Arthur McPhail Kilgour enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force in October 1915, at the age of 19 years and eight months. Being under 21 meant he should have required his parents’ permission. However, he falsified his age on his attestation papers, giving it as 22 years and eight months. Perhaps his parents did not endorse their eldest son going to war but felt the decision was his to make and so did not inform the authorities.
Kilgour attended church regularly and did not drink. He had recently become engaged to Bexley girl Olive Winifred Smith, and he had a promising job as a workman at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint earning a good wage of 6 shillings a day (the same as his prospective army pay). We do not know why he decided to enlist for overseas service, but Sydney Mint staff records reveal that between 8 August and 31 December 1914 he had been released from his Mint duties for ‘Naval Service’. While the nature and extent of this service is unknown, Kilgour was most likely one of the hundreds of naval reservists who rallied to the Rushcutters Bay naval depot on 6 August 1914 and was subsequently rostered on garrison duties. There is no record of his having served abroad with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force that departed Sydney for New Guinea on 19 August 1914.
Kilgour sailed for Alexandria with the Army Medical Corps (AMC), General Reinforcements, on 29 March 1916. From the AMC nominal roll we know that he was in company with tailors, hotel-keepers, doctors, chauffeurs, salesmen and farmers – an interesting cross-section of Australia’s volunteer army. The average age of his group was 26, and while the dominant religious denomination was his own – Church of England – he also rubbed shoulders with Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists and Jewish soldiers.3
From Alexandria he sailed with this khaki melting-pot to England and then to France, arriving near the front lines in late July. For the next two years, from 26 July 1916 until 16 November 1918, he kept a war diary, recording his expectations and experiences in a mostly matter-of-fact way. The diary charts Kilgour’s journey from naive enthusiasm for the war to stolid endurance. By June 1917 he had sent four instalments of the diary home to his fiancée, Olive.
When Kilgour first arrived at the front he was disappointed to have ‘arrived just too late for this last big push’. The ‘big push’ he had just missed was the Battle of Pozieres, a killing ground that claimed more than 10,000 Australian casualties in a matter of weeks. Yet he was ‘eager to go up and see what this game is like’.4
Kilgour was assigned to the 1st Australian Field Ambulance Brigade (Fld Amb) as a stretcher-bearer in early August and was at the front line within days. The role of stretcher-bearer was vitally important to the chain of evacuation on the battlefield. Their job was to move casualties during and after the fighting to hastily constructed aid posts metres from the fighting or casualty clearing stations further away from the line. The faster a wounded soldier could reach an aid post, the more chance there was of saving life or limb. The work of stretcher-bearers was dangerous and confronting, but the men carried it out with enormous determination and compassion.
Kilgour’s naivety about war was soon checked as he confronted a violent, confused and chaotic environment where men were blown to atoms by indiscriminate artillery barrages. In his diary entry for 17 August 1916 he wrote:
As long as I live I shall never forget yesterday’s stretcher bearing at Pozieres … We were out under shell fire from 1 p.m. till 9 p.m … We were being shelled by our own artillery. It was awful. This sacrifice of human life! … This is not war. It is murder.
In December 1916 Kilgour was detached from the 1st Fld Amb on an AMC detail to the 2nd battalion; he didn’t return until February 1918 but his duties hardly varied. The chaos and suffering he witnessed were methodically recorded in the 1st Fld Amb unit war diaries, which are filled with statistics that catalogue the range of injuries suffered by men in an industrial war. The unit diary for September 1918 included a classification of wounds: shrapnel wounds to the ‘upper limbs and extremities’, 230 cases; shrapnel wounds to the ‘lower limbs and extremities’, 260 cases; shrapnel wounds to the face, 77 cases; plus tallies of shrapnel wounds to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, back and spine; and tallies for fractures, shell concussion and gassing.5
Official Australian war photographers sometimes captured the 1st Fld Amb in action. There are two photographs from a battle at the ruined village of Mericourt-sur-Somme on 23 August 1918, a battle described by Kilgour in his diary.
Kilgour wrote that his unit had ‘opened up a terrific bombardment on the enemy’s lines’ at 4.30am on 22 August but that later in the day they had ‘a delightful swim in the old river Somme’. Then, early on the morning of 23 August: ‘our Australian 1st Division went over the top and advanced about 3,000 yards. We bearers moved up just before the barrage opened. What a hard time we have had. Been carrying all day today. Our boys got all their objectives and about 3,000 prisoners but our casualties are very heavy’. In his diary entry on the following day, Kilgour paid tribute to the work of the Australian YMCA: ‘Their secretaries and staff did great work supplying the wounded with hot drinks, cigarettes and biscuits. How we admire these fine men’.
