Archive number: 2542
Preferred name: Tom
Date interviewed: 01 May, 2000
You are listening to the interview audio
NB. This transcript is of an interview filmed for the television series, Australians at War in 1999-2000. It was incorporated into the Archive in 2008.
Tom, can you tell me where and when you were born?
1897 in Counter Bay, Maude Street, Encounter Bay, I was born.
And what did your father do for a living?
He used to cut scrub, he used to cut timber and
he’d bark wattle. He was a labourer, really.
Did he have a farm, as well?
No, only a small block. He used, old Dad used to grow a lot of vegetables in his garden.
And what was life like for you as a young boy?
That was all quite good, really. I used to,
even when I was seven or eight, I used to go fishing. I’d go and catch a few fish.
Tom, could you tell me some more about your childhood? The other things you used to do?
My father used to do? No he,
used to crack stones along the road, crack a heap of stones. They’d crack the stones with a hammer. And, yes, he’d, you know, work at any labouring jobs going. Old Dad he’d …
Was life tough for you as a young
No, I left school when I was twelve and a half and I went to work for a chap, he used to breed polo ponies. I’d help him train these ponies. Yeah, well, then I was fifteen, I went to cut
scrub with the old Dad, you know, work with him and then I, when I was about seventeen, I think, I went to work for a blacksmith at Sandy Creek and he learnt me to, how to shoe, how to shoe horses and do a bit of blacksmithing.
Had you always grown up around horses?
Were horses always part of your life?
They were, yeah.
Can you tell me about that?
Yeah when I was …
I always did like horses even when I was young I liked horses. Yes, I, then I learnt to be a blacksmith.
Can you tell me where you were when war
broke out? Where were you when war broke out, when you did hear about the war?
I was working for the blacksmith when the war broke out and I, after, when I was, yeah I turned eighteen, I decided to enlist. Yes, I worked in, I went
three and a half years overseas.
Can you tell me why you enlisted in the war?
I don’t know. My cousin, Roy Thompson, he come to see me and he’d enlisted, was already enlisted and he said, “When are you going to
enlist?” I said, “Straight away.” Yes, and then I enlisted. And in the Mitcham Camp, I was in Mitcham Camp for, I got the measles and I was enlisted with the 9th Light Horse and I got the measles and I ended up with the 3rd, I went away with the 3rd Light Horse. We went to Egypt,
from Egypt we went across to France. We went to Marseilles and then we went across, we crossed, went across, we passed through the outskirts of Paris on our way up to Ypres we went.
So just going back a
little bit, could you tell me what the training was like with the Light Horse? I mean how did you work with the horses in the camp?
In Egypt, we had the horses in Egypt. We used to go for a ride every morning. Have a different horse every time. Every day we went, we’d have a different, get hold of a different horse.
What did it take to be part of the Light Horse? What sort of a man did you have to be?
Oh no they, they only asked us if we ever had anything to do with horses. I said, “Yes,” I said, “I used to ride polo ponies.” I said, I got, I really got, I’d
done alright when I was riding the ponies.
Was there much difference between you and other horsemen, you know, some of the, some of the blokes from the bush?
Some of them had never seen a horse, I don’t think. Otherwise they were …
Tom, I just want to know if there was much difference between the bushmen and yourself as far as being, you know, in the Light Horse?
No I worked, I was in the city and they was in the bush. But, no, I don’t think, there wasn’t much difference between us.
You were saying before that some of the men didn’t seem like they’d seen a horse before?
Can you tell me about that?
Yes. Yes some of them, you know, they worked, they were in the city most of their life and they’d never seen a horse but they took a liking to the,
they thought they might like a horse.
Who were the best Light Horsemen? The boys from the bush or were there any, you know, what sort of people were they?
Well, were most of them were good, pretty good riders. The ones that come from the bush, they had a lot to do with horses. But
some of the city boys used to go for a ride, you know, they’d go for a ride, get a horse, get hold of a a horse and go for a ride. But, no, I think the bushmen were the best riders really.
And what were they like
as people? Were they rough and tough because they’d come from the bush?
Yeah, yeah, they were a bit tougher than the city boys.
Can you tell me about what you thought about military life? The discipline of military life?
No I was glad when I got out of the military. I didn’t like to be tied up or anything.
I liked to be free.
Did you think there was too much discipline?
Yes, I don’t, didn’t like the discipline.
How did you react? How did you react to being told what to do?
I don’t know. I didn’t like it when they were…
I know I used to say to me mates, I said, “I don’t like the, I don’t like the discipline. I don’t like it.”
Did you rebel against that? Did you rebel against the discipline?
Yeah, I did really. I used to tell the officers, tell them, I said, “I don’t like it.” They said, “There’s nothing you can do about it.
You just have to carry on.”
So when the officers said that to you, were they laughing about it or were they being very strict with you?
No, they didn’t. They didn’t say much.
They said, “You got to, just do what you’re told to do.”
Did you play any pranks on them or any tricks on them? Did you play any pranks on your officers? Play up?
Did I what?
Did you play any pranks on your officers?
Okay Tom. Can you tell me a little bit about life in the camp at Egypt?
We were camped at Heliopolis, in Egypt. And every morning we’d go for a ride on the horses…yes, they…
some of the horses I don’t think had ever been ridden before. They’d get on and they’d soon get off. No, life in Egypt, we were camped; we went to Serapeum on the [Suez] Canal. We were camped there for about a month, I think, before
we went to France. Yeah, we went there, went across to Marseilles, from Egypt to Marseilles. We got a fright one day. We saw, we thought it was a submarine. It wasn’t, it was only a
bit of junk wood, only a bit of wood floating on the ocean. Yes, we thought it was a submarine. We all got a fright.
Tom, can you tell me in Egypt, what were you thinking about? Were you all just sort of wanting to go to battle?
we all felt eager to get to France to find out what was going on. Yeah wee all…we went to Egypt, we went into camp for about a month and then they took us up near the front line and we had to be on duty
near the… just back behind the lines we were. They put us on duty there.
Can you tell me, when you got to France you were no longer with the Light Horse. What did you have to do?
We, when we, we left the horses behind in Egypt and we had to
go … we joined the bike, Bicycle Corps. We joined up with them. There were about six hundred of us. We joined up in the cyclist battalion and we ended up as Lewis gunners in the finish.
Can you tell me why was there a
cyclist battalion? Why were they formed? Do you have any idea?
Yeah I think, to carry messengers, carry through messages from one village to another. That’s what the bikes were for, really,
And why do you think you were chosen?
I don’t know. I … they asked us, they called for volunteers to
join the cyclist battalion. They thought … they gave us a bike. They put us on a bike and make sure we could ride. Yes. We used to go from one village to another and they’d give us a message to take.
Was that dangerous? Can you tell me about some of those times?
Was that a very dangerous occupation going from village to village? Can you tell me about some of those times?
Yes. Some of the dangerous part was when we went up near the front lines. We used to take the ammunition up to the artillery. And they were really, and the Germans
spotters, they’d have balloons up spotting. They’d spot anyone that went across the land there; they could see them in these, with these balloons.
So were there very high casualty rates? Were there a lot of casualties
with the Cycling Corps because you could see them easily?
Yeah, we … some of them, we had a few chaps killed. They bombed; the German bombers used to come over now and then and skittled a few of us.
You were then trained as a Lewis gunner. Can you tell me about that?
About being a Lewis
gunner, yes, well, I was telling you about one incident that happened early, we were all, there was half a dozen of us that camped outside of a, a big military camp there. They had the military and artillery. And we were camped to guard
this machine gun, guard the… Lewis gunners we had to be there to guard the hidden gun. And early one morning there were two of us, two of us in with the machine gun and we heard a German bomber coming.
We heard him coming. He must have been a mile or so up when we heard him and he dropped a bomb a couple of hundred yards from behind before he got to us and he killed a few mules and then he come right over the top of us, I turned the machine gun up and I opened up, I gave him all the
bullets I had until he got out of range but he dropped a bomb, he dropped a bomb and it went straight down outside our sandbags. You could see it three or four feet down in the ground. It was, it never went off. It was a dud. We’d have gone, too, if it had gone off.
