Australian World War I Battlefields – Family Hero, James Joseph Thomas Bell – Anzac

As we watched on TV, the Anzac Anniversary Ceremony broadcast from Albany Western Australia, yesterday, the question was asked; Did our family have anyone, who sailed out on the troopships from Albany a hundred years ago? The answer was yes, we did.

James Joseph Thomas Bell, known as ‘Tom’ was born in 1891, the eldest son of William James Allen and Louisa Mabel Grace Bell (nee Day), of Gundagai, New South Wales. He enlisted at Kensington Army Recruiting on 2 September 1914, and was one of the first in the state to join-up.

After nearly six weeks of basic training the 1st Battalion marched out of the Kensington Racecourse Camp to Fort Macquarie, where they embarked on HMAT Afric on 18 October 1914. This ship of nearly 12,000 tons, with a speed of 13 knots, belonged to the Federal Steam Navigation Company of London, and had been requisitioned, along with many other ships, by the Australian Government as a troopship.

The Afric and several other ships sailed from Sydney, for the port of Albany in Western Australia, to await the arrival of all the other Australian and New Zealand troopships, which were to be escorted by several war ships across the Indian Ocean. There were a total of forty ships in the complete convoy, and 27,000 able-bodied men, who were originally to sail to England, for further training to fight with the British soldiers, on the Western Front.

The Afric arrived at Albany on the 25 October. On 30 October the fleet learned that Britain and Turkey were at war, and the Australian and New Zealand troops were to be diverted to Egypt. The convoy of ships left Albany harbour on 1 November 1914.

Further details of the soldier’s training and life on the troopships, and camps, as well as throughout the war can be found in the ‘unit histories’ at the Australian War Memorial at http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/awm4/

After disembarking at Alexandria on the 5 December the 1st Battalion marched to Mena Camp near Cairo.

(Below) A general view of the camp at Mena and a hotel, which was converted to a camp hospital.

The Camp at Mena LHN0013601 004

The ‘Unit history’ then detailed the training over the next four months before the 1st Australian Battalion embarked on Minniewaska on 5 April for the Dardanelles Campaign.

The Australian and New Zealand forces went into battle on 25 April 1914, against the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Tom Bell was part of the 1st Brigade, which ‘dug-in’ and manned the trenches on the steep Gallipoli shoreline.

C E W Bean in Volume II of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914-18, has maps and full descriptions of life and action in these trenches.

See “Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume II – The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula (11th edition, 1941) found at http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol2/

Tom Bell was severely wounded in the abdomen, in action at Lone Pine, on 26 June 1915, and was stretchered off to the ship, Gascon, where he died at 4.30 pm on 29 June. He was buried at sea about three miles off Gaba Tepe. He is memorialised on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli.

Private J J T Bell kept a diary while overseas, and this was returned to his parents after his death. Years later his youngest brother, Oscar Isaac Bell prepared some extracts for publication in the Gundagai Independent, and his daughter sent me a copy, which I shared with everyone in the Bell Family Newsletter No 5 (July 1986).Here is a copy of those extracts, which tells part of Tom’s story in his own words.

Extracts from the Diary of an Anzac

The following extracts are from the diary of Private J J T (Tom) Bell, No 1023, ‘D’ Company, 1st Btn., Infantry 1st AIF Division, eldest brother of Mr O Bell, of ‘Lone Pine’, Gundagai. Tom was severely wounded at ‘Lone Pine’ and was being evacuated to the Base Hospital on the Isle of Lemnos. He died on the way and was buried at sea.

The diary extracts read:-

Sunday, 18 October, 1914

We marched on-board Troopship Afric, and moved out to sea, which was very rough. We were all very sea sick.

Sunday, 25th October, 1914

We arrived at Albany. We have to wait a week for all the rest of the Troopships and our warship escort to catch up. Amongst our escort are three Japanese warships.

Sunday, 1st November, 1914

We leave Australia. Our troopships sail in three columns of five, with warships all around us.

Monday, 9th November, 1914

The German cruiser Emden, sighted by escort Sydney. They blazed away at each other for nearly two hours. The Sydney scored several hits, and the Emden beached herself on Cocos island to save herself from sinking. She was being coaled at the time and the Sydney then captured the collier and sank her after taking her crew off. 200 Germans killed on the Emden.

Tuesday, 24th November, 1914

We enter the Red Sea. We pass three Indian troopships returning to India for another load of Indian troops.

Saturday, 5th December, 1914

We arrive at Alexandria, Egypt. There are hundreds of English, French, and Indian troopships and warships in the harbour. They all saluted us as we passed.

