ART03355 Rodway, Florence, Major General Sir William Bridges (1920), oil on canvas, 75 x 62.2 cm (sight), AWM copyright
William Throsby Bridges was born at Greenock, Scotland, on 18 February 1861, the son of a English Royal Navy captain stationed there at the time. He was educated at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, at the Royal Navy School at New Cross, London and at Trinity College, Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. In 1877 he entered the Royal Military College at Kingston but dropped out in 1879 and rejoined his family who had settled in his mother's home town of Moss Vale, New South Wales. There he took a job with the Department of Roads and Bridges.
In 1886, Bridges applied for and obtained a commission in the New South Wales Permanent Artillery and was stationed at Middle Head, part of the harbour defences of Sydney. In 1891 he was sent to England for training at Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the Royal School of Gunnery at Shoeburyness. On his return in 1893, he became Chief Instructor at the School of Gunnery at Middle Head.
Bridges volunteered for service in South Africa in 1899, and from December 1899 to May 1900 he served on secondment as a major of artillery with Major General John French's cavalry division. He participated in the cavalry sweep to relieve Kimberley that began on 13 February 1900 and the last major battle of the war, the Battle of Paardeberg on 18 February 1900. In May he was evacuated to England with typhoid, and then returned to Australia in September 1900, where he resumed his duties as Chief Instructor at Middle Head.
In 1903, Bridges moved to headquarters in Melbourne as Assistant Quartermaster-General. He became Chief of Military Intelligence in 1904 and then the first Chief of the General Staff on 1 January 1909. His work in Melbourne was mostly concerned with the new Universal Service Scheme, and with Imperial Cooperation. He travelled to Europe for discussions with the Imperial Committee on Defence. On 25 April 1909 he relinquished the post of CGS and travelled to England to become the Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff.
Bridges returned to Australia in May 1910 to become the first Commandant of the Royal Military College at Duntroon, with the rank of brigadier general, the first Australian to reach that rank. He personally chose the site, the old Campbell homestead of "Duntroon", at the foot of Mount Pleasant, surrounded by countryside that would one day become the new capital city of Canberra. In line with the recommendations of Lord Kitchener, Bridges modelled Duntroon on the US Military Academy at West Point, rather than its counterparts in Europe, as Bridges felt that the West Point model was far better adapted to the democratic native of Australian society. The first class of 41 cadets, 31 from Australia and 10 from New Zealand, moved in and the college was officially opened on 27 June 1911.
In May 1914, Bridges was appointed Inspector General, the Army's top post. He was in Queensland when the war crisis began, but arrived in Melbourne on 5 August 1914. Bridges met with cabinet and was charged with the creation of an expeditionary force for overseas service of 20,000 men. Bridges determined that the force -- which Bridges named the Australian Imperial Force because of its dual Australian and Imperial mission -- should be organised as an infantry division and a light horse brigade, and should be composed of men from all states. Bridges was chosen to command the 1st Division, becoming the first Australian (and the first attendee of Kingston) to be promoted to major general, and the first to command a division. Bridges' service at the War Office came in handy here; the British Army Council accepted his appointment without demur.
Bridges had a fairly free hand to choose his own subordinates and his choices had far reaching effects. He drew heavily on the few available staff college graduates for his staff, choosing Majors C. B. B. White, D. J. Glasfurd and C. H. Foott and Captains T. A. Blamey and J. Gellibrand. Colonel V. C. M. Sellheim was his choice for his AA & QMG. For his brigade commanders, he chose Lieutenant Colonel E. G. Sinclair MacLagan, a British officer on exchange at Duntroon, whom he knew from his experience there, Colonel J. W. McCay, with whom he had dealt while McCay was Minister of Defence in 1904-5, and Lieutenant Colonel H. N. MacLaurin. For his artillery commander, he chose Colonel J. J. T. Hobbs, whom he had met in England in 1907, and for the light horse brigade, Colonel H. G. Chauvel.
