Private Thomas Gardner was a 33-year-old miner from East Melbourne who, according to his niece, Janet Morice, was ‘a wanderer [who had] tried many jobs, working mainly with his hands, in almost every state of Australia …travelling from town to town’.
He enlisted in the AIF at Broadmeadows, Victoria, on 1 September 1914.
In a letter to his mother, he described their training at Broadmeadows Camp:
We have had nearly all our stuff issued to us: singlets, underpants, boots, shirts, overalls, razor, belt, muffler and a host of other things, so we shall be comfortable enough. We get plenty of hard work and I feel in the pink of condition.
We were up yesterday at the usual time, 6.15 am, and marched out a long way to meet the ‘enemy’. We returned to camp for dinner, marched out again and never returned until 10.30 at night … We have white bags like pillow slips for the boats, but they are too small to hold everything you want.
Less than seven weeks after enlistment, he embarked from Melbourne with the 7th Battalion on board HMAT Hororata.
Gardner and the 7th Battalion arrived in Albany around dusk on 27 October 1914, the ship pulling into the pier to take on water and provisions. They joined the First Convoy, departing for Egypt on 1 November. He described their voyage from Melbourne, their time in Albany and their departure for Colombo in letters to his mother and sister:
Dear Mother, just a line to tell you I am still on this planet. We got away from Port Melbourne very quietly on Sunday, anchored in the bay and left on Monday morning. We have had beautiful weather. There are over two thousand of us on board, so it is rather cramped as we have a number of transport horses on board and they take up a lot of room on the deck, so we can’t get much exercise. We sleep in hammocks and I find them very comfortable. We get good food but not too much of it … Our ship is a beauty. She is very roomy; sea-sickness has been conspicuous by its absence.
Dear Mabel, there are about twenty-three ships here [Albany] so far and it presents a grand sight. The HMAS Melbourne has also arrived. I don’t know when we are leaving here. They have only let officers ashore here so far, but there is some talk of us going on a march just to stretch our legs a bit.
Dear Mother, at last the embargo is removed and we can seal our letters … when we left Albany it was a great sight. There were thirty-eight ships and we all steamed out one after the other, then afterwards going three abreast. We got away on Sunday exactly a fortnight after leaving Melbourne. We were a fortnight going from Albany to Colombo. The run across was uneventful – smooth weather being the general things all the way.
Thomas Gardner, Letters, October-November, 1914
On 4 December 1914 the Hororata anchored overnight off Alexandria, Egypt. The troops disembarked the following day. At Mena Camp, the 7th Battalion men endured daily route marches in the hot desert. Leave was readily available, and Cairo just a short distance away on the local tram.
On 25 April 1915 Gardner’s battalion landed on Gallipoli in the second wave of the main force. In the confusion, the men became scattered, mostly across the western edge of Plateau 400. Here the battalion dug in. On 8 May, the 7th Battalion took part in the unsuccessful attack on Krithia towards the southern end of the peninsula, near Cape Helles. The hasty advance, over open poppy-covered ground, under constant Ottoman fire, resulted in heavy losses for the battalion. The 7th’s withdrawal, three days later, was equally costly: bullets tore up the ground while men rushed for cover.
Gardner was lucky to have survived thus far. More than half of the 1,023 men in his battalion had been killed or wounded in the fortnight since the landing. Sickness, caused by the terrible conditions, also took a toll. On 4 June Gardner was hospitalised with influenza and rheumatism, not returning until 7 August. Two days later, the 7th occupied the recently captured trenches at Lone Pine.
Here it desperately resisted a series of Ottoman counter-attacks. Four of the battalion won Victoria Crosses in just 24 hours. After this, the exhausted and heavily depleted battalion was relieved and sent to garrison trenches at Phillip’s Top. The stalemate continued.
Gardner described life in the trenches at Lone Pine and Phillip’s Top and his recovery in a letter to his sister Mabel:
Gardner’s battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli and returned to Egypt. On 24 February 1916 he transferred first to the newly formed 59th Battalion and then to the 5th Pioneer Battalion, where he was promoted to corporal.
Soon afterwards Gardner was admitted to hospital with venereal disease, but re-joined his battalion in time for their deployment to France on 29 May. On 11 August he was admitted to hospital in Étaples with ‘nervous depression’. Possibly as a result of his condition, he was arrested in Étaples a month later ‘for drunkenness while on active duty’; he was court-martialled and reduced in rank. Gardner returned to the unit on 1 November, but within a week had been readmitted to hospital with severe rheumatic fever. A few weeks later he was evacuated to Birmingham in England.
In a letter to his mother dated 11 December, Gardner wrote, ‘It is preferable to France with all its horrors. By jove, I am full up of soldiering; it is a useless game’. On 27 January 1917, after a period of leave in Weymouth, he was posted as a mess orderly to No. 4 Command Depot, Wareham, Dorset, as part of his convalescence.
Throughout 1917, ongoing bouts of myalgia (muscular soreness) of the back hampered Gardner’s recovery at Wareham. He was admitted to Sutton Veny Military Hospital on 18 January 1918, returning to the depot a week later.
Still hampered by bouts of back pain, Gardner eventually re-joined his battalion in France on 16 April 1918, but was again admitted to hospital in France on 19 May 1918. His nerves were gone.
Gardner was admitted to hospital in France on 19 May 1918 suffering from a nervous collapse. That day, he wrote to his sister Mabel: ‘My nerves are rotten now, all little ends, but I suppose my health has something to do with it’. Two weeks later he wrote, ‘I am so nervy I can’t bother about anything’. He was evacuated to a hospital in Weymouth on 19 June 1918.
He was diagnosed as suffering from ‘neurasthenia’ or shell shock and on 31 July 1918 was sent back to Australia ‘for a change’. The Medical Review Board in Melbourne stated that he suffered from ‘sleeplessness and headaches. Has fatigue after exertion and is unable to concentrate his mind’. Gardner was also found to have ‘tachycardia [a fast or irregular heart rate] and a tremor of the head and hands’. They stated that ‘he is evidently war weary’, something they attributed to ‘active service strain’. He was discharged from the AIF as ‘permanently unfit’ on 14 October 1918.
Four years after enlistment, at the age of 37 years, Gardner found himself seeking employment. In late November 1918 he travelled from Melbourne with two friends to a position on a farm near Lake Charm. He stopped en route at Kangaroo Lake and while swimming, drowned. Could it have been suicide? Gardner was sober and a strong swimmer. The Coroner ruled that his death was the result of an accident while bathing. The report stated that ‘the state of his [Gardner’s] kidneys warranted the belief that he had had a fainting fit and was unable to keep himself from sinking in the water’.
Gardner was buried in Kerang Cemetery on 26 November 1918, two weeks after the War ended.
Austin, R 2004, Our Dear Old Battalion: The Story of the 7th Battalion AIF, 1914-1919, Slouch Hat Publications, Rosebud
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/
Bean, C 1936, 5th edn, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. I, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Morice, J 1985, Six Bob a Day Tourist, Penguin Books Australia, Ringwood
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Gardner T, First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; GARDNER T, 1914-1920