Thursday, 10 September, 1914

I met a lot of Gundagai men today, Lt Beeken, from Solomon’s Store, Bugler Fitzsimmons, Larry Quinn, Bill Laffin, Harold Hansen, Micky Burke’s son, Tom Smith and George Bramley. Sir George Reid inspected us.

Wednesday, 24th February, 1915

I met Fred Elworthy, Jim McLean, Clem Harris, Bill Oliver, Doug Carr, Bill Eurell and Hjack Rolfe.

Saturday, 10th April, 1915

We leave Alexandria, preparatory to sailing across the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles. We have five Generals aboard with us. General Birdwood gave us a very stirring address. He said that before we land we would be issued with 3 days’ rations and two hundred rounds of ammo. He advised us to be very careful of our water supply.

Monday, 12 April, 1915

We get a good view of the Dardanelles. We enter a bay at Lemnos Island. Hundreds of troopships, battleships, cruisers, submarines and other craft, and moving around us everywhere British, French, Indian, Russian and other nations were represented the crew of the Queen Elizabeth pay us a visit. They said,”Look out for the Turks”.

Saturday, 24th April, 1915

We steam out from Lemnos Bay. Everyone seems to think there is something doing. We anchor on the north side of Lemnos Island. We are surrounded by cruisers. We are issued with three days rations, and ammo. Which weighs over 100 lbs altogether.

Sunday, 25th April, 1915

We arrive at Gulf of Saros. We land in knee deep water, under heavy rifle and shrapnel fire. The noise is terrific. We chase Turks with our bayonets from the shore for three miles. I could feel the bullets- whizzing past my face but I was lucky. We dig in. We were covered in the landing by heavy artillery fire from our warships. While chasing the Turks, we sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other songs.

Thursday, 20th May, 1915

I heard the two Putlands were killed. I met Clem and Vern Harris, Bill Eurell, Bill Oliver and Roley Carr.

Monday, 24th May, 1915

An armistice to bury our dead, after 23 days continual bombardment. We were relieved by the 7th Light Horse. I heard George Elliott is about. Will try and find him during next lull.

Friday, 11th June, 1915

I met George Elliott tonight. We had a long yarn about home and it cheered us both up.

Friday, 25th June, 1915

I met Bill Oliver and Fred Cornett. The cruiser Lord Nelson, set fire to the village of Maidos, full of spies.”

Tom Bell was wounded in action the next day and died on the 29th June while being evacuated to the Base Hospital.

See his Personel File at the Australian Archives website http://www.naa.gov.au/

Many of the above mentioned ‘Anzac’ friends did not survive the war either, but it is nice to know they rest in peace, and are remembered a hundred years on.

See Lone Pine Memorial at http://www.cwgc.org/

Although we do not plan to go to Gallipoli this year to visit the Lone Pine Memorial, we can find much information on it, at the above Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, to honour our family hero, Private James Joseph Thomas Bell, an original ANZAC.

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9 thoughts on “Australian World War I Battlefields – Family Hero, James Joseph Thomas Bell – Anzac

  1. I have been trying to catch up with the history of the Bell family. Was the 3rd volume ever written and where can I find it? I am the daughter of the James Allen Bell mentioned here. Joseph (Tom )was my unknown uncle. I am trying to find out what happened to another uncle, my father’s brother known as Jack Bell who was said to have died at Lone Pine. I cant find any mention of him in the archives Any information would be welcome . Thank you Kate Conygham

    • Hi Kate, Lovely to catch up with you. The Descendants of James and Elizabeth Bell (Bell Book 3) and the Descendants of George and Sarah Bell (Bell Book 4) were both written and published in 1996. Sold out and out of print since then.
      Jack Bell’s name was actually ‘Louis Alexander Bell’ and he was killed on the Western Front 26 Oct 1917. We visited his grave and I wrote his story in a blog ‘Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Gunner L A Bell – Passchendaele’ posted 20 Oct 2014.Have you researched your Dad’s war records?

    • louis augustus bell known as jack ,,im the grandson of of oscar isaac bell your fathers youngest brother

  2. Hi Nola, Thank you for publishing the diary entry of James Bell. My grandfather was George Elliott who is mentioned as having a yarn with James about home. Sure it would have been nice to meet old mates from Gundagai while in the trenches. The diary entry was lovely to read and brought a tear to my eye. My father was John Elliott and old Oscar Bell was a great mate of his. I remember him fondly as a child. I remember Jackie as well, he was a comical man and also a great mate of dads.
    Thanks Nola

    • Thank you for the lovely comment on the blog.I must admit I have never thought descendants of the fellows mentioned in the diary would read the blog and get something from it. Another positive layer of family history.

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