Otto John Siefken

A portrait of Otto John Siefken posing before leaving Australia for World War One

Rank

Bugler

Roll title

11th Battalion, AIF

Convoy ship

HMAT Ascanius

Studio portrait of Otto John Siefken probably taken before embarkation from Australia, 1914

Courtesy Don and Geoff Guy

Otto Siefken was a 20-year-old butcher from Maylands, Perth, who enlisted in the AIF at Blackboy Hill Camp, Western Australia on 9 September 1914. Although of German descent, Siefken was able to join the AIF; however, his father, Carl, was declared an 'enemy alien' and required to report weekly to the Maylands Police Station.

 

A pre-war photograph of the Siefken family of Maylands, Western Australia. Otto stands second from the left in the back row.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

Siefken (third from left) in training at Blackboy Hill Camp, 1914.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

Men of the 11th Battalion in training at Blackboy Hill Camp, 9 October, 1914. Siefken sits second from the right.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

Tent lines at Blackboy Hill Camp.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A02874

11th Battalion recruits peeling potatoes at Blackboy Hill Camp, Greenmount, Western Australia, 1914.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P02077.002

11th Battalion troops march out of Blackboy Hill Camp on their way to the port of Fremantle in preparation for their embarkation, 31 October 1914.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P08644.002

On 31 October 1914, the 11th Battalion departed from Fremantle on board HMAT Ascanius and HMAT Medic. Siefken was on board Ascanius alongside men of the 10th Battalion, who had boarded the ship in Adelaide. The ships joined the rest of the First Convoy at sea two days after it had left Albany.

On 20 November, Ascanius and Afric were ordered to swap places in the convoy. The change was made in the dark, and as Ascanius moved into its new position it rammed the stern of Shropshire. Owing to the violence and noise of the collision, many of the men thought that they had hit a mine or had been torpedoed.

The two ships were stuck together for some time. Once they had been separated, Ascanius went ahead at full speed and rammed Shropshire again. Ascanius was left with a large hole in its bow and two lifeboats destroyed; Shropshire sustained no significant damage.

After being repaired while in the Suez Canal, Ascanius disembarked troops at Alexandria on 6 and 7 December 1914.

Egypt

The 11th proceeded to Mena Camp, near Cairo, on 7 December. Siefken took a day of leave in Cairo on Christmas Day, where he enjoyed dining at the ‘best cafes in town’.

HMAT Ascanius.

Courtesy of the Western Australian Museum MHK D1 347

Troops aboard Ascanius in Adelaide, prior to reaching Fremantle.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P00326.019

The Ascanius at Fremantle in November 1914, on its way to join the First Convoy at sea.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial H16157

The 11th Battalion on the steps of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, 10 January 1915. Within eight months of the landing, only 69 of these men would still be fighting, the rest having been killed, wounded or evacuated for illness.

Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia 4496B

11th Battalion troops and 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, assembled on HMS London, steaming with other Royal Navy ships carrying troops from Lemnos to Gallipoli for the landing. HMS Bacchante is visible ahead, 24 April 1915.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial AO2468

After training in Egypt, Siefken landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. B and D Companies of the 11th Battalion were in the second wave of the covering force. Their objective was to cover the left flank of the landing and capture the western edge of Plateau 400 on the second ridge. However, Siefken’s boat, like those carrying most of his battalion, landed to the north of Anzac Cove. They came under heavy fire, the Turks having been alerted by the landing of the first wave. Siefken described the first moments of their landing in a letter home to his mother:

