Fremantle Departure Service

At the outbreak of World War One, Australian prime minister Joseph Cook declared ‘Whatever the difficulty and whatever the cost, we must be steadfast in our determination. Our resources are great, and the British spirit is not dead. We owe it to those who have gone before to preserve the great fabric of British freedom and hand it on to our children. Our ancestral home is the repository of great liberties, great traditions, and great piety, and we must cherish them. Our duty is quite clear, namely, to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons.

– ‘Commonwealth Unity: Statement by Mr Cook’,
West Australian, 6 August 1914, p.7.


When war broke out in 1914, Australians enthusiastically supported Britain and its Empire. Australia then had a population of less than five million people (not including Aborigines, who at that time were not yet counted in the nation’s Census) and yet sent more than 416,000 volunteer troops. Of these, more than half were killed, wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. See for more information.

As a major port of embarkation, Fremantle witnessed the departure of thousands of AIF soldiers, sailors and nurses.

The first of these departures occurred on Saturday 31 October 1914 - and so it was fitting that on 31 October 2014 thousands of Western Australians crowded the Fremantle port to commemorate this historic moment in time and pay tribute to the men who departed 100 years ago, many never to return. 


31 October 1914

The events of 31 October 1914 were reported in the West Australian ('Western Australia. To the Front. The First Contingent. Departure of the Troops.', 18 November 1914, p.7) and are featured below.

Farewells to our boys on the Ascanius and the Medic
On 31 October 1914, HMAT Ascanius and HMAT Medic pulled away from the Fremantle wharf, starting the long journey of the First Expeditionary Force to war.  
Already carrying the 8th Battery 3rd Field Artillery Brigade, Divisional Train (1 to 4 Companies Army Service Corps), 1st Division 3rd Field Ambulance, Divisional Ammunition Column from South Australia, the 12th Infantry Battalion and the 3rd Field Company Engineers from Western Australia joined the Medic. 552 sailors and soldiers were collected in Fremantle.
Already carrying soldiers and sailors from South Australia, 1028 Western Australian men from the 11th Battalion Australian Imperial Force boarded the Ascanius.


News of departure while in camp at Blackboy Hill (as reported in the West Australian)
The 1,500 odd men who comprised the 11th Battalion, and the two companies of the 12th Battalion were trained to such perfection in their mess drill, that in less than half an hour the whole of them could be formed up in their respective messes ready to march on board the transport when they landed at Fremantle.
When it was reported on Friday 30 October, that the troops would depart the following morning, the lines of the first contingent resembled the abode of a vast assemblage of overgrown schoolboys. The orders were given that each officer and man had to have his hair close cropped. The hairdressers in camp did a roaring trade, and in due course the towselled-headed tommies disappeared, and a crowd of bullet-headed, fearsome looking individuals took their place.
It hardly appeared as if they had gone to sleep, either in their tents or in the open air, before the reveille sounded. Blue smoked curled up from the cooks’ lines where the dixies of coffee were boiling, and as soon as the camp woke to life little time was lost in giving the men the earliest morning coffee they had had while at Blackboy Hill. Then all hands worked with a will, quietly, orderly, and without any flurry or excitement. Above all was noticeable the remarkable quietness of it all. Over 1,500 men were cleaning their rifles, packing their kit bags, stowing their gear away, and preparing their belongings for departure. Each man’s equipment – his rifle and his other belongings – were placed in an orderly heap; morning ablutions and a shave were attended to, and then breakfast was disposed of. The officer messed in the open air, for their mess tent was dismantled and laid on one side.
Trip to Fremantle (as reported in the West Australian)
The passage of the troop-trains from Helena Vale [now Midland] to Fremantle was accomplished with a minimum amount of delay. From every house or street passed, from every workshop or factory, people waved their farewells and gave an encouraging shout to the delighted troops. No farewell was more cordial than that shouted by the recruits of the Light Horse regiment then in camp at Claremont. The blast of engine whistles was heard whenever they passed at the various assembly yards, and each station had its own knots of cheering people. It was only as the trains drew near Fremantle that the men forgot their laughter and by-play in their desire to catch a glimpse of the boats which were to be their homes for many a long day. The first sign of the big ocean liners with the warships in port was the signal for vociferous cheers, which were taken up by the crowds along the lines at Fremantle and renewed as the train drew slowly in alongside the goods sheds and came to a standstill.

