WW1 Ford ambulances sent to the front by the women of Mt Gambier

May 4th 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the presentation of two Ford ambulances to the Australian Department of Defense.

Even before the horrors of the Gallipoli and the Western Front were apparent, the women of South Australia’s Eastern District had begun planning events to fund, purchase and deliver two new ambulance to aid the troops on the front line of the First World War.

Having led the way in woman’s suffrage, the women were not bothered by lack of British Empire capacity to meet their requirements for two new ambulances. Ahead of their time in the logistics of war, they instead turned to the American company Ford, who rapidly came supplied the vehicles.

Here is their story, as reported on June 16, 1915, in Mount Gambier’s Border Watch:

1915 Ambulance SLOSA

“Ford” ambulance presented to the Commonwealth Government during the 1914-18 War by the women of the South Eastern District at Mount Gambier, 1915. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B21423, accessed via Trove, April 6, 2015


‘The final meeting of the committee who promoted the scheme for the purchase of two motor ambulances from the ladies of the South-Bast for the benefit of wounded soldiers in the European war was held on Monday afternoon in the Town Council Chamber.

‘The Mayor (Mr. J. F. Balamonntain) presided. The hon, secretary (Miss B. M. French) read the following report : “Mr. Chairman and Lady President, Ladies and Gentlemen, …As you are aware, at a meeting held 0n April 1 it was decided to purchase two Ford motor ambulances, and the order was given to Messrs. Duncan and Fraser, of Adelaide, through their local manager here. It was originally intended to 1 cable the money home, but at time the selection was being made, the English Government had commandeered most of the English output in the motor trade, so that we were unable to avail ourselves of any advantage in this respect.

In consequence of the same restrictions, Adelaide orders had been entrusted to local firms, and cars had been successfully built under military supervision. Such being the case, we had no hesitation in doing the same, as it was of great importance to get them away as soon as possible.

Messrs. Duncan and Fraser executed the order in less than a month, and on May 4 they were formally handed over to the Defence Department by Mr. Livingston, M.H.R., who kindly made a special journey to Adelaide for the purpose. The following note was presented by him to the Military Commandant, Col. Irving .

‘To Col. Irving, Military Commandant.

Dear Sir, – On behalf o£ the women of the South Eastern District of South Australia, we have much pleasure in presenting for your acceptance, through Mr. Livingston, M.H.R., two Ford motor ambulance cars, for service at the front. Trusting they will help to alleviate some of the suffering of our brave troops, we remain, on behalf of the subscribers, yours faithfully, 

L. Palamountain (President),
Bertha M. French (hon.’secretary),
Women’s Patriotic League.’

1915 Amb B21422

“Ford” ambulance presented to the Commonwealth Government during the 1914-18 War by the women of the South Eastern District at Mount Gambier, 1915. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 21422, accessed via Trove, April 6, 2015

In reply to the above I received the following acknowledgment :-

‘Dear Madam,- I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter re motor ambulances, presented by the women of the South-East, for which I thank you. Please accept my sincere thanks for your generous gift, which will be of incalculable value to the forces. Yours faithfully, A. G. H. Irving, Commandant.’

Mr. Livingston, on the day of presentation, kindly sent a telegram, which said :-

‘Presented motor ambulances. Commandant gratefully accepted, and sends best thanks to yourself and ladies of South Eastern district.’

I think also our thanks are due to Mr. Livingston, who spent thirty hours in the train, an experience not ardently desired by many, in order, to oblige the ladies of the South-East. Two photographs were taken of the cars, and the committee intend to scud a copy of one of them to each of the branches that contributes towards the success of the undertaking, If more copies are required as mementoes, orders can be left with me for them.

In conclusion, Mr.Chairman, I would like to thank all those who have in any way helped to bring this stiff proposition, as we were told in the beginning, to a successful issue. And the knowledge that the ambulances will help to save the lives of many brave men fills us with gratitude and a deep sense of pleasure that we have been able to do even this much to help the dear old Homeland in her hour of need.-

I am, yours faithfully, Bertha M. French,
hon, secretary, Women’s Patriotic League.”

