Henry 'Bunny' Nugent, MM Umpire and ANZAC
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He set a fine example to his men in every way during our advance, carrying a Hotchkiss rifle into action, as well as leading his troops. His conduct through the whole of the fighting was marked by the greatest coolness.
Much early patriotic writing that appeared at the outbreak of the Great War purported that there was no better preparation for the chaos of battle than the game of Australian Football in general and the cauldron of the Victorian Football League in particular. Many VFL players took up the community's urging to 'play the greater game' during the Great War and while smaller in number, but with equal patriotic fervour, VFL umpires, too, enlisted in the armed forces. One in particular brought credit to this fine band of sportsmen.
'Bunny' Nugent was a VFL umpire who served his empire and country in three conflicts, survived one of the most disastrous actions in Australian military history and was honoured for his gallantry during another. His heroism spawned a unique event in VFL football - on opening day 1918, Richmond and Essendon lined up prior to the match and applauded the umpire onto the ground! Nugent only umpired four VFL matches after his return. Like so many others, he became a victim of his service and his experiences in the hell of a war that was far from a game.
Henry James Nugent was born in Walkerville, South Australia, in 1880 and spent his first 18 years there before deciding to volunteer for the Boer War in South Africa. Australia's official contingents had been fully subscribed at the time and Nugent was one of the surplus who were so keen to fight that they funded their own voyage to South Africa and enlisted in various South African and international units. Actions for these regiments were often few and far between but, during his 156 days with the Midland Mounted Rifles and six months with the Commander-in-Chief's Body Guard, he saw enough to be awarded 3 clasps to his Queen's South Africa Medal.
The vast majority of casualties in the Boer War were not inflicted by battle but rather caused by disease and it was to disease that Nugent fell. He returned to Australia on board the Damascus, arriving in Melbourne in November 1901.
Once recovered, Nugent went back to the game he adored – Australian Football. He played several seasons in the metropolitan competitions but was injured and, like many other former players in this period, turned to umpiring to stay involved in the game – and make some money on the side.
Ivo Crapp was the VFL's number one umpire at the time. Writing some years later, Nugent recalled how he modelled his umpiring on the Hall of Fame umpire.
"Following Ivo Crapp from game to game, I noted his style and one day plucked up enough courage to ask him what one needed in his make-up to be a successful umpire? "He told me, 'Get yourself into first class condition, learn the rules thoroughly and be fearless and prompt with your decisions'. I have lived up to this advice as far as possible. As an honorary umpires' advisor to the V.J.F.A. I always passed on the words of the old master."
Crapp's advice stood Nugent in good stead. He umpired in the various junior competitions both in Melbourne and Tasmania, building experience that culminated in his application to umpire in the VFL being accepted in 1912. He began the season in the VFL, umpiring the first round clash between Carlton and Geelong at Princes Park and, by season's end, his total matches numbered twelve. It was common at the time for field umpires to fill the roles of boundary umpires during off weeks but, when not field umpiring in the VFL, Nugent officiated in the various country leagues to which the VFL supplied umpires.
He spent the entire 1913 and 1914 seasons in country Victoria and Tasmania. During these years he was also a member of the VFL Umpires' Association Executive. After joining the Executive in 1912 he served as Junior Vice-President in 1913 and returned to the Executive committee the following year. In the days before Social Secretaries, he was responsible for the very successful 1914 Smoke Night – the VFLUA's highlight of the social season.
The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in August 1914 led Australia to war in defence of the Empire. Prime Minister Fisher promised Britain Australia's support 'to the last man and the last shilling' and the newly formed Australian Imperial Force began recruiting. Thousands of men enlisted in the first possible days and Nugent was amongst them. On 23 September he was taken on strength of the 6th Light Horse Regiment at Broadmeadows Camp as a Trooper – Regimental number 195. His fitness, South African and militia experience made him an ideal candidate for non-commissioned rank and, five weeks after enlistment, he was promoted to sergeant of 'A' troop of 'B' Squadron. The Regiment had been renamed the 8th LHR – the name under which it would become famous – and allotted to the 3rd Light Horse Brigade along with the 9th (SA & Vic.) and 10th (WA) LHR.
