William Throsby Bridges was born at Greenock, Scotland, on 18 February 1861. As a youth he moved to Canada, where he later entered the Royal Military College but failed to graduate. In 1879 Bridges moved to Australia and joined the civil service, working in Braidwood, Murrurundi, and Narrabri. He returned to military life in 1885, taking a permanent commission in the artillery, and that same year married his wife, Edith. For the next few years he held various positions at the School of Gunnery and attended several gunnery courses in England, passing them with distinction. Bridges served with the British army in South Africa from 1899 until he was evacuated with enteric fever in 1900. In January 1909 he became Australia’s first chief of the general staff and the next year was tasked with founding Australia’s first military college, the Royal Military College at Duntroon. By the time the First World War had broken out Bridges had attained the rank of Brigadier General and was given the task of raising an Australian contingent for service in Europe. He was promoted to Major General in August 1914 and was appointed the commander of the new Australian Imperial Force. Bridges travelled to Egypt with the first contingent in October and started to record his experiences in a diary from early 1915.
From this diary we can observe the evolution of planning for the Gallipoli campaign, including his meetings with commanders like Lieutenant General William Birdwood and General Sir Ian Hamilton and with various Australian commanders who would rise to prominence in the years to come.
On 25 April 1915 units of Bridges 1st Australian Division were the first to land at Anzac Cove. In the desperate confusion of the first day the landing force suffered more than 2,000 casualties, and little progress was made towards achieving their military objectives. Bridges argued for an immediate evacuation but was overruled. From the outset Bridges insisted on inspecting the front lines on a daily basis, despite the danger to himself. On 15 May 1915 he was travelling with other officers through Monash Valley when he was shot through his right femoral artery by a Turkish sniper. The rapid onset of gangrene meant that immediate amputation for a 53 year old man would prove fatal so a medical decision was taken that it was better for nature to take its course, which in Bridges’ case was 3 days. He died on board the hospital ship Gascon before it reached port. His last recorded instruction was “that his regret should be conveyed to the Minister for Defence that his dispatch concerning the landing was not complete — he was too tired now.”
William Bridges was initially buried at Alexandria in Egypt, but in June 1915 his body was exhumed and returned to Australia. A series of interesting photographs held by the State Library of New South Wales show views from his original funeral.
He became the only Australian killed in the First World War to have his remains returned to Australia. On 3 September 1915 he was buried on the slopes of Mount Pleasant at Duntroon in Canberra, under the words ‘A gallant and erudite soldier’.
Sources and Acknowledgements
The Australian War Memorial
State Library of New South Wales