The message was clear enough: ‘If you ain’t white, don’t bother applying’.
At the outbreak of World War 1, thousands of young men rallied in support of Britain and volunteered for the Australian Imperial Forces. So many men, that recruiters could be picky. Volunteers had to be tall enough. Healthy enough. And most certainly white enough.
Rules relaxed as the war progressed, but in the early years military orders directed the recruiting officials to reject those who were not of substantial European origin. This was in keeping with the 1909 Commonwealth Defence Act and the White Australia Policy.
However, it is evident that some discretion was applied at the recruitment depots. Whether by result of ambiguity, negligence or a turn of a blind eye, the now legendary Anzacs who set off to the Middle East and beyond held within their ranks members of Australia’s non-white minorities, and the red blood spilled in Gallipoli and the fields of Western Front certainly included that which once was contained within black and yellow tinted skin.
Among those who successfully enlisted were Charles You, George Gipp and Richard Gipp, three brothers from the edges of inner Perth, and as far as is known the only three of the 200 odd Chinese Australians to join the AIF to come from Western Australia. Each one’s story reflects a different reality of war: one was wounded, one was plagued by disease and one’s name lies sealed forever in cold stone of a French memorial.
The three were a product of mixed heritage. Their father, Charles Lee Ah You Gipp, arrived from Canton full of gold rush fever sometime in the second half of the 19th Century. He eventually settled in Warrnambool and married (apparently much to his father-in-law’s dismay) Victorian lass 23 years his junior, Elizabeth Walters.
Towards the very end of the 1800s, the family moved to Western Australia in search of better fortunes and new life – but that new life was to be short lived. Charles Sr passed away in 1899, leaving Elizabeth to raise nine young children alone. Charles Jr, George and Richard would have been about 7, 5 and 4 respectively at the time of their father’s death. Little information is available about how they fared, but no doubt the family would have faced some hardship in those pre-war years. Not only did Elizabeth not have family support, but women who had married Chinese men, along with their ‘half caste children’ were commonly subject to broad discrimination. The brothers’ decision to join the army may have been driven as much by a desire for equality not accessible to them in civilian life, as by any patriotic passion.
Francis George Gipp
The first of the brothers, George, enlisted barely five weeks after the outbreak of the war. Race issues aside, his entry into the ranks of the AIF is remarkable, as at 5ft 4 ¼in he stood almost two full inches below the then (supposedly strict) enlistment standard.
George had turned 21 only a fortnight prior to fronting up at the recruitment centre. He was allocated to the 16th Battalion, and commenced basic training at Blackboy Hill. He then travelled to Melbourne for further training. Men stationed at Blackboy Hill were customarily granted four days leave prior to departure onwards, and George is likely to have used this time to say goodbye to his family. It would have been the last time the three brothers were to be together.
His journey out of Australia didn’t have auspicious beginnings. According to the 16th Battalion Unit War Diaries, the men had left their Victorian quarters after two days of continuous rain, and climbed aboard the HMAT A40 Ceramic just before Christmas, wet, muddy and ‘with symptoms of great prevalence of influenza’. After a brief stopover in Albany, the ship departed for overseas on the last day of 1914 – and the next day, George was caught sleeping whilst on sentry duty.
The Ceramic was part of the second convoy to leave Albany: 17 ships, carrying 11,000 troops in all. Its voyage to war was relatively uneventful. George’s journey took him to Ceylon, the port of Aden in Yemen and the Suez Canal, before arriving at the final resting point of Alexandria in Egypt on the 3rd of February 1915. He then travelled by train to a camp at Heliopolis and waited for two months for instructions for further mobilisation.
Finally, in mid April, George and the rest of the 16th Battalion boarded an old, overcrowded, vermin ridden steamer Haida Pascha and set sail for the small Greek island of Lemnos in the Agean Sea. Their final destination of Gallipoli was – officially, at least – still a secret. Once in port in Lemnos, the troops spent a few days practising shifting supplies up and down rope ladders into waiting boats below. It was preparation for the now infamous days that followed.
About noon on the 25th of April, Haida Pascha got underway, chugging slowly across the calm sea. Several firsthand accounts recall that faint sounds of distant gunfire were heard all through the day. As Haida Pascha neared the beaches of Gallipoli, George would have seen evidence of the morning’s battle, shrouded by a thick haze of smoke and flashes of guns ahead. However, he would not yet have been aware that the initial landing force had landed a kilometre or two north of the intended position, and instead of facing open country the men found themselves scrambling steep ridges and gullies under increasingly heavy Turkish fire. The Haida Pascha troops were to be landed at the same point.
At about 6pm, George and the rest of the men moved from their ship to the waiting destroyer below, then transferred onto a smaller row boat for the last few hundred meters to shore. They made their way up the hills, ending up on a steep spur located between two gullies, later named ‘Pope’s Hill’ after their commanding officer. For the next five days they stayed there, under heavy fire from Turkish troops to their front and rear.
After a couple brief rest days, marked by deadly sniper attacks, the men of the 16th went on attack towards Quinn’s Post, arguably the most dangerous and feared post at Gallipoli. They spent a night alternatively fighting and digging trenches along a steep hill, chillingly named the Bloody Angle, and at dawn of 3rd of May charged at the Turks who were stationed only 100m away. By the end of that day, barely a week after arriving on the shores of Gallipoli, the approximately 1000 strong Battalion has been reduced to only nine officers and 290 men. George was still standing, but it was not to be for long.
As Quinn’s Post was pretty much under constant enemy fire, men were rotated in and out of the post for two days at a time. On the 21st of May, two days after a massive Turkish assault which resulted in massive loss of life and left thousands of bodies rotting in the hot summer sun, George was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel as he was leaving a trench and sustained a compound fracture to the skull. He was taken down to the beach, placed on board of the crowded HS Sicilia. From there he moved to the 17th General Hospital in Alexandria, and then to Manchester for further treatment before finally being invalidated and sent home. He spent a mere 27 days on the front.
As a byline, in all existing army records, George Gipp is listed as a Private. Yet, a wartime photo held by his grand niece shows him sporting the triple chevron of a sergeant’s insignia on his sleeve. Maybe George was a bit of a lad and borrowed another’s uniform as a lark; or, perhaps more likely, the wheels of army bureaucracy turned imperfectly amid the chaos of Gallipoli, and a promotion granted in truth on the field was never reflected on official record.
Richard James Gipp
At the same time as George awaited the bloody baptism of Gallipoli, another Battalion was being raised back in Blackboy Camp in Perth’s hills. This was the 28th, and it held within its ranks George’s younger brother, Richard.
Unlike George, Richard completed his training in Perth, and departed overseas from Fremantle rather than via Melbourne and Albany. About a week prior to embarking, the 28th Battalion took part in a King’s Birthday march through Perth, with all men fully horsed and equipped and cheered on by thousands of people who lined the city streets. The route of the march went merely a few hundred meters from where the Gipp brothers lived, and Richard’s family is likely to have been amongst the crowds. They could well have also been present on the docks of Victoria Quay as the HMAT Ascanius pulled away on the evening of 9th of June 1915, with Richard standing on deck and waving back to a place he would not see again for several years. The family, at the time, were not yet aware that George had been wounded – Elizabeth Gipp received a telegram informing her of the fact the day after the Ascanius pulled away.
Just like George, Richard was headed for Gallipoli. The 28th Battalion had a relatively brief and quiet time at Gallipoli, staying until the forces’ final evacuation mid December. However, Richard’s time at the peninsula was cut short due to ill health which was to plague him for the rest of his time in service. He fell ill with the bronchitis towards the end of October, was transferred to a hospital in Heliopolis, and never went back to Gallipoli – which is perhaps just as well, as within a month the area was visited by a blizzard, with heavy snow falls and extreme cold which would have been anything but helpful to recuperation.
Richard was admitted to hospital with another bout of bronchitis on Christmas Eve of 1915, and then embarked for Marseilles at the end of May, two months later than the rest of his Battalion. He eventually re-joined his unit at Etaples in northern France on the 8th of August of 1916.
The timing of Richard’s arrival back amongst the ranks of his Battalion is significant; had he joined them mere two weeks earlier, he would have found himself fighting in bloody battle of Poziers which was to claim not only the life of many of his mates, but also that of his older brother, Charles.
As it was, the 28th withdrew from Poziers merely two days earlier, and moved on to a quieter sector of the front in Belgium. Richard spent only a couple of days with them before being re-admitted to hospital yet again – this time, with malaria.
In October, the Battalion returned south to the Somme Valley. By all accounts, the conditions were dreadful; the Somme battlefields were swamped with rain, the ground turning into cloying mud which sucked men down, forcing them into slow motion in face of a barrage of German gun fire. As the winter months set in, Richard fell ill once more, most likely with a reoccurrence of bronchitis, and later with mumps. He recovered, and is likely to have been involved in heavy fighting at the second battle of Bullecourt, before going on leave to England at the end of July 1917. Alas, within a week of crossing the Channel, he was hospitalized yet again – this time, with one of the unmentionable diseases. He did not rejoin his unit until just before Christmas.
