Sapper McDevitt – An ANZAC Rower

Charles “Billy” William McDevitt

25 April 2020

By Louis Petrin

Today is ANZAC Day and Louis Petrin is remembering the ANZAC rower Charles William McDevitt.

ANZAC day is a special day for remembering, honouring and mourning the military personnel that had died while serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

It is much like Memorial Day or Veterans Day in the USA, Remembrance Day (sometimes known informally as Poppy Day) in the UK, or Armistice Day in Europe.

On landing day at Gallipoli, Sunday, 25 April 1915, had it not been for a young officer, 2nd Lieutenant Henry Bachtold and 11 sappers from the 1st Field Company Engineers, the number of deaths would have been significantly larger.

As it stood, maybe more than 2,000 Australians were killed or wounded within the first 24 hours of the landing. The sappers, however, made it possible to have a further 1,500 wounded men shipped out on hospital ships by the end of the first day. A sapper was a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.

This small team of sappers all received Special Mention (Mentioned in Orders) and some later were Mentioned in Despatches for acts of conspicuous gallantry or valuable services.

The Citation above reads:

On the 25th April this officer and his crew paddled barrel piers into the bay under a heavy shell fire and then deliberately set to work under a hail of bursting shrapnel and erected the landing stage. This stage was of the greatest value in getting off the wounded and enabled over 1500 men to be sent off the same day. The men had never before been under fire.

This is the story of one of the sappers, Charles William McDevitt, who was shot in the face on 31 April during the pontoon building operation. He was medically discharged and returned safely to Australia.

Charles, or “Billy” as he was better known, was born in the District of Esperance, Tasmania, on 12 September 1886 to parents William and Caroline McDevitt along with his brothers Albert, Edward, Dennis, and sisters Agnes, Lillian, Irene, Amy and Beatrice.

It is not certain when Billy took up the sport of rowing but having been born at Esperance at the mouth of the Huon River in Tasmania, the sport of rowing may have been a natural choice for Billy. In fact, on 1 January 1851, the first regatta with professionals was conducted on Huon River at Shipwright’s Point and was a most popular sport in these times.

In 1910, at the age of 24, Billy’s name and race credential’s first appeared in the local newspaper for a race at Hastings, located 97 km south of Hobart:

SCULLING RACE AT HASTINGS – 27th December 1910
The rowing race between William McDevitt and James Robertson took place today for a stake of 420. The course was one of three and half miles. McDevitt pulled a pretty race, and won easily. Considerable local interest was taken in the race.

The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.) Tue 27 Dec 1910, Page 8

It was not long after this news report that Billy made the move to New South Wales. The young man from Tasmania had soon settled in Drummoyne Sydney and became a member of the Parramatta River Sculling Club. Between 1911 and 1914, Billy was successful in winning handicap events and starting to take home some of the winner’s purse.

Billy was now preparing himself for the bigger events and it wasn’t long before he had the opportunity to challenge some of the high-profile professionals in the sport. In January 1914, preparations for a professional race between Billy McDevitt and the highly regarded Syd Kemp was underway. The Sydney Sportsman newspaper reported:

…crossing of blades between Syd Kemp and Bill McDevitt. The two have been talking at each other for some time, but at last business was got down to, and articles signed for a race on February 28, over the full Parramatta River course, for £50 a-side. A fiver has been put up by each man and the second deposits, of £20 each, are to be lodged on February 1…if both are agreeable, the stakes may be increased to £100 a-side.

In February 1914, The Referee, another popular Sydney sporting newspaper, reported:

Wm. McDevitt and Syd Kemp are progressing well in training for their match to take place on the Parramatta River on the 21st lnst. To me It looks a splendid match, and it seemingly must be because there are just as many admirers of one as the other, Syd Kemp is fast and stays very well, whilst McDevitt is a great sticker and will assuredly stay it right out. Final deposits are due or the 20th inst.

At this point of his rowing career, Syd Kemp was in great winning form and was also the pace rower for James Paddon, the current Australian champion who in May 1914 later travelled to England to challenge Ernest Barry for the world championship.

On race day, Billy McDevitt was described as somewhat badly beaten”. Although Billy had lost this important race, this was just the start of a very challenging journey towards a very successful sporting career.

