Courtesy of Debbie Ellett Hajduk
Private Robert Henry Ellett
Pakenham & District War Memorial & Pakenham South War Memorial
Born: 1 March 1888 - Springvale, Victoria
Enlisted: 20 October 1914 aged 26
Unit: Australian Army Service Corps, 1st Reinforcement (SERN: 2772)
Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front
Died: 27 September 1925 - Melbourne, Victoria
Also known as “Bert”, Robert was a son of John Thomas Ellett and his wife Margaret Webster. The family originally had market gardens at Springvale. Later, the Elletts became one of the pioneering families at Pakenham South, acquiring a 50 acre property called “Wattle Vale” on McDonald’s Drain Road. Bert’s father John paid £2.10 per acre for what had been swamp land and proceeded to fence, drain and cultivate the property (1). He also built a two roomed wattle and daub house where he and Margaret would raise most of their fifteen children! (2). Bert followed in his father’s footsteps as a farmer at Pakenham South. Bert was 26 years old when he enlisted in the AIF in October 1914. He was initially assigned as a driver with the 1st Reinforcement, Australian Army Service Corps. Bert’s younger brother Jack, who enlisted a few weeks later, was assigned to the same reinforcements (3). On the voyage to Egypt, Bert suffered badly from asthma, a condition that would continue to dog his military service for some time. According to one medical report, he never had a night without suffering from it, and eventually underwent operations to try to improve his condition (4). In Egypt, Robert was in charge of a team of horses: his horses were called “Optical”, “Surgical”, “Illusion’ and “Delusion” (5). On 20 April 1915, Bert sailed for Gallipoli with his horses. On April 25, his ship was anchored off Lemnos. He noted in his diary that the landing was “reported successful” and that they could hear the guns firing nearly 50 miles away (6). Bert was optimistic: in a letter home from Lemnos, he wrote: "Remember me all round, and tell them we will be feeding on “turkey” in Constantinople within a fortnight” (6a).
Bert landed at Gallipoli at sunset on 2 May. His diary entries record the sustained, heavy Turkish fire he had to endure over the next few days while performing a range of supporting tasks, such as digging trenches. On May 4, he “nearly stopped a shell” carrying water to the trenches. On May 8 Bert recorded “men killed and wounded all round” (7). He later vividly described his experiences in a letter home to his parents: “Speaking of the drought, Dad says in his letter, I was lucky to be away and miss seeing Australia shrivel up but God knows I have seen worse in Australia’s best manhood dropping dead and wounded by bullets and shrapnel. The very first day we landed one shell brought down five men right beside me and the last day another shell caught seven. Another day we were lined up waiting for our dinner and a shell wounded two of our cooks ... All of our work in the peninsular [sic] was done in the night. One morning we had to unload fifteen barrels of rum from the barges. Bullets bored holes in eight of them ... The Dardanelles are not to be taken easily. The Turks are making a tough fight for it, but our boys will prove one too many for them, even though progress is slow. My word, it would do you good to see how they shape. We all felt proud when we received the King’s congratulatory message, also Lord Kitchener’s, and the message of rejoicing from Australia after our boys had forced a landing. We could have cried for joy; but, my word, they deserved it all. You don’t want to worry about us. We will get through all right, as it is really a man’s own fault if he gets hit, the Turks are such bad shots. The kids could shoot spots off them” (8). In another letter, Bert wrote: “I never imagined war to be so awful until I got there, and even then you can’t realise it. You are walking along and cannot see a Turk, and never know the minute you are going to stop a bullet. But the shrapnel was the worst: you hear the cannon go off, then hear the shell coming and promptly duck to the nearest dug-out ... I have had one or two close shaves, but a miss is as good as a mile off and I seem to be very lucky”. Bert was also thankful for letters from home, which helped to break up the “monotony” of life in the trenches and dug-outs (9). Bert’s tour of duty at Gallipoli was short: on 11 May, he embarked for Alexandria with the horses (10), which could not be landed because of the nature of the fighting and the terrain. He was then posted to Mena Camp, near Cairo. In Egypt, Bert was able to meet up again with his brother Jack, as well as old friends who had also enlisted from the district, including Harry Worship and Jack Bryan (11). He sounded a little homesick in a letter he wrote home in June: “I’d give a trifle to be home again for just one day. Those little photos I received yesterday look like heaven, to see the trees, whereas [here] you see nothing but sand and salt ... and in patches a few plantations of date palms’” (12). Bert’s asthma continued to trouble him, and he had a further operation to remove polyps from his nose. Bert also appears to have been suffering from deafness and rheumatism (13). While convalescing, he had the chance to sail on the yacht of Lord Brassey, a former Governor of Victoria, who had made the vessel available for use by convalescing soldiers (14). Due to his medical conditions, Robert was returned to Australia and discharged from the Army on medical grounds on 1 March 1916. Within weeks though, Robert re-enlisted in Melbourne and was accepted as medically fit! He was assigned to the 46th Battalion, 5th Reinforcement at Geelong. There, Bert was promoted to acting Corporal and attended the No 4 Non-Commissioned Officers’ School, but reverted to the ranks after he arrived in England again in November 1916 (15).
