|Barrie Watts-Phillips was
born in South Australia in 1878.
Life in the latter part of the 19th
century was hard and a kid from the back-blocks had to be just as hard,
simply to survive.
Sgt Barrie Watts-Philips –
top soldier, top man.
Watts-Phillips in 1915 prior to embarking for Gallipoli.
The mystique of battle in
a far off land appealed to the lad, so putting his age up by a few years
he enlisted in the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, bound
for South Africa and war against the Boers.
Life on the African Veldt
was hard for the mounted troopers. Water was scarce, food was bland and
the elusive Boer commandoes were first rate troops.
They were the
masters of hit and run tactics – their only problem was that our
blokes had their measure and soon began to dominate the local
Young Barrie relished
life as a soldier. He felt equal to the older men with whom he shared
the hardships of combat. He was strong, lean and ready for the fight,
wherever and whenever it may come. And come it did, fast and furious,
but the young trooper was more than up to the task.
Sickness was a common foe
on both sides and Barrie did not escape its clutches, when malaria
hospitalised him in Johannesburg. As the war sputtered to an end, Barrie
Watts-Phillips decided to remain in South Africa. The lure of quick
money in the abundant goldfields appealed to his sense of adventure.
He secured work in the
massive Johannesburg mine complex known as “The Angela Deep”. Long
hours and back-breaking work was Barrie’s reward. The pay was good but
the conditions were shocking and Barrie had had just about enough. He
rallied his fellow workers and took the management to task by leading
the first white miners strike in South Africa’s history.
It was now 1906 and South
Africa was again in conflict – this time the famed Zulu nation was
rebelling in nearby Natal. Never one to back away from a stoush, Barrie
joined a local mounted unit known as Roystons Horse.
In what many thought
would be a strictly one sided affair, the irregular units went about
putting the Zulus back in their place – the only thing was no-one told
the Zulus that they’d be a walk over and the proud warriors gave as
good as they got. During an ensuing action, Barrie Watts-Phillips was
shot in the left side of the face. The wound was serious and the doctors
worked hard to repair the damage caused by the bullet.
As he began to heal, the
doctors reviewed their handy work on Barrie’s face – “Not bad if I
do say so myself” the doctor said jokingly, “Don’t worry trooper,
you’ll still get the girls in.” The natives looked on Barrie with
awe – a man who had been shot in the face and lived to tell the tale
was someone to be revered – they nicknamed him “Unn Farnes” or
Barrie returned to
civilian life and continued to knock about South Africa. He took up a
job as a sparring partner for the world middleweight champion, Eddie
McGorty, and his challenger, Jimmy Clabby, as they prepared for their
bout. He gave a good account for himself but after a few weeks of this
he really wished he did have a stone jaw.
In 1908, he secured work
on a steamer bound for Australia, via Singapore. Landing in Adelaide, he
heard of lucrative work in the Gulf of Carpentaria. As he stood in a pub
he spoke of his impending trip with a group of fellow drinkers.
“How you planning to
get up there, mate?” one of them asked. “On that!” he replied,
nodding towards the ancient looking push-bike. The group broke into
laughter - the only one not laughing, was Barrie.
Feeling his icy glare,
one of them stated – “you’re not joking are you mate – you’re
really going across Australia on that?” “Too bloody right I am!”
“Well you’d better get this into you then” one said, handing him
another beer. And travel to the Gulf he did, straight up the Burke and
He worked at a number of
jobs, including jackaroo, cook and fencer. In northern Queensland, he
was a gun shearer, where he “Rang the Bell” for the most sheep
shorn. He returned to Melbourne a few years later and got married. The
couple settled in Albert Park, where Barrie secured work as a commercial
traveller. He remained an active member of the Australian Natives
Association, a lodge type of organisation bent on maintaining the
principals of Australian life and culture.
In 1914, the onset of war
saw Barrie Watts-Phillips back in uniform. Enlisting in the AIF, he was
allocated to the 8th Light Horse Regt. With his experience, he was
quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant in B Sqn.
The Regiment sailed for
Egypt in early 1915 and continued training at the Light Horse camp on
Cairo’s outskirts. As the infantry and support troops of the 1st
Division marched out, bound for Gallipoli, the troopers of the Light
Horse were jealous. They knew that they were every bit as good as their
“gravel-crushing” cousins – all they craved was for a chance to
Their chance came soon
enough though, as casualties in the peninsular began to rise. As the
word came down to prepare for embarkation, Barrie Watts-Phillips swung
into action. He rallied his men and laid down a few ground rules as to
what to take and what to leave. He was a firm taskmaster and his men
respected him for it. They knew that he’d always give them a fair
shake but heaven help them if they crossed the line with him.
Gallipoli was not the
adventure the young diggers expected. This was war at its worst – kill
or be killed. The only problem was that the Turks held most of the high
ground, hence most of the advantage. Barrie seemed to be everywhere. He
was always on the look-out for his men and saw to it that they had
everything they needed to wage battle. He scrounged additional food,
water, bombs and ammo. He’d roam the trenches, offering advice to the
younger blokes on how to stay alive and how to make the best of the
harsh conditions. He kept up an incredible pace, which soon began to
take its toll on his system.
It was now August 1915
and the bloody stalemate of trench warfare continued. A British landing
was planned further up the peninsular at Suvla Bay. To cover the landing
a series of diversionary attacks were to occur along the Anzac front.
