Gordon Naley was born in the scrub on Mundrabilla Station in the Eucla district of the Nullarbor in Western Australia on 20 January 1884. His mother was a unnamed local Yirkla (Eucla) Mirning Aboriginal woman and his father was William, one of Mundrabilla's white station owners. Naley was raised by his Aboriginal mother in early life but was later unofficially adopted by Ellen McGill, the second wife of station owner William Stuart McGill. He spent his childhood and young adult years living and working as a station hand, drover, shearer and horse breaker in the Eucla district, throughout the Nullarbor, his traditional lands, and in the Western Australian Goldfields.
Naley's use of the bicycle as an occasional means of transport was useful training for the competitive races in which he participated — including a handicap race in Coolgardie in December 1903, which he won.
The McGills sold Mundrabilla in 1903 and moved to Heidelberg, Victoria, the address to which Naley’s army correspondence was sent until he married in 1919. After the McGills' departure he worked along the Murray River in South Australia and spent a short time at the eastern end of the Nullarbor prior to the war, where he befriended the Davis family, originally from England, who lived at Bookabie near Fowlers Bay.
Naley joined the AIF on 17 September 1914, less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war. He enlisted at Morphettville in South Australia switching his Christian names and reducing his age as a way of masking his Aboriginal identity. Interestingly, his attestation paper records his birthplace as Mintaro Station, near Eucla, and not Mundrabilla. Mundrabilla station was recorded as also being known as Mandra Bellae or Muntra Billa in earlier days, and was called Mundra or Muntra Station for short. It is easy to imagine that in the bustle of the recruitment room Naley’s pronunciation of Mundra Station or Muntra Station was misheard and recorded as Mintaro, thus hiding another clue to his Aboriginality at a time when Aboriginal men were excluded from the AIF.
Ellen McGill, was recorded as his next of kin. Other than a scar on the right side of his abdomen, caused by a burn as a child, the ‘27-year-old’ was declared fit. He was appointed to the Western & South Australian raised H Company, 16th Battalion of the 4th Brigade. After initial training at Morphettville, Private Naley (later to become Corporal Naley) decamped to the muddy-when-wet, dusty-when-dry, flat expanse at Broadmeadows in Victoria that was the assembly point for the 4th Brigade.
In November 1914, the Western Australian contingent of the 16th Battalion joined those assembled at Broadmeadows to undertake advanced training.
On 17 December, the 16th Battalion marched through Melbourne on review before the Governor-General, and less than a week later boarded HMAT Ceramic bound for Egypt via King George Sound with the Second Convoy.
After a month-long, uneventful voyage, Ceramic anchored at Aden before sailing though the Suez Canal and onwards to Port Said and finally, Alexandria. The men travelled by train to Heliopolis where they camped near the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and New Zealand Brigade (the New Zealand and Australian Division), coming under the command of Major General Godley. A re-grouping of the 16th Battalion’s companies created a double company structure and Naley’s H Company merged with E Company becoming D Company. For the next two months training was intermingled with leave, allowing the troops to experience the sights, sounds and smells of Egypt.
The 16th left Cairo for Alexandria on 11 April. The battalion was split and Naley’s D Company embarked on Haida Pascha, a captured and converted German cargo ship. Leaving Alexandria that day, the 16th numbered 821 men, along with 89 horses. They proceeded to Lemnos in the Aegean Sea where the troops spent three days practising landing from the ship’s boats. On 23 April 1915, the General Routine Order and a message from the King were received. The following day the last of the field equipment was issued. Gallipoli awaited.
All that could be seen as Haida Pascha approached the Gallipoli shoreline around 4 pm on 25 April was a thick haze of blue smoke and flashes from the big guns of the battleships and destroyers pounding the shore. The 16th went ashore around 5 pm and were ordered to the summit of Pope’s Hill at the top of Monash Valley. Over the next two days the 16th fought to maintain their position against determined Ottoman attacks. They were relieved by the 15th Battalion on 30 April, however snipers continued to harass them in the rest camp lower down Monash Valley, inflicting further casualties.
A week later the battalion was ordered to assault and entrench a position at Quinn’s Post, which became the ‘storm centre of Anzac’ for the remainder of the month. On 24 May, Naley was reported to be suffering from enteric fever (typhoid). He was hospitalised in Malta and declared unfit for service for two months. A 2 June entry on Naley’s service casualty form reports him as wounded and dangerously ill, though there is no record of a wound.
Naley was transferred from Malta to a military hospital in Fulham, London, in early September 1915 and declared ‘out of danger’ on 10 September. His convalescence extended to July 1916 and it is likely that this is when he first met Cecilia Karsh, the daughter of a local Fulham baker whom he would later marry. Meanwhile his unit had been evacuated from Gallipoli to Egypt and redeployed to the Armentières sector frontline in northern France.
In late June 1916, Naley entrained from Weymouth to Salisbury, embarking for France on 26 July 1916. His initial six weeks in France was spent with the 4th Training Battalion before he marched out from the 4th Division base depot in Etaples, rejoining the 16th Battalion on 19 August 1916. He had avoided the battalion’s first experience of heavy shellfire at Tara Gulley on 4 August and their subsequent attack on Circular Trench between Pozières and Mouquet Farm a week later. However, he found himself on the front line in the muddy, rain-soaked trenches approaching Mouquet Farm.
The attack on Mouquet Farm was launched at 10.56 pm on 29 August following an artillery barrage that came down ‘like a clap of thunder’. The 16th took all their objectives. However, the initial artillery barrage had failed to destroy all the German dugouts and many of their occupants remained unharmed. They had also been reinforced via underground tunnels. Following a severe bombