A good yarn

Rich Horne wrote this account of experiences had as a toiler of the sea on a naval ship, the HMAS Sydney, before and at the beginning of WWI. He describes the Pacific during 1913 -1914 from his perspective. His active service was cut short as he lost half a foot in the "Battle of Cocos", the first naval battle of the war, the first ship to ship engagement of the Australian Navy. The only gun on the Sydney which was damaged was the one staffed by Rich.

The conflict took place near Cocos Island off north-west Australia. The other ship was the very effective German ship the Emden which was destroyed by the larger and faster Sydney. A significant part of the crew of the Emden were on Cocos Island when the battle took place, so the ship was not fully-staffed. Many sailors lost their lives or were injured on the Emden and some also on the Sydney. The sailors on the island were never captured but returned to Europe by various means across sea and land.  Their journey is documented in a film The Men of the Emden.

Rich's portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Milly Horne, Rich's wife, commented when transcribing the account from the book into a letter that she got quite excited. That letter and the book are reproduced here, "a good yarn".

Image of HMAS Sydney from Gutenberg,
Image of Victor Hugo's Octopus from Toilers of the Sea via Wikipedia

1. Arrival in Australia

State Library of New South Wales - Spectators on the lawn of Government House view the arrival of the first Royal Australian Navy, Oct 1913 (pd) 
“Mia Mia”

Dear Bert,
This is just a short account of my wanderings from the time I left England in July 1913.
Well, we arrived in Sydney with our new Fleet Unit on October 4th 1913, as you know I was then in the Flagship “Australia” it was a great day and a fine sight to see us slowly making the beautiful Sydney Harbour. After we had “shown” the ships for a while we proceeded to South Australia and Tasmania for “Gunnery and Torpedo trials and exercises”. We spent Christmas 1913 in Hobart, Tasmania, and then we went to Adelaide, S.A. to “show ship”, we lay about 4 miles off “Glenelg”, South Australia’s fashionable watering place, where we had a real nice time. From S Australia we proceeded to Melbourne, which is in Port Phillip Bay; it was getting very near to winter (March) and the weather was getting very bad, visitors could not get on board our ship as it was dangerous to approach her, anyway, Jim was lucky enough to get aboard and he witnessed “away lifeboat”, one of the lads tried to swim to the ship but got into difficulties; he was “drunk” (”shicker”).

Image of the arrival of the first Royal Australian Navy, Oct 1913 By State Library of New South Wales from Australia, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Sydney Heads from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

2. Gunnery school

Melbourne is our head-quarters and our depot, and while we were in Melbourne, I was sent to depot to go through the Gunnery School for “Gunlayer”. I was one of the first two classes of Gunlayers put through in Australia. I stayed in the depot and working in small boats in the Bay from March until July, when I was sent round to Sydney to join the “Sydney” which was getting ready for a cruise up the Queensland coast and the Islands (Pacific Is.) then with the Fleet it was intended to visit New Zealand, then the “Sydney” had a chance, (although it wasn’t decided which ship would go) of getting the trip for the opening of the Panama Exposition, the war spoilt a lot of good times for us, anyway we left Sydney on July 21st for Queensland and went into a small port named Gladstone and then we proceeded to Townsville (N. Queensland) it is a fine little town, semi-tropical and very progressive; when things began to get very warm in Europe, we were showing visitors and school-children round the ship and having altogether a good time, then we started getting rumours and buzzes then the order to fill up with provisions, coal etc., as soon as possible and proceed to Thursday Island for orders, then the fun, or should I say the work began, taking in at Queensland, canned meat all night, and getting as much coal as we could under all kinds of difficulties, then we started our trip through the “Great Barrier Reef” for “Thursday Island” (Thursday Is or Port Kennedy is the most northerly point of Australia). On our way through the Reef we got by wireless the news that we had declared war, the skipper gave us the news from the bridge (a fine fellow our skipper) we all gave a good cheer and from that time until we smashed the “Emden” we were just itching to smash something or to be smashed ourselves in the attempt.
Image of HMAS Melbourne and map of Great Barrier Reef via Wikipedia