Dear Mother I will tell you a bit about the stoush at Gallipoli as this letter will not be censored. [W]e set off for the fun slowly steaming towards shore. The boats made no noise and we all had orders no smoking and keep quiet. All went well until we were about 150 yards from shore and were just about to get into the life boats, which were to be towed ashore by the warship’s pinnaces when the Turks woke up and let us know all about it. Some of our boats were in closer to shore and most of them got ashore with very few casualties. We were unlucky as we did not get a tow ashore and had to row which meant taking longer but again considering the heavy rifle and machine gun fire pouring into us we were dead lucky. No one in our boat got hit going ashore although the boat was hit a dozen times. One chap in our company was killed before we left the destroyer and lots were killed and wounded in the other lifeboats going ashore. A few even got drowned when they jumped from the lifeboats into the water about waist deep and got hit and fell and did not have the strength to get up again, the weight of their pack and equipment filled with ammunition keeping them under. When our boat grounded there was a rush to get out and get busy. [T]here were … round [slippery] smooth stones … and about 2 … or 3 feet of water and when I hopped out I went over. [I]t was … cold and I scrambled up and tried to run ashore for cover while I threw off my pack, but I could only walk as my stuff was all soaked, biscuits and all, and weighed about one [hundred weight]. I got there under cover of a little bank next to Ben [Bailey] and Serg Wilson and got rid of my pack. Just then Wilson dropped with a bullet through both legs. A minute later Ben dropped, shot through the head. He did not speak, just gave a groan and was dead. Where our platoon landed it was a clear wheat field on our left and a cliff in front. We couldn’t advance either way. A few who tried to charge across the wheat field did not get ten yards before they were dropped. There were now about 15 of us left out of about 60. About 14 were killed, the rest wounded, some bad and some only slightly. I have been hit 3 times now but only got 2 bits of skin off for their trouble. We had landed in our boat … about 200 yards away to the left from the main body (3rd Brigade) so what was left made our way back and joined the others on top of the ridges we had captured. Our position was very uncertain for the first 3 or 4 days but we gradually got well entrenched and inside a week were like a little fortress right on top of a big ridge. I think this is a record letter for me so I will ring off now. [W]ith best love to all from Otto. [3mins 20sec] Otto Siefken, Letter, Fort David, Malta, 3 September 1915 Courtesy Don and Geoff Guy

Ottoman Offensive

After landing, the 11th Battalion and other units captured Plugge’s Plateau and pushed on to capture the heights of the second ridge to the left, towards Battleship Hill. In the general confusion, the 11th Battalion men often became separated and fought localised battles in the labyrinth of gullies and on the ridges. Many eventually found themselves under heavy shellfire from strong Turkish counter-attacks. Siefken described his section as constituting ‘a little fortress right on top of a big ridge’. These attacks persisted for four days before the cold and utterly exhausted men of the 11th were eventually relieved.

Both sides then dug in. The 11th Battalion eventually returned to the firing line on 1 May 1915; they spent much time digging or strengthening the trenches. A count taken on 8 May listed 453 men – over half of the effective strength of the battalion – as killed, wounded or missing.  On 19 May the battalion successfully resisted a series of strong Turkish attacks. Siefken remarked that they made

a terrific row but we were having good sport knocking them … It was like a play watching them come up and get in our barb wire and all singing out ‘Allah’ ‘Allah’ ‘Mohamed’ and dropping like sheep. They had over 3 thousand … dead in front of our trenches. The stink was awful in a few days and millions of flies came round. 

A truce on 24 May allowed both sides to bury their dead, after which they settled into trench warfare. 

On 28 June the 11th Battalion took part in a simulated attack from Anzac’s southern flank to cover a British attack at Helles. Lying in the open under intense fire, they provided covering fire from Silt Spur and Turkey Knoll for a 9th Battalion attack across the Valley of Despair and Cooee Gully. This cost the 11th Battalion 63 casualties: 21 killed and 42 wounded, for little obvious gain. Fortunately for Siefken, as part of B Company he was held in reserve.

The men of the 11th were finally relieved on 13 July, having spent almost 11 weeks in the front line. Two weeks later, the battalion reoccupied front-line positions at Tasmania Post, but by now the men were in poor shape: many were ill, malnourished and war-weary. Dysentery was a particular problem.

It is likely that on 31 July Siefken was involved in the bloody but successful capture of what became known as Leane’s Trench, to the south of Lone Pine. This was a necessary preparatory attack for the Australian assault on that position during the August offensive, but it cost the battalion 36 killed and 73 wounded.

It is also likely that Siefken was involved in a desperate bomb and bayonet fight defending this position when the Turks counter-attacked on 5–6 August. Siefken’s commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Ernest W. Morris, stated: ‘Our men are beyond praise–they are all heroes’. However, the losses had been severe, with 55 killed and 100 wounded. The battalion was spent.