From the 1915, June 16 Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 – 1954), p. 2.
Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77775797


Four opticians that became ANZACs in WW1 – one survived


An outdoor portrait of the 9th Training Battalion at Perham Downs, Wiltshire. Victorian optician Gordon Heathcote from Kew is seated on the far left, sporting his new Corporal stripes he earned in England.

Cpl Gordon Roy Heathcote, 24th Company Australian Machine Gun Corps.

Cpl Gordon Roy Heathcote was an optician of Kew in Victoria. Single, twenty-three years old and living with his parents comfortably in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs, he enlisted in August and set sail from Melbourne on 20 October 1916. Seated on the left above, the machine gun is not just a prop for the photo – this optician had landed as a non-commissioned officer in an Australian Army Machine Gun Corps. Single, living with his parents comfortably in Melbourne’s suburbs. he enlisted in August and left Melbourne on 20 October 1916. In was promoted to Corporal while in England and completed his physical and bayonet training courses there before landing in France in September 1917. He was killed in action just short of a year after leaving his in Melbourne, dying on 16 October 1917 in Belgium. The soldier standing behind Gordon with his arm reached onto his shoulder is, Frederick Benedict (Ted) Alsop, who died the next day on the 17 October 1917.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P08299.007


2nd Lt George Stanley McIlroy, 24th Battalion, of South Melbourne.

2nd Lt George Stanley McIlroy,
24th Battalion, of South Melbourne.

An optician prior to enlistment, he was awarded the Military Cross, “for conspicuous ability and gallantry as a Company Commander throughout the operations in France from 26 March 1916. He looks well after his men and has set them a fine example of soldierly endurance under heavy shell fire at Pozieres. His Company has done excellent work throughout, and this is due in great part to the powers of leadership developed by Captain McIlroy”. Due to illness, he returned to Australia on 17 March 1917.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P05891.001



Lt Arthur Douglas Hogan, 21st Battalion from Lewisham, NSW.

Lt Arthur Douglas Hogan
21st Battalion from Lewisham, NSW.

Arthur was a 29 year old jeweller/optician prior to his enlistment in 1915. After arriving in Egypt, he was repatriated back to Australia suffering from typhoid. Following his recovery, he then wounded but returned to the front and was killed in action at Passchendaele in 1917. Lt Hogan is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium with others who have no known grave.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H0575


Captain John Needham, 2nd Pioneer Battalion, VIC, Australian Imperial Forces.

This is a story of a First World War (WWI) optician: mentioned in Despatches by General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France for “distinguished and gallant services, and devotion to duty” in the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF).

Born in 1882, John V Needham enlisted at age 19 in the Victorian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent he served in South Africa and returned in 1902. As a young Boer War Veteran, Needham then joined the Victorian Scottish Regiment and later married, having a son and training to become an optician. He was a practising optometrist/refractionist at Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne, before he enlisted as an “optician” in the AIF in late 1914.

Photo courtesy of AWM P00998.031

Seated in the front row, first left, is Captain John Valentine Needham, a Boer War Veteran, father and optometrists, who left his business in 1914 to answer the call of the AIF. One of the few “opticians” that appear in the #WW1 ANZAC records, his became a front leaders, suffered shell shock, was wounded and returned home a five years later. This is his story. Photo courtesy of AWM p00988.031

The term optician in 1914 may have equated to what we would think of as a modern-day “optometrist” including a store front and dispensary. Doing eye testing, cutting and fitting of lenses and offering a section of frames including custom-made styles, all was probably completed and dispensed to the customer at the Richmond building.

The professional organisation of Australian optometrists was is its infancy at the time and a search of the Australian War Memorial & National Archive of Australia records for opticians, optometrist or optometry reveal very few WWI enlistment records, except Captain Needham, enlisting with such an occupation.

Later wounded and of failing health, the Optician was now a front line officer in France, and worried about his business affairs at home: “He sleeps badly and worries that his business in going to ruin in Melbourne… He has insomnia and tremors of the hands…stress and strain from active service conditions.”

