Engineers and Water Bailiffs

John Gurner Burnell
John Gurner Burnell

At least 70 employees of the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission served during the Great War. Of these, 10 were killed and another 20 wounded. By the standards of the AIF this was not a particularly striking toll - the overall casualty rate of 42% is somewhat below the AIF average.

For a number of the recruits, however, it is not statistics that tell the story of their service. Many of the Commission’s employees were civil engineers and surveyors and as such possessed a set of skills that perfectly suited them to the industrial horrors of the Western Front. The science of fortification: digging trenches and blowing them up; managing the logistics of men and machines - all this required engineering skills and the employees of the Commission, who in peacetime had dug miles of irrigation canals, were invaluable assets to the AIF. John Monash, of course, who would serve the State Government after the war, was an engineer and one public service engineer, William McCormack of the Country Roads Board, is described by the Australian Dictionary of Biography as Monash's "protégé".

The most celebrated of the recruits from the Water Commission, the Chief Mechanical Engineer, John Gurner Burnell, is also honoured with an Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, as much for his distinguished later career in private industry as for his war service. Like McCormack of the Roads Board, he was honoured at the end of the war with a Croix de Guerre. He had already won a Military Cross for undertaking a dangerous patrol at Pozieres in 1916.

Captain Burnell was one of four engineers from the Commission to be honoured with medals or mentioned in dispatches. Two draughtsmen and no less than six of the clerical staff were also honoured. There is a debate amongst military historians as to whether there was a bias towards officers in awarding medals. A problem in resolving the question is that often medal winners were promoted at least partly as a consequence of winning their medals. Interestingly, all four of the engineers from the Commission who won medals were officers but only one of the clerical workers.

What is interesting in the case of the recruits from the Commission is the category recorded in the table below as "Bailiffs/Gangers". The term is shorthand for a variety of blue collar occupations (water bailiffs, gangers, channel guards etc) who were employed by the Commission to perform the manual labour of constructing and maintaining the infrastructure of irrigation. No-one could accuse these blue collar recruits of shirking their duty. It's true that more of them appear to have got into trouble for disobeying orders or being absent without leave than the other recruits, but they suffered a higher casualty rate than the engineers of draughtsman. They died and were wounded, but whatever acts of courage they may have performed clearly went unrewarded by medals and the highest rank any achieved was sergeant.

Looking closer at the records there are a number of striking differences between the blue collar recruits and the other categories. They are far more likely to be Catholic, more likely to be married and are significantly older (four years older on average than the engineers). Why did the 47 year old water bailiff, Benjamin Long, join up? He was sent to Egypt where he was stationed with the Light Horse's First Remount Unit before suffering heatstroke and being sent home as unfit. Why did 20 year old bailiff, Walter Connors (discharged due to his "tubercular physique) or 41 year old James Crawford (discharged as unfit before even embarking overseas)?

A short statement in the annual report of the Commission for the year 1914/1915 is suggestive: "The Commission has found it necessary, in view of the nature of several of its large works, to carry out operations by means of 'direct labour'" Elsewhere the report noted both a decline in revenue from rates due to the severe drought of 1914 and in some districts a suspension of work due to inadequate water flow. Were these men employed as "direct labour"? If they were, then a lackl of work would have had disastrous consequences for them and their families. The drought was accompanied by a recession. Unemployment peaked in March 1915 at 11% - with no unemployment benefit. In such circumstances, the opportunity of employment with the AIF, especially for unskilled workers who were older and unfit would have been an obvious attraction.

None of this, of course is to impugn the patriotism or the courage of the men who enlisted. The fact that over half of them became casualties cannot be ignored. The records suggest, in any case, that economic motives (albeit of a different sort) played a significant role in the enlistment of the engineers. A number or their records contain requests made after the war for statements of service to help with registration to professional bodies, as war service was considered to be the equivalent of civilian engineering experience. These engineers were young men at the start of their careers, and war service was bound to work in their favour.

They still had to serve, of course, and few would begrudge them the rewards that they were given. Captain Burnell had to lead that patrol at Pozieres and endure the gunshot wound he suffered at Pozieres. His subsequent stellar career in industry is to be celebrated. It is just unfortunate that for the like of water bailiff Reuben Long, wounded once at Passchendaele and again at the Battle of Amiens in 1918, there was no equivalent reward, apart from, if he was lucky, a small pension to ease the economic horrors that would follow the war.


  Served Dead Wounded Casualty Rate Medals
Engineers/Surv. 18 1 8 50% 4
Draughtsmen 7 1 2 43% 2
Bailiffs/Gangers 17 4 5 53% 0
Clerical 13 4 4 62% 6