Patriotism was one of the reasons that young Australians enlisted to fight in the First World War. This was certainly why Ion Llewellyn (Jack) Idriess joined up. Jack was prospecting for gold at Cape Melville (in far north Queensland about 180 kilometres north of Cooktown) when war was declared. Because of his remote location he did not hear the news for a few weeks after the official declaration.
It was probably late in August 1914 when Jack heard about the war from Captain Dan Moynahan of the coastal supply lugger Spray. As Moynahan dropped anchor in Bathurst Bay behind Cape Melville he shouted the news that England and Germany were at war. Jack was astounded that the “most civilized countries in the world” could be at war. However, on that isolated North Queensland beach Jack immediately decided that if Australia was going to be in the war then he was going to be in it too. His determination to enlist was a story in itself.
His first problem was that Moynahan had to continue north on his scheduled supply voyage. Jack was too impatient to wait for his return so he decided to walk back to Cooktown to enlist. This decision was the beginning of an epic two-month journey from the jungles of North Queensland back to Cooktown on through Cairns and then to Townsville.
Jack packed his swag and started walking back to Cooktown. Today the journey is still an arduous trip by four-wheel drive. It can mean more than a day’s rough driving to cover the 180 kilometres. In 1914 the journey would have been extremely dangerous. On Day One Jack found out just how hazardous the journey was likely to be. He camped for the night on a sand hill at the edge of a swamp and was alarmed next morning to see crocodile tracks in the sand. The next night he decided to camp the night as high as he could in the bushiest tree he could find. But then on the third day his path was blocked by a deep river that was alive with crocodiles. He turned back to wait for Moynahan to get him to Cooktown.
Back in Cooktown there was no recruiting office. He was told he had to get to Townsville but he had no money at all. In 1914 transport to and from Cooktown was mainly by the coastal steamer Musgrave. Jack watched for his opportunity before creeping aboard as a stowaway. He was lucky to avoid being discovered but he was even luckier to avoid finishing back where he started. On board Jack heard two seamen talking about the Musgrave returning from Cairns to Cooktown. He got off in Cairns and narrowly escaped being arrested by a watchful policeman.
This was an unhappy time. He had no money and joined many other homeless and jobless men in queues at the Salvation Army seeking food and clothing. The hopelessness of this situation was too much for Jack so he decided to try the stowaway trick again. This time the crew were more alert. He was discovered hiding under the cover of a lifeboat but sympathetic crew members kept his secret. They also fed him and gave him a billy of tea.
After his struggle to get to Townsville, Jack was disappointed. He had never thought that he might not be accepted but now he was told the recruitment target had been filled. Because only the tallest, fittest, most athletic candidates were being chosen, Jack realised that his slight physique gave him no hope of being selected. However, his dogged persistence finally paid off. He always said later it was his wild jungle-man appearance and his “great scraggy dingy red beard” that caught the recruiting officer’s eye. The recruiting officer asked Jack where he came from and after telling the story of his journey from Cape Melville, Jack was on his way to Gallipoli.
With the 5th Light Horse Regiment, Jack fought at Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine. He was wounded three times. Almost at the war’s end, he was discharged on 10 May 1918 as a result of his third and most severe wounding. He had been at war for nearly 3½ years. Jack’s detailed diaries became “The Desert Column” – one of Australia’s best-selling books on WWI by a private soldier.