It might seem strange to some of us today, but there’s honour about who was the first man from a town to be killed on that first Anzac Day in 1915. This is a story that hasn’t been told for one hundred and seven years. I shared a version live on West Bremer Radio.
The first battalion ashore at Gallipoli in Turkey was Queensland’s fighting 9th Battalion. Ipswich was at one stage the biggest city in the colony of Queensland and was a candidate to become its capital. Some say the first Ipswich fatality was the nineteen-year-old lad Michael O’Sullivan from Rosewood.
But it might well have been his thirty-three-year-old Lieutenant John Roberts who lived on Flint Street in North Ipswich. Both men served in the 9th Battalion’s D Company and both lost their lives very early on in the Anzac landing at Sari Bair.
Lieutenant Roberts was born in County Durham in England in 1881. He spent practically his whole life in the military having worked his way up from a boy bugler to sergeant-major in the British Territorials. He and his wife Sarah migrated to Ipswich in 1912 and he got a job as a plumber at the Railway Workshops. He was known as a bright, energetic, and enthusiastic officer, small in stature standing just 5’4”, but big in heart, and with a deep love for his country.
The 9th Battalion was famously the first shore at Gallipoli at 4:28am on the 25th of April 1915.
As they charged up the slopes, Lieutenant Roberts was well out in front of his men but was cut off by some Turks and couldn’t get back. Roberts accounted for a whole pile of the enemy. He used his revolver on them left and right, until they riddled him with bullets.
Private Robert Ralston, from Wellcamp on the Darling Downs, saw how Lieutenant Roberts died and said, “His first and last thoughts were of his men, and on the 25th, he always was foremost in the firing line. Wherever the fighting was the hottest, Lieutenant Roberts was there.”
Ralston added, “He deserves the V.C. for what he did. It was not ‘go on’ with him, it was ‘come on’ all the time.”
But because Roberts was so far ahead, no officer witnessed what he did, and so it was impossible for the Victoria Cross or any medal to be awarded.
Roberts’ body was recovered three days after the landing and the burial service conducted by Colonel Chaplain James Green. The Reverend Green was Australia’s famous Methodist minister who while serving as chaplain in the South African war had been captured by the Boers.
Roberts had attended the Ipswich Technical College and was the first ex-student of the college to be killed in the war. He may in fact have been the first man from his home town of Ipswich to die that day.
We all owe a debt to the forgotten John Roberts and the other heroes who fought and fell for our freedoms – but there’s someone who may owe more than others.
That’s because just four days before the Gallipoli Landing, Roberts wrote to his wife Sarah back in Ipswich, telling her that he was sending her £10 to be forwarded by a second lieutenant Percy Adsett who was returning to Egypt.
Adsett was a twenty-year-old schoolteacher from Clayfield in Brisbane. Four months after the Anzac Landing and the money had not shown up, so Sarah wrote a number of times to Lieutenant Adsett but got no reply. In desperation she wrote to the federal minister for defence, the Western Australia senator George Pearce, to get her money. But still Adsett didn’t reply.
Adsett was later wounded at the Battle of Pozières in France and returned to Brisbane rightly a hero. But there’s no record of him ever giving Sarah her £10.
In fact, in Queensland he was a mystery for a very long time – that’s because even the Queensland Museum launched a search for him four years ago.
Adsett passed away in 1970 leaving five children. The £10 that Ipswich’s Lieutenant John Roberts gave him back in 1915, if it had been put in the bank with compound interest, would be worth over $10,000 today.
Always remember John Roberts and the other forgotten heroes of Australia. We all owe them a debt.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD ON RADIO
The landing at Anzac April 25 1915 – painting by Charles Dixon via NZ History.
Lieutenant J.P. Roberts – Sydney Morning Herald, 21st May 1915, page 5.
The Rev. Colonel James Green – Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 26th September 1914, page 11.
Captain Percy Adsett – Telegraph, Brisbane, 23rd September 1916, page 13.