WW1medals&cardsHe saw service in Gallipoli and France and was promoted to captain in 1916. Wounded and ill, he was recommended for the Military Cross for his gallantry at Pozieres, but Mentioned in Despatches, his health deteriorated. A report recommended he be returned to Australia in 1916 as unsuitable for active duty, but other medical evaluations determined he was fit for duty. Sadly, it took another three years before he arrived home in Melbourne in 1919.

A broken man, he never recovered and was hospitalised because of the trauma of war. He died in Melbourne in the early 1920s. His death was considered to have been directly caused by his service.

Seated in the front row, first on the left, is Captain John Needham, the “Optician” from Melbourne, in an outdoor portrait of officers of the 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces, c. 1916. His WWI awards & recommendations included:

In addition, Captain Needham received the Queen’s South Africa Medal for the Boer War, all of which are now held in the national collection of the Australian War Memorial.

JVNeedhamWW1fSoldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice received the honour of a Memorial Scroll from the King and saucer-sized bronze plaque recognising their service to the Empire. The later was often called a death penny. His widow had wrote on many occasions to receive his entitlements, for his young son, and eventually she received a Memorial Scroll from the King but added to one letter:

“P.S.  I would also like one of the Memorial Plaques – as next of kin – if this is not asking too much. A. G. N.”

Information sourced from Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia internet sites 25 April 2014. (C) Andrew McIntosh CPA

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

Throughout the world researchers, writers, bloggers and family members are becoming familiar with “Field Post” cards. For many years official histories and formal records dictated much of the content of #WW1 history. With the passing of the Great War generation, often the men first and then their partners, more and more First World War post cards are becoming available.

Be this via opening your grandparents musty box of letters or finding a card from the Great War at a market, early postcards are growing in popularity as a low-cost method for collectors, students and writers to get up close and personal with #WW1. Unlike war sites being reclaimed by nature, post cards are had written – a piece of history actually handled by the soldier, the nurse, the veterinarian on the front line.

Often the Field Post cards will have a last portrait or show the ruins of Europe, but you often get the sense of fore boding: you can sense the “she’ll be right mate” attitude of Aussie Diggers as they face an uncertain and often deadly future. Now with the advent of online websites like eBay, cards posted from Field Post Offices are cheap and readily accessible to all.

The unexpected twist is when the enemy post cards appear and you see that not only the fresh face youth of the British Empire which was marched to muddy hell, but also the proud young German men, writing home to their mothers, sisters and girls-friends. Field Post Offices provided an amazing service in so many ways.

While technology brings us close to accessing WWI messages, the world faces losing much of the modern-day message from the battle field: email and social media is quick, easy and instantaneous – yet go back through your emails and you may find they are slowly disappearing. 9-11 for example: the emotion, heart-break and agony of that day would have been once on paper or post card. Look back through your emails and see if you have any from September 11th, 2011.

I know my email service provided does not retain anything that old now. Fortunately, a little old-fashioned I know, I printed out the key emails of the time. I am glad I did, because a great bulk of that electronic ‘field post’ for this century, email, does not have a life span of the documents handled by the Great Field Post Offices of the War to End All Wars.

The British Postal Museum & Archive blog

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin OXO tin sent…

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Australian Indigenous Response to World War One

The mystery continues – do you know who the two standing soldiers are in this WW1 portrait?

Read the original article below for more information and discussion.


Book Review: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous Response to World War One (Second Edition 2012)
Author: Philippa Scarlett

Private Harry Avery with an unidentified Aboriginal soldier (previously thought to be Douglas Grant) and an unknown British soldier, c 1918, courtesy of Rebecca Lamb.

I first came across Philippa Scarlett’s name as part of my research into World War One Australian Aboriginal soldier Douglas Grant. Philippa was a guest on an ABC Radio program with two other researchers, Garth O’Connell and David Huggonson. Garth and David had led the way some years earlier by documenting the neglected area of Australia’s Indigenous war service record.

