Above: Ern Gabbett during WWII. He is wearing the ribbons of his Boer War and WWI Medals. Courtesy of NAA B884 V7041
Gunner Ernest Poole Gabbett
Pakenham & District War Memorial
Born: 31 July 1882 - Drouin, Victoria
Enlisted: 25 August 1914 aged 32
Unit: 3rd Divisional Ammunition Column (SERN: 2846)
Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front
Died: November 1962 - Heidelberg, Victoria
Known as “Ern” or “Gabby”, Ernest was a son of Captain John Norcliffe and Marion (Marian) Gabbett. The Gabbetts lived around Drouin and Warragul, where both Ern’s father and his maternal grandfather were prominent pioneers (1). Ern attended Drouin State School. Later, the Gabbetts moved to the Mornington Peninsula, then Toora in South Gippsland where Ern farmed with his father. In 1902, Ern volunteered for the Boer War in South Africa, serving as a bugler with the 6th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse (2). Interestingly, his father had been Commanding Officer of the Victorian Mounted Rifles (VMR) at Warragul. After the Boer War, Ern returned to Drouin, where in 1909 he was working as a grocer’s assistant (3). Ern later established his own store in Garfield, which in 1914 was spectacularly burned down in a fire that also destroyed the neighbouring pub (4). Ern was also well known as a footballer, playing for Iona (5). Ern married Eveline Victoria McKay in 1913. The couple were living in Brunswick when Ern enlisted for the AIF on 25 August 1914, just weeks after the declaration of war (6). Ern was initially assigned to the 3rd Section Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC) as a driver. The DAC was a support unit for the artillery and the drivers worked with the horses used to haul the ammunition wagons. Ern departed Australia on 21 October 1914 bound for England. En-route, the AIF was diverted to Egypt, where Britain feared an attack from the Ottoman Empire, which had just joined the War on Germany’s side.
After a period in Egypt, Ern was assigned to the MEF (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) on 30 April 1915 (7). This included the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) which had attacked the Turks at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. As a member of the DAC, Ern would have been deployed supplying ammunition to the soldiers on the front line, although the terrain and conditions at Gallipoli were such that the Australian horses were never landed. Ern was back in Egypt in November 1915 when he requested to become a gunner and was sent back to Gallipoli to join the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade (FAB). He appears to have served with the Brigade’s ammunition column (8). The Anzacs were evacuated from Gallipoli in mid December 1915. Shortly after arriving back in Egypt, Ern was hospitalised in Cairo suffering from influenza, no doubt contracted as a result of the cold and wintery conditions at Gallipoli prior to the evacuation. On 22 January 1916, he was transferred to the 4th Battery, but was hospitalised again shortly thereafter with bronchitis, which later developed into severe pleurisy (pneumonia). He was also suffering from mumps (9). After recovering, Ern was mustered again as a driver with the 23rd Battery.
In March 1916, Ern was transferred to France to serve on the Western Front, where he was taken on strength with the 21st FAB. This unit supported the 1st Division AIF on the Western Front with howitzers, including during the Battle of Pozieres. When the 21st FAB was disbanded in January 1917, Ern was transferred to the 4th Battery, 2nd FAB. Two other Pakenham Diggers would serve with this unit: Justin Fox and Alexander Learmonth. On 31 July 1917, the 2nd FAB took part in the beginning of the British attack which launched the Third Battle of Ypres. The 4th Battery had five guns in action (10). Ern was wounded in action that day, suffering a wound to his arm. After being treated at the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station, Ern was hospitalised in France for a few weeks. He rejoined his unit on 20 August 1917. Within days, the 2nd FAB was supporting a British attack at Glencorse Wood (11). In late September, Ern was given a month’s leave in England, returning to the 4th Battery just before it sustained heavy casualties at Anzac Ridge during the Battle of Passchendaele. In March 1918, Ern was attached to the 1st DAC, before being transferred back to the 4th Battery, 2nd Brigade as a gunner in May 1918. In September 1918, Ern left Taranto Italy for special “1914 Leave” in Australia, which was arranged for the original Anzacs of 1914. He arrived back in Melbourne on 25 October 1918, just a few weeks before the War ended (12).