By August 1914, Billy McDevitt’s sporting career was suddenly in doubt as larger events were taking place in Europe with the Great War. By September 1914, amateur and professional rowing could not maintain its popularity as was the case with many sports, and many fixtures were postponed due to the European hostilities and Australia’s call to war.

Before enlisting with the Australian Imperial Forces, Billy McDevitt married his long-time girlfriend Eleanor Mary Bartley from Hobart. They were married in Balmain, Sydney.

He was a late enlistment into the Field Engineers on 29 September and was placed with the 1st Reinforcements as a driver under the watchful eye of the young Lieut. Henry Bachtold, a large figure of a man, with a sporting background of his own. Bachtold was Billy’s attesting officer and perhaps was familiar with Billy’s sporting reputation. Together with the 1st FCE 1st Reinforcements they embarked on the H.M.T. Berrima for war.

His Majesty’s Transport “Berrima”

Billy’s original regimental number 714 was later changed to 227 when the 1st FCE Reinforcements merged with the original company in Egypt on 25 February 1915.

Although Billy had not had the opportunity to spend time with the other original sappers at Moore Park prior to embarkation, his talents as an oarsman would prove to be vital and put to the ultimate test in the coming months. On landing day at Gallipoli, Billy was one of the 11 heroic engineers under the command of Lieut. Bachtold which rowed barrel piers ashore whilst under fire. It is only stating the obvious why Billy McDevitt the only driver in the group, had been selected for this task, Bachtold had not forgotten the gifted rower in the ranks.

For days, the party of men would continue building jetties day and night, all the time being uncomfortably close at hand to witness some gruesome scenes among the casualties. The sea at the water’s edge was red with blood as the empty stretchers that had carried the many wounded were washed and rinsed in the sea next to them. All the while keeping their heads and even having one of their own wounded in the face, the sappers continued building the landing stages and improving the landing conditions for the hospital and supply vessels under the same arduous conditions up to 5 May.

This handful of men had helped save the lives of hundreds of fellow Anzacs and allied soldiers and were the rare few of the original engineers during the Gallipoli campaign who all received “Mentioned in Orders”, Complimentary Orders and a few men would later add “Mentioned in Despatches” and further distinctions to their names.

Original Xmas postcard from 124 Sid Garrett to his family. “X” marks the spot of the original landing piers built by the 11 sappers and drivers.

A full account of this important chapter in ANZAC history can be viewed by following this link: Sapper’s save 1500 lives

Billy McDevitt, however, was the unlucky member of the group of sappers to be seriously wounded in the face. On 31 April 1915, a shrapnel wound shattered the bones in Billy’s face and he was shortly after discharged and returned to Australia in November 1915. Billy McDevitt returned home, his facial injuries were severe. Unfortunately, he had been described as a hopeless case. Once he returned home, he spent considerable time having reconstruction surgery.

The rowing world had not forgotten Billy McDevitt and in September 1916 a benefit Regatta day in honour of Billy was held by the Hunter River Professional Sculling Club:

After the loyal toasts had been honored, Mr. Norman Towns proposed the health of McDevitt, whom he described as one of the cleanest and one of the best in the rowing world.

Mr. Harold Judd, replying for McDevitt, said the latter would fully appreciate all they had done that day. McDevitt had twenty-seven pieces of bone removed from his jaw, the result of a shrapnel wound and he hoped to go farming in Tasmania.

Sydney Sportsman 27 Sept 1916

Farming may have been on his mind, but Billy McDevitt appears to have had some unfinished business and his severe wounds had simply diverted him from his course and still unsure of his military or sporting purpose, he re-enlisted in May 1918.

His attestation papers at this time bear witness to his original wounds suffered at Gallipoli. Fortunately, it was late in the war and Billy did not embark.

Billy McDevitt – 1918 Attestation, medical page showing position of bullet/shrapnel wounds.

By 1919 the war was over, and the world of sculling and the world championship races had returned and the glory days quickly returned along with vast number of supporters.