The radio program had the well known portrait of a WWI Aboriginal soldier, standing next to Private Harry Avery and an unknown British soldier, as a prominent image on it’s website for the interview. This photo, said to be of Aboriginal…

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So where is that enormous vice-regal gold vase?

An illustration of the December 1853 presentation of a gold vase to Victoria’s Lt Governor, Charles J La Trobe. The Illustrated London News, June 1854

2013 is the 160th anniversary of the presentation of a ‘gold testimonial’ vase to Victoria’s first Lieutenant Governor in 1853. And while there is the La Trobe Reading Room, La Trobe Street, the University and La Trobe City, no-one seems to know what happened to this unique and valuable piece of our Colonial and State history.

Many Victorians are aware of the La Trobe testimonial candelabrum centrepiece that is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria. This spectacular silver and glass piece was manufactured in London by Stephen Smith & William Nicholson (1854-1855). This silver ‘testimonial’ was presented to Lt Governor Charles La Trobe following his return to London in 1854.

The silver candelabrum is in fact the second of two significant testimonial works presented to La Trobe.  The first testimonial, an enormous gold cup, was presented at a ‘grand ball’ in Melbourne on the stormy evening of Wednesday, 28th of December, 1853.   Controversy surrounded the gold cup even then, with the Argus reporting that while only a small objection was taken to the ball, some “indignation” was felt about the golden cup being presented and that it was no less than an “outrage” that such a man should receive the cup.

Despite the local debate about La Trobe’s competency and how unpopular some felt he was, the Illustrated London News reported details of the grand farewell from the last Australian mail, six months later in June, 1854.  “Highly popular throughout the Colony,” with nearly 2000 people attending, the gold cup was presented at the grand farewell in Melbourne.

The gold cup could contain one and half bottles of wine, or “about the same in table beer, “ and was no doubt used for this purpose at the ball:  there were toasts “drunk with loyal enthusiasm” and with a band number 100 performers, the “enjoyments of the ball were prolonged until about five o’clock the next morning.”

CJLT 1854 Gold Vase4

Close examination of The Illustrated London News illustration shown not just a glamorous Colonial Ball, but perhaps more importantly, what could be the only remaining visual representation from the period of the gold cup.

With the discovery of gold only a few years earlier in 1851, goldsmiths in the Colony were still in their professional infancy by 1853.  Important works of the time would often have Victorian gold shipped back to Britain for use by reputable London goldsmiths.  La Trobe’s golden testimonial was reported as being 170 ounces of native Victorian gold and, importantly, manufactured by native talent, Victorian goldsmiths Bond and Tofield under the supervision of the retailer, Mr Drew.  For these reasons alone, the gold cup is significant for Victorian State history.

The cup was 16 inches in height, with the inscription on the front and the arms of the Colony of the back.  It was decorated with solid figures of a digger (representing La Trobe’s friend Captain Brown) and a ‘native’ throwing a spear as well as an emu, kangaroo, sheep and gold nuggets.

CJLT 1854 Gold Vase2

The Illustrated London News, June 1854

While controversy surrounding the gold cup in 1853, in the 160th anniversary of its manufacture (which reputably took only two weeks), very little else is know about this golden piece of Victorian Colonial history.  Mystery now remains about the fate of the cup, as it seems to have vanished without trace.

While hypothesis abound on its fate – was melted down or does it remains in the dusty vaults of a European museum or an American private collection or was it shipped to a great exhibition and sold – it is hoped that renewed interest in La Trobe and Victoria’s golden past will uncover more information on the ultimate resting place of this unique piece of Victorian history.

If you have any information on the whereabouts or fate of the ‘gold’ testimonial, please contact the Andrew McIntosh from museumandhistory.com at andrew@optimizesbiz.com or via the comment section below.


