With assistance from David Pearson, of the Australian War Memorial
As The Great War of 1914-1918 ground to its end on the European continent, many countries decided they’d like to collect and take home officially captured trophies of their victory. That’s not surprising, considering the enthusiasm with which many individual soldiers had collected unofficial souvenirs of various kinds throughout the entire war. Many German prisoners, for example, complained bitterly of being forced to hand over personal belongings to some of their captors. Watches, field glasses and similar items were particularly at risk of being “souvenired” and the writings of many Australian servicemen confirm the practice, which certainly ran in the opposite direction when the boot was on the other foot and the Germans were doing the capturing. Subsequently, huge amounts of unofficial souvenir material were of course to be found on the battlefields by anybody who cared to gather them. However, for British Commonwealth nations, official trophies such as artillery, mortars, machine-guns, aeroplanes and vehicles were official items which were heavily regulated and controlled and were removed from the battlefield into various gun parks in France before being send to the Croydon Ordnance Depot in London for official reuse and eventually redistribution to their capturing countries.
The capture and display of artillery was not exactly a new phenomenon. Captured, or even obsolete and redundant guns and cannon were already common in many Australian locations, particularly public parks. In Newcastle, NSW, old cannon were on display from as early as 1905 in Shortland Park and in Gregson Park, at the suburb of Hamilton.
But the Great War brought a tremendous influx of ordnance to Australia, along with tens of thousands of homecoming troops. The ownership and use of returning Commonwealth Government Line vessels involved in this mass repatriation made the transport of large numbers of guns and other leftover war materiel as ballast made this feasible by the Commonwealth Government.
The largest and best-known trophy gun in Australia is the so-called “Amiens Gun”, a German 28cm artillery piece, the barrel of which is still on display outside the War Memorial in Canberra. The story of the Amiens Gun is very well related in this Wikipedia entry. Its capture on 8 August 1918 was a significant enterprise, as was its return to Australia, via England after the war. Its fate in the postwar and World War 2 era is typical of that of many of the hundreds of trophies. The gun’s railway platform and bogies were destroyed after WW2.
Of the large and small official trophies that were dispersed across the country in the years immediately following the Great War, few remain in their original places in 2021, and fewer have been maintained in reasonable condition. Many suffered damage from constant exposure to the elements, or were scrapped pre-WW2 or during WW2 for the war effort. Even post WW2, the number of guns has continued to decline.
According to Australian War Memorial artillery expert David Pearson, who is writing a book on the subject, most Allied participants in the war gathered souvenir or trophy material for re-use or display. The USA, “although a latecomer to the conflict, appears to have collected the most, including 3,242 captured pieces of artillery, 4,550 vehicles, 347 aircraft, and other items. Some of this material might have been sold and reused by the military, but it appears that many of the guns were distributed to American states principally for display,” David writes.
Australia, although with a much smaller population and in spite of the distance and expense of transportation from Britain and Egypt, collected about 800 guns, 3,800 machine guns, 520 trench mortars, 217 motor vehicles and a number of horse vehicles and tanks. However, the number of guns, trench mortars and machine guns that were transported to Australia is known to have been higher. Most of these items, particular the guns, were distributed to Australian cities, towns, and Army units for display. In addition, some formed the nucleus of the subsequent museum at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
At the time, these guns were keenly sought by local councils as well as by military and quasi-military organisations, and the politics of allocation appear to have been intense. According to researcher Geof Mansfield, 14 German guns of various calibres were allocated to the Hunter Region of NSW, with most going to Newcastle, Maitland and Singleton. Smaller towns were usually given a trench mortar or a machine gun. “Inevitably trophy size became synonymous with civic importance and as a result some civic leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and secure their community a gun,” Mr Mansfield wrote. “West Wallsend and Boolaroo were the only communities in Lake Macquarie to receive a gun, but the West Wallsend gun was scrapped in 1939. The only war trophy remaining in the City of Lake Macquarie is a 25cm trench mortar which languishes in poor condition in Speers Point Park.”
My correspondence with Mr Mansfield came about because of a photo I published in The Newcastle Herald of what appeared to be a German trophy gun on the beach at Dudley, Lake Macquarie, in the 1960s.
Mr Mansfield was certain that the gun on Dudley Beach was a German trophy gun. “The gun probably came to Australia as a war trophy and was allocated in the early 1920s to a local community or army unit,” he wrote. “Dudley was allocated a trench mortar and two machine guns as war trophies, which were dispatched to Dudley Colliery from Sydney in mid 1921. So where did the gun in the photo come from?” This mystery remains unsolved, though of course the gun has long gone from the beach. Mr Mansfield noted that the army had a plan in 1942 to attempt to recondition Great War trophy guns for re-use, but this did not appear to have gone ahead.
According to Mr Pearson, the gun on Dudley Beach was unmistakeably a German 105mm (10.5-cm LFH 16-16 (light field howitzer). This gun looked very much like the 77mm (7.7-cm FK 16s (field cannon) which used the same carriage, but had a larger bore and slightly stumpier barrel.