Many Light Horsemen had provided their own saddles and mounts such was their keenness, and training began immediately. The Regiment did not sail with the First Australian Division contingent but, finally left Australia with their horses from Port Melbourne aboard transport A16, Star of Victoria, in February 1915. They arrived in Suez after a six-week voyage to a land incredibly different from their own and an Africa unfamiliar to even the Boer War veterans.
The Regiment entrained for Cairo but could not ride their horses for two weeks after the voyage. Nevertheless, training continued in the Egyptian desert while the First Australian Division stormed ashore at a little known cove at the Dardenelles. It didn't take long for the Higher Command to realise that reinforcements were needed on the Gallipoli Peninsula if the Anzacs were to break out and take control of the straits that had been the original object of the campaign. The Australians turned to the only body of men readily available - their Light Horse Brigades.
The decision was made to use the various regiments dismounted, and the 8th LHR left their horses behind when embarking for Anzac aboard the transport Menominee with 23 officers and 452 other ranks, including Sergeant Nugent.
Arriving off the ANZAC cove on 21 May 1915, they immediately went ashore and were bivouacked half way between the beach and the northern extreme of the Australian line, Russell's Top.
For the next eleven weeks, Nugent and the regiment experienced trench warfare but little action. They dug trenches, carried water and stretchers and held various parts of the line, but only came to grips with the Turks on the evening of 29 June. On that night the regiment was holding the line on Russell's Top when the Turkish 18th Regiment attacked en masse, their cries of 'Allah, Allah' accompanying their rifle fire and bayonets. Only 38 of the 8th LHR manned their section of the front, but reinforcements were on the way as the Turkish wave leapt into the 8th's trenches. Nugent was part of the reinforcements, under Major McLaurin, who bombed the Turks out of what little of the trench they had taken. But it was mainly good rifle fire that had defended the trench. Having regained the position and evicted the Turks, the 8th turned its attention to the front, where more Turks were pressing home the attack. Unusually, the Turks did not carry on into the trench the but lay down and began firing over the parapet, making themselves easy targets for the support troops who were able to layout in the open behind the front line and shoot them almost at will. Three further attack waves wilted in the face of accurate shooting.
In its first action, the 8th had killed over 100 Turks and wounded three times that number for the loss of 6 dead and 12 wounded. It's second foray would be different story however.
The unit returned to the 'routine' of trench life until it was informed that it would play a vital role in what would prove to be the last real attempt to break the stalemate that had gripped Anzac since 25 April 1915.
As part of a large offensive that was to attack the key locations of the Lone Pine Plateau and Chunuk Bair, the 8th was to stage a demonstration or feint attack to draw Turkish attention and Turkish reinforcements from the main thrust. The attack was to be made across a narrow strip of land between Baby 700 and Russell's Top known as The Nek.
The trenches at The Nek were between 20 and 60 metres apart and the plan called for four lines of Light Horsemen to charge across no-man's-land with unloaded rifles and bayonets to capture the first few Turkish frontline trenches and associated communication trenches. This would draw down vital enemy reinforcements and assist the other attacks that would be taking place.
If the Turkish trenches were fully manned, the task would prove ridiculously difficult because, in addition to the rifle firepower that could be bought to bear, there were known to be at least five groups of machine guns covering the area. However, it was promised that the intensive bombardment that would precede the attack would keep the enemy from manning his trenches in time, even if they survived the naval shelling. The artillery was to begin thirty minutes before the assault and at 4.30 a.m., as the last shells crashed in, the troops would go.
The attack was to be made by the 8th and 10th LHRs with the Victorians providing the first two lines and the Western Australians the third and fourth. Nugent's B squadron were in the first line that would go over the top. They believed they would be successful in their first offensive, their mood lifted by what they had seen the day before as wave after wave of First Australian Division infantry had crossed into the Turkish trenches at the Lonesome Pine. Those troops would win seven Victoria Crosses in that action and the Light Horse was determined to not let them down.
As night fell, battles raged all over the peninsula. Nugent recalled, "We had to sit in the trenches all night and heard the other attacks around us. All night we sat and the strain was awful. About 2 a.m., I went to sleep for about an hour. About 3 a.m., rum was served out."
Right on cue at 4.00 a.m. the artillery, with naval support began to concentrate on the Turkish trenches at The Nek. Howitzer shells crashed into the enemy support trenches causing much loss and throwing up huge clouds of dust and smoke. But, due to the closeness of their trenches to the Australians, much of the Turkish frontline was not affected. Throughout the bombardment Nugent and 149 others waited in their trench for the 'Go', which would come at 4.30 a.m.