Bridges determined to take a number of Duntroon graduates with him. The first class and second classes were graduated early and, curiously, posted to regimental rather than staff positions, where many of them were killed. Bridges believed that cadets could learn best about the Army from serving in such positions. Ironically, Bridges himself had never served in a regimental position; his own career was entirely staff oriented.
Having his troops scattered around Australia made training difficult, and Bridges protested the Prime Minister's September decision to delay sailing for a month due to the activity of German warships. Bridges saw his command together for the first time when it sailed from Albany, Western Australia, on 26 October 1914. En route, the destination was changed from England to Egypt at the instigation of Chauvel, and Bridges arrived there on 30 November 1914.
Once in Egypt, Bridges took steps to divest himself of the administrative side of his responsibilities, creating an Australian Intermediate Base Depot under Sellheim, with whom he had quarrelled. His concentration on commanding the 1st Division rather than on administering the AIF had many unfortunate consequences, especially in the area of medical administration. Bridges not only neglected Sellheim's command, starving it of the officers he needed to staff it, he gave him no support whatsoever in turf battles against the British, he used it as a dumping ground for men he disliked.
Bridges landed at Anzac Cove at around 7:30am on 25 April 1915 and immediately conducted a two-hour reconnaissance before setting up his headquarters at a spot not far from the beach chosen by the 1st Signal Company, who provided him with telephone links to McCay and MacLagan. A furious day of battle followed against the counterattacking Turks. Bridges was forced to commit his units piecemeal as they arrived on the beach, in response to one crisis after another.
Given that nowhere had the day's objectives been achieved, there was practically no chance of capturing them with the troops available, no substantial reinforcements could be expected and a major Turkish counterattack was probable, Bridges recommended a withdrawal to Hamilton. Considering a number of factors, Hamilton ordered Bridges to hold his Anzac beachhead, which Bridges and his men managed to do.
Bridges found the situation at Anzac, particularly the ineffectiveness of his own arm, the artillery, extremely frustrating, and he clashed with Hobbs over the proper employment of the guns. This was made all the more galling when the Turks managed to shell his headquarters on 6 May 1915, ultimately forcing it to be moved from the beach to Headquarters Gully.
Bridges was not a men to get the best out of his subordinates. He was known for kicking stragglers and men found asleep at their posts. He was disliked by most of his staff. His aide de camp requested a transfer back to his regiment. Bridges expected his Deputy assistant quartermaster General (DAQMG), Major J. Gellibrand, to organise a proper officers' mess at Gallipoli and was annoyed at the poor quality of what Gellibrand had scrounged from ships' canteen supplies. Yet he did share the hardships of his men, and made a point of daily excursions about the position on which he routinely ignored enemy fire and constantly exposed himself to danger.
On the morning of 15 May 1915, he was on such an excursion in Monash Valley when he was shot by a sniper, severing his femoral artery. A stretcher bearer dragged him to safety and he received medical attention from the medical officer of the 1st Battalion, Captain Clive Thompson. On 18 May 1915 he was evacuated to hospital ship Gascon. Unfortunately, infection set in. Amputation of his leg was considered out of the question as Bridges had lost a great deal of blood. In those days before blood transfusion, little could be done and he died on 18 May 1915.
Bridges was made a Knight Companion of the Bath (KCB) by the King the day before he died, becoming the first Australian general to earn a knighthood. His body was returned to Australia, one of only two dead Australian soldiers to return home. He was given a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne and buried on 3 September 1915 on the slopes of Mount Pleasant, in a grave designed by the architect of Canberra, Walter Burley Griffen.
Bridges legacy was enormous. The effects of his creation of the AIF and his founding of Duntroon would be felt for decades to come. An aloof man that many found difficult to like, he nonetheless won widespread respect.
Sources: Sessional Papers of the Government of Canada and British Parliamentary Papers; C.C. Coulthard-Clark: A Heritage of Spirit: A Biography of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume I: The Story of Anzac, pp. 485, Volume II: The Story of Anzac, pp. 129-130
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Last update 8 June 2010