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MANNING THE FORTS
SIR JOHN MONASH AND FORT NEPEAN
Beneath the gun emplacements was a complex arrangement of passages and compartments designed to prevent accidents. Compartments for shell, shot and fuses were separated from those for the gunpowder cartridges. The supply to the guns by lifts and hoists was so arranged that the components of a complete round of ammunition never came together until they were actually loaded into the gun. Candles illuminated the magazines through glazed and sealed apertures to prevent gunpowder dust from coming into contact with a naked flame. Behind the magazine chambers ran a series of lamp passages, so that the lamps could be filled from behind. Copper nails were used in the woodwork to prevent sparks.31
Artillerymen coming on duty left their clothing and boots at the entrance to the magazine called the shifting lobby. Here they put on working overalls and exchanged their hobnailed boots for canvas shoes as a safety precaution. They had to empty their pockets of metal and matches before entering the magazines.32
Manning The Forts
The Victorian Artillery, a permanent force, manned the forts of Queenscliff, Nepean, Franklin, Swan Island and South Channel Fort. In 1888, some 150 men were stationed at the forts. The remainder of the Victorian Artillery were stationed in Melbourne, doing guard duty at Government House and other posts.
The force of 150 permanent soldiers was not sufficient to man the guns without reinforcements.33 To man the defences fully the militia were needed as well. The militia were civilians who were paid to attend training parades and annual camps, and were given specialised tasks within the Victorian Military Force. They were to be called out in the event of hostilities to their war stations.
The men who manned the guns at Fort Nepean were brought from the headquarters at Queenscliff by launch. The conditions they lived under in the 1880s were complained of by six men court martialled for refusing to obey orders in July 1885. One of their grounds for complaint was:
That we were treated more like dogs than men, in fact used like convicts. We were made to do the work of horses, and indeed, horses get better accommodation than we had at Queenscliff and Point Nepean.34
Since the militia trained mainly at night, their experience would have been very limited if it had not been for the training they received at the annual Easter manoeuvres. In 1881, an Easter Camp was organized at Point Nepean by the militia themselves, who paid any expenses out of corps funds. The Government agreed to accommodate the soldiers at the Quarantine Station. The five hospital buildings were used as barracks for the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Red Rifles for four days. Two steamers were chartered to bring the men and the horses of the mounted officers down the Bay. Field manoeuvres were held on the Saturday in “the country between the Quarantine Station and Sorrento, a hilly, sandy district covered with brackens and patched with scrub”. The men were to told that an enemy occupied a position on a hill between the station and Portsea, and was to be driven out and be made to retreat to Sorrento.35
The official report by Major Templeton expressed satisfaction with the exercise but the Age reported disapprovingly that not all took the manoeuvres seriously. During the afternoon, five deserters were found in the Nepean Hotel; it took a sergeant and twelve men to arrest and imprison them. On the Saturday evening, all the men were in bed by ten o’clock with the exception of Majors Templeton and Freeman and fifteen men who were absent without leave. The absentees were retrieved from a ball at Portsea. They arrived back to find the commanding officer had decided to sound an alarm to see how smartly the men would turn out of their beds and appear on parade. The bugler sounded the alarm at 11 o’clock and in thirteen minutes every man in the place was on parade and ready for action. It is not clear whether the Portsea revellers joined in.36
Other Easter camps held at Queenscliff involved artillery practice for the militia at Fort Nepean and the other forts.37
Sir John Monash and Fort Nepean
In 1887 the artillerymen and engineers attached to Victoria’s forts numbered almost one thousand men. A small proportion of these were permanent soldiers but the majority were militia.
On 3 March 1887 John Monash was formally attached to the North Melbourne Battery (Metropolitan Brigade) of the Garrison Artillery whose fixed guns defended the Victorian ports. The Battery consisting of permanent soldiers and militia had Fort Nepean as its fighting station. Monash rose through the ranks of lieutenant, captain and major in the Battery to become its commanding officer in 1897.
Before joining the North Melbourne Battery, however, Monash had been disillusioned by his early contacts with the militia. “The militia is a fraud and bristles with ill-management”, he wrote, “I have little heart to bother about it further”. His experience in the battery changed his mind: when he transferred to the Australian Intelligence Corps in 1908, he described his 21 years in the North Melbourne Battery as the best years of his life.
Since the Nepean fort would be the first to come into action in the event of hostilities, it was particularly attractive to the romantic young soldier. One of John Monash’s fantasies was that he might have charge of the seaward guns at Point Nepean and be the first to fire at a hostile fleet.38
Monash’s experience in the coastal artillery is seen by his biographer Geoffrey Serle as crucial to his later career as commander of the Australian forces in World War I. It was at Fort Nepean and in the North Melbourne Battery that Monash “learned to know and understand Australian volunteer soldiers”.39