You were lucky.
Yeah, we were lucky.
They got him. He only went about three quarters of a mile and the anti-aircraft got him.
Can you tell me just what you did in a day like what were you, you rode your bike with your gun. Can you tell me about that?
You used to ride your bicycle with the gun on the back of the bike. Was it … you’d take it apart. Can you tell me about that?
I just want you to … if you could tell me about being on the bike and carrying your gun. And can you just look up at me? Thanks.
No we used to, every day we’d go for a ride, you’d do twenty or thirty miles.
The officer in charge of us, he’d take about, as I say about twenty riders, take them for a ride, yes, twenty or thirty miles I think. Every day we’d have to do that and then we’d have to … we got onto the machine guns. We had
to practise with the Lewis guns. Every day we had a bit of a burst with the Lewis gun. Then we went … a time or two we went in with the infantry, on the left of the infantry with our machine guns.
So you’d just travel around with your gun. Is that right? You’d travel from battle to battle with your
gun on the bike?
We used to carry; we had carriers on our bike. We had carriers on our bikes to take the machine gun, half a dozen of us, everyone had a part. Some one would take the barrel; others would take the ammunition and different things.
So you would have ridden along the Menin Road.
Can you describe the scene along the Menin Road. Do you remember?
Along the road?
No, we used to pass through farms and gardens on our way. We used to see all the cattle, you know, horses
and cattle on the way.
It was the main road that all the troops and artillery went along, wasn’t it? The Menin Road.
Yeah. We used to take the artillery was … they were about two or three hundred yards behind the line, behind the front line, the artillery. We used to take the gun,
we used to take the ammunition to them.
Do you remember anything about meeting any of the French people? Did you meet any French people when you were in France? The locals?
Did you remember meeting any of the French people in France?
Oh, the locals. Yes. I had a girlfriend. Udoxi Rotarelli [?]
was her name. I went …We were camped at [UNCLEAR] in France and I went for a walk one afternoon and I passed an old chap there with a wooden leg. I started talking to him and he invited me into supper and introduced me to his daughter.
His wife was dead and he had, only had his daughter there with him. Yes he used to own, they invited me into supper and I camped … about a week I think we were in that camp and every day I used to go and see them.
She was your girlfriend? She became your girlfriend?
Oh they used to, the old chap used to grow vegetables. He’d grow a few vegetables in his garden. And the girl, I think, she used to take in washing. She used to do a bit of washing for the locals.
And where did you stay? Were you billeted in farmhouses and places
No. We were camped … We were camped on the bare ground. We only had our groundsheets. We had a groundsheet, that’s all we had, and one blanket. They only allowed us the one blanket.
Tom, how do you think the war was affecting the French people?
I don’t know. I think... I know they were very much, very glad when it finished, when the war finished. The bombers used to come over, you know, and they’d have to go into a shelter for a while. The German bombers would come
over. You could hear them coming and they’d have to go underground.
What did they think of the Australian troops?
I don’t know…
Okay, that’s fine. Can you tell me about winter in France? Winter time, you spent three winters in France. Can you tell me what it was like living in the trenches in winter?
Oh, it was terrible. We had a greatcoat on all the time.
But we had no…it was really, really cruel the way we, sometimes of a night we’d be on duty in, the snow was coming down, yes it was very, very good,
it wasn’t very good at all. We nearly, you know, nearly get frozen.
What about food, getting food in the trenches?
Food? Yeah bully beef mostly. There were no … we used to,
when we were camped out, when we were behind the lines we used to raid the gardens and get potatoes and onions of a night. Yeah… Yeah that’s bully beef,
bully beef, fried onions and potatoes. That wasn’t, it was really good, really. We were young then, young and hungry, we’d eat anything.
Sounds better than the biscuits?
Tom, can you tell me about your first encounter with the enemy? The first time you met the Germans under fire, can you tell me about that time?
Well, when we got to Ypres, we camped there for about a week and then they decided to send us up to the lines and we had to go up near the front line.
They had duckboards all the way up. If you got off the duckboards you’d sink into a shell holes. There were shell holes everywhere. We used to have to take our machine gun up through the duckboards.