 

A lifeboat carrying Australian troops being towed towards Anzac Cove at 6 am on the morning of the landing, 25 April 1915.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A02781

Troops from both sides bury their dead in front of the 11th Battalion lines at Gallipoli during the armistice, 24 May 1915.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A04348

Ottoman troops killed in the 19 May Ottoman offensive litter no man’s land at the Chessboard.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P02649.027

A soldier prepares for burial some of the 55 bodies of 11th Battalion soldiers who died on 5–6 August defending Leane’s Trench against heavy Ottoman counter-attacks.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial P08678.006

Siefken enjoying a snow ball fight, probably while recuperating in England, February 1916.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

German notification of Otto Siefken’s Prisoner of War status.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: B2455, SIEFKEN O J

After almost a year recuperating, Siefken re-joined the battalion in France on 11 August 1916, missing a lethal German raid on the battalion in the front line near Fleurbaix in May that inflicted 118 casualties. Similarly, he was fortunate to miss the severe fighting at Pozières in July where more than half the battalion became casualties. This was the heaviest loss of any battalion in the division in this engagement. He survived the battalion’s fighting on 19–20 August in the battle of Mouquet Farm, described in the battalion history as ‘one of the most unsatisfactory engagements that the 11th Battalion took part in’. They lost a further 79 men. In total, the battalion had lost nearly 800 men in three months of fighting in France.

On 26 August they were transferred to the Ypres salient, Belgium and on 10 September went into the front line at Hill 60 in a support capacity. By 30 October, the Battalion were back on the Somme at Flers. Here they endured rain and cold, living in the sea of mud that was the battlefield. Between 7 and 12 November, they endured extreme misery and hardship in the front line: 191 men were evacuated over three days, suffering from exposure and sickness, particularly influenza and rheumatism.  In total, over 450 men were evacuated over the time in the lines at Flers, mostly owing to exposure, exhaustion and illness. Remarkably, given Siefken’s long earlier hospitalisation with these complaints, he appears to have escaped illness. The battalion was again in the front line at Flers between 21 December 1916 and 8 January 1917. When not in the line, the men were engaged in continuous work fatigues that weakened them and lowered morale.

Prisoner of War

On 11 February 1917, Siefken was transferred to the 3rd Machine Gun Company. He fought in a spoiling attack at the battle of Lagnicourt alongside the 11th Battalion and on 15 April was posted as ‘missing in action’; he was among 330 Australians captured by the Germans at Lagnicourt. 

Around 4,000 Australians were taken prisoner by the Turks and the Germans during the First World War. Most of these were captured by the Germans on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.

Siefken endured 13 months as a prisoner of war at camps first in France and then at Heilsburg, East Prussia. Corporal Leo Colreavy of 12th Battalion, who was captured with Siefken, stated after the war that Siefken was initially put to work in a ‘reprisal’ camp. These were harsh labour camps located near the front line. They were designed as a reprisal for what the Germans saw as the poor treatment of German prisoners of war by the allies. Colreavy stated that Siefken soon fell ill, but remained on light duties until late 1917.

He was then interned in Heilsburg prisoner-of-war camp in East Prussia. Prisoners here were treated harshly, forced to toil in the fields and help rebuild the district’s devastated towns. He was put to work in the surrounding area. There is a suggestion in one letter that he may have had a Russian girlfriend during this time. Siefken tried to keep up his spirits at Heilsburg.  In a letter dated 19 December 1917, he wrote, '[a]ll the lads here are in good health and spirits and feeling fit and well’. Three months later he reported, ‘I am well. Am expecting my parcels any time now’.

Censored letter, dated 4 November 1917, Siefken sent home from a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

Otto Siefken (seated front right) with fellow prisoners of war at Heilsburg prisoner-of-war camp in East Prussia, 1918.

Courtesy of Don and Geoff Guy

The final resting place of Private Otto Siefken in the Berlin South-West Cemetery near Stahnsdorf, Germany.

Courtesy of Aaron Pegram

In all, 397 Australian soldiers died in captivity. Otto Siefken was one of these men. Still sick, Siefken was sent on a farm work ‘commando’ to Gerdauen in Prussia. He died from pneumonia and influenza at Johanniter Hospital on 21 October 1918, three weeks before the Armistice. He was 23 years old. Private Robert Hurst, a fellow Western Australian also interned at Heilsburg, saw Siefken before he was taken to hospital at Gerdauen, a week before he died. Hurst was present when the other British prisoners buried Siefken at the Protestant Cemetery in Gerdauen. Everything, which included ‘hearse, coffin and a padre’, was paid for by fellow prisoners of war. They also subscribed to have a cross made to mark his grave. Hurst undertook to take Siefken’s papers ‘home to his people'.

A photograph of this grave was sent to his parents by the AIF in 1923. In 1925, he was reinterred in the Berlin South-Western Cemetery, Stahnsdorf, Germany, by the then Imperial War Graves Commission.

