21st Infantry Battalion (VIC) 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, AIF

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About This Unit

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The 21st Battalion was raised at Broadmeadows north of Melbourne, in early 1915, to form the first Battalion of the 6th Brigade in the 2nd Division. Its colour patch reveals its lineage;  the diamond denotes the 2nd Division, the red lower half indicates the second brigade in the division and the black upper half, the first battalion in the Brigade.

Its soldiers were drawn from around Victoria.  The average age of enlistees was somewhat older than the 1st Divison, with an avergae age of 29, suggesting these men had made a more measured and considred decision about enlistment.  There were exceptions.  Private James Charles Martin who was 14 years and nine months old when he died of fever contracted during the Gallipoli campaign and is now believed to have been the youngest Australian soldier to lose his life during the Great War.

The 6th Brigade departed Australia in May 1915, arriving in Egypt in June where they underwent further training in preparation for reinforcing Gallipoli.  In due course they embarked in Alexandria at the end of August.  However things didn't go according to plan and their troopship, the Southland was torpedoed close to Lemnos.

It was about 9.45 on the morning of the 2nd of September 1915, and the Southland had just encountered the German submarine UB14, under the command of Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg. As part of the 6th Brigade convoy, she had left Alexandria 3 days before, carrying troops for the Gallipoli campaign, and was only about 65km south of the isle of Lemnos when hit. Her contingent included the 21st Battalion; B Coy of the 23rd; the 6th Field Artillery Bde; members of the 2nd Division Signal Coy; as well as 6th Brigade and 2nd Div Headquarters staff; a NZ Artillery unit and various other sundry details.

Some 40 Australians were killed or drowned in the attack on the Southland, including Colonel Linton commander of the 6th Brigade. Reported to be “a strong swimmer”, he died of exhaustion after spending over an hour in the water, all the while urging his men to be taken from the water first. Taken from the water alive, he died soon afterwards and was buried on Lemnos – the most senior Australian soldier to be buried there.

And yet the rescue mission was an overwhelming success. Over 1,450 men were saved, most on rescue ships which sped to the scene. The Southland limped into Mudros harbour and was later repaired and returned to service.

So the 21st Battalion's arrival at Gallipoli was somewhat disrupted.  The Battalion finally landed at ANZAC Cove on 7 September, too late to take part in the final stages of the failed August Offensive intended to achieve the longed-for breakout from ANZAC. The 21st Battalion had a had a relatively quiet time at Gallipoli, and like the rest of the troops there the greatest source of casualties was Enteric Fever (typhoid) and dysentery.

After extraction from Gallipoli in December 1915, the 21st Battalion refitted and reinforced in Egypt before embarking for France in March 1916.  In April, it and the rest of the 2nd Division were being introduced to trench warfare in "The Nursery" sector near Armentieres,  The 21st was the first Australian battalion to commence active operations on the Western Front.

Later when the bulk of the AIF moved to the Somme sector in France for the 'big push', at Pozieres it was engaged mainly on carrying duties in the first phase of the Battle, but suffered its heaviest casualties of the war during the fighting around Mouquet Farm in late August.

After a short stint in Belgium the 6th Brigade was back on the Somme for the winter, the most severe in 40 years.

In early May 1917, the 2nd Division was engaged in the follow up of German troops withdrawing to consolidate their front along the Hindenburg line, conducting delaying defence through what were called the Outpost Villages.  This culminated for the 21st Battalion at Second Bullecourt in May, where it endured heavy casualties. 

Later it and the 6th Brigade moved north to Belgium for the Third Ypres Offensive, taking part in Menin Road in September and then in October participated in the 3-kilometre advance that captured Broodseinde Ridge, east of Ypres, engaging an advancing German formation in a meeting engagement which resulted in the Australians routing their opponents.

Like the rest of the AIF the battalion saw out the year recuperating from the trials of the Ypres sector.

The AIF less the 1st Division, was rushed south to plug gaps in the collapsing British line in the face of the 'make or break'  German spring offensive of April 1918, aimed at dislocating the French and British line and cutting Paris off from the Channel Ports before the Americans arrived in decisive numbers.

The 6th Brigade and the 21st battalion then participated in the battles that would mark the beginning of the end for Germany; Le Hamel, on 4 July, the Battle of Amiens on 8th August and from 31st August to 2nd September, the 2nd Division's spectacular success in capturing Mont St Quentin.

The fighting for Mont St Quentin resulted in the Battalion's only Victoria Cross, awarded to Sergeant Albert Lowerson.  A book by historian Peter Stanley, 'Men of Mont St Quentin', charts the fortunes of a platoon of the 21st Battalion in which Lowerson served,  based on records compiled by the father of one of the men killed in the action.

Like many Australian battalions, the 21st could barely muster a company after the 1918 offensive. It was ordered to disband and reinforce its sister battalions. In response, the men of the 21st (as did others) mutinied on 25 September 1918. By the end of that day, the order was withdrawn, and the battalion fought its last battle at Montbrehain on 5 October.

The following day it became the last Australian battalion to withdraw from active operations on the Western Front. The 21st Battalion was disbanded on 13 October 1918.

Commanding Officers

Hutchinson, John Francis
Forbes, Frederick William Dempster
Duggan, Bernard Oscar Charles

Decorations
1 VC; 5 DSO, 1 bar; 1 OBE; 22 MC, 7 bars; 29 DCM; 117 MM, 7 bars; 7 MSM; 24 MID; 8 foreign awards

Battle/Campaign/ Involvement

Gallipoli, 1915 (/explore/campaigns/1)  7 Sep - 19 Dec 1915

Pozières (/explore/campaigns/6) (includes Mouquet Farm) 23 Jul - 12 Sep 1916

Flers / Guedecourt (/explore/campaigns/24)   18 October - 16 November 1916

Bapaume, 1917 (/explore/campaigns/21) (Outpost Villages etc) 15 Feb - 3 Apr 1917

Bullecourt (/explore/campaigns/6)  3-11 May (2nd) 1917

Menin Road (/explore/campaigns/26)   20-21 Sep 1917

Polygon Wood (/explore/campaigns/19) (not heavily engaged)  24-25 Sep 1917

Broodseinde (/explore/campaigns/18) 4 Oct 1917

Poelcappelle (/explore/campaigns/27) 9 Oct 1917

Passchendaele (/explore/campaigns/28)  12 Oct 

Albert, 1918 (German Spring Offensive 1918 (/explore/campaigns/80)) 21 March - 1 May 1918

Le Hamel (/explore/campaigns/33)  4 Jul 1918

Amiens (/explore/campaigns/14) 8 Aug 1918

Mont St. Quentin (/explore/campaigns/15) 31 Aug - 2 Sep 1918

Hindenburg Line (/explore/campaigns/81) 28 Sep - 5 Oct 1918

Beaurevoir (Montbrehain) (/explore/campaigns/128) 5 Oct 1918

Generic Battle Honours

Egypt, 1915-16

Somme, 1916, '18

France and Flanders, 1916-18

Ypres, (/explore/campaigns/23) 1917

 

Originally compiled Nov 2013 by Steve Larkins and updated Dec 2020

Sources

Website "https://neoskosmos.com/en/116320/death-in-the-aegean/" - the Southland incident

P. Stanley, Men of Mont St Quentin- between victory and death", Scribe Publications 2009 

A.R. McNeil, The story of the Twenty-First: being the official history of the 21st Battalion, A.I.F. (Melbourne: 21st Battalion Association, 1920).

AWM4/23/38/1-23/38/38: 21st Battalion war diary

 

We would particularly like to encourage individual historians researchers or members of unit associations to contribute to the development of a more detailed history and photographs pertaining to this unit and its members.

Please contact  admin@vwma.org.au (mailto:admin@vwma.org.au) for details on how to contribute.

 

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Stories

The ANZAC 'A' insignia


Members of the Australian Imperial Force who served on Gallipoli will be entitled to wear over the Unit “Colour Patch” on both sleeves of the Service Dress Jacket and Greatcoat the letter “A” an indication that the wearer had taken part in the operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula.  - Military Order 354 of 1917

Members of the Australian Imperial Force who served on Gallipoli or the Islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos, or who have served on transports or hospital ships at or off Gallipoli or the Islands above-named, or in AIF lines of communication Units in Egypt will be entitled to wear over their Unit “Colour Patches” on both sleeves of their Service Dress Jacket and Greatcoat the letter “A” as an indication that the wearer had taken part in the Gallipoli operations. - Military Order 20 of 1918

Robert Kearney

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Interpreting AIF Colour Patches

The colour patches which identified units in the AIF were designed to show what division or service they belonged to, and also, in the case of infantry units, their brigade and the sequence of the Battalion in that Brigade.

The shape of a colour patch indicated the division or service -
1st Division - horizontal rectangle split horizontally
2nd Division - diamond shape split horizontally
3rd Division - horizontal ellipse
4th Division - circle split horizontally
5th Division - vertical rectangle split vertically.

The lower colour denoted the brigade's sequence in the Division. Usually (but not always!) these colours were:
Green - first brigade in the division
Red - second
Light Blue - third

The 4th Brigade, originally in the 1st Division , had a dark Blue lower half. Its reallocation to the 4th Division after Gallipoli threw both the brigade / battalion numbering sequence (the most logical at any time in the history of the ADF) and the colour patch structure into disarray!

In the first AIF there were four infantry battalions to each brigade, and the upper section (or LHS in the case of the 5th Division) of the colour patch identified each one. Usually (but not always!) these colours were:
Black - first
Purple - second
Brown - third
White - fourth

Thus every battalion had a unique colour patch.

Other Arms and Service Corps had variations but those attached to the five divisions generally incorporated the shape of their parent Ddvision.

Source: Text taken from The 27th Battalion Centenary: The Historical Record of the 27th Battalions 13th August 1877-1977 and Programme of Centenary Celebrations, Unley SA, 1977

Notes:
1. Strictly speaking there was no such thing as the 'First AIF'. The term is often used unofficially to distinguish the Australian Imperial Force of the First World War from the Second AIF raised to fight in World War 2.

2. The colour patch scheme was first introduced into the AIF in March 1915, just in time for the initial Gallipoli landings. The 2nd Division received its patches in August 1915, and gradually the scheme was expanded to include the whole AIF.

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