3. The Barrier Reef

It was fine going up to Thursday Is, winding in and out, through the reefs, day and night, it happened to be lovely moonlight nights and there is absolutely no better place to be at sea than in that part of the Pacific and all around the South Seas Is; there are some fine sights and it is always fine weather, well, when we arrived at Thursday Is. we got rid of all the gear that we didn’t absolutely need, all our boats except three, which are sea boats, my boat went ashore. “The Captain’s Galley” which is the “tiddely boat” of the ship, also we put ashore a lot of the officers’ furniture, doors off cabins, mirrors etc in fact we made the ship properly ready for war. All the time, barring a destroyer, we were a “lone ship” on our pat, as we would say, but we soon met the flagship, Encounter and three destroyers at a rendezvous, somewhere in Mid Ocean, miles from anywhere, there was just a nice swell on and all captains had to go aboard the Flagship for a conference. I was in the boat that took our skipper across and I can tell you it was a great sight to see the ships heaving with the swell and the different boats making for the Flagship, on our way over we saw a monster shark, well, we are supposed to be strictly silent in the boat with the skipper in, but one fellow couldn’t help but sing out, it was just by the blades of the oars, she would have capsized us if she had struck the boat in the swell, that was on a Sunday, (I forget all the dates) and after that we all got under weigh again, and they posted, together with the plan, the news that we were to make a night attack on German New Guinea. We expected to find part of the German Squadron in “Simpson Haven” the harbour to “Rabaul” the capital of G. N. Guinea, we (the Sydney”) with our three destroyers were to make the attack, the “Australia” covering us, well on the Tuesday at about 4 O’Clock, the destroyer with us left the Flagship at 20 knots, and all hands assembled and cheered, and the Flagship’s band played as each ship passed her, it was great, we certainly thought we were going to have a smack at something, we did a whole night of suspense, but any fight.Image 1 painted by Rudolf Hellgrewe via Traditionsverband
Image 2 painted by Rudolf Hellgrewe - Bismarckburg via Traditionsverband.
Image 3 of German New Guinea via Wikipedia
Image 4 Map of German New Guinea via Wikipedia

4. German New Guinea and Queensland

They had a gig wireless station on the island, but it was too far inland for us to take it then and I suppose we had other work on, so we left that day until we got land troops and took possession properly, that was nearly a month after, so it gave the Germany plenty of time to defend the wireless stations, but I must proceed to tell you my wanderings before we came back to take possession. There are so many islands in this part of the Pacific that it is easy for a ship to hide away, so, after leaving Simpson Haven, we steamed slowly through the Solomon Group of Islands, which was a fine trip, although we were having spasms all the time, taking trees for masts of ships, etc., we were on our way to Rossel Is. for coal and oil, we coaled in a great reef with the entrance facing the island, we there met the Melbourne, for the first time since the outbreak of the war; from Rossel Is. we made for Sandy Cape, off the coast of Queensland, we picked up a transport there loaded with troops formed in Sydney, she was the “Berrima” one of the latest P. & O. Branch Boats, we escorted her into a small harbour at Palm Is. further north of Queensland. We then went into Townsville for coal, provisions, etc., after we had got all ready for sea again, we all went for a route march through Townsville, we stopped in batches at two hotels and were allowed to have one drink, only one, of course, and as many more as you could get in the time allowed, it was very hot weather you know, and we marched back to the ship singing songs and all happy and satisfied. We then returned to Palm Island and as we were waiting orders, we had a fairly easy time for a couple of days, there were a few seining (fishing) parties; while at Palm Is. we picked up our two submarines and together with the transport, we proceeded to Port Moresby, British New Guinea. We there met another transport the “Kanowna” which had been formed in Queensland, she was ordered with us to Rossel Is. again, but on our way something went wrong with her and our skipper ordered her to proceed to Townsville and disband, we carried on to Rossel Is., we then picked up the remainder of the Fleet, and went to Rabaul again, landed troops and after quite a few exciting spasms took possession of G. N. Guinea and Bismark Archipelago. While we were there, we lost a submarine A.E.1 with all hands. We were ordered to Sydney, but we first steamed up the coast in search of the submarine.