No we used to… any German troops around we’d open up on with our machine guns.
How did you feel as a young boy having to kill another human being? How did that affect you or how did you cope with that?
Oh, I don’t know.
I …no I didn’t, no, no…Yes I was a young boy …
When I was a young… I was about fourteen or fifteen I used to start in bike races when I was a boy. Yeah I run second in the first bike race I rode in I run second. Then every week or so we’d have a ride, have a race.
So you were a good bike rider from the very beginning?
I was a bike rider, when I came home from the war I won a couple of bike races on the Hindmarsh Oval and the Elliot brothers offered me a job and I stopped with the Delia brothers for forty years building bikes.
Yeah, I’ve built a lot of bikes in my time.
What were the bikes like in the army?
Oh, they were heavy army, red, I think they were [UNCLEAR] bikes. They only had a small gear, sixty seven gear on the bikes. Yeah, they were heavy, really heavy roadster bikes,
yeah, sixty seven gear.
So they did the job? They did the job okay?
Interviewee: Thomas Robinson Archive ID 2542 Tape 321
Tom can you tell me about the time you took the whiskey off the train. Can you tell me that story?
Oh I’ll tell ya. We camped, four of us got together and we decided
to get, I think I said to them, to my mate, I said “I think we’ll get some whiskey off the train.” I said, “We’ve got to find the key.” We went to the office, the RTO Office and we found the key, we found the key to the train and we ended up with, I think
we had three, I think it was three bottles of whiskey we got. And we all got drunk and they said, “You’ve got to go on duty.” I said, “I don’t feel like going on duty but I will.” I said, “I’ll go.” And I went on duty up Edge Hill I think the place was
and I went on duty at the crossroads and I had to direct the traffic, artillery and infantry, different units, I had to direct them where to go, and they reckon I done a good job. I was drunk as a lord and I done a good job. Yeah they reckon you done alright. But I never
tasted whiskey since, that put me off it for life.
Did you have to ride your bike while you were drunk? Were you riding your bike when you were drunk?
No, no we never, we was on foot. We were on foot as it happen to be. We happen to be camped a little way away.
You had a tent; we had a tent a little way from down the road. Yeah we had our bikes there, our bikes were there but we happen to be on foot.
Can you tell me the story about the cherries? Getting the cherries?
Oh about the tree. Yeah,
two of us we decided we liked a feed of cherries and we got up the cherry tree. He got up one tree and I got up another and we had a good feed of cherries. And this old bloke come along with a double barrel shotgun, he was walking, walked underneath where we were, he didn’t see us. Yep
we were lucky he didn’t see us. Yeah we’d have gone; he’d have fired that gun.
Tell me there’s a story I heard about shooting rats. There’s a story I heard about the men just shooting rats for a bit of practice?
Oh target practice on a machine gun. Yeah we used to go everyday, we used to practice with our guns.
What was some of the health problems that, the problems that the other soldiers in the trenches had to face? You know like tench foot and things like that. Can you tell me some of the conditions in the trenches?
Oh in the trenches, oh yeah we used to, we had a cook, a cook used to come around with a big -
he had a big bucketful of, might be stew, very likely it was bully beef and sometimes it was stew. I used to; they used to get local, meat from the local butchers and make up a stew for us.
Do you remember the conscription debates, the conscription votes?
Yeah we used to get a bit, now and then we’d get…
Did you get many letters from home? Did you get much news from home?
Yeah I did, my old mother used to write to me. Yeah she give me all the news.
What did she think about you going to war?
No she didn’t like it at
all. She was against me going but the old Dad, Dad said I could go so that was the end of it.
And your brother also went to war?
Yes he got wounded. He got wounded, I think it was… yes he got a… he got a bit of shell went through the calf of his leg. Yes
he, they sent him home then. He was, he wasn’t there very long, you see when he got wounded they sent him home.
Did you ever see him when you were in France?
Yes I saw him in London when I went on leave, I saw him in London. Only time I did see him I think it was,
And what did you do? And what did you and your brother do in London?
We went to the pictures I think. I think that’s all we could, yeah that’s right we went to the, see a movie.
What else did you do on leave?