Embarkation and departure from Fremantle wharf (as reported in the West Australian)
The troops behaved splendidly while detraining and waiting to march aboard. No time was lost in falling in on their messes and in checking their numbers. As soon as everything was reported as "all correct" they were marched out of the shed across the wharf and up the gangways and on to the troopship to which they belonged. The public were not allowed near the vessels, and sentries, with loaded rifles and bayonets fixed paced up and down to keep the wharves clear. The Ascanius was the first to move, and with her decks a mass of khaki clad humanity, with soldiers up the rigging or clinging to perilous positions on various coigns of vantage, she pulled out from the wharf to the accompaniment of cheers from the distant crowds and the songs of the troops. The inevitable latecomers were seen dashing along the quay, and some only gained access to the decks of the transport by being hauled up by ropes. The liner swung gracefully in the river, and then setting her head towards the river-mouth, steamed slowly out to the Roads. The departure of the Medic was delayed somewhat, and when all had been placed on board the order was given to remove the barriers, and the public were allowed to come right up to the troopship’s side and bid farewell to their friends aboard. Then the Medic, too, hauled out from the wharf and slowly made her way out to anchor alongside her sister troopships. There they remained until the early hours of Monday morning, when...they steamed away to their rendezvous with the convoy from Albany. 
31 October 2014
After a morning service at Blackboy Hill, a large group of cadets alongside the 11th Battalion Living History Unit marched to the Bellevue RSL where they soon caught boarded their very own heritage train for the journey to Fremantle. Like those men who took the trip 100 years earlier, they were met with waving and cheers along the journey from onlookers as well as local schools. In Fremantle, students lined the railway and waved Australian flags as the cadet band played and the cadets marched off the train and into postion. Form up was undertaken on Phillimore Street and they were soon off - marching down Phillimore Street and into the ports where they were met by an even larger crowd than the ones that followed them along their march route.  
Special thanks to the Fremantle Ports for supplying the images of the heritage train, march and service below.


The heritage train

Kelmscott Pinjarra 10th Light Horse Memorial Troop 

Flag bearers representing Australia's Navy, Army and Air Force

The 11th Battalion Living History Unit marching and later posing for a picture

The cadets marching into the ports from the Fremantle Train Station

The crowds following them

      Of special note is the speech delivered by Gabrielle Egan, granddaughter of George Ashley Cooper. George left on the Ascanius on 31 October 1914, and while he was fortunate to make it back home he bore intense physical and mental scars. Suffering from what we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he largely disappeared from his family and the public record after the tragic death of his wife and newborn son. His daughter would go on to live with her grandparents, not knowing of her father. It was humbling to hear such a real and tragic story that highlighted the human struggles associated with this war and not just the glory and heroics associated with the Anzac legend. 

George Ashley Cooper in the centre

The 849

The 849

Eight hundred and forty-nine is the number of servicemen who lived in the greater Fremantle area, embarked in Fremantle on transport ships that would take them to far away fields, and they are the ones that never returned. You can view the list here. If you would like to make comment about the list please contact 9432 9999 or email
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If you have ancestors that were involved in World War One, we would like to hear their story! The Great War touched every home and every community across Australia and one hundred years on the ANZAC legend is still alive and well. We want to give a voice to the experiences of Fremantle men and women during periods of war and the transformation of our town.
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The City of Fremantle will be participating in, supporting, and hosting a number of events over the commemorative period. The people of Fremantle (including the greater Fremantle area) are proud to be part of the ANZAC Centenary commemorations and to have the opportunity to honour and pay respect to those who have and are serving our nation as part of the Armed Forces. ANZAC Centenary events will embrace the themes: 'Commemorate, Contemplate and Educate'.
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