Image 1, painting of Pomonahaven, New Guinea by Frank Bukacs via Traditionsverband
Image 2, HMAS Melbourne via Wikipedia
Image 3, painting of Apia, Samoa by Frank Bukacs via Traditionsverband
Image 4 painted by Themistokles von Eckenbrecher, German New Guinea via Traditionsverband

International colonial interests claimed much of the land of the Pacific. In New Guinea, the main parties were Britain, Japan and Germany. The sustainable production of the indigenous inhabitants was disrupted to produced plantations for export. In German tropical colonies, Coffee, cocoa, tobacco and peanuts were grown for export around the globe, as can be read in the painting by von Eckenbrecher (upside down at the top), where a pricelist is offered free of charge. Control of the colonies meant control of the supplies of resources.(ed.)

5. Indigenous people

Early in the morning we got a good laugh, although we were all a bit mad over losing our submarine, we spied a small boat under sail and oars, pulling for their lives, as we bore down upon them, we fired round the boat with a rifle, and, lo, about sixteen niggers dived into the “ditch” and although it was miles away from civilisation and foreign at that, one of the nigs shouted “Why you shoot, Sar?” “Me missionaire boat, Sar.” Anyway all hands nearly burst with laughter at the antics of the nigs, we let them get into their boat again and shove off.

In this section the actions and words of the sailors convey to us the attitudes which were prevalent at the time in the meeting of cultures, in particular with indigenous cultures. Policies in Australia included the White Australia Policy and the Pacific Island Labourers Act
attitudes in the population co-exist commonly with colonialist foreign policy. In order to take people's land and make them work it for the purposes of others, an attitude of superiority and rightful domination is helpful. Deprecating forms of address such as "nigger" or "nig" correspond to the "sir" of the subordinated person. Attitudes of national superiority characterised the nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century and laid the basis for war in the popular will. Struggle for resources was the economic basis for colonialism.
In an authoritarian system such as a war ship, within the rules of a hierarchical society such as Britain, it is not surprising that the sailors, those at the bottom, get some joy from harassing the indigenous people they encounter, someone "below them".
Mistreatment of indigenous people has been common and often brutal in the Pacific, including the mistreatment of black Australians (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) as their land and human / cultural rights were expropriated.

Although "in nineteenth-century literature, there are many uses of the word nigger with no intended negative connotation", it is clear in this account that not just the words but the collective actions of the sailors' culture are racist. They would not have done the same thing in Sydney Harbour to a boatload of British men.
A non-racist meeting of cultures would have seen the British sailors amazed at the mobility of the Pacific Islanders powerfully moving across the open ocean far from land under the power of human muscle and wind.

Image 1 Paul Gaugin Tahitian Woman with a Mango via Zeno.org
Image 2 Paul Gaugin Tahitian Woman with Fruit via Zeno.org

6. Fiji

Well, we began to get into good spirits at the idea of returning to Sydney but, when we got over half way, and with the “Australia” all ready for harbour and a chance of a run ashore, for some reason or another, we were ordered to return to Rabaul, there were some lovely expressions from the “lads”.When we got back to Rabaul we just had time to coal and provision and was ordered to Angaur one of the Pelew Is. It was a very warm trip, 18 days there and back from G. N. Guinea. After we got back to Rabaul, we found out that everything at New Guinea was now quiet and the fleet was ordered to Suva (Fiji). The Fiji is fine and I wouldn’t mind living there for good.

