The Brave Boilermaker – how a man from the Ipswich Railway Workshops captured the Amiens Rail Gun

By Rob Shiels, Curator Transport

ANZAC Day provides us all with an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s participation in past military conflicts.

On a personal level, many of us remember family members who enlisted in the armed forces. At The Workshops Rail Museum, the First World War monument provides a daily reminder of the contribution and sacrifices workshop employees made, listing the individual names of all three hundred men who enlisted. Each name, cast in brass, tells a unique story.

One of these names is J.H Palmer. John Henry Palmer was a Sapper in the 8th Field Company, Australian Engineers and his name is also listed on an honour board held in the Queensland Museum Collection. (‘Sappers’ were combatant soldiers who undertook military engineering work such as building fortifications, tunnelling and bridge construction.)    

Next to John Henry Palmer’s name on the honour board are the letters ‘M.M’ (standing for Military Medal). How Sapper Palmer came to be awarded this medal is a fascinating story.

The board was crafted to honour soldiers from the United Society of Boiler Makers and Iron and Steel Ship Builders who enlisted to fight in the First World War. Further names were added after union members later enlisted to fight in the Second World War.

The Honour Board for the Ipswich Branch of the United Society of Boiler Makers and Iron and Steel Ship Builders at the Ipswich Railway Workshops. Queensland Museum Network Collection. Photographer Peter Waddington.

The First World War Employee Memorial in the grounds of The Workshops Rail Museum. Queensland Museum Network Collection. Photographer Peter Waddington.

John Henry Palmer was born in 1892 in Victoria. In 1910, he was hired as a lad assistant at the Ipswich Railway Workshops, and then became a Boilermaker in 1915. He enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 20 March 1916, joining the 4th Pioneer Battalion. He left Australia for the war in August 1916 and travelled to England. Palmer transferred to the 8th Field Company, Australian Engineers and was sent to the Western Front in November 1917. By August 1918, he found himself alongside the 31st Infantry Battalion, readying for battle against the Germans near Amiens, in the north of France.

The battle commenced on 8 August 1918. Australian forces advanced while an Allied artillery barrage that lasted for 3.5 hours and consisted of around 2000 shells per minute fired overhead. The initial assault was so successful that the Australians advanced eight miles in the first day.[1]

During this assault, a German rail gun, attached to a full train, was spotted near the town of Harbonnières. German forces were forced to retreat from the rapidly advancing Australians, and abandoned the train in No Man’s Land. Such a destructive weapon was too tempting to be left in the middle of the battlefield, so an officer and two sappers from the 8th Field Company decided to capture the train.

[1] Jeff Hopkins-Weise & Rob Shiels, “The centenary of the Battle of Amiens and the capture of the Amiens Gun”, Sabretache: The Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Vol.59, No.4, (December 2018), p7

The 4th Pioneer Battalion at No.23 Training Camp, Lark Hill in Wiltshire England. Sapper Palmer is seated in the front row. Queensland Museum Network Collection.

The efforts of Sapper Palmer and his comrade, Sapper Leslie James Strahan from Guildford, Western Australia, to capture the train were described in the War Diary Summary of the 8th Field Company:

“Lt. Burrows and two sapper[s] went forward to the railway siding in front of the final objective to where a 11.2” German Railway Gun, 2 ammunition wagons, 2 armoured coaches, & other carriages abandoned by the enemy was standing. The carriages at the end of the train were on fire. These were disconnected and 3 shunted clear. Steam was raised, and Railway gun complete [with] two wagons of ammunition & two armoured coaches were brought behind our own lines…”[2]

[2] Ibid, p8.

The two sappers were initially recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ in capturing the gun, but had their awards downgraded to the Military Medal upon review.

The Amiens Rail Gun, along with the German A7V tank Mephisto, were the two largest war souvenirs sent to Australia after the war. Mephisto came to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, while the rail gun was displayed in Sydney before being moved permanently to Canberra. The gun was dismantled during the Second World War and ultimately only the barrel was retained. The barrel is on display outside the Australian War Memorial.

John Henry Palmer returned to Australia in 1919 and resumed his work at the Ipswich Railway Workshops. In 1923, Palmer became a part-time teacher in boilermaking at the Ipswich Technical College. In 1933, he became the Boiler Inspector for the Central Division, an extremely important job in the railways. He was promoted to the Chief Boiler Inspector for the Queensland Railways in 1940 and returned once more to the Ipswich Railway Workshops.

As Chief Boiler Inspector, Palmer’s skills and expertise were vital in helping to extend the life of boilers on Queensland Railway’s locomotives during the Second World War.

John Henry Palmer was clearly a remarkable man.  His commemoration on the War Memorial at the Ipswich Railway Workshops, and on the Boilermakers honour board, ensures his name will forever be linked to the capture of one Australia’s most famous war trophies.

The doors of Honour Board open to reveal a printed mural of ship building scenes. Queensland Museum Network Collection. Photographer Peter Waddington. (You can see more images of the board and read more about its history on our Collections Online page here.