100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

Three Days a Second Lieutenant: Jack Playne

By Martin J Playne and Christine J Playne

This is the story of a young engineer from Western Australia who patriotically enlisted to fight alongside his best friend at Gallipoli. John Morton Playne was born in England in 1883. The family decided to migrate to Australia in 1888, and start a new life. They settled in Albany, W.A. in 1888. John was always called 'Jack' by family and friends.

 

The Great Pyramid, EgyptThe Great Pyramid, Egypt1962 photo MJ Playne

In 1902, Jack passed the cadets engineering exam in Perth, and along with his friend Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, he started his engineering training in the Public Works Department. The cadets spent their first year at the drawing board by day and the technical school in the evening. After the first year, they were transferred to operations in a railway camp. Drake-Brockman describes how he and his fellow cadets lived in similar camps, and carried out similar tasks, such as chaining, traversing, levelling, buggy driving, drafting and studying.

In 1907, the two young State-trained engineers were transferred to water supply, sewerage and drainage construction. It was busy time for them as Perth was expanding fast, and sewerage was being introduced. These were good years for the young men - they were based in Perth, socialised and played sport together. After this, the young engineers moved on to new projects surveying for the construction of new railways, particularly the trans-continental railway.

The Entrance to the Tomb, the Great PyramidThe Entrance to the Tomb, the Great Pyramid1962 photo MJ PlayneThen on 4 August 1914, England declared war on Germany. The young men volunteered to become soldiers in September 1914. They enlisted with the 10th Light Horse Regiment at Guildford, W.A., having passed the horse riding test and medical examinations. Jack had to practice long and hard to improve his limited horse riding skills. Each soldier had to donate a horse. During training in October and November, they shared a tent with eight soldiers and ate dixie stew three times a day. They completed their training at Rockingham on manoeuvres with the horses, often in darkness and at night - marvelling at the sight of 450 horses travelling at night. Drake-Brockman and Playne became close friends and were often detailed for special engineer duties. Drake-Brockman in his book ‘The Turning Circle’ describes this period of military training in detail, and goes on to say: ‘The Light Horse then had no sapper attachment. Together we made reconnaissances and maps for manoeuvres. Later, on the voyage to Egypt, together we lectured officers of the regiment on field sketching and map reading - our reward a drink in the officers’ mess.’

They sailed from Fremantle for Egypt on 15 February 1915, arriving at the port of Alexandria on 16 March. On disembarking, they travelled by train immediately for Cairo and to their training camp at Mena, within sight of the famous Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, which Jack and his friends enjoyed climbing. Soon their turn came to fight the enemy. They came ashore at Gallipoli on 21 May 1915. The Regiment took over a trench section, and manned the lines at Walker’s Ridge, Quinn’s Post, Pope’s Hill, Russell’s Top and Number One Outpost. Although Playne and Brockman did sentry duty in the trenches, the two were kept in reserve for special survey work.

Digging Trenches, Gallipoli, CA Master and comrade 1915Digging Trenches, Gallipoli, CA Master and comrade 1915Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, Image H81.169/85In July as the fighting dragged on with its terrible loss of life, Playne and Drake-Brockman applied for commissions with the Australian Engineers and on 3 August 1915 were appointed as 2nd Lieutenants. That same day they said their farewells to the 10th Light Horse and were placed in charge of sections of sappers at Lone Pine, trenching and tunnelling. Their immediate task as Australian Engineers was to prepare trenches for an offensive. 'The August Offensive', as it was called, was to capture Turkish trenches at Lone Pine on 6 August. They succeeded, but it resulted in heavy casualties. The attack was to start at 0530am on 6 August 1915 and to be a diversion from a simultaneous new landing at Sulva Bay and other attempts to break out of the Anzac positions. The first jump out from multiple locations along the trenches included Jack Playne and his sappers. Their job was, when the Turkish trench was captured, to tunnel back towards their own trench. Geoff Drake-Brockman’s duty was to tunnel from their own trench and to meet up with Playne’s tunnel. Playne never signalled his arrival in the Turkish trench. He and his sappers had died in the fighting on that fateful day. Playne’s body and identity tag were found nine days later. His body was never recovered. He is memorialised at the Lone Pine Memorial, Gallipoli Peninsula, Canakkale Province, Turkey. He was one of 3268 Australian soldiers who fought on Gallipoli and have no known graves.

His former colleagues in the 10th Light Horse Brigade from Western Australia fared even worse. On the 7 August, they were ordered to attack at The Nek, already knowing they were following other regiments to certain death. Realising this, their commanding officer made attempts to halt the charge, but he was overruled by brigade headquarters. An estimated 234 young Western Australians were killed needlessly in this attack.

 

The landing place at Anzac CoveThe landing place at Anzac CovePictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, Image H81.169/42, creator: CA MastersSoldiers Camp at Gallipoli, 1915 Soldiers Camp at Gallipoli, 1915 Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, Image H42641/4

Sources:
Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War, 1DRL/0428, 2nd Lieutenant John Morton Playne, 2nd Field Company Engineers

Australian War Memorial, Private Record PR83/067. Four page letter dated 14/5/14 from Gallipoli of Lt Jack M Playne, 3rd ALH, AIF, to his father. AWM file 419/10/36 (incorrectly dated, must have been 24 May 1915)

Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diaries, 1914-18 War, Engineers, AWM 4, Item 14/21/8, Title: 2nd Field Company, Australian Engineers, August 1915 (online www.awm.gov.au)

Beaumont, J., Broken Nation-Australians in the Great War (Allen & Unwin, Sydney NSW), 2013, pp124-137

Browning, N. and Gill, I., Gallipoli to Tripoli: History of the 10th Light Horse Regiment AIF 1914-1919, (Hesperian Press, Carlisle, W.A.) 2012

Drake-Brockman, G., The Turning Wheel, (Paterson Brokensha Pty Ltd, Perth, WA) 1960

National Archives of Australia NAA B2455, Australian Imperial Force. Service Record (Attestation paper sworn on 9 Dec 1914, he enlisted at Guildford, WA on 25 Sep 1914. Medical examination, promotion, casualty form, letters concerning his death)

Martin J Playne and Christine J Playne, 2018

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