Image by Paul Gaugin Mountains on Tahiti via Zeno.org

7. Australian First Expeditionary Force

We weren’t in Fiji long, before we were sent to Sydney at full speed to dock, coal, provision and paint ship, as quickly as possible (we couldn’t do it under 4 days) and proceed to Albany W.A. to pick up and convoy the Australian First Expeditionary Force, after a big rush and a few spasms, we arrived in W.A. and we all started out early morning for Europe, there was the finest collection of ships I have ever seen, there were 42 ships altogether, and it took a whole day to get the whole convoy into position, there were 28 Australian Transports, 10 New Zealand, distinguished by being painted all one colour and 4 men-of-war, the “Minotaur” English ship, “Sydney” and “Melbourne” Australian Cruisers and the “Ibuki” Jap ship, it was a great convoy we were  making for Colombo and about 36 hours before we were off Cocos Is. the “Minotaur” had to leave us for “more important work” and the “Melbourne” took full convoy so that when we got the news of enemy ship near Cocos, it fell to us the “Sydney” to go after her.

Image 1: British Grand Fleet via Wikipedia
Image 2: Predecessor of the Minotaur via Wikipedia

8. The "Battle of Cocos"

Well, to tell you all about it as I remember it, was that at about 7.30 in the morning, we altered course, and left the convoy, and we began to gather speed until we were doing about 20 odd knots, we were ordered to breakfast and clean into our white working clothes, soon after breakfast all the ship’s company were ordered aft and the skipper told us we were after an enemy ship, we thought it may be the “K√∂nigsberg”. Well, after the 1st Lieutenant had told us about clearing the ship the bugler sounded “clear ship for action”, well I have seen “clear ship” a few times, it being an evolution for exercise, but I have never seen anything like the way the lads worked that morning, we were steaming so fast, 28 or 29 knots, that we came in sight of the “Emden” before we had cleared everything, we sighted her first off our starboard bow and as I was at a starboard gun, I thought we would come into action first, as soon as we had swung in our starboard sea boat and my work, didn’t that boat come in ! Well as I was sight setter at my gun I took my position ready to receive the ranges bearings etc. from the control position forrard. I might tell you that the sight setter has a seating position at the left side of the gun, just near to the gunlayer, we received the order to train on the foremost bearing and the gun’s crew were all ready and closed up, when the “Emden” opened fire at a long range, our ship swung round, and started with the port guns, well the “Emden” was firing mad, and were getting our range, and I saw our after control position smashed up and then we began to get them falling all around us although just at the time we were disengaged and in a dangerous spot, our gun’s crew stuck right to the gun, and the “biff”, one or two struck an exhaust pipe or something running up either the third or after funnel and exploded and the contents just shattered down on our gun’s crew, three escaped out of nine, we had 4 or 5 charges of cordite near the gun, and that ignited and sent up a great flame and giving two or three of us very bad burns, my gunlayer, a petty officer was hit and burned very badly and died very soon after, another, a young loading number, was killed instantly by a piece striking him in the head, just at the time the only thing I felt was the sensation of my clothes being on fire, and of being very wide awake, well in the rear of the gun we have a tub of water used for sponging out the breach of the gun so as quick as thought I took off my headpiece and sprang off my seat and splashed myself all over.
Image 1: The Emden via Wikipedia
Image 2: The Königsberg painted by Teschinsky via Traditionsverband
Image 3: Ships in battle painted by Malchin via Traditionsverband
Another good image of the Emden can be seen here.

9. Injured in battle

I looked round and saw my gunlayer laying on the deck crumpled up and the gun’s crew gone, I stepped out of the tub of water and quite unconsciously was on my heels, I looked down at my right foot and said to myself “Little toe shot right off”, and then I saw the other, my, I had a peculiar sensation when I saw all my foot smashed up and practically hanging off. I staggered a little, but I was so full of this “wide awake” feeling, that I bucked myself up and got back to my seat at the gun and put my headpiece on again as I thought all the time of some orders being shouted through for starboard 2, i.e. my gun; I thought a lot of my gun and I only wish I could have stuck it through as she came into action soon after with another crew. While I was on my seat gasping over my injuries our trainer came up from somewhere and although he wasn’t injured he was awfully upset and I remember saying to him “Oh Tubby, look at my poor feet”. Just then an officer came and told Tubby to do his best to get me and the gunlayer down below and out of it. Well, Tubby went away and I was again on my own and I could feel myself going off so I dragged myself to a hatch nearby and somehow got down it, I don’t know how I got down, but I was glad as I got some water to lay in, I wanted water. Soon after I got down the detailed ambulance party found me and carried me down below to a bathroom, where they cut my clothes off, and bandaged me up, I was very near to it, but I did my best and never lost my consciousness all through.
Image 1 smashed bridge of the Carmenia after a battle via Gutenberg
Image 2 Emden wreck via Wikipedia

