The Original: The first Australian born casualty of WWI

Mark Donaldson VC

As we travel along the rolling hills and empty farming lands throughout the battlefields of yesteryear it is hard to not feel the heaviness in this land. A heaviness and weight created from years of war and bloodshed.

Whilst long gone the noise from ground shaking tanks, din and deadly blasts of field artillery and the charging Infantry battle cries it is now another noise that fills the air. The deafening silence and serenity.

I find it very difficult not to feel deep sadness for those men who travelled so far from home to fight.

At the beginning of the outbreak of the First World War the response to imminent war in Europe had been vast. The Australian response was even heralded as surprising by some British dignitaries and military officials. However the delayed time for Australians meant that those keen to be involved in the fight for King and Country had to either wait or serve with another military.

There is much conjecture on who was the first Australian to die in the war. From the uprising against German outposts at Rabaul, New Guinea, October 1914 to the Naval Forces involved in combat not long after it was believed to be surely one of those men.

Before any ANZAC boots even set foot on the shores of Gallipoli there was a group of Australians who were already fighting with armed forces and allied nations in the First World War. Majority of these were so eager to join the fight and to see active service abroad they had made and paid their own way to England to enlist.

Mark Donalson VC is an Australian soldier and a recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia. Source: Getty.

It was at the outbreak of the war they felt the urge and need to take action, some a sense of adventure, others due to strong political beliefs or family connections between both nations inspired them to do so. Some 1500 Australians were believed to have served, fight and die under the British Expeditionary Force well before 25th April 1915.

In a recent discovery a 22-year-old Lieutenant serving with the East Lancashire Regiment was killed on the 26th August 1914 nearby the village of Ligny-en-Cambresis. He had been in France for three days. His name was William Chislom.

Whilst data and records are not overly great during this period it seems there was one Australian who was fighting and sacrificing even before even LT Chisolm.

Soldiers of 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Royal Irish Regiment at Mons on 22nd August 1914.

The individual in question was Lieutenant Leslie Richmond. It is now believed, he was the very FIRST Australian to have fought and died in the First World War.

The extreme bond that family connections and ties have would, most certainly, play a part in his reasoning to go.His father’s side of the family were from Scottish decent. Though from my own experience it does not take to much reasoning to serve your nation once the decision has been made. You feel the desire and need to serve your country in any way you can so it becomes more about how you can make that happen compared to who it happens with.

LT Richmond was born in Australia. He was born in Armadale, VIC, 13th of June 1888 and was the son of James Richmond and Ruth Margaret Richmond. LT Richmond’s father had Scottish heritage and close ties back to the motherland. He served with and fought in the Gordon Highlanders, a Scottish Regiment. The Gordon Highlanders were in the first battle of the First World War, The Battle of Mons.

A battle so famous that Wikipedia even tells us: “At dawn on 23 August a German artillery bombardment began on the British lines at Mons; throughout the day the Germans concentrated on the British at the canal. Mid morning, the first German infantry assault began, with the Germans attempting to force their way across four bridges that crossed the canal. Four German battalions attacked the Nimy bridge, which was defended by a company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers and a machine-gun section. Advancing at first in close column, "parade ground formation", the Germans made easy targets for the British riflemen, who hit German soldiers at over 1,000 yards (910 m), mowing them down by rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire. So heavy was the British rifle fire throughout the battle that some Germans thought they were facing batteries of machine-guns."

A photo of Lt Leslie Richmond. C 1914.

"The initial German attack was thus repulsed with heavy losses and the Germans switched to an open formation and attacked again. This attack was more successful, as the looser formation adopted by the Germans made it more difficult for the British to inflict casualties rapidly. The outnumbered defenders were soon hard-pressed to defend the canal crossings, and the Royal Fusiliers at the Nimy and Ghlin bridges faced some of the day's heaviest fighting."

"To the right of the Royal Fusiliers, the 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment and the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, of which Leslie Richmond was a platoon commander were equally hard-pressed by the German assault on the area. A strong German attack on the Gordons and Royal Scots on the Bois la Haut, a distinguishable high ground feature, was repulsed with heavy German losses. Greatly outnumbered, both battalions suffered heavy casualties though yet with the addition of reinforcements from the Royal Irish Regiment, from the divisional reserve and effective fire support from the divisional artillery, they managed to hold the bridges."