  • The Illustrated London News (London), 17 June 1854
  • The Argus (Melbourne, Vic), 28 December 1853
  • Czernis-Ryl, Eva (ed.), 2011, Brilliant: Australian Gold and Silver 1851-1950, Powerhouse Publishing
  • Hawkins, John, 2001, Australian Goldsmiths’ Work 1834-1950, The World of Antiques & Art December 2000 – June 2001 60th Edition
  • Wellington Independent, Rōrahi IX, Putanga 867, 1 Huitanguru 1854, Page 4, download 3 November 2011, National Library of New Zealand, paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Adapted from ‘La Trobe’s Golden Testimonial’, first published in the La Trobeana (journal of The C J La Trobe Society, Inc. Australia), Vol 10, No 3, November 2011, 48-49.

The last World War Two soldier

I was in a rush one day before Remembrance Day and quickly ducked into Quinton’s IGA in Warrandyte for some groceries. As I entered, I passed an elderly gentleman seated with this tray full of poppies fund-raising for the Returned Services League (RSL) of Australia. He had a baseball cap on and, like most men of a more respectable era, dress pants and an a jacket despite the warm weather. On his lapel were several badges and of course, a blood-red poppy. I back tracked, ignoring my urge to rush in and out of the shop as quick as I could, with my conscience telling me I needed to buy a poppy.

IMG_9553As I passed over my donation to support veterans, I asked the old Digger when did he serve. He answered “World War Two, I’m the last one.” I paused for a moment, thinking about of his understated remarks, ladened with a magnitude of meaning that I could not ever really hope to comprehend. Firstly, this proud but frail man sitting in the grocery store had served in a battle so great it is titled a “World War.” How could anyone who had never served on a battlefield hope to understand what that meant?

Secondly, I was caught off guard by simple but powerful words “I’m the last one.” I tried doing arithmetic about WWII, did he mean the last standing Digger in Australia or this local area or his battalion? I had to ask, but it did not matter if he was the last one in the country or the last one in the local area, anyone who says they are the “last one” of a group of friends, soldiers or a generation carries a heavy burden.

He was the last WWII Digger of the Warrandyte RSL Club.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and the term “Diggers” became famous during the drawn out battles of WWI. The name Diggers has stuck to Aussie soldiers for over ninety years – not only known for their courage under fire, but their ability to dig in under the arduous circumstances.

RSL Club’s once graced nearly every town in Australia and are familiar as the proverbial kangaroo to Australians of all ages. Once flooded with returned soldiers from both World Wars and later Korea and Vietnam, the Clubs have slowly emptied, some closing their doors, ‘consolidating’, as Diggers from the Great War, then the following wars, slowly thinned in their ranks with the passing of time.

The rush of modern-day life then caught up with me, I had to move on: get the shopping done, get the kids and get moving. But that thirty-second conversation stayed with me, played on my mind…. “I’m the last one” and soon there would be none.  I wondered if someone had captured his story, recorded his thoughts, this Last Digger of Warrandyte. The last of his generation. The last of his mates.

IMG_8970Many weeks passed and I started a documentary photography course at Melbourne’s RMIT University under the direction of esteemed photographer Michael Coyne. We had to come up with subject ideas for our portfolio of photos and this Last Digger came to mind. My final project concept ended up being “Roundabout to Roundabout”, documenting life between Warrandyte’s two roundabouts, starting at the CFA Fire Station and ending at the Roundabout Cafe several kilometres away.

By this stage Remembrance Day had passed and there was no sign of the Last Digger at the local IGA. I would have to do my project without the poppy seller in my portfolio of life between the roundabouts. As I spent too many hours stalking people and businesses along Warrandyte Road, I got used to the rhythm of the old township, got to know the shop keepers by day and even several by night as the project developed.

And then on the last day of my portfolio shooting in Warrandyte, I saw in the distance a man in a baseball cap with a bit of a slow shuffle, making his way between the roundabouts. Despite the hot day, he was well dressed with a jacket and slacks and had his tray of RSL knickknacks in hand, still fundraising for current veterans and their families well passed Remembrance Day.

In one of my next blogs I will tell the remarkable story of the Last Digger of Warrandyte. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who knows a WWII soldier to ask them about their service…  before it is too late.