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Bridges, Sir William Throsby (1861–1915)

by Chris Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915), by Florence Rodway

William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915), by Florence Rodway

Australian War Memorial, ART03355

Sir William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915), soldier, was born on 18 February 1861, at Greenock, Scotland, son of William Wilson Somerset Bridges, naval officer and his wife Mary Hill, née Throsby, great-niece of Charles Throsby of Moss Vale, New South Wales. He was educated at Ryde, Isle of Wight, and from 1871 at the Royal Naval School, New Cross, London. When his father retired in 1873 the family migrated to Canada, settling at Shanty Bay, Ontario, and Bridges continued his schooling at Trinity College School, Port Hope. In April 1877 he entered the Royal Military College of Canada at Kingston, intending to train for a commission in the British Army. Next year, however, his parents were ruined by a bank failure and left Canada to settle at Moss Vale, leaving Bridges behind. He contrived to follow them by failing his studies and left the college without completing the course, thereby becoming the first Kingston cadet discharged for academic failure. He arrived in Sydney in August 1879 and that month joined the colony's civil service as assistant inspector of roads and bridges at Braidwood; he held similar appointments at Murrurundi and Narrabri until 1885.

That year Bridges volunteered for service with the Sudan Contingent but was too late. In May he was made a lieutenant in the temporary forces raised to protect the colony in the contingent's absence, and a vacancy in the permanent artillery allowed the confirmation of his commission in August. He married Edith Lilian Francis at St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, on 10 October. In 1886 he attended the first course conducted at the School of Gunnery, Middle Head, and for the next four years served on its staff, gradually acquiring a reputation as a serious student of the military art. He became a founding member of the United Service Institution of New South Wales in 1889. That year he qualified as an instructor of gunnery and on his promotion to captain in September 1890 left for England to attend several gunnery courses which he passed with distinction. He returned in February 1893 to take up dual posts as chief instructor of the School of Gunnery and the colony's artillery firemaster, holding both until March 1902. He was promoted major in September 1895. Bridges came to the notice of Major General (Sir) Edward Hutton, in command of the colony's forces, who selected him to act as secretary to three major military conferences and committees in 1893-96. These appointments ensured that, though only a comparatively junior officer, he had a sound background knowledge of defence issues.

With the outbreak of the South African War Bridges was selected for special service with the British Army and from December 1899 was attached to the cavalry division at Colesberg. He took part in the relief of Kimberley and the battles at Paardeberg and Driefontein before being evacuated to England in May 1900 with enteric fever. While convalescing in London he gave evidence before a royal commission on the care and treatment of casualties in the South African campaign. He returned to Sydney in September and resumed duty at the School of Gunnery. In March 1901 he acted as secretary to a conference of State commandants convened by Sir John Forrest to draw up a defence bill for the amalgamated colonial defence forces now under Commonwealth control. He was involved in a second conference in June to comment on proposed amendments to the draft bill and was later appointed to a committee of inquiry to gather data for the formulation of a defence policy. In August he was called to give evidence to a Commonwealth committee considering service pay and allowances.

With the appointment of Major General Hutton to command the Australian forces, Bridges's career was again advanced. In March 1902 he became assistant quarter-master general on Hutton's headquarters, one of the prime staff appointments, which gave him responsibility for military intelligence, the formulation of defence schemes and organization of the forces. In May Hutton sent him to collect information on the defences of Noumea, New Caledonia, on behalf of the War Office, a task he successfully performed. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in July. Next month Bridges was a member of a committee convened by the minister for defence to consider alternatives to the system of command of the military forces, and on 12 January 1905 he became chief of intelligence on the first military board of administration, which followed Hutton's return to England. He also became entitled to a seat on the five-man Council of Defence intended to settle policy and co-ordinate the naval and military boards. From the first meeting of the council in March 1905 Bridges came into sharp conflict with the director of the naval forces, Captain (Sir) William Creswell, over the proposal to form an Australian navy. Bridges opposed the concept, mainly because he believed a local navy would duplicate a task which could be done more effectively by the Royal Navy, but also because Creswell's scheme could seemingly only be funded by disbanding the major part of the military forces. His differences with Creswell extended into an acrimonious conflict over the question of control of procedures to establish the identity of all vessels entering Australian ports in war-time, a dispute which Bridges lost in June 1908.

On the military board he became a relentless advocate of efficiency within the forces. From early 1905 he urged it to pay at least as much attention to ensuring that Australia had properly trained officers as to acquiring war matériel. In 1906 Bridges was prominent in the establishment of a department of military science at the University of Sydney to qualify graduates for commissions in the militia forces—although he held that the 'proposed Courses of Instruction would not form a substitute for a Military College'—and he remained associated with the department until 1909. While working on the defence schemes Bridges realized the necessity of learning from the experience of other countries in mobilizing military forces, and induced the minister for defence to send him to the 1906 Swiss manoeuvres. His impending departure in January was seized upon by Prime Minister Deakin as an opportunity to refer the question of Australian defence to the Committee of Imperial Defence in London. Deakin directed Bridges to assist the committee but expressly restricted him to furnishing information and not opinions. Although Deakin recognized Bridges as 'the ablest of our Imperial officers' he also viewed him as being 'imperfectly in sympathy' with certain nationalist aims.

