No. 742 Gunner Allan McMillan
Allan McMillan was born in Werribee, Victoria on 24 June 1896. His father, Donald, and wife, Margery (spelt Marjory in a number of sources), were living on Werribee’s Metropolitan Farm, and had done since the earliest years of the century. There were seven children in the family:
- Norman Ananias McMillan - born 1887 at Diamond Creek
- Annie May McMillan - born 1889 at Diamond Creek
- Donald McMillan - born 1891 at St Helena near Greensborough
- Allan McMillan - born 1896 at Werribee
- Clarence McMillan - born 1898 at Werribee
- Mabel McMillan - born 1900 at Werribee
- Ada McMillan - born 1902 at Werribee
Allan's military file says that he was a labourer aged 19 when he enlisted at Queenscliff, Victoria on 25 April 1916. It also notes that he had spent three months with the Royal Garrison Artillery, the unit responsible for Australia’s coastal defence.
When it became apparent that a seaborne invasion of Australia was extremely unlikely, many of the artillerymen were transferred to other units, although the defences were manned up until the end of World War II.
It seems highly likely that Allan served at Fort Queenscliff during his three-month stint with the Royal Garrison Artillery and chose to volunteer for the AIF at this location.
Fort Queenscliff was one of a number of major defensive positions protecting Port Phillip Bay. Its garrison included volunteer artillerymen, engineers, infantry, naval personnel and militia.
It was from here that the order to Fort Nepean was issued to open fire on the German freighter SS Pfalz on 5 August 1914 as it attempted to escape Port Phillip Bay – arguably, the first shots fired in anger by forces of the British Empire in World War I. As the shots came closer, the Pfalz returned to port, and its crew was arrested at Portsea and interned.
Perhaps less gloriously, Fort Nepean also fired the first shots of the Second World War when it opened fire on an Australian freighter that had failed to identify itself.
It became apparent from the earliest days on the Western Front that artillery would define the carriage of future warfare. British military historian, John Terraine (1921-2003), wrote in his book White Heat: The new warfare 1914-18:
“The war of 1914-18 was an artillery war. Artillery was the battle winner, artillery was what caused the greatest loss of life, the most dreadful wounds and the deepest fears.”
It could also be argued that the artillery units were the most professional military units within the Australian Imperial Force when war broke out, because many of the soldiers were career artillerymen. Australia’s artillery served in Gallipoli, on the Western Front, and in France and Belgium, working closely with British artillery and firing in support of all Allied units – not just Australian troops.
As the guns became larger, their mobility decreased. It was also clear that dense concentrations of artillery could do far more damage and could be better protected from enemy assault.
Following basic training, Gunner McMillan boarded the HMAT Orsova in Melbourne and disembarked at Plymouth, England in September 1916. He attended Siege School at Sheerness in Kent at the mouth of the River Medway before being sent to France in early January 1917.
As the allied focus turned to Belgium in mid-1917, Gunner McMillan’s unit would have been in support of offensive operations until the end of the year. In 1918, following the German Spring Offensive, allied units were rolled back, and German troops advanced further than any other army on the Western Front during the course of the war. Even Paris came under threat.
As the tide began to turn in May 1918, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief in France, heaped lavish praise on allied artillery units. His Special Order of the Day for 9 May 1918 read in part:
“The difficult conditions imposed by a defensive fight against greatly superior numbers have been faced with the same skill, courage and devotion to duty which characterised the work of all branches of the artillery throughout the offensive battles of 1917. With less constant and loyal co-operation on the part of both field, heavy and siege batteries, the great bravery and determination of the infantry could scarcely have availed to hold up the enemy’s advances.”
Seven days later, on 16 May 1918, Gunner McMillan was shot in the leg. The actual location is difficult to determine, but he was probably near Hazebrouk in France, about 16 kilometres from the Belgian border. He was evacuated from the field and transferred to Southern General Hospital at Bristol, England. Despite a notation in his file that describes the wound as ‘mild’ on his military record, Gunner McMillan remained in hospital until mid-July 1918.
He was then sent on leave until the end of August before being posted to Hurdcott camp on Salisbury Plain. Gunner McMillan left England aboard the SS Orca on 19 February 1919 and received a medical discharge in Melbourne in early April 1919.
Not much is known about Allan McMillan’s life after his war service. His parents continued to live in Werribee until the mid-1930s. His father, Donald, died in Werribee in April 1936 and is buried at Werribee Cemetery. His mother, Margery, died in September 1953, and is also buried in Werribee Cemetery.
We know that Allan McMillan was just 42 years old when he died at Caulfield on 15 December 1938. He was interred at Fawkner Memorial Park in Hadfield, a north-western suburb of Melbourne.
Medals and Entitlements:
- British War Medal
- Victory Medal
Lest we forget
NAA: B2455 McMILLAN ALLAN
Quotation Field Marshall Haig
Australian War Memorial war diaries, 36th Heavy Artillery Brigade, May 1918.