Australia's last active World War I serviceman
Born: July 24, 1899, Bega
Died: October 17, 2005, Flemington, Vic
Had his ship not turned back for him,
seaman Evan Allan would have drowned in the icy wastes of the North
Atlantic in the late 1920s.
"But, thank God, the captain
turned the ship around, dropped a rope ladder and hauled me back on
board," the grateful sailor recalled recently.
It was 1928 and the 29-year-old Allan
was a petty officer with the Royal Australian Navy on board the recently
commissioned HMAS Australia, which, having just completed a series of
training exercises off the remote Greenland coast in the cold, grey seas
south of the Arctic Circle, was bound for Canada.
"We ran into very bad
weather," he said. "I'd gone clean over the side and thought I
was done for."
Allan, who was standing "up
forrard" on the heaving deck just aft of the bow near the
breakwater, said he had heard the watch officer call out "Look
out!" and ducked down with his hands over his head "because I
thought I was going to be bashed onto the breakwater, but that didn't
But when the ship dropped down into a
trough "a big sea hit me and I found myself washed overboard as the
ship sailed away through the heaving sea, weighed down by my oilskins
and sea boots and thinking, 'This is going to kill my mother.' "
However, a shipmate had thrown a
lifebuoy immediately he went overboard, Allan said. Despite his heavy
wet-weather gear pulling him down Allan managed to grab it.
"I managed to hang on and kick my
boots off to give me more buoyancy," he said, "and then I
noticed the ship coming back towards me."
When the towering vessel got close
enough his shipmates threw a line over the side "from the port
quarter" which Allan grabbed, "pulling myself in alongside the
ship". Somebody then opened the rubbish hatch, which was just above
the water line in the ship's hull, and lowered a rope ladder. He was
able to grab the bottom rung and hang on even though the lifebuoy fell
"But I was getting smashed
against the hull all the time, losing the skin off my legs, knees and
shins, with blood everywhere which I hoped the sharks wouldn't
Too exhausted from hanging on as the
waves smashed him against the hull, Allan could not pull himself up the
ladder. But, in the nick of time, an officer called out: "If you
can just hold on, Allan, we'll have you on board in a second."
A group of sailors then "hauled
me in on board like a fish and carried me to sick bay, where I
recuperated for two days".
The captain visited Allan during his
stay there and "commended me for my bravery and apologised for not
being able to lower a ship's boat due to the rough seas".
But Allan was very lucky indeed to be
plucked from a watery grave. Frequently a captain would not waste time
or fuel turning back, because in most cases he could never find the man
overboard whose head alone protrudes over the rapidly moving waves.
Usually, as the old naval saying goes, "Man overboard stays
Allan was Australia's last active
serviceman from World War I - out of more than 330,000 who served in
conflicts overseas. As the last living link with the Great War, his
death in a Flemington hostel marks the end of an era. At 106 he was also
one of the oldest men in Australia.
The second of six siblings and
christened William Evan Crawford, Allan was born in Bega, on July 24,
1899, 18 months before the colonies federated. He dropped his first name
and called himself Evan as soon as he was able.
As it turned out he would also become
the last living link between the great age of sail and modern powered
ships, having been lured to sea by the square-rigged tall ships still
plying the oceans during his childhood.
In fact it was America's majestic
"Great White Fleet" visiting Sydney as part of a world tour in
1908 that later inspired him to sign on as a ship's Boy, aged 14, in
March 1914, five months before the outbreak of World War I.
Allen trained on the tall ship HMAS
Tingira in Rose Bay before joining HMAS Encounter, which soon after
chased a German raider, the Wolfe, that had been laying mines in
During the war he started rising
through the ranks from seaman to able-bodied seaman. Eventually he
became a petty officer, then chief petty officer, and finally, by the
time he retired, lieutenant.
In 1918 he joined the famous HMAS
Sydney which, under the command of the brilliant Captain John Glossop,
had gunned down Germany's Emden near the Cocos Islands, winning an early
prize for Australia soon after the outbreak of war. Not only was it the
first decisive action of the war but Glossop had also succeeded in
taking the bulk of the German crew prisoners.
