NOT those wagons, we’re British!

The newly federated Australia took steps towards meeting its defence needs in the early years of the twentieth century.  In 1911 The Government founded the Royal Australia Navy and establishing the small arms factory at Lithgow, and factories in Melbourne to produce saddlery and uniforms. Lord Kitchener, head of the British Army, visited in 1909 and suggested that Australia have an army 80,000, mostly made up of part-time militia. The Australian Army was surging ahead, but it lacked two things which seems a gross oversight for the time. The Army had no horses and no wagons for transport! Until 1911 the Army did not even have a preferred style of General Service (GS) wagon, let alone any actual wagons.

Australia was defended by a militia army spread across the country, largely based around existing rifle clubs.  Light Horse troopers brought their own horses to ride, and local farm wagons and horses hauled all the equipment. Even the city based Artillery regiments hired horses to pull the guns and limbers for ‘Saturday afternoon training’.

Australia tended to follow British military specifications, but the Defence Department could not adopt the British designed military wagon for our Army. Australia’s coachbuilders did not have the machinery or expertise to build these specialised vehicles with folded metal components, hot riveted fastenings instead of screws, wire cable brake assembly and ‘artillery’ wheels with phosphor-bronze and steel hubs.  The problem apparent as early as the Boer War.

If good serviceable vehicles such as the German wagon or the American buckboard are sufficient, they could be built by the hundreds weekly, where cumbersome wagons with finical fittings, such as the regulation wagon “mark 8” could not be made in tens… (Australasian Coachbuilder & Saddler, January 1900, p. 181)

Similar comments were expressed by local coachbuilders in the Australasian Coachbuilder and Wheelwright trade journal it published plans for the approved British Mark X wagon in July 1909.

The Australian Defence Department finally settled on a design for its wagons in 1911. The Army tested several wagons at West Maitland.  The wagon they chose was to prove to be a bit of an embarrassment three years later; german wagons.

(Farmer and Settler, Sydney 29 August 1911, p. 2)

These wagons were plentiful in Queensland and South Australia with a high proportion of German settlers and their descendants. Since the part-time soldiers were turning up with their own horses and farm wagons for manoeuvres, the Army simply adopted this common style as its ‘official’ wagon. The plan was a cheap and effective way of ensuring transport for the defence of Australia. Unfortunately the plan did have a major flaw.

‘The German Type Waggon which Major General Kirkpatrick recommends that Australian farmers should be encouraged to use.’

(Sydney Mail 6 Nov 1912, p6.)

To War, with German Wagons!

 As late as March 1914 when British General Sir Ian Hamilton visited Australia all defence plans involved a conflict within our own shores. No one, including the British military hierarchy, considered the possibility of sending an Australian Army overseas until war was declared in August 1914. It was obvious that the Army could not borrow farm wagons in France or the Middle East the way it did at home.

Tenders were quickly offered to any company that could build over 500 german style General Service wagons in less than two months. The biggest contract by far went HV McKay’s Sunshine Harvester Company in Melbourne which had a factory with 2600 staff.  They constructed 852 vehicles including 517 german wagons (GS), by the end of 1914. This total of compares with contracts for only 144 carts and wagons spread over nine other manufacturers in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Fremantle. These other coachbuilders were not happy that a farm equipment maker had won the bulk of contracts. At least the Army had wagons when they set off in September 1914, even if these General Service wagons were just german farm wagons with a seat and kickboard fitted for the driver.

Yes, Australia went to the First World War in German wagons. The german GS wagons were used in the training camps in Egypt but were rejected for use in France or Palestine. The german wagons had been an important stop gap, but by early 1915 no more nonstandard wagons, including Australia’s ‘german’ style GS wagons, were to be acquired for ‘British’ forces. They were the wrong width for British pontoon bridges and railway wagons for a start, besides the embarrassment of fighting Germany with german wagons.

The Australian Army gets British wagons after all.

The Australian Army was subsequently supplied with General Service Mark X wagons made in England. Most of these, including the one in Cobb+Co Museum, were made in huge railway workshops with machinery to produce the riveted construction, metal hub wheels and folded metal components. Around 50,000 were built for ‘British Forces’ including the Australian Army, and many remained in service into the Second World War.

Meanwhile Australia’s coachbuilders wanted military contracts, but still struggled to meet British specifications. They came up with a compromise design, the ‘Commonwealth Pattern’ wagon. A couple of thousand were built and were very good wagons, although the British authorities still questioned their compatibility with specifications on occasion. In any event, most of the demand for wagons had already been met by the British factories.

The Australian Army brought many British Mark X wagons home with them at the end of the First World War. No german style wagons were brought back from the training areas of Egypt and the embarrassing fact was forgotten; that Australia went to World War I in german wagons.

Cobb+Co Museum’s military wagon. This GS Mark X wagon was made in the Metropolitan Railway Works in Birmingham in 1915. The same factory produced tanks and aircraft.

Cobb+Co Museum’s other military wagon. The humble german wagon of the type farmer-soldiers took on camp, and the Australian Army conveniently adopted as ‘Approved for Army transport.’

Jeff Powell
Curator, Cobb+Co Museum

Feature image caption: Australian soldiers in a British made GS Mark X wagon. France 1916. (courtesy AWM)

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