“The initial allocation to Newcastle included one of the largest types of guns to be returned to Australia. This was a 21cm Mörser [howitzer] (No.369). In the same allocation was a 15-cm lg. sFH 13 howitzer (No.1878) and one light and one heavy machine-gun. Like the Amiens gun, the latter was captured on August 8, 1918, but this time by the 45th Battalion, AIF. In 1920 these two big guns were placed in Shortland Park on the Esplanade with the pre-mentioned obsolete nineteenth-century 9-inch Rifled Muzzle Loaders,” Mr Pearson wrote.
A later allocation gave Newcastle another 10.5cm field gun (No.273) by the Newcastle’s 35th Battalion, AIF, a 15cm howitzer (No.106) and two more heavy machine- guns. The artillery pieces were apparently put at Parnell Place, not far from Shortland Park.
Other guns came to Newcastle too – awarded to military units based in the city. There was a 7.7cm FK-96 gun, another 7.7cm field gun and a 10.5cm which went to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Pioneer Regiment based at Wallsend. It seems plausible to me that this 10.5cm gun might have been the one that ended up on Dudley Beach.
For the Great Newcastle area trophy guns was allocated to other a number of additional trophies, including: Dungog (7.5-cm M1903, No.34) still outside the RSL Club; East Maitland 7.7cm (No.585); Singleton 7.5cmm (M1903, No.278), Singleton 10.5cm how. (No.1410); West Maitland 7.7cm (FK 96 n/A. No.2967) 13th Battalion, AIF; West Maitland 10.5cm how. (sFH93, No.419), as well as machine-guns and trench mortars. Additional guns were allocated to the Citizens Military Forces in the district including: Singleton 10.5cm how. (No.5581); West Maitland 7.5cm (No.20109), West Maitland 7.7cm (No.4667). Upon disbanding of these units in the early 1920s, some of these guns remained in the district.
David Pearson writes: “Even in September 1921 the condition of the guns was controversial. There was criticism in the Newcastle Morning Herald, which stated: ‘Newcastle City Council accepted the trusteeship of the captured guns which were awarded as war trophies to this district … The first duty is to see that the guns are kept under conditions which will protect them from the ravages of rust. The second is to see that they are properly mounted, with inscriptions indicating the circumstances under which they were captured. Neither of these very simple obligations has received any attention from the City Council. The guns, which are in Shortland Park, are to all intents and purposes, masses of abandoned iron, which are not worth passing attention by the public’. The paper went on to say: ‘As a matter of fact they were captured in battles in which some of the finest men of the Newcastle district fought, and in which some of them laid down their lives’.”
By 1934 there were complaints that the guns were a danger to children who might hurt themselves while climbing on them, but a suggestion by Newcastle City Council to dispose of them met opposition from the RSL, which urged the council to maintain them properly. It took two more years of neglect to get the guns to the point where the RSL could no longer object. In January 1937 they were sold for scrap to R.W. Princehorn for £1/1- per ton, with the proceeds donated to Legacy. The scrap metal was presumably melted down at Newcastle’s BHP steelworks.
By 1941, with World War 2 underway and the State Salvage Commission on the hunt for scrap iron, Newcastle City Council regretted not having more old trophy guns left to donate. The RSL disagreed with the idea of melting down the few remaining Great War trophies in the district, but there were plenty of people who believed that any available scrap should be used for the newest war effort, regardless of sentimental considerations.
According to David Pearson, the man in charge of Newcastle’s parks and gardens between 1940 and 1946 was “gardener and pioneer of Australian architectural landscaping, Harry Oakman”, who later went to Brisbane City Council where he “systematically purged” the Queensland capital’s parks of vintage artillery pieces.
Maitland received its first trophy gun – a 7.7cm FK-96 captured by the 13th Battalion – on May 3, 1920.
Mr Pearson said that Maitland received a second 7.7cm FK-96 gun (also captured by the 13th Battalion) that was originally allocated to the 2nd Battalion, 13th Regiment of the Citizens Military Forces (CMF) based in Newcastle. When this unit was disbanded the gun was re-allocated (August 1921) to West Maitland, which also received a 15cm howitzer, a 7.6cm trench mortar and two light machine guns. It was displayed for some time near Maitland’s Soldiers’ Memorial.
In 1940 Maitland Council sold two guns for scrap, but rescinded the sale when returned servicemen from Morpeth complained, and it was reported that the guns would be put on display in Swan Street, Morpeth. Apparently, some records of this time are missing from Maitland Council, so the fate of some of the city’s other trophies may remain a mystery.
Of course, after the end of World War 2 a whole new array of trophy guns, along with tanks and aircraft, began to appear in Australia’s parks, although in most cases these were surplus Australian equipment rather than captured materiel. Australian 25-pounder guns, Matilda tanks and similar items were common. And in still more recent years, Vietnam-era weapons have also appeared, as this article shows.
“From the many guns allocated to the Newcastle and the Hunter, it can be seen that such trophies played an early role in commemoration of the sacrifices made by servicemen and women from the region,” Mr Pearson wrote.