Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps (CPRC) and World War One
At the beginning of First World War the CPRC were mobilized on 3rd Sep 1914. The regiment then mustered a force for the front consisting of 8 officers and 229 other ranks commanded by Major John Hall – Brown. The contingent left port said, Egypt on 27th October 1914 on the Worcestershire, and was deployed in defense of the Suez Canal at Khubri and Port Tewfik with the company attached to the first battalion, wellington regiment the following month. In December the unit was transferred to the Australia New Zealand army corps (ANZAC) and in April 1915 was dispatched for active service at what would may known as ANZAC cove (“Z” Beach) on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Only about 100 members were left to the fight on Gallipoli after so many had been transferred to officer training Unit. Bean’s official history and the ANZAC war diary in fact refer to approximately 160 fine young Englishmen been attached to Australian and New Zealand corps in early April 1915 at Mena camp. No doubt these figures could be further refined from the attached details. Whilst the CPRC usually receive their fair share of praise there are exceptions. Australians officer Bill Perry referred to them uncharitably when he wrote they think they are the good. No doubt he had observed there refined ways.
In the third week of April the CPRC sailed for Lemnos Island on the Minnewaska to wait for landing orders. The Tea Leaves as they were quickly nick named by the Australian landed on the Ari Burnu Beachhead at Gallipoli between 25th April and 1st May 1915. One unnamed planter wrote to a friend in Melbourne and described the pluck and dash of the 9th battalion during the landing. The writer was evacuated three days later with two bullets in his side.
As early as 28th April 1915, with Australians such as those of the 3rd battalion forward areas much depleted in numbers and according the War Diary nervous apprehensive the Tea Leaves and some 3rd Brigade men were sent forward to the ground with a staff officer to restore confidence.
Soon after the CPRC Men got in to position a sharp attack was made on 3rd battalion which was repelled. With many tea leaves crack shots, from their pre war days, they soon found favour as snipers and there was always work.to be done in establishing trenches, filling sand bags, laying entanglements and water carrying. Despite their sophisticated manners they never shirked their duty, no matter how arduous.
Generally the CPRC men performed, operational duties as guards to ANZAC headquarters staff, including the general officer commanding ANZAC, Lieutenant General William Birdwood, who remarked, I have an excellent guard of Ceylon Planters who are such a nice lot of fellows. Birdwood has especially requested the CPRC to be his unofficial bodyguard whilst in Egypt and enjoyed the company of at least one of their number whenever acumen of both the officers and men, most were put forward for a commission before the Gallipoli landing. After all their working days in Ceylon had been largely consumed with the acquisition and management of a labour force often with accompanying ethnic and other tensions. The only man that Birdwood did not manage to persuade to accept a commission was the Sergeant Cook. Years later when travelling through the east, Birdwood was the house guest of the same man who in peace time had reverted to hos comfortable status of tea planter of a large and very successful estate.
CPRC Losses in Gallipoli were light – at least three killed. However perusal of the attached biographical roll reveals that many were to fall later with other units all campaign areas- and mainly after having been commissioned. The Ceylon Observer of 27th August 1915bfor examples refers to Henry Russell. He was formerly the manager of Mahaousa Estate, Madukelle and later Coolbawn, Nawalapitiya. He left with the CPRC Contingent for Egypt as a Rifleman in the 2nd platoon. After a period he was sent like so many of his peers to the Office Training Corps in Cairo and subsequently given a temporary commission with a British Infantry regiment.
The Ceylon observer article goes on to say that 52 of the contingent members were similarly commissioned on 19th April 1915. Research herein reveals that scores of others were commissioned elsewhere as well. Many apparently choose to serve with regiments which had garrisoned Ceylon, such as the Gordon Highlanders, Warwickshire regiment and the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Dozens of CPRC men were also decorated for gallantry like Robert Benzie with two awards of the Distinguished Service Order while Bill Hannin was recommend for the Victoria Cross. As for Henry Russell, originally he had been a member of the Madukelle and Dolosbage detachments of the CPRC before war was declared. Henry was killed on Gallipoli with the Worcestershire Regiment. The same article refers to Captain Brett who was also killed on Gallipoli, in this case while serving with the Lincolnshire Regiment. Although he is listed herein he does not appear to have been a CPRC contingent member.
James Devane appears to have been a CPRC member before the war whilst working in Ceylon with the Civil Service. His Medal Index Card indicated that he was detached from the CPRC Galle company to the 98th Punjabi Regiment and served in France and Flanders. In 1915 he was returned to Ceylon as a Special Commissioner and finally left the army as an invalid in January 1918.
Following the evacuation in Gallipoli the Tea Leaves stayed at their post with General Birdwood until only about 10 were left. But duty rosters, absences due to sickness or other service reasons made it increasingly difficult for them to keep up with their duties. By mid-1916, with the ANZACs flooding into France and Flanders the CPRC relinquished their, role of bodyguard to General Birdwood. Too many had left on promotion or been taken ill, wounded or killed and the group was no longer a viable force. Not least among the vacancies in the group was Major Hall-Brown who was sent to rejoin and Indian regiment whilst the next senior man, Captain Galbraith was killed in a vehicle accident near Mena whilst swerving to avoid a local Arab. Birdwood was particularly sorry to the last of his bodyguard departed before they left he shook hands warmly with each man.
About the Author:
Lieutenant Colonel Neil C SMITH, AM, Retd
born Neil Smith served 24 years in the Australian Regular Army including a tour
of duty in
He is a graduate
of the Royal Military College of Science in
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history researcher, Neil has 23 years experience in
Neil has been a cruise presenter, Master of Ceremonies for various military commemorative activities, provided expert commentary on ABC TV coverage of the Melbourne ANZAC Day March for 17 years, has written and appeared in TV documentaries and written a series of articles and blog posts for FindMyPast and Inside History magazine.
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