Frederick Macdonald’s Caruse of the Kanowna

The Caruse of the Kanowna: Frederick Macdonald’s 1914 Diary, Edited by Colin Macdonald (published by Colin Graham Macdonald 2005)

I read this for a family history project.

In August 1914 when my maternal grandfather was 32 years old, he was the officer in charge of 500 young men bound for New Guinea on board the liner Kanowna, possibly the first troops to leave Australia for service in World War One. This is not something that was ever spoken of in my childhood; it came to light through my sister’s research.

Frederick Macdonald, 19 at the time, was one of the 500. This little book, produced by Frederick’s son Colin, is built around his diary entries from 1 August to 21 September 1914, which tell the story of the ill-fated expedition: ill-fated because woefully undertrained and woefully short of food, water, clothing and other necessities. The Kanowna was eventually sent back to Townsville without seeing any action, thanks to what some would see as a providential refusal to work by the non-military firemen on board. (A couple of days after they moored in Townsville they heard that other, better equipped and trained troops had taken German establishments at Herbetsöhe, Rabaul and Simsonhafe.)

The diary entries, which account for just six of the book’s 56 pages, mention my grandfather by name only once, when he addresses a parade in Townsville the day young Frederick receives his discharge, but the diary is fascinating regardless of any special connection a reader may have to it. For example, the entry for Wednesday 2 September, mail having been received a little after ten o’clock the night before:

The parades this morning have been called off to allow the men to read their mail and to write and answer same. The dinner today was the worst we have yet had. The tea has been cancelled at dinner time owing
to shortage of water. The haricot beans were not well cooked, the sago was nearly raw and the bread [was] stodgy and sour. Several men from D company paraded with their meal to the OC and the result was a
rousing on for the cook.

The supporting material – an introduction that provides context, many photographs, an excerpt from The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, selections from the Naval archives – is beautifully done. My ancestor is mentioned again, though for the sake of family pride, I wish he hadn’t been. Evidently, according to one Colonel William Holmes, he ‘had very little military training or experience, and, in addition, lack[ed] personality and self-reliance’. Oh dear!

I got hold of a copy of The Caruse of the Kanowna on interlibrary loan from the Australian War Memorial. I’ve since discovered that it’s available for apparently legitimate download from this site.

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