By the middle of 1920, with the wounds of war perhaps completely healed, Billy McDevitt had defied the odds and returned with great success to sculling and racing. McDevitt’s first tilt at the Australian championship title was against the mighty James Paddon. Paddon was the current Australian champion and like Billy had been waiting in the wings since 1914 to pick up where he left off. Together, they would compete for the Australian Sculling Championship. This was rowed on the Woodburn course in April 1921, and although Paddon was a sick man on the day of the race he defeated McDevitt easily and retained the “Referee” cup. 

The Sydney newspaper The Sun reported on 13 May 1920:

Having beaten Billy Peterson, Reg Short, Jack Casey, and Syd Kemp in succession, the question whether Billy McDevitt is a champion is being asked among supporters of sculling. His performances certainly stamp him as something out of the ordinary, and now that he has made good, backing for important races can be found. Considering McDevitt was so badly smashed up during the war as to be termed a hopeless case, his recovery of form is extraordinary. He possesses those two qualifications so necessary in boat racing — strength and determination.

In April 1922, James Paddon became world champion, holding the title against four challenges over three consecutive years.

It took Billy McDevitt another four years to achieve the ultimate rowing success, and in June 1924 at Dargaville, New Zealand, he made Australian and professional sculling race history.

Yesterday’s race on the Northern Wairoa River for the Australian and New Zealand sculling championship was probably unique in the history of rowing in that four aspirants for championship honours participated. It was a great day in Dargaville, and practically the whole of the population of the town, augmented by a big contingent of visitors from the country districts and from the city, witnessed the race and assisted in acclaiming McDevitt the winner.

NZ – Northern Advocate 11 June 1924

Interestingly, in this race for the Australian and New Zealand sculling championship, one of the four contestants was Darcy Hadfield of Auckland who had won the Kingswood Cup for single sculls at the 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta and in 1922 was the world sculling champion.

Darcy Hadfield, in 1922

In December 1924, perhaps feeling he had earned his place in rowing history, the great rowing world champion James Paddon declined to defend his title and the rules of professional rowing meant that the title of world champion was passed onto the next eligible challenger. As Billy McDevitt had made his challenge to Paddon known and was the current reigning Australian Champion title holder after winning at Dargaville in New Zealand, Billy McDevitt therefore secured the title of World Champion by forfeit.

Billy McDevitt was now the World Sculling Champion.

However, Paddon stated that in declining to race McDevitt, it was on the condition that Major Goodsell (Major was his real first name and not an honorific) would get the right of first challenge. Goodsell therefore challenged McDevitt and the race was run on the Clarence River near Ullmarra on 21 March 1925. The stake was £250 a side.

Goodsell won easily by 15 lengths although the time was a slow 22min. 20sec. McDevitt was one of two world title holders who had gained the honour by forfeiture and who failed to defend it on their first challenge. The other was Charles Towns.

Perhaps his war-torn body had finally caught up with him, but for many years Bill continued competitive rowing and remained a carpenter and family man.

Billy and his wife Eleanor settled in West Ryde New South Wales with their four sons and two daughters for many years. On 18 July 1934 Eleanor died.

In 1954, the electoral rolls show that Billy had returned to Hobart West, Tasmania, and was still a builder.

Charles William McDevitt died on 20 May 1970 in Hobart at the age of 82 years.

Rosemary directly links Australians to Gallipoli where it grew wild across the peninsula. In 1915, a wounded digger returned to SA with a small rosemary bush he had dug up from ANZAC Cove and it was planted in the grounds at Keswick Army hospital. Also, Greek scholars wore rosemary garlands to help their memories and so helps us remember those who have fallen and those who fought the war to end all wars.

Lest we forget

There were no movie cameras allowed at the landing at Gallipoli, nor would they have captured much if they had been there, since the landings began in darkness at 4.30 am. A filmed re-enactment was made at Tamarama Bay in 1915 using soldiers from Liverpool training camp. The film does have some good shots of the rowing that would have been made at Gallipoli. Take a look here.

Note: Much of this material was taken from 1st Field Company Engineers – Australian Imperial Forces, a website dedicated to the memory of the 206 “original” men who formed the 1st Field Company Engineers – Australian Imperial Force 1914 -1918 and in addition the 23 “original” men of the 1st FCE Reinforcements.

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