Swinging the Banjo* From Gallipoli to Bullecourt

contributed by Michael Hall

A bullet-riddled boat is on display in the Orientation Gallery of the Australian War Memorial. Lifeboat No.6 was used to transport men of the 13th Battalion from the HMS Ascot to shore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Ernie Mayo could have been one of those men.

Ernest Frederick Mayo grew up in Canberra and Queanbeyan The grandson of two Canberra pioneers who, in 1846, were just the second couple to be married in St. John’s in Reid.

He left for Egypt just before Christmas 1914 with the 13th Battalion and arrived in Alexandria at the end of January 1915. Mayo’s company landed on Gallipoli late at night on 25 April. The following morning they were ordered up to what became known as Quinn’s Post, the most precarious position occupied by the Anzacs. Here the Turks were barely 40 yards away and could easily throw bombs into the Australians trench. Mayo was twice wounded by shrapnel within the first week and evacuated for treatment.

Ernie returned to Gallipoli in August when his battalion twice charged the Turkish position on Hill 60. He wrote to his brother-in-law the following month:

“Am sitting in a dugout about 100 yards behind the firing line, writing this, for protection against any bullets that may be seeking a human target. Our big guns are speaking in the distance, their shells are whistling ‘Home, Sweet Home’ as they go overhead. Hope some day I will be able to relate my experiences in a quieter place than this”.

Ernie remained positive.

I’ve been a fortnight without a wash”, he said, “and have not removed my clothes for ten days. Are we downhearted? No!” 

Yet home beckoned.

“Was pleased to hear about the new arrival in your happy home, teach him to shoulder a rifle and I will be able to give him a bit of bayonet practice. The Federal Capital has altered since I left. I hope to be swinging the banjo around some of those stony ridges before long. It would be a chance to get away from the noise for a while”.

He ended with a postscript:

“Must get to it now and make some pancakes for tea, or what we call flap-jacks; flour and water, very tasty”.

In October he was in a rest camp and wrote to his mother that

“it seems quite a change to be out of hearing of the big guns and rifle fire. We will soon be having winter here. I received the knitted socks safely, am wearing them now. I put them on one night in the trenches while the Turks were amusing themselves firing at our sandbags. Am pleased to see by the papers you sent me that our little town is doing its share for the sick and wounded soldiers”.

If the noise of the guns on Gallipoli bothered him then it was only a taste of what was to come. After the evacuation from Gallipoli and a spell in Egypt, Mayo and the 13th Battalion (now part of the 4th Division) were sent to France. In August 1916 the 4th Division was thrown into the battle at Poziéres, attempting to force their way a few hundred metres to the heavily fortified and bunkered Mouquet Farm. In a 10 day tour it took six successive night attacks to get within striking distance of the farm before, exhausted and battered by constant German shelling, they were relieved by the 1st Division. By the end of the month Mayo had been promoted to Corporal and the 13th Battalion were back for another crack at ‘Moo Cow’ Farm. They didn’t succeed. It would take another month before the British finally would.

At the end of a cold winter on the Somme, the Germans retreated to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. British General, Sir Hubert Gough, decided that the AIF should attempt to capture Bullecourt to help a planned attack further north at Arras. At Bullecourt the Hindenburg Line was protected by several widely spaced double belts of barbed wire, designed to channel attacking troops towards the German machine guns. The 4th Division was ordered to attack. They would not be supported by artillery, as was usual, but by a recent invention, the tank. The tanks would advance and cut the wire and the infantry would follow.

However, the attack was aborted when the tanks failed to arrive. Despite this ill omen Gough ordered another attempt for the following day, 11 April 1917. Ernie Mayo, who by now had been promoted to Sergeant, and the other men of the 13th Battalion lay out on the snow covered ground before dawn awaiting the tanks. This time several of them arrived, but late and even then they moved so slowly that the troops outpaced them. Against all odds the 4th Division broke into the German trenches and would have held their position with artillery support but errors on behalf of staff officers behind the line meant that none was forthcoming. The Germans regrouped and by 11.30am the men of the 13th Battalion were faced with a horrendous choice. Captain Harry Murray, who had earned the Victoria Cross at Stormy Trench two months earlier, ordered a retirement. “To the left” Murray said, “there are two things now – capture or go into that”. According to a history of the 13th Battalion, ‘that’ was a “hail of bullets from 4000 rifles and 15 machine guns. Sergeants Buchan, Mayo, M. White, P. Frost, D. Matheson and Corporal Currie MM after fighting, leading and organising gloriously, all fell”.

Ernie Mayo’s body was never found. He is commemorated on the national memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. The following month the 2nd Division of the AIF launched an attack on Bullecourt, this time with artillery support, and managed to hold the gains. German counter-attacks drew in the 1st Division and then the 5th Division to which Ernie’s older brother Charlie belonged. On 15 May 1917 John Charles Mayo was also killed at Bullecourt. 

* ‘Swinging the banjo’ is slang for digging or shovelling dirt.

Ernest Mayo