02 Sep

WW1 Troop Ships: Journeys Across the Indian Ocean


With the entry of Australia and New Zealand into the Great War in 1914, it became necessary for the respective Governments of these nations to requisition ships for the transport of their soldiers across the Indian Ocean to emerging battlefields in Europe and The Middle East. However, instead of using their own fleet of coastal liners they chose instead to secure British liners and cargo ships and altogether, 28 Australian vessels were procured. Each ship was given the class HMAT which stood for His Majesty’s Australian Transport, and also a troopship number starting with the ship ‘Hymettus’ (named for the mountain range above Athens) which became A1. The majority of the ships then had to be fitted out to accommodate large numbers of troops. The others were employed as cargo ships. A number of ships were requisitioned solely as horse transports and often their holds were fitted out with extensive stabling for equine transport.
WW1 Troop ship HMAT Benalla
WW1 Troop ship HMAT Benalla (A24), crowded with troops, departing from the wharf. 19th October 1914 [AWMPB0246]


Australian and New Zealand troops boarded at all major Australian ports. The soldiers we researched for the book Murphy’s War boarded at Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne respectively. The names of the ten soldiers in our story and the date of departure of their ships are outlined below in order of embarkation. Below that, the article will continue by looking at some information about each ship they sailed on with some notes about the sea journey of each soldier, where known.
Jack Foott’s voyage onboard HMAT BENALLA

Jack Foott sailed from Melbourne for Egypt on the troop ship HMAT Benalla on 19 October, 1914. The transport had an average cruising speed of 14 knots or 25.92 kmph. The ship was owned by the P&O SN Co based in London and leased out for service by the Commonwealth from the wars beginning up until the 6th of August 1917. The ship was fitted out with accommodation designed to comfortably hold 50 officers and 1200 other ranks. Originally this first convoy was to sail directly to London and the troops were to encamp on the Salisbury Plain. However because of the poor weather conditions there it was decided to send the troops to Egypt.

Jack Foott while on his voyage to the middle east onboard the Benalla, told his Aunt Annie via postcard that he was ‘having a good trip across.’ This was however not the full story. HMAT Benalla joined the first convoy or flotilla of 38 Australian and New Zealand ships and four cruisers that left from Albany, Western Australia, on November 1. At that time there remained an ever present danger from enemy ships in the Indian Ocean, in particular the German raider Emden. One of the light cruisers escorting the convoy was HMAS Sydney and it was an eventful trip for this warship as en route across the Indian ocean, the Sydney peeled off and sank Emden near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Emden, under the command of Captain von Müller, had, from the beginning of the war in August 1914, undertaken a spectacular raiding campaign throughout the Indian Ocean. The defeat of this threat opened meant that future convoys from Australia and New Zealand could travel unescorted across The Indian Ocean. The ‘Benalla’ along with the rest of the convoy eventually arrived safely in Egypt and berthed in Alexandria.

HMAS Sydney 11 September 1914Emden, Keeling Islands, 11th November 1914

Light cruiser HMAS Sydney headed for Rabaul, 11 September 1914. [AWM EN0194]
The remains of Emden, Keeling Islands, 11th November 1914 [AWM EN0194]
Ben Chandler onboard HMAT Runic


Ben Chandler sailed for Egypt on the ‘Runic’ on 19 February, 1915. His voyage would bring him and the other men aboard to Egypt just prior to the departure of the armada for Gallipoli. HMAT Runic had an average cruising speed of 13 knots (24.07 kmph). It was owned by the Oceanic SN Co Ltd, Liverpool, and leased by the Commonwealth until 27 November 1917.

HMAT Runic

HMAT Runic, circa 1919. [AWM P00707.027]
Ferry Post 1917
Buildings and port at Ferry Post on the Suez Canal, Egypt. circa 1917.[AWM P11220.002]

James Chandler’s journey on-board HMAT Aeneas’

James Chandler sailed on the ‘Aeneas’ departing from Brisbane on 29th June, 1915. The ‘Aeneas’ with average cruising speed of 14 knots was owned by the Ocean SS Co Ltd, Liverpool. Each troop ship had their own publication covering the period of the journey. The publication for the Aeneas was called Aeneasthetic
HMAT Aeneus
Charlie Maginness’ journey onboard HMAT ASCANIUS.

Charlie Maginness sailed for Egypt on November 10, 1915 on the troopship ‘Ascanius’. He arrived in Marseilles in March 1916. This ship was requisitioned from the Blue Funnel Line. The on-board publication for that journey was known as the Ascanian.

HMAT Ascanius
HMAT Ascanius departing Port Melbourne. [AWM PB0130]

Frank Murphy oboard The ‘SUFFOLK’

Frank Murphy travelled to the Great War on the Suffolk troop transport. He left for Egypt on April 1, 1916. The ship had an average cruising speed of 12 knots or 22.22 kmph. It was owned by Potter, Trinder and Gwyn, London, and leased by the Commonwealth until 14 June 1917. It belonged to the Federal Line.
At the port there was a large crowd to see Frank off and he thought that some did not realize what a ‘tenderfoot’ like himself was feeling. One of his fellow passengers was another Victorian teacher from Fitzroy Primary School who became very influential in Australian education after the war. Kenneth Cunningham worked in the base depot at Etaples and later joined the Fifth Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer with the Second Division. On his return to Victoria he established the Australian Council For Educational Research (ACER).

The troop transport carried Frank and his fellow soldiers around the Great Australian Bight to Fremantle Harbour in Western Australia. They sailed via Cape Bridgewater, King George Sound, Cape Lewin and Rottnest Island. Soldiers ‘huddled in heaps’ because of seasickness and were disappointed when they arrived that they were not allowed to leave the ship. From Western Australia Frank sailed across the Indian Ocean to Colombo in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). In Colombo he was impressed by the colour and beauty of the land and the ingenuity of the people. He was surprised by the treatment of native labourers and likened their working conditions loading coal to scenes from ‘Dante’s Inferno’. Frank’s troop transport travelled to Egypt via Aden and the Suez Canal. The below photograph is of the Suffolk passing through the Suez Canal in 1916. It is highly likely that Frank Murphy would have been on-board.

SS Suffolk HMAT A23
SS Suffolk (HMAT A23) passes through the suez canal. 1916.[AWM P00998.027]


Some sketches drawn during Frank Murphy’s voyage to Egypt in 1916.

Jack Shine onboard the ‘PERSIC’

Jack Shine sailed from Port Melbourne on the troopship SS Persic (A34)on June 3, 1916. On the 7th of September 1918 the Persic was torpedoed near Sicily. The ship narrowly avoided being sunk and after repairs would remain in use until 1927.
HMAT Persic A34
HMAT Persic (A34) departs Port Melbourne on the 3rd of June 1916 bound for England.[AWM P00997.013]
Charles Chandler onboard The ‘THEMISTOCLES’

Charles Chandler sailed on the ‘Themistocles‘ (A32) on 28 July, 1916 and arrived at Plymouth, England, on 11 September, 1916, making the journey in roughly forty days. The ship was named after the Greek politician and general, cementing his name in history at the battle of Salamis.
HMAT Themistocles A32
“Themistocles” A32 Departing Port Melbourne, 28th July 1916.[AWM PB1021]

Jack Couzner and Hugh Foott’s journey on ‘EURIPIDES’

Jack Couzner left Melbourne on 11 September, 1916 on the ‘Euripides’ which was bound for England with 2500 soldiers on board. The troopship had an average cruising speed of 15 knots. This ship belonged to the Aberdeen Line and was brand new. After it had completed its maiden voyage to Brisbane in 1914 it was requisitioned to take troops to the war. When the ‘Euripides’ reached Durban Jack reported that the soldiers had not been allowed to leave the ship at Fremantle because two of them had contracted meningitis and had to be taken off the ship.

Hugh Foott also sailed on the ‘Euripides’ with his pal Jack Couzner. Hugh’s attitude to issues of race are apparent in a letter he wrote to the daughter of his former employee while on the ‘Euripides. When the ship arrived in Durban, South Africa on the way to Egypt Hugh noticed the inhabitants ‘were from all sorts of races and varieties’ and ‘they carry their children on their back.’ Hugh sent several letters and postcards to Mary Couzner while he was at sea.

HMAT Euripides A14
HMAT Euripides (A14) departing Port Melbourne, 11th September 1916[AWM PB0404]

Dan Shine onboard The ‘WILTSHIRE’

Dan Shine and the 32nd Reinforcements sailed on the troopship ‘Wiltshire’ from Sydney on February 2, 1918.
HMAT Wiltshire
“Wiltshire” A18 departing Port Melbourne. [AWM PB1212]

Murphy's War Cover For further reading and articles on Australia in World War 1, follow the link below. You’ll also find more extracts from the soldiers of Murphy’s War here.

The book, which details a number of the key battles in Australian First World War history, is also now available at the Picnic Press bookstore.

Elizabeth Murphy is a writer, historian and geneologist. You can read more about her at her profile page here.