I used to visit the zoo and the museum, that’s about all I done.
What did you think of England, did you think it was like the home country or was the seat of Empire?
Australia is the best. Australia is the best country I said. Yes I didn’t go much on any place in England. Edinburgh wasn’t a bad place, down near Scotland wasn’t bad.
What did you miss most about Australia while you were away?
I’d think about home, about my bike riding days and different things.
Can you tell me where you were when the war ended? When the war ended, when the Armistice was, when you were?
When the war had ended. No I was out in, as I said before
I bought a bike and, he ended up as a professional cyclist.
I was just thinking back in France do you remember where you were when you knew the war was ended?
Yes we, I think we were in Belgium
when the war ended. Yes I think, I know we all got drunk when the war ended. And I took us, they took us from there to Scotland where we left there, we left for home, left on the
boat, we all got on the boat there, the [UNCLEAR] we got on the boat to go home. And we come home to, we visit… we had one day in Fremantle when we come home. We visited, went up to Perth and we had a look at Perth, then they took us home to South Australia.
going back to the Armistice, can you just tell me a bit about what you did that day? You know who told you the war was over and then what happened?
I know we got drunk on Armistice Day. Yeah… no I don’t think we done
I’ve been told that you haven’t had a drink since then; can you tell me about that?
No I haven’t… no I don’t, when I come home I decided to be a teetotaller. I decided that I wouldn’t, there’s nothing, nothing, I’d be a bike rider or I’d be nothing.
I won’t have anything more to do with the drink.
Can you tell me how the war affected you in anyway?
No I don’t think it did. I don’t know, I know… in the bike races, some of the bike races
some of the jokers they… my nerves were in good order. I never used to worry about a bike, about a bike race. The blokes, the chap said to me, he said, “You’re the most unconcerned rider I ever saw.” he said, “You don’t worry about anything.”
I said, “No I don’t,” I said, “I got all that knocked out of me when I was in France. In the war.” I said, “I learnt to be nothing, nothing upset me.”
Just looking back is there a moment that, what’s your strongest
memory of the war? Or impression of the war?
Yes I… yes I think… I… no I remember different places
we went to in France. We’d get on our bikes and sometimes we’d ride about fifty or sixty miles, some different towns. When we were camped sometimes we were camped there and
they’d send us out on messages to different towns.
Just something different, what did you think of the British Command, did you ever come in touch with any of the British Command?
Yes we didn’t like the Pommies [Englishmen]. No we didn’t get on too good with the Pommies.
They had a different way; they had of living from what we had.
What was it that you didn’t like? Was there, can you remember what it was that you didn’t like?
No the, no I didn’t… no they had a different style, a different style of living to
to what we had. We didn’t approve, we didn’t approve of the British way of living.
Was it a class thing; was it to do with the way the officers spoke to the soldiers? Was it anything like that?
No the British they wouldn’t have anything to do with us, the British officers, they never had anything to do with them.
Can you tell me what it was like when you came back to Australia, can you remember the day you got off the boat?
Yes I remember the day, my old mother and
two sisters, they came to meet me, at Port Adelaide. And yes we went up, we went up to Mitcham, we used to live, they lived in Mitcham at the time. And yes I loafed around for a week or two. When I got home I didn’t do anything much.
Do you think Australia had changed much in the time that you’d been away?
Yes things had gone ahead a bit. A few more motorcars and more traffic around.
Do you think your parents
had any idea about what was happening in France?
Yeah I’d tell them, they asked me a lot of questions about what happened over there, overseas. I used to tell them everything I knew about the France, how it did happen.
Did it take you a while to settle back into
It did, a while yeah. It took me a couple of weeks or so before I seemed to settle down.
And did the war have any lasting affect on you? I mean your nerves or shell shock or anything like that at all? Did you have any shell shock or any nervous disorder after the war?
No. No me nerves were in good order.
No I was quite good.
If, what do you think about war now. Having your experience of three years at the front, what do you think about the value of war? Did it achieve anything?
No I don’t think so. No war, it’s only a waste of time
A waste of time and a waste of life.
INTERVIEW ENDS. Memorabilia follows
End of tape