Sunday, May 3, 2015

Between Battles 4: A young soldier’s experience on the troopship Kanowna, 1914.


Five days after the declaration of war in 1914, the 3rd Queensland Regiment (better known as the Kennedy Regiment) marched through the streets of Townsville towards the port. They were embarking for Thursday Island on board the Kanowna, a coastal liner requisitioned for the war effort, to defend the Torres Strait against predicted German naval raids.
Troops of the Kennedy Regiment leaving Townsville in August 1914, en route to Thursday Island.  Solider, Frederick Macdonald may well have been part of this procession.
Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.
The Kennedy Regiment’s voyage of seven weeks aboard a crowded ship resulted in boredom amongst the troops. Finding activities to keep the men busy and active was an important part of life on board the ship and distractions improved morale. The activities of those aboard the Kanowna were not only indicative of many Anzac soldiers’ experiences, but they also served to establish the troopship newspaper custom.

One young 19-year-old soldier from Irvinebank in Queensland, Frederick Malcolm Macdonald (1894-1966), wrote a diary of his experiences as a member of the Kennedy Regiment aboard the Kanowna in 1914. His diary, which was published by Macdonald’s son Colin in 2005 under the title The Caruse of the Kanowna, forms part of JCU Library Special Collections -  NQ Collection.
Frederick Malcolm Macdonald (1894-1966) retrieved from Macdonald, Colin (Ed.). The Caruse of the Kanowna: Frederick Macdonald’s 1914 diary. Aranda, ACT: C.G. Macdonald, 2005.
The diary provides an important record of ordinary life aboard a troopship, and regularly noted diversions like the regimental band, “which made the crowded and uncomfortable conditions more agreeable”.  Such events were important in maintaining morale and cohesion among the troops.

The significance of news from home is also readily apparent. Macdonald notes that troops received mail only once during their journey, however this event had such an impact upon all the men aboard the ship that the following morning parade was called off so that the men could have time to read their letters and “to write and answer the same”. Macdonald notes his envy of those men who received newspapers as well as letters from their friends and relatives.
Photograph of Frederick Macdonald’s original diary.
The ritual and distraction of reading the daily news inspired the creation of troopship journals, today some of the most fascinating and important cultural artefacts of the First World War. On Monday the 24th of August the first of these newsletters, The Latrine Leader, Incorporating the W.C. Chronicle, “a very amusing and widely read journal”, began its print run on board the Kanowna. At least two original editions, likely containing humorous anecdotes, commentary and, most importantly, shipboard gossip, were circulated before the journal was “commandeered” by officers on the 14th of September.

Macdonald’s disappointment at the loss the Latrine Leader is indicative of the role of these small acts of semi-insubordination in the lives of soldiers, and the importance of reading and writing in creating and maintaining a sense of normality and human connection within the de-personalising environment of war. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict continued to print trench and troopship journals until the Armistice, providing historians with valuable evidence of experiences and attitudes often ignored by the authorised military documentation of the war. Souvenir volumes of the journals were often published upon the return of each troopship to Australia, standing as mementos of comradery and friendship, memorials to the fallen and as a self-fashioned social history of the soldier class. These intimate accounts of conflict reveal the need and capacity of these men to create and maintain a unique cultural life within the tragedy of war.

References/Further reading:
- Baker, Kevin. Mutiny, Terrorism, Riots and Murder: A History of Sedition in Australia and New Zealand. Dural, NSW: Rosenberg, 2006.
- Burla, Robert. Crossed Boomerangs: The History of all the 31 Battalions. Loftus, NSW: Australian Military History Publications, 2005.
- Holden, Robert. And the Band Played On. Victoria, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2014.
- Jose, Arthur W. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IX: The Royal Australian Navy. Seventh Edition. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1939.
- Kent, David. From Trench and Troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1919. Victoria, Australia: Southwood Press, 1999.
- Macdonald, Colin (Ed.). The Caruse of the Kanowna: Frederick Macdonald’s 1914 diary. Aranda, ACT: C.G. Macdonald, 2005.
- New Guinea Expedition August 1914 – Re Troopship “Kanowna,” mutiny on and sending back to Australia. National Archives of Australia, MP 1049/1, 1914/0486.
- Plowman, Peter. Voyage to Gallipoli. Dural, NSW: Rosenberg, 2013.

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