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Soldiers’ journey from WA to an ancient world

Nothing could possibly have prepared the 1026 men of the WA-raised 11th Battalion for what awaited them after they sailed away from WA in November 1914.

The 11th was the first battalion raised in WA and was also in the first convoy to head for the battlefields.

If any thought they were headed for the European theatre of war, they were sadly mistaken. Instead, they disembarked in Egypt in early December to continue training.

Incredibly, they found themselves not only a world away from home but also in an ancient world.

In the book Legs Eleven, a history of the 11th Battalion, Capt. Walter C. Belford describes their new surroundings.

The battalion was “established at Mena under the shadow of the Great Pyramid”, Belford wrote.

“This pyramid, ‘Cheops’ by name, is the largest of the many pyramids in Egypt … the dominating feature of the landscape.

“Not far off was the famous Sphinx, that huge monument that in those days rose seemingly out of the sand.

“It was awe-inspiring for these young Australians to be awakened by the shrill notes of ‘reveille’ and to see towering above them those ancient monuments of a long-bygone powerful people. No one can look upon the pyramids unmoved.”

WA soldiers at their camp ground in front of the pyramids in Egypt.WA soldiers at their camp ground in front of the pyramids in Egypt.
Camera IconWA soldiers at their camp ground in front of the pyramids in Egypt.Picture: State Library of WA

Before long a group of the 11th Battalion gathered and immortalised themselves in one of this country’s most famous pictures from that war.

The diary of one of the men, Capt. Charles A. Barnes, noted that: “After church this morning, the whole battalion was marched up to the pyramid (Old Cheops) and we had a photo took or at least several of them.”

It shows 704 men gathered on the pyramid on January 10, 1915.

Not long afterwards, they were thrust into the bloody conflict of World War I.

For many the picture is the last image in which they appear.

The 11th Battalion was among the first ashore at the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, and fought on until the evacuation in December, then on to the end of the war on the Western Front.

Almost 100 years later, in July 2014, The West Australian lent its support to a call by the WA Genealogical Society for public help to identify the men on the pyramid.

WAGS 11th Battalion project leader Chris Loudon divided a digital copy of the photograph into grids and numbered each man, enabling their features to be enlarged and their position in the image to be easily identified.

In 2014, WAGS had identified 150 men, of whom 58 had been verified and 92 were to be confirmed.

Last week, Mr Loudon said 400 Diggers (56.3 per cent) had been identified — 166 (23.6 per cent) who had been positively identified and 234 (33.2 per cent) tentatively identified including 13 who had been recognised from other photos but were yet to be named.

He said a total of 69 soldiers of the 11th Battalion were killed at Gallipoli on the first day — April 25, 1915.

Of the men so far identified in the image, 143 died as a result of their service — 87 at Gallipoli, with 31 on the first day — and a further 56 who died as a result of service on the Western Front.

Mr Loudon said that WAGS wanted to acknowledge the families and others who had donated their time, and in particular their stories and images, to the project.

“Family members have contacted us from far and wide, all over WA, all Australian States and Territories, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Tahiti, to mention a few,” he said.

Mr Loudon said one particularly interesting part of the project had been finding that the men were in distinct groups on the pyramid.

“There are brothers close together, friends from the same country towns, there is even a group of men with the same surname sitting together,” he said.

Mr Loudon said the project would continue and asked anyone with information about those in the image to contact 11btn.wags.org.au

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