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100 Years of Anzac

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The Amiens gun

Early in August 1918 there was a major advance of the front lines near Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.

Australian troops of the 31st Battalion came upon the complete train of a large (11.2 inch) German railway gun just beyond their planned objective. Lt. George Burrows, an officer of the 14th Field Company of Engineers who was attached to the battalion, went forward with two sappers, raised steam on the attached locomotive, shunted some burning vehicles off the train, and then brought the assembly through the front lines.

Burrows was a resident of Penrith and, although not a NSW railwayman himself, was the son of a Penrith railwayman, the brother of two serving railwaymen and the son-in-law of an engineer in the Signals Branch. Burrows was awarded a bar to his Military Cross for his gallantry in capturing the weapon which had been damaging areas well behind the front line for months.

The gun was actually a naval gun, originally used on the battleship SMS Hessen. The barrel alone weighed 45 tonnes and the total unit 185 tonnes. It was claimed as a trophy by the Australians.

After exhibition in Paris and shipment to England on a Channel ferry, it was loaded onto a ship, Dongara, for despatch to Australia. Although the 31st Battalion was a Victorian unit, the gun had to be unloaded in NSW as that was the only state with the same track gauge as the gun’s bogies.

G.D.Delprat, General Manager of BHP, offered that firm’s resources in Newcastle for the unloading, but this offer could not be used as the old Hawkesbury River Bridge could not bear the weight if the gun was moved to Sydney. As such, the gun was unloaded in Jones Bay and brought to Eveleigh Workshops where it was prepared for exhibition.

The ‘trophy’ had always been the property of the Commonwealth and intended to be part of the collection of what is now the Australian War Memorial (AWM), but in 1920 that organisation was in its infancy. At that time, the ‘electric’ platforms at Central did not exist and a siding extension from Sydney Yard was made to what is now the small park at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Eddy Avenue. Here the gun was exhibited and floodlit from 26 March 1920 for a number of years.

By 1923 work on Bradfield’s City Railway was underway and the bridge over Eddy Avenue and its approach embankments were about to be built. At that stage the gun could be removed with relative ease, but once it was hemmed in by the high retaining walls, it would be a very difficult and expensive operation. So the gun was moved to Canberra, with ample stops along the way for inspection at the many towns it passed through.

Initially exhibited near the power station at Kingston and then on a purpose-built siding near the station, it awaited the construction of the AWM and a decision regarding its place in that edifice. It was still at the station in 1942 when the Australian Army decided that they needed its carriage for essential testing of artillery at Port Wakefield in South Australia. The barrel and canopy were removed and left in Canberra and the carriage on its own ten wheel bogies taken to Bandiana, just over the Murray River from Albury.  The standard gauge bogies could go no further, so the carriage was loaded onto Victorian vehicles for the rest of the journey.

At Port Wakefield the carriage of the gun was used for several years by the Army. The Army had agreed that the carriage would be restored to original condition when they had no further use for it, but by that time the AWM had decided that they did not want to exhibit the whole unit. The carriage was scrapped at Port Wakefield in the 1960s and the now useless bogies scrapped at Bandiana.

The barrel and the canopy are now exhibited in the grounds of the AWM in Canberra.