Kilgour was thankful that he wasn’t an infantryman, whose ‘life in the front line of trenches is a dog’s life’, but he was still subject to the risks of war. He was gassed a number of times, almost shot through the foot by an Australian soldier as he unloaded his rifle in a medical aid station, and bombed by a German aeroplane while ferrying a wounded soldier across open ground. His closest call came two months before the November armistice when he narrowly escaped being blown up while working outside the trenches during a battle near the ‘sometime fine village of Roisel’ in the Somme department. His unit was ‘attached for this stunt’ to the 4th Australian Infantry Battalion, and he wrote in his diary that on the morning of 11 September 1918, ‘the 4th battalion went over the top and met with some opposition’. He continued: ‘The Hun shelled us most unmercifully and he got one shell right in amongst us killing instantly my old chum Corporal Johnson M.M. [Military Medal] and wounding six of us, including myself’.
He received shrapnel to his arm, hand and face, but as a ‘walking wounded’ made his own way through the various stages of casualty evacuation, recording the lengthy process in his diary: ‘Walked down to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Station], from the R.A.P., to the A.D.S. [Advance Dressing Station], from the A.D.S. to the M.D.S. [Main Dressing Station], from the M.D.S. to the C.C.S. [Casualty Clearing Station]’. He was operated on at the casualty clearing station – where a number of shrapnel fragments were removed from his arm – and then evacuated to England for further treatment.
For servicemen, life did not simply stop because they were at war. Kilgour’s diary gives an insight into the complex nature of a soldier’s experience, with a glimpse into his personal life: the fiancée he misses, the grief he feels when he hears news of mates killed, and the enjoyment he takes in catching up with ‘old naval pals’, friends from Paddington where he grew up, and others such as Sid Hoptroff, a fellow Sydney Mint employee. Although Hoptroff was in a different unit, the two men managed to meet up on several occasions between August 1916 and December 1917. Kilgour notes in his diary that by that time ‘most of us boys have friends all over France’.6
Kilgour wrote and received hundreds of letters, and sent and received many parcels, including a package from the Sydney Mint in December 1916. On 5 January 1917 he learned to his dismay that his Christmas mail and letters had gone down with the Arabic when the ship was torpedoed. On 21 July 1917 he wrote that he had just received word that another mail had been sunk, ‘making the fifth mail from Australia we have lost since September 1916, whilst the folk have lost from us two mails during the last month’.
While in France he collected souvenirs to send home, swam in the rivers, ate with local French families, visited windmills, took bike rides, played sport and ‘skylarked’ with his mates – mud fights were a favourite distraction from the chaos and uncertainty of war. He travelled to London on furlough, taking the opportunity to visit theatres, picture shows and Madame Tussauds waxworks. He also visited the Royal Mint on at least two occasions, finding on his second visit, in October 1917, that Distinguished Conduct Medals were being made that day.
On 17 October 1916 he recorded his vote in connection with the Australian referendum on conscription, noting in his diary that he voted no and was ‘well satisfied with it’; but by April 1917, when soldiers had an opportunity to vote in the Australian general election, he was ‘too tired’ to leave his dugout to vote. His army service dossier shows that like many soldiers he was disciplined for being ‘absent without leave’, with instances resulting in forfeiture of a day or two days’ pay. On another occasion he writes of being in the battalion prison, charged with assaulting a non-commissioned officer and disobedience of orders – actions seemingly out of character for our diarist. Kilgour refuted the charge and ultimately the case was dismissed.
With time on their hands and an uncertain fate, gambling was a common distraction for the men, two-up the well-known favourite. But there were other ways to lose money, including Crown and Anchor, a game so popular it was later said that Australian soldiers deserted the front line for a chance to play. For diligent, teetotal, churchgoing Kilgour, however, the strain of war was no excuse for excess, and he was harsh on himself for any weaknesses. He confided to his diary in April 1918 that for that past few months he had been gambling heavily: ‘From now on I must try and rid myself of this vice. I do not forget the promise I made my fiancée a few years back but there are so many temptations out here that it is terribly hard to dodge them all’. He was still struggling against the addiction in July 1918, declaring that ‘for the sake of my wife-to-be I am going to exercise my will power and give up gambling. I have lost heavily this week. From now on I have finished with cards’.7
After being evacuated from France in September 1918, Kilgour received treatment and rehabilitation in England; by the time he was fit again for service the war had ended. He arrived back in Sydney in late 1919 and spent some time in hospital before resuming work at the Mint in March 1920. He and Olive were married in July 1921.