The infantry would attack
at Lone Pine, the Kiwis would attack and seize the heights at Chunuk
Bair and the Light Horse would conduct two charges – one at Russell
Top and the other by the 8th, 9th and 10th Regiments, at a place called
The Nek was a narrow
bridge of land, flanked by two steep gullies – it was a natural choke
point. The diggers knew that they had to take it but the Turks also knew
that they had to hold it. The Turkish machine-guns were positioned with
interlocking arcs of fire. Every bit of the ground was covered by fire.
The attack at the Nek was
scheduled for the pre-dawn darkness of August 7. The regiments drew lots
to see who would have the honour of leading the charge – the 8th won.
As they moved into the
trenches, some of the men of the first wave joked with their mates.
“This is just another stunt”, one said “we’ll get in and rip
their guts out with this,” thrusting his bayonet and rifle forward.
Others jockeyed for position, so as to go over the top with a mate. Then
came the silence before the barrage. Some sat silently, some prayed,
others fought back tears, some tried to scratch out a hasty message to
loved ones but now, nearly to a man, they took time to reflect on the
seriousness of the situation.
Barrie moved among his
men, dishing out a double ration of rum. “Remember boys, nothing up
the spout, we’re going over with the bayonet,” he said as he made
his way along the trench. “We’re the first wave, so we’ve got to
keep moving and push forward.”
The pre-assault barrage
commenced right on time. Round after round slammed into the Turkish
trenches as the barrage gain intensity, then suddenly it stopped,
several minutes earlier than expected.
Orders were questioned
– do we go now? Do we hold? Was there to be another blast of
artillery? The Turks now streamed back into the forward trenches and
prepared for the expected assault. Then came the whistle blast to send
them on their way – right on time and right into the gates of hell.
They only had to charge
40 metres to reach the enemy trenches – most didn’t get more than 10
metres before they were cut to pieces. Some didn’t even get over the
lip of the trench. Barrie ran forward, coaxing his men on. He felt the
tug as bullets ripped into his equipment cutting it free. Suddenly he
was alone, dropping to the ground he took stock of the situation. The
first wave of 150 men had been cut to pieces. He’d had every piece of
equipment blown off him and the next wave was just about to come over.
He was powerless to stop
the carnage as the second wave charged and met the same fate as the
first. Wounded and dead now littered the battlefield. In a scant five
minutes, the 8th Light Horse Regt almost ceased to exist.
By mistake, a third wave
of the 10th Light Horse also charged. A couple of the diggers almost
made it to the Turkish trenches before they too, were cut down. A
smaller fourth charge took place in daylight 30 minutes later in a
futile gesture. It barely made it over the parapet.
In a matter of minutes
234 men were killed and more than 140 wounded, in an area a little
larger than two tennis courts. Ever so slowly, Barrie Watts-Phillips
made his way back to the safety of the trench. The Turks took a few pot
shots at anything that moved but somehow they missed him.
Watts-Phillips took stock
of the situation. The time to grieve would come later. He had work to
do, to get the wounded back to the rear and prepare for a possible
counter-attack by the Turks. He worked around the clock for the next
three or four days and was on the verge of exhaustion when the
Regimental Medical Officer stepped in.
He wrote, “This man Sgt
Watts-Phillips can not continue active service, for weeks he has stuck
solidly to his work although I wished him to go away. He is an excellent
man but he has now reached the limit of human endurance and I must
strongly urge that he be evacuated. He is no longer fit to do his
Barrie was evacuated to
Malta a couple of days later and then to England. He discovered that
he’d been recommended both for a commission and a decoration but he
received neither. He did, however, receive a Mention in Despatches, for
his work at Anzac Cove.
In London, Barrie was
approached by the noted war artist, Septimus Power, who asked if he
could do some sketches of him. Barrie agreed and thought nothing more of
Barrie was able to
recuperate enough to return to the regiment in March the following year.
He was detached to the 3rd Light Horse Training Regiment as a Temporary
SSM with his rank confirmed sometime later. He secured a posting back to
the Regiment as the SSM of A Sqn – he moved to C Sqn some moths later,
again as the SSM. Detachments to and from the Training Regiment
continued over the ensuing months.
Barrie was not with the
regiment when it went into action around Beersheba and returned to the
8th in January 1918 as the SSM of his beloved B Sqn. As the war in the
Middle East spluttered to a close in October 1918, the 8th took up
garrison and patrol duties. Barrie was appointed as acting RSM in early
1919, before he embarked for home in June.
With the unveiling of
Septimus Power’s now famous painting “Charge at Beersheba”, in the
1920’s, Barrie Watts-Phillips realised one of the sketches of himself,
which was done in London, was now part of the famous work.
resided in the Melbourne suburb of East Malvern. He was just as tough in
his older years as he was as a younger man. In the late 1930s, he
attended the Anzac Day march in Melbourne. It was the best turn out of
late 8th Light Horsemen for many a year, with numbers attending in the
As they enjoyed a few
quite beers in Young and Jackson’s before the march, the clock ticked
ever closer to form-up time. At the given moment, Barrie Watts-Phillips
and another past RSM and good mate “Bunny” Nugent took charge –
“Right you blokes, finish up your drinks and get yourself outside and
formed up, ready for the march”. Some of the hard-nuts who had decided
to forgo the march and settle in for a morning’s drinking, looked
around at the pair. They quickly thought better of their plan and
finished their drinks and moved outside with the rest of the regiment.
Watts-Phillips passed away in 1956, aged 78.
- A great deal of thanks for this story needs to go
to my mate, Cam Simpson, the author of Maygar’s Boys, who provided
me with the information on Barrie Watts-Phillips.
- Originally printed in ARMY News, The Soldiers