10. Amputation

For me it was a kind of wild nightmare, but is was real fine when it was over, and you knew you had won. I cheered and then properly broke down as they had just moved my gunlayer away, dead. My it was a peculiar time to the time six days later when they landed us at Colombo. I had an awful time of it just before my foot was amputated. I was under the anaesthetic for five hours, but I came out of it feeling it a bit easier but daren’t look down to my feet, as I was speculating on what they had done to me. I didn’t look at my left leg for two or three weeks, soon after the operation I got very bad again and the had to put me under again, before we got to Colombo.
Image 1: surgery 1922 via Wikipedia

11. Wounded sailors

Although the ship was very crowded with Germans etc. the ship’s crew were being very hard worked, we were looked after very fine, the lads and the officers did absolutely everything they could, both for us and the Germans wounded and our Doctor was great, he worked well on me and fixed me up good. I was taken up to the upper deck on the morning we arrived at Colombo, it was a beautiful Sunday morning and as we steamed into the harbour, all eyes were on us, there were thousands of all kinds of people, Natives all in their best silks, all the Australian and New Zealand troops and in fact, all Ceylon, there was no cheering, at our skipper’s request, in deference to the wounded Germans, it was an exciting day getting moved ashore and to Hospital, getting moved from one stretcher to another, but I must tell you that being so low, I nearly broke down completely when we left the ship’s side. All the ships company shouting goodbye and wishing us a speedy recovery; it was hard getting knocked out like that and having to leave the ship but I consoled myself with the thoughts that I might have gone out altogether and life is sweet, even if it is cheap these times.
image 1: patient transport from Illustrated War News via Gutenberg
image 2: Colombo Town Hall via Wikipedia

12. Return to Melbourne

Well I had a very rough time of it in Hospital for a time, and quietly I thought they were going to send me “dotty” but I pulled through alright, but I was glad when we left Ceylon and we had a bonzer trip back to Australia, the people aboard the ship were very good to us and with good food and a bottle of “Guiness” every night, I bucked up wonderfully and was feeling good by the time we reached Melbourne, where I finished my wanderings and also my active service but not my service as I am still strong with the help of a stock and as you see I was too busy to write all this yarn our myself so Milly had to copy this out from the rough writing that I made. She says that she got quite excited as she was copying it so it can’t be a bad yarn at all and as you don’t often get long letters form me I hope it will prove interesting to all at home. There are plenty of other exciting and interesting incidents occurred in my short experience but these times are full of exciting happenings, hair breadth escapes, heroic deeds etc. so this plain account of my “bit” will have to do. I have just received a letter from Jim in France so I expect you will be seeing him before too long. Sincerely hoping all are well and not being hit too hard by the war I conclude and remain sincerely yours, Rich.

image 1 : Rich Horne on Half-Moon Bay Beach, Melbourne, private collection

Image 2 : Royal Arcade Melbourne by David Iliff via Wikipedia cc-by-sa

13. Settled in Melbourne

Rich Horne had settled in Hampton, Melbourne, when he wrote this letter. He made a career as a public servant there and he married Milly. They lived in a house named 'Cocos' . All their children were given the middle name 'Sydney'.
Rich was an orphan from England. His family was his brother, Jim, who was killed in the battlefields of France. His education in the orphanage at that time, cared for by trained staff in the company of his peers, equipped him with literacy and flexible working skills different to those acquired in a family.
All the sailors on the Sydney received a Mexican silver dollar (captured in war) mounted in a silver frame to commemorate the battle of Cocos.

Browse the manuscript