What happened next has never been fully explained, but it doomed two regiments. At 4.23 a.m. the bombardment stopped abruptly – seven minutes early – and an eerie silence fell over The Nek.
In the next seven minutes, the Turks, fully aware that an attack was coming, manned their virtually undamaged frontline two deep - one line seated on the parapet, the other standing in the rear. Along with further troops in the other six support trenches they took aim and waited.
Across the way the Australians knew now what was waiting for them but without hesitation when the command came at 4.30, they leapt over the parapet. At the first sign of movement the entire Turkish line opened fire, rifles and machine guns creating such a roar that it drowned out everything else. The Turks fired as fast as they could and, so effective was this hailstorm of lead, that the first line of the Australian attack was shattered before it had gone ten metres. Shot crashed into flesh and many men did not even clear the trench before being hit and knocked back killed or wounded.
Henry Nugent did clear the trench. He launched himself from the peg in the front wall and managed to get running before a bullet crashed into his left hand, spinning him round and knocking him to the ground. With the first line lying dead around him, he sought cover behind a fallen trooper.
Despite the annihilation of the first line and knowing what must befall them, two minutes after Nugent, the second line of Victorians launched themselves in to the undiminishing cyclone of metal. Like the first line they were obliterated. At some stage after this Nugent managed to regain the trench. He later observed in a letter home:
It was grand to see the spirit in which the boys went over the top of that trench at the word of command. Every man knew that he was going to almost certain death, but not one hesitated. We had only 40 yards to go to the Turkish trenches, but not one man reached them. Our men fell dead and wounded 10 yards from the goal. It was just hell, and no man could penetrate it and live.
In less than fifteen minutes, the 8th was gone.
Nevertheless at 4.45 the next line threw itself up. Official historian, Charles Bean, wrote:
The roar of small arms that had been called forth by the lines of the 8th had subsided to almost complete silence before the third line, formed by the 10th, went out. But as the men rose above the parapet it instantly swelled until its volume was tremendous. The 10th went forward to meet death instantly as the 8th had done, the men running forward as swiftly and as straight as they could at the Turkish rifles. With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia.
The fourth line assembled on the fire step awaiting the order to go. Again the fire subsided but despite some discussion to cancel the last line as a useless endeavour it, too, went forward. Although proceeding much more cautiously than the previous three, it was still decimated and with it went the final hope of ever taking The Nek. Of the 300 men of the 8th LHR that attacked The Nek 154 had been killed and 80 wounded leaving only 66 unharmed. The 10th suffered a further 138 casualties. The feint was a complete failure and the 18th Turkish Regiment had gained some vengeance for the casualties inflicted on them earlier in the campaign by the light horsemen.
Bleeding badly from the gunshot wound that would affect his hand for the rest of his life, Nugent was evacuated, with the other wounded, to the beach and then to the H.S. Caledonia anchored off the peninsula. Three days later he was admitted the 1st Australian General Hospital at Heliopolis. The bullet had passed through the hand completely but did not do enough damage to warrant more than a short stay in hospital. Six weeks later, he returned to light duties in Heliopolis but was not fit enough to return to Gallipoli where things had not been going well for the Allies. Anzac was evacuated on 20 December 1915 and the remains of the 8th returned to Cairo for refitting and training as a mounted formation.
Nugent joined them and, for the next three months the regiment worked and trained hard. Three days before their first deployment Nugent contracted Enteric Fever. It would be three long months before his recovery was complete and when he did return to the unit, it was after completing a stint as an instructor in the 3rd LH Training Regiment.
Promoted first to Regimental Sergeant Major and then Warrant Officer First Class, Nugent led his squadron in a series of skirmishes through the desert as the combined ANZAC and British Armies rolled up the Turks.
His promotion to Second Lieutenant in January 1917 found Nugent a well-respected leader in the squadron. He was selected to attend the school of instruction for training in the new Hotchkiss machine gun, which was to be issued one to each troop, and passed his qualification as an instructor in March.
Before attending the course, he had the opportunity of umpiring a series of matches played amongst the brigade's three regiments, the machine gun squadron and Brigade Headquarters. They used footballs supplied by the VFL and Nugent shared the umpiring duties with Corporal Deuchar, a Warrnambool umpire who would later be killed in action.
