.  This also meant that, as it was a physical injury, he does not appear to have had much difficulty in obtaining a pension.  Others who suffered “shell shock” underwent many hardships trying to readjust to civilian life and to access treatment in appropriate institutions[40].  And whilst many other returned soldiers struggled to find employment Bert was also able to return to the family business and resume his role as a Draper[41].  He lived a long life and died in 1977, aged 88 years[42]

[1] K H Jobson, First AIF Enlistment Patterns and Reasons for their Variations, Australian Defence Force Journal No. 132 September/October 1998 p.62

[2] Joan Beaumont, Australians and the Great War, Battles, the Home Front and Memory. History Teachers Association of Victoria’s journal Agora (Vol 49 No 4, 2014) p.22

[3] Service records Hubert Chambers, National Archives of Australia; Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920 p.9

[4] Anon ‘Avoca Pioneers Record – A colonist of 66 years’ Obituary Avoca Free Press Aug 1919

[5] Ancestry. Australia, Birth Index 1788-1922. Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria.  Registration No. 26277. Accessed 19 March 2018

[6] Anon., ‘Fallen and Wounded’ Ballarat Star 16th October 1915, p.2

[7] Emily Robertson, Propaganda at Home Australia pp. 2 & 3 Accessed 20 Mar 2018

[8] Australian War Memorial, Conscription during the First World War, Accessed 19 March 2018

[9] Jobson, First AIF Enlistment Patterns and Reasons for their Variations. P62

[10] Service records Hubert Chambers, p.1

[11] Service records Hubert Chambers, p.1

[12] In The Field, 1916 – 1918 History 10th Field Coy. Engineers presented by the 10th Engineers’ Welcome Home Committee p.6.

[13] Australian War Memorial Embarkation Roll Accessed 26 Feb 2018

[14] In the Field p.8.

[15] In The Field p.8.

[16] Brightlingsea Museum ANZAC Centenary Weekend Accessed 28 Feb 2018.

[17] In the Field p.10.

[18] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.10.

[19] AIF Unit War Diaries, 10th Field Company, Australian Engineers November 1916 p.2.

[20] AIF Unit War Diaries, December 1916 p.2 & 3.

[21] AIF Unit War Diaries, January 1917 p.5.

[22] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.9 & 11.

[23] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.9 & 10.

[24] Through These Lines Accessed 17 Mar 2018.

[25] Diary of Sister Anne Donnell State Library NSW Series 02: Anne Donnell diary, 29 December 1917 – 31 January 1919 p.130 & 131.

[26] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.10.

[27] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.24.

[28] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.11.

[29] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.32.

[30] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.26.

[31] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.47.

[32] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.37.

[33] Ancestry Australia, Marriage Index 1788 – 1950 Registration No. 5623 Accessed 20 Mar 2018.

[34] Death Certificate of Margaret Randall died 27 March 1917 Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria 1713/1672.

[35] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.13.

[36] Death Certificate of Margaret Randall died 27 March 1917.

[37] Anon ‘Avoca Pioneers Record – A colonist of 66 years’ Obituary Avoca Free Press Aug 1919.

[38] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.16.

[39] Service Records Hubert Chambers p.17.

[40] Marina Larsson Families and Institutions for Shell-Shocked Soldiers in Australia after the First World War. Social History of Medicine Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 97–114

[41] Ancestry, Australia, Electoral Rolls 1903 – 1980.  Electoral year 1934 Accessed 20 Mar 2018.

[42] Ancestry, Australia, Death Index 1787 – 1985 Registration number 11842 Accessed 20 Mar 2018.

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