Duntroon: The class of 1914

They were the first class of cadets to pass through the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

And they graduated months early – their commissioning as officers less than a week after war was declared on August 4, 1914, constituting one of the first military acts of the Australian government.

The 35 young men from Duntroon's first class – most were in their early 20s – would become the platoon and small-unit leaders of  the new Australian army, the Australian Imperial Force.

And when the decision came to seize the Dardanelles, they were charged with the heavy responsibility of preparing untried troops for battle and then leading them ashore at Gallipoli.

By the end of the ''war to end all wars'' – on November 11, 1918 – eight of the 35 would be dead.

Those who survived would produce more ''top brass'' than any Duntroon class since, with more than half of the 27 who endured the horrors of WWI reaching the rank of Brigadier or higher.

Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, a member of Duntroon's 1974 graduating class and the chief of army from 2002 to 2008, regards Duntroon's class of 1914 with special pride.

''They were the first,'' he said. ''They became the model for others to follow. Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing. These were the first men to show Duntroon could do its job, to develop leaders.''

General Leahy is not surprised at the high standard of the Royal Military College's first group of cadets.

''While Duntroon (itself) was new, the blokes who set it up knew what they were doing and were very familiar with Sandhurst (the British staff college),'' he said.

''They knew exactly what they were looking for and found it in spades.''

The photo above, believed to have been taken in early 1914, is the official class photograph, not a graduation picture.

When the European powers stumbled into global war Duntroon's first class was still months short of completing its set course of studies.

Its members were graduated early, on August 9. There was no fanfare, parades, ball or ceremonial pinning on of pips.

The newly anointed officers were told to get their affairs in order and prepare for a long sea voyage and deployment to the battlefields of Europe.

Then opposition leader Andrew Fisher had already taken bipartisan support for the Empire to giddy heights by pledging that Australia would stand by the mother country ''to the last man and the last shilling''.

The 35 Duntroon graduates who went off to war, including 10 New Zealanders,  had been winnowed down from the 42 who had originally arrived at RMC in June 1911.

The eight who fell in WWI were: Lieutenant N.E Biden; Lieutenant W.H Dawkins; Captain D.F Hardy; Captain P.J Morgan; Lieutenant P.J Patterson; Lieutenant E.W.T Smith and Lieutenant W. Wolfenden and a New Zealander, Captain C. Carrington.

(Two other members of Duntroon's first class would be killed on active service during World War II: Colonel J.H.F Pain and Brigadier R. Miles, from New Zealand.)

The class's high WWI mortality rate, which ran at almost 25 per cent, was due to the nature of trench warfare. Junior officers led their men ''over-the-top'' from the front. Deliberately targeted by snipers and machine gunners, they were often the first to die.

Military records of the day indicate the average life of a British or Australian lieutenant in France was about six weeks.

Meleah Hampton, a military historian at the Australian War Memorial, said a lot had to be done before the Anzacs got to the Turkish beach shortly before dawn on April 25, 1915.

The members of the First Australian Division, about 18,000 men including 12,000 infantry, 546 Light Horse and numerous gunners, medics and transport experts, sailed from Albany on November 1, 1914. The first ships reached the Suez Canal on November 30. By December 3 Anzacs were disembarking at Alexandria from where they travelled by train and on foot to their camp in the shadows of the pyramids.

It was the first time the Australian Division had been brought together in one place.

Ms Hampton said it was not that they had ''the right stuff'' that set the Duntroon graduates apart. Countless other Australians from different walks of life could say the same.

It was the quality of their training and their ability to produce a semblance of order out of the chaos of war that made them so highly prized.

''They are the first clear example of what the AIF was to become,'' she said. ''They were highly trained and knew how to make an army work; they were able to step into the shoes of their senior officers when they fell.''

Duntroon's ''cadet No. 1'' was W.J. ''Dick'' Urquhart, who finished first out of the Queensland hopefuls who sat the entrance exam in 1911 and would go on to become a brigadier.

Along with his classmates, the then Lieutenant Urquhart went ashore at Gallipoli where he kept in close contact with his former Duntroon commandant, Major General W.T. Bridges.

On the morning of May 15, 1915, Bridges had just left Urquhart's gun position when the general was mortally wounded by a Turkish sniper.

In later life Urquhart would say of Bridges: ''I saw the first of him (as cadet No. 1) and I saw the last of him''.

(General Bridges, originally buried at Alexandria in Egypt, was later reburied on the slopes of Mt Pleasant at Duntroon, where his grave is the setting for the RMC's private Anzac Day observance.)

After Gallipoli, Urquhart was posted to the Australian Light Horse and took part in every important campaign in the Middle East. Other Duntroon-trained officers found themselves in France, serving in the trenches on the western front.

The Great War took a heavy toll on the graduates of Duntroon's first four classes. A total of 42 were killed and another 65 were wounded. Graduates were awarded a combined total of 64 decorations and 54 were mentioned in dispatches.

The worth of the Duntroon graduates was recognised early on with the British general in command of the Gallipoli operations, Sir Ian Hamilton, quoted as saying: ''I am not overstating the case when I say that each Duntroon-educated officer was literally worth their weight in gold''.

The story Duntroon: The class of 1914 first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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