Bridges was promoted colonel in October 1906 and on returning to Australia next January came into conflict with the new minister for defence (Sir) Thomas Ewing, who insisted on the immediate implementation of a scheme for the protection of vital areas of Australia. Bridges argued that such a scheme was worthless unless a general staff was established to plan the work involved. Further differences developed in October when his report on the Swiss military system was used by the government as evidence that Australia needed compulsory military training, a proposal which Bridges privately deplored. In December he was successful in founding an intelligence corps and this body became the forerunner of a general staff.

Bridges had long had a hobby of canoeing, which he pursued frequently in these years on the Yarra River. In January 1908 he fulfilled a long-standing ambition by navigating the rapids of the Snowy River from near Dalgety, New South Wales, to near Buchan, Victoria—an astonishing voyage of nearly 200 miles (322 km), accomplished with three friends in two canoes.

Bridges's attempts to improve the efficiency of the forces also brought him into conflict with the inspector general, Major General (Sir) John Hoad. Long-standing antipathy between the two was compounded by Bridges's appointment as first chief of the Australian general staff in January 1909, during Hoad's absence in London. Bridges remained in the post less than five months, however, having been selected to attend the Imperial Conference that year. On his departure he was promised that he would be reappointed C.G.S. on his return, and the minister for defence agreed to put this in writing. After the conference he became Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff in London and was appointed C.M.G. in July. Queries were soon raised as to why he was at the War Office and whether his duties were those of observer or exchange officer. Bridges insisted that his proper function was to act as official representative, but his efforts to have his view accepted were cut short in January 1910 when he was recalled to found Australia's military college. At first he attempted to decline the post of college commandant but, on Defence Minister (Sir) Joseph Cook's insistence, accepted and arrived back in Australia in May, having visited military schools in England, America and Canada. On taking up his new appointment he was promoted brigadier general.

Following a recommendation to the government by Lord Kitchener, Bridges began establishing the college along the lines of the United States Military Academy, West Point. His personal impact was evident, however, in nearly every aspect of the college, from its location at Duntroon in the Federal Capital Territory to its organization and routine. It opened on 27 June 1911, and Bridges remained commandant until May 1914, by which time its reputation was firmly established. He left the college to assume the Australian Army's senior appointment as inspector general.

After the declaration of war Bridges was instructed by the government to raise an Australian contingent for service in Europe. His determination that the troops would fight as an entity instead of being fragmented among British formations did much to satisfy nationalist sentiment and set a precedent retained throughout the war. Despite his suggestion that command of the Australian Imperial Force (a name he chose himself) be entrusted to Hutton, Bridges was appointed commander, with the rank of major general, in August.

On arrival in Egypt in December, Bridges began a heavy programme of training for his division. Disciplinary problems with high-spirited troops were, in part, a reaction to the detailed training on which Bridges insisted, though the thoroughness of the training was essential preparation for the untried Australians. In the Gallipoli landing in April 1915 his division was first ashore on Anzac Cove. At the end of the first day Bridges and Major General Godley, commanding the New Zealanders, were convinced that disaster would follow next day and proposed taking the force off the beach. The suggestion was overruled and the Allied forces began consolidating the position.

In the following weeks Bridges became well known to his troops for the first time, through his daily inspections of the firing line; during these he showed great disregard for his personal safety. On the morning of 15 May he was shot by a sniper in Monash Valley and both artery and femoral vein in his right thigh were severed. He was evacuated to the hospital ship Gascon but his condition was such that doctors decided against operating to remove his leg. The wound became gangrenous and he died en route to hospital in Egypt on 18 May. He had been appointed K.C.B. the previous day. His remains were interred at Alexandria but in June it was decided to return the body to Australia for burial. After a memorial service in St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 2 September, and a funeral procession through the city, his body was transferred to Canberra and reburied overlooking the Royal Military College. He was survived by two sons and two daughters; Lady Bridges died in 1926. His portrait, painted in 1919 by Florence Rodway, is in the New South Wales Art Gallery; copies hang in the Australian War Memorial collection and in the Royal Military College, Duntroon. His second son William Francis Noel (1890-1942) served with the A.I.F. at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, reaching the rank of major. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1918.

Bridges's career was essentially that of an able staff officer who had had few opportunities to command troops before being placed at the head of a division. A shy and sensitive man, he attempted to mask himself behind an aloof, diffident and sometimes rude manner. He was not therefore a popular commander, though his personal courage was respected. Well-read in his profession, motivated by high ideals and possessed of uncompromising standards, he made many enemies, yet all he undertook was stamped with efficiency and success. His death early in the war caused his career and achievements to slip from public view, but he can rightfully be regarded as Australia's first notable general.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, A Heritage of Spirit (Melb, 1979), and for bibliography.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Bridges, Sir William Throsby (1861–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bridges-sir-william-throsby-5355/text9055, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915), by Florence Rodway

William Throsby Bridges (1861-1915), by Florence Rodway

Australian War Memorial, ART03355