After much heavy fighting and large numbers of casualties the British forces inevitably conducted a tactical withdrawal for nearly 400klm.

The Battle for Mons, though heavy in casualties was seen as a great victory against the far superior and large numbered German Army. During the Battle two Victoria Cross medals were awarded. The very first of World War One.

Possibly, LT Richmond is the first Australian to have fought and died in the Great War. At least nine months before any Australian had seen combat on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
He was Killed In Action on the first day of the battle, 23rd August 1914. His body is buried in St. Symphorien Commonwealth War Grave, a cemetery that has a mixture of German troops, British and Canadian.

St. Symphorien Cemetery is a unique one. The Germans established it as a memorial to both German and British dead. An inscription within the cemetery states “In memory of the German and English soldiers who fell in the actions near Mons on the 23rd and 24th August 1914”.

Over 500 soldiers of German, British and Canadian nationality are buried there. It is believed though, home to the first soldier and last soldier killed in the war;
PTE J. Parr 21August 1914 and PTE G. Price 11th November 1918. Now though it is also home for one brave and committed Australian soldier.

Travelling to Mons, Belgium to see the site where Richmond is buried it strikes a nerve, a national nerve even, to the meaning of the word Commitment.

Commitment is a value that as Australians we hold high. Yet the level shown by LT Richmond during this period could truly be described as above and beyond.

Him and some 1500 other Australians answered the call well before Australia as a nation and Imperial Force was involved in the war. That is commitment beyond belief.

We often, in this day and age, refer to Commitment in sporting terms or efforts in a board room, yet not often can we really link the commitment shown by our first troops volunteering to fight to these everyday situations.

Still we do so.

It is because of men like Leslie Richmond that we can become proud of our men and women in the Australian Defence Force.They were true trailblazers in the efforts against the Axis forces. They displayed a devotion to duty that is hard to replicate in these more modern times.

We have a notion and a factually based belief that the Australians went away with their mates to war. Many of them did and rightfully so we salute them for their service.Yet what of this man LT Leslie Richmond. He did not necessarily do it alongside or with his mates. He was in a foreign Regiment with possibly not many, if any mates from home at all.

He was a Lieutenant, so that would mean he was in charge of a Platoon, off to a war in a far away country because the world was at stake. This individual was so eager to assist, be apart of and participate in the fight against a world evil that he decided his life and time was worth trading for the defence of multiple nations.

The first day of World War One officially was the 4th August 1914. It was 19 days later that 26-year-old LT Leslie Richmond, found himself commanding foreign troops and outnumbered against the well trained and arguably tactically superior Germany military.

This memorial Plaque inside Caputh Church is dedicated to the male side of the family..

A memorial plaque inside Caputh Church is dedicated to Leslie Richmond.

His family story is one of commitment and sacrifice. Multiple members of this deeply linked Australian family have been giving, grieving and thinking of others when it came to national and international defence.

Leslie’s son, whom he never had the honour and pride of seeing followed his fathers strong and committed example. He signed up and served during World War 2. A Captain with the 10th Royal Hussars, a Royal Armoured Corps. He was killed in action on the 24th of May 1940. A tragic yet noble footstep to take. Imagine the rock of this family, the wife and mother, what grief she had to endure.

Leslie’s own brother, George, at the outbreak of the war set off from western NSW where the famous sheep studs resided (still do) on a motorcycle. He made it to Brisbane and sold the bike to then sail to Scotland and join the infamous Black Watch Regiment. Twice wounded in battle in France, George survived the war and returned to nurture the family sheep stud business in Australia.

His own nephew, from what I believe, was killed in action at Gallipoli. Killed In Action on the Dardanelles, 7th August, serving with the 6th Light Horse.

An Australian born and forged family ready for devotion to duty and responding to the threats against freedom.

Lt Leslie Richmond is buried in amongst his Gordon Highlander comrades as well as German soldiers, fittingly for Leslie surrounded by fields with livestock and farmlands.