 

 

References

Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/

Bean, C 1936, Official history of Australia in the war of 1914 -18 Vol. I, 5th edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney

Belford W, c. 2009 (c.1939), Legs Eleven: Being the story of the 11th Battalion AIF in the Great War, The Naval and Military Press, Uckford, & The Imperial War Museum, London

Gill, I 2003, Fremantle to France: 11th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-1919, Perth

Hurst, J 2005, Game to the Last: The 11th Australian infantry battalion at Gallipoli, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne

National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Otto John Siefken’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920;  SIEFKEN O J, 1914-1920

Olson, W 2006, Gallipoli:  the Western Australian story, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley

A photograph of Siefken’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Gerdauen, sent to his parents in 1923 after the war by AIF London Headquarters. The cost of the cross, flowers, grave and probably this photograph were met by Siefken’s fellow prisoners of war.

Courtesy Don and Geoff Guy

logan tomas

thank you for your servicesyou will never be forgotten

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Anonymous

You did great, considering you died at a very young age.

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sharlene goldspink

Sorry you had to sacrifice your life for our freedom. May you RIP.

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Anonymous

SO YOUNG, SO BRAVE. WHAT A DREADFUL WASTE OF A YOUNG LIFE.

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jessica

My heart breaks to hear your story and listening about your war journey. Such a young man and very courageous. Thank you for your sacrifice. Lest we forget.

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Anonymous

Rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Rest in peace.

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Ben

Thank you for your service and sacrifice. Rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Hello mate, how you doing? It's upsetting to hear you passed away. I send my condolences to your family. xx

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Anonymous

May God bless you and take care of you in heaven with the angels. Thank you for being so brave and fighting for our country. x

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Anonymous

Your bravery and sacrifice is why we are here today. Forever remembered, never forgotten.

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Anonymous

First a butcher, then a bugler. A sad end to a promising life.

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Mikayla

Thank you for your service.

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Anonymous

So long Siefken. You were a brave soldier.

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louis

Lest we forget. From Louis.

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Anonymous

I'm proud of you.

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Anonymous

You served Australia well.

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Anonymous

Thanks for your service to our country. You will be forever remembered and honoured.

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Anonymous

Thank you for fighting for AUSTRALIA.

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maxine

So thankful Siefken. Rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Thank you for fighting for AUSTRALIA.

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maxine

So thankful, Siefken. Rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Well done Siefken. Thank you for my freedom.

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Anonymous

A brave and beautiful young man. How sad for his mother and father. We will remember him.

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Celeston Fuller

Thanks for fighting for us.

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Jo Lydon Potter

Your courage and bravery should never be forgotten. Your contribution is appreciated. RIP.

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damo

So sad that so many lives have been lost. RIP, Diggers.

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Anonymous

Thank you beautiful young man, thank you.

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charlotte

Thank you for your service. We all will remember you. You have done lots to help us to where we are.

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Jessica Chisholm

Thank you. Wish you had made it. Your courage and bravery will be remembered. Lest we forget.

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megan nekel

Thanks for fighting for our country.

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will

Thank you for helping make this wonderful country free. Everyone is grateful. LEST WE FORGET.

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Anonymous

Thank you for everything.

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JESSICA DROVER

WITHOUT YOU, THE WAR MIGHT STILL BE GOING. THANK YOU.

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Anonymous

YOU'RE MY HERO.

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Taylor

Thank you for your bravery. You will be remembered as a hero. Rest in peace.

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Anonymous

Siefken seemed like a good man. He was a very brave soldier. Let him rest in peace.

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saskia

I am so sad that you died, since you were a butcher. I bet your meat was delicious. I bet you were loved a lot, from Saskia.

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Anonymous

I thank you very much for fighting for our country.

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Anonymous

Hope you had a good life.

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chelsea

War is bad.

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Geoff Guy

It is so heartening to read so many wonderful, warm comments about our uncle, Otto Siefken. Thank you all.

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Anonymous

Thank you for your efforts and sacrificing your life for us.

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Anonymous

Ever grateful.

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Ross McQueen

Lest we forget.

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ERIN

DEAR OTTO, THANK YOU FOR FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM AND NATURAL HUMAN RIGHTS IN AUSTRALIA, AND SHALL WE NEVER FORGET YOUR BRAVERY AND HOPE. RIP ~ Erin and the whole of Australia.

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Anonymous

Inspiring story. Thank you for saving and helping our country.

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Stewart

Forever shall you be remembered for your courage, bravery and sacrifice.

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StewiePlayzXD

You will forever be remembered for your bravery. R.I.P.

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Anonymous

You shall forever be remembered for your bravery.

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