While Ern was away, Eveline had moved to Pakenham, where his mother Marion lived. Eveline established a drapery business in town. In late 1918, Eveline purchased Robert Clements‘ shop and house in Main Street, opposite the old Shire Chambers (13). Ern was one of the soldiers welcomed home to Pakenham in early December 1918, when he was presented with a gold medallion from the grateful community. It was said that “all were honoured that evening by having an Anzac with them - Gnr E P Gabbett” (14). Frank Groves MLA also praised Ern’s wife Eveline, who had been very active in the Pakenham Red Cross, telling Ern “During your absence ... your wife has been working hard for the cause in which you have been fighting. We hope that now you are re-united you will have every happiness and prosperity” (15). Ern was discharged from the Army on 24 January 1919 (16).
After the War, Ern worked as a tailor in the family drapery business. Ern also became actively involved in a number of community organisations and activities. He played football for Pakenham, being described in 1919 as a “very useful man for the team” (16a). Ern was also an accomplished musician. He performed with a Miss Lewis at the last soldiers welcome home held at Pakenham in May 1920 (16b) and established “Gabbett’s Orchestra” which performed at dances and balls in the district (17). Ern was also described as “probably the most talented amateur actor this district has ever known” (18). He was a prominent member of the Pakenham Dramatic Club and organised a minstrel group which raised a lot of money for the Pakenham Fire Brigade (18). Ironically, the first fire the Pakenham Fire Brigade ever had to fight was one that broke out in Ern’s shop in April 1930. The entire contents were destroyed by fire and water (19). Ern later ran a grocery store. In the late 1930s, Ern served as Vice President of the local RSL sub-branch (20). Ron Blackwood remembers Ern as a great story-teller. One story Ron remembers was of a pony which always got off to a great start at the Pakenham racecourse, but would get “pipped at the post” every time. Frustrated by this, the pony’s connections decided one night to move the winning post, Despite these clandestine efforts on its behalf, the pony still lost its next race! (21)
In July 1940, Ern volunteered for military service again. At the time, Ern was working as a horse driver. When he enlisted, Ern stated he was born in 1884, making himself two years younger than he really was. He subsequently served as a corporal (SERN V7041) with the Garrison Regiment in Australia. He was eventually discharged in late 1943 due to being “over age” (22). Ern thus had the distinction of being a veteran of three wars: the Boer War, WWI and WWII. Ern’s son Ivan also served in WWII (VX144718) and was known as a very talented local musician too (22a). Ern’s other son Colin became an Army officer. Ern was widowed in November 1953 when Eveline died (23). Ern passed away himself at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in November 1962 aged 80 (24).
In addition to the Pakenham & District Soldiers’ Memorial, Ern’s WWI service is also remembered at the Pakenham RSL Club Rooms, through a display of regimental badges which he had collected while serving at Gallipoli. Interestingly, these may have been part of the “fine collection of war trophies” he displayed in his shop window in May 1919 as the display included souvenirs from Gallipoli as well as Egypt and the Western Front (25).
The assistance of Ron Carroll, Ron Blackwood and Carolyn Connor is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Warragul Guardian 11/6/1885, p.3; 20/8/1889, p. 3; 25/7/1890, p. 3 & 12/5/1891 p. 3
(2) Gippsland Times 21/4/1902, p.3 & PG 10/11/1962 p.1
(3) Ancestry.com.au - ER - Flinders - Drouin - 1909
(4) Bunyip Free Press 23/4/1914, p. 2
(5) Bunyip Free Press 2/12/1915, p. 3
(6) (7) (8) (9) (12) & (16) NAA B2455 GABBETT E P
(10) AWM4 13/30/32 Unit War Diary, Headquarters, 2nd FAB, July 1917, p. 9
(11) AWM4 13/30/33 Unit War Diary, Headquarters, 2nd FAB, August 1917, p. 9
(13) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 7/11/1918, p. 2 & PG 4/12/1953, p.1
(14) & (15) Pakenham Gazette 6/12/1918, p.3
(16a) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 15/5/1919, p. 2
(16b) Pakenham Gazette 7/5/1920 p. 2
(17) Advocate 6/9/1923 p. 18
(18) & (24) Pakenham Gazette 16/11/1962, p.1
(19) Dandenong Journal 3/4/1930, p. 4
(20) The Argus 27/1/1938, p. 10
(21) Information provided by Ron Blackwood
(22) NAA B884 V7041
(22a) Information provided by Ron Carroll
(23) The Age 30/11/1953, p.12
(25) Pakenham Gazette 23/4/1920 p. 3