Returning to the squadron, he was to instruct the troopers in the use of the new weapon, but it would be his own use of the Hotchkiss that would prove valuable in the weeks to come.
In March 1917, Allied forces had first tried to capture the major strategic city of Gaza. Initially, the first Gaza battle was a victory with most objectives taken, and, in some places, total exploitation made of captured positions. Despite the great heroism displayed in capturing the Turkish positions, a blunderous decision was made by senior command and the order to withdraw was given. The 8th LHR had played a minor role in the attack but, as a result of the chaos and disappointment of the withdrawal, the Australians lost all faith in the British leadership.
One month later, on 19 April 1917, a second attempt was made to take Gaza and this time Nugent's regiment was to be heavily involved.
The 3rd Light Horse Brigade was charged with the capture of the Atawinah Redoubt, a well defended series of trenches and artillery emplacements vital to the security of Gaza. The 9th and 10th regiments were to launch the brigade's attack with the 8th in reserve. The Brigade was in position at three o'clock in the morning, having left camp at nine the previous night. At daybreak, the 9th and 10th went forward.
The Western and South Australians faced heavy Turkish fire as they advanced across open ground against the Redoubt. Casualties were numerous and progress slow. As various units advanced at different rates, a gap was opened on the brigade's left and the 8th was sent in to fill it. It was a day for leadership and bravery and amongst all of it was Henry Nugent.
Nugent led B squadron into the line 500 metres from the Redoubt and immediately they came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire. They were in the most open of the bare sectors without even the protection of the barley crops afforded to units either side of them. Any soldier visible to the enemy drew fire and the unit suffered heavily. According to the Official History, 'It was a day when true leaders recognised that their men needed inspiration' and Nugent was one who provided it. Moving from man to man, he encouraged them, directed their fire and showed by example bravery in the face of the enemy. He led an attack on a Turkish outpost and when the squadron's Hotchkiss rifle carrier was hit, Nugent picked up the weapon and, used it to great effect against the nearby Turkish trenches.
In addition to the rifle and machine gun fire, the Turkish artillery was exceedingly accurate and deadly and, by noon, it was clear the attack had failed. By three o'clock, the position was unchanged, with the exception of more casualties, and at five o'clock came the order to withdraw.
Nugent and the remaining officers organised the movement back to the starting point and the horses. The troopers retired in good order and set up positions to defend against a Turkish counter attack. The regiment had lost six dead with a further seven officers and 61 men wounded in the attack that had been a complete failure along the whole front. Nugent had come through the second battle of Gaza unscathed. As a result of his gallantry and leadership under fire, he was awarded the Military Cross, but it was to be the last action he would see in Palestine.
Two weeks after Gaza, he 'had a turn' that resulted in his being evacuated to hospital. The Field Ambulance was a series of tents on open ground. Three days after being admitted, Nugent's tent was blown off him as the result of a very near miss during a Turkish air raid. The plane bombed and strafed from one end of the hospital to the other, killing four and wounding sixteen.
While not among the direct casualties, Nugent was evacuated to the 14th Australian General Hospital suffering from hysteria. It was the beginning of a downward health spiral.
After two months in hospital, Nugent took part in a Cavalry Warfare course before returning to his unit and being promoted to Lieutenant. Not long after, he was back in hospital with mild dermatitis on the legs but, within 4 days, his entire body was covered in eczema. Doctors attending to Nugent put down the severe skin condition to the strain of military service.
Three months later, with little improvement, Nugent was returned to Australia aboard the troopship 'Wiltshire', arriving in Melbourne on 7 December 1917. On 1 March 1918, Lieutenant Henry Nugent, MC, was discharged from the Australian Imperial Force.
His active service complete, Nugent wasted no time in applying to rejoin the ranks of the VFL umpires and his application for the 1918 season was accepted immediately. It was no surprise, given Nugent's previous VFL record and the League's stated position that 'returned men' who applied would be favourably considered. No better evidence than Round one 1918 when six recently demobilised soldiers officiated – Nugent and Corporal E. J Watt, MM (field), Sergeant H. Heron, Privates P. Crowe and R. E. Smithwick (boundary) and Private D. Paterson (goal).
As he came onto the ground for his return match Nugent must have been surprised to see the players lined up. He must have been more astonished when they gave him three cheers and a hearty round of applause. He had returned one of the VFL's heroes.