Bert was taken on strength with the 46th Battalion in France in March 1917. He was initially engaged in “open work”, such as road making. In late March and early May, he was billeted at Bapaume, where his duties included clearing the rubble of the town hall which had been destroyed by a hidden German bomb on 25 March. Bert’s diary records that during the work, he had “dis-interred” a body: a number of Australian soldiers, including a Pakenham Digger Billy Lewis had been buried alive in the rubble (16). On 11 April, Bert fought and was wounded at the First Battle of Bullecourt. His diary entry briefly recorded what had happened: “April 11th. Hopped over at 3.30am. Got hit in arm about 5 o’clock. Walked out to 4th FA [Field Ambulance] about 6 mile” [sic] (17). When news of his injury reached Australia, it was said that his parents regretted not having another son to take Bert’s place at the Front, although a younger son Dick did attempt to enlist in the dying days of the War (18). Recovering in an English hospital, Bert wrote to his sister Alice: “I am still going strong and am in the best of health although my right hand is crippled for a time, but is improving everyday. The bullet went clean through my right arm above the elbow and has left my thumb and first three fingers dead. We got into a hot shop. We had been pottering about for a few weeks, keeping the line until the 11th came. We had to hop over. We had 11 tanks to prepare our track, and between us we gave Fritz rats. It was good to see our lads going in, yelling at the Huns and singing ‘Australia will be there’” (19). It was soon being reported that Bert would be returning to Australia as he had not yet recovered the use of his arm. It was also reported that Driver Harry Worship (a good friend of Bert’s) would also be returning following a severe case of rheumatic fever (20). Bert was duly returned to Australia for a “change”, arriving in Melbourne on 24 September 1917. In October, Bert was first welcomed home at Koo Wee Rup (which also claimed the Ellett brothers as theirs). There, Bert was presented with a gold ring and a purse of gold sovereigns. After the event, he was admitted to Caulfield Military Hospital for further treatment (21). He was eventually discharged from the Army in December 1917. In late August 1918, Bert was presented (in absentia) with a gold medallion from the Pakenham South community at a special euchre party and dance held at Pakenham South. Others honoured at the event were Dick Doherty and the late Tom Bryan (22). In August 1918, Bert applied for a soldiers settler block in Koo Wee Rup for mixed farming. Bert’s referees included Cr William Close, who stated that he had known the Ellett family for twenty years, and in his view, there was no former soldier more fitted for the land than Bert (23). The proposed block, which was about 4.5 miles from Koo Wee Rup, was regarded as being good for agriculture and pasture, though some of it was affected by flooding which proposed drainage works were expected to correct. The estimated yield of the land was 5 tonnes of potatoes per acre and 1.5 tonnes of hay per acre. The only structure on the land was a small galvanised iron hut. Robert requested a one year repayment free period which was granted (24).
In November 1918, Bert took part in the special parade organised in Pakenham to commemorate the Armistice. He paraded on horseback with five other returned soldiers: Lionel Malcolm, Richard Doherty, Methuselah Covey, Jack Simmons and Harry Worship (25). In March 1919, Bert was hospitalised at Warragul, suffering from the “Spanish Flu”, which he survived (26). Robert was one of the founding committee members of the Pakenham sub-branch of the Returned Sailors & Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, which was formed in April 1919 (27). Later that year, Bert married Ada Perrin. They eventually had three children. Tragically, Robert died from meningitis and pneumonia on 27 September 1925 aged just 37 years of age (28). He was buried in Springvale Cemetery. After Robert’s death, his widow and children moved to Geelong.
Aside from the Pakenham & District War Memorial, Bert’s service was commemorated on an honour board unveiled in the Koo Wee Rup Hall in February 1917 (29), and the Pakenham South War Memorial dedicated in 1997.
The assistance of Bert’s grand-daughter Debbie Ellett Hajduk; great-grandson Riley Ellett; and relatives Barry & Pam Ellett, Peter Ellett & Robyn Tassoni is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2016) p. 37
(2) Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2015) p. 24
(3) (4) (13) & (15) NAA B2455 ELLETT R H
(5) R. Ellett’s war diary, 20/3/1915
(6) R. Ellett’s war diary, 25/4/1915
(7) R. Ellett war diary, entries for 2/5 to 11/51915
(8) The Age 22/7/1915, p. 10
(9) Dandenong Advertiser 22/7/1915, p.2
(10) R. Ellett’s war diary, 11-14/5/1915
(11) R. Ellett’s war diary, 16/5/1915, 22/6/1915 & 7/10/1915
(27) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 24/4/1919 p. 2
(12) Dandenong Advertiser 22/7/1915, p. 2.
(28) Information provided by Debbie Ellett Hajduk
(14) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 11/11/1915, p. 2
(29) Lang Lang Guardian 14/2/1917, p. 2
(16) R. Ellett’s war diary, 5/4/1917
(17) R. Ellett’s war diary, 11/4/1917
(18) Dandenong Advertiser 17/5/1917 p.2 & 24/10/1918, p 2
(19) Dandenong Advertiser 26/7/1917, p. 3
(20) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 20/9/1917, p. 4
(21) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 11/10/1917 p. 3 & Pakenham Gazette 12/10/1917, p.2
(22) Dandenong Advertiser 5/9/1918, p. 2.
(23) & (24) PROV VPS 5714/P0 Unit 753 file 221/12
(25) Pakenham Gazette 22/11/1918 p.2
(26) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 3/4/1919, p. 2