Richard remained in France until war’s end. Towards late summer of 1918, the Battalion took part in the joint British and French offensive which marked the start of Germany’s defeat. Its final attack, just prior to its withdrawal from the line, was on the Beaureviour Line, around the village of Estrees. Richard left France for England just before the New Year, and – after yet another month long stint in hospital – arrived back in Fremantle aboard the HMAT Khyber in late May of 1919.
Charles N Ah You
The eldest of the three brothers, Charles (who used ‘You’ as his surname, as opposed to ‘Gipp’) did not enlist until late in 1915. He was already married, with a young son. His paperwork shows two enlistment dates – the first, 29 September, is crossed out, and replaced with 26 October. What’s more, he was the only one of the three to note on his enlistment paperwork that his father was ‘naturalised Chinese’. Could it be that when he first went to enlist, he changed his mind, only to go again later? Did he perhaps hope, by admitting mixed descent, to be rejected?
Unbeknown to him, while he was completing his training in the basking heat of Western Australian summer, the wheels of politics were turning in the irreversible direction of his ultimate demise. On the other side of the world, in a little town of Chantilly in northern France, the Commander in Chief of the French army, General Joseph Joffre held a conference with his Allied counterparts. There, in a little chateau, the most senior military minds drew up battle plans, which included tactics for what was to become one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, the Battle of the Somme. It was to be a concentrated attack upon a 30 km stretch of land, and the chief tactic was ‘attrition’ – a desperate bid to drain the German forces of reserves. For the plan to work, the Allies were in need of cannon fodder, of which Charles was to be one.
He arrived in Egypt aboard the HMAT Miltiades in March, transferred to the HMAT Transylvania to Marseilles, and from there proceeded to the Base Depot at Etaples. As was the norm, Charles would have had to undergo at least ten days additional training and a strict medical check – which he may have passed with some difficulty, as – for reasons which are unclear – he ended up in hospital for a few days. Finally, on 25 May 1916, he joined the 11th Battalion on the Western Front, along with 68 other fresh reinforcements.
He had his first experience of combat within a week. Late in the evening of 30 May, German artillery bombarded the Allied line around the Cordonnerie salient, a prominent part of the British frontline protruding towards the German frontline, and its infantry launched a raid on the 11th Battalion’s trenches, leaving 37 killed and 70 wounded.
Over the course of the following month, the Battalion was brought up to strength and moved to the Somme valley. The men arrived in a little town of Albert on 19th July, amid a gas attack. They spent the next two days working to improve trenches and supply stores, preparing for an assault. Their target was Poziers, a small village atop a ridge in the centre of the Somme battlefield and an important German defensive position.
The attack on Poziers was launched just before midnight on the night of 22nd-23rd July. It started with heavy shelling of the Germans with phosgene and tear gas, during which time troops crept into no-man’s-land, and once the bombardment lifted the men stormed the enemy trenches. What followed was a confused, bloody battle at close quarters, amid a featureless terrain which had been reduced to a field of craters. Australians suffered gravely over the next two days, falling from both enemy and friendly fire. It was somewhere during this time and amid this mayhem that Charles You lost his life.
After the war
After returning from the front, George was discharged as permanently unfit. He applied for, and received, a war service gratuity, as his injury left him with long term weakness and a reduction in movement on one side and a lifetime of severe headaches. He married twice and had two daughters, heading back to Victoria after the death of his mother in 1922. He died aged 58, in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital.
Richard outlived all his siblings. After the war he travelled to China to learn more of his heritage, and like his brother ultimately returned to Victoria. He married, but had no children, quite possibly as result of illness which he had suffered in Europe.
As for Charles, he lies to this day among the 23,000 men who lost their lives at Poziers. His name is honoured on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, but his body is buried in an unknown spot, with not even the final dignity of the exact date that he drew his last breath.
Defence Act 1909 (Aus), s. 138b
Dept of Veteran Affairs, 2005. An artist at the Landing – Signaller Silas. Gallipoli And The Anzacs. Available from: http://www.gallipoli.gov.au/an-artist-at-the-landing/signaller-silas-of-the-16th-Battalion.php
Gill, I. (2004). Fremantle to France: 11th Battalion A.I.F. 1914–1919 (2nd ed.). Myaree, Western Australia: Advance Press
Longmore, C. (1929) The old Sixteenth: being a record of the 16th Battalion, A.I.F., during the Great War, 1914-1918, Perth
National Archives of Australia: B2455, Gipp G, available from: http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=5099249
National Archives of Australia: B2455, Gipp R, available at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=5099251
National Archives of Australia: B2455, You C, available at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3455923