Although nearly 40 of his fellow crew
subsequently died on the Sydney from the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic,
Allan, nicknamed "Darby" by his shipmates, survived to sail on
between the wars on a variety of ships. He served with Captain Joseph
Burnett before the latter took command of the ill-fated Sydney, which
was sunk by Germany's Kormoran in 1941 off Western Australia, going down
with all her 645 crew. "But I won't have a word said against
Captain Burnett," Allan said. "He was the best captain I
sailed under. You could not fault him."
Allan was still in the navy when World
War II broke out and he served on different ships during the conflict.
These included HMS Moreton Bay, which sailed in convoy with HMS Repulse
and HMS Hood, which was later sunk by enemy fire in the North Atlantic
(where it was found six decades later after a high-profile search with
technology pioneered by the team that discovered the Titanic).
Fond of saying he had been "as
lucky as a ship's cat with nine lives", Allan seemed to sail on,
decade after decade, leading a charmed life. But after surviving the
Great War, floating German mines, being washed overboard, the Spanish
flu, and World War II with its U-boat attacks and kamikazes diving
towards his ship, he finally retired in 1948 after 34 years in the navy.
He then "swallowed the anchor" and came ashore. He may not
have been piped down the gangplank the way a retiring admiral would have
been, but his captain gave him a glowing report.
Lieutenant Allan then returned to
Australia to join his wife, Ida Blakely. They had met in Vancouver in
1924 when she visited his ship and he had written to her until his ship
returned in 1941, when they married.
The honeymooners sailed to Australia
on SS Mariposa via Hawaii, fortunately leaving 12 days before the
Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
They bought a farm at Tyabb, on
Westernport Bay in Victoria, where they started a family, grew fruit,
and raised cattle and chickens.
"After I had been at sea for so
long, we both had to work very hard to establish ourselves in civilian
life," Allan said.
He also worked very hard for the local
branch of the Liberal Party, of which he was a dedicated member for
decades. He was also a fanatical supporter of the Essendon AFL team,
whose games he watched on television to the last.
Allan's last contact with senior naval
officers was in 2002, when Vice-Admiral David Shackleton visited him in
his Mount Alexander retirement home to ask him about the early days of
the Australian Navy.
Allan was always very proud of his
service decorations, including medals from the Great War and World War
II, and the 80th Anniversary Armistice Medal.
A loving husband - his wife died 25
years ago - father and grandfather, he is survived by his daughter,
Judith, and grandchildren Philippa and Duncan.
Allan attributed his longevity to
abstinence from alcohol (apart from "Nelson's blood" - the
mandatory tot of rum issued on ships to the night watch during storms at
His death leaves only one serviceman
from World War I, John Ross, 106, who never left Australia nor saw
active service but who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was
in training when the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918.
Sources: The Herald wishes to thank the historian
Frank MacDonough, the Australian War Memorial, the Department of Defence
Information Service, the National Archives of Australia and the Navy
AUSTRALIA AND WWI: 1914-18
Australia committed more than 421,809
defence force personnel to World War I, also known as the Great War and
"the war to end all wars". More than 330,000 service personnel
served overseas, mainly in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The
soldiers and airmen fought mainly at Gallipoli, Palestine and on the
Western Front (Flanders, and the Somme) with minor skirmishes in New
Guinea. Thousands of their comrades sailed on the Australia's seven
serving ships. More than 61,720 Australians died (nearly twice the
number killed in World War II).
THE LAST DIGGER
Peter Casserly was the last digger to
serve on the Western Front. He died on June 24 last year. Born in Perth
in 1899, he served as a sapper in the Somme and survived some of the
worst battles of the war. He rode shotgun on troop trains to and from
the front in France. By the time he died aged 107, he had enjoyed the
longest known marriage in Australian history - 80 years - and was the
country's oldest man.
… THEN THERE WAS ONE
The one remaining member of the
Australian Imperial Force is (John) Jack Ross, 106, of Bendigo, who
enlisted on February 19, 1918, aged 18. He trained as a wireless
operator, but the war ended before he could embark for the front.
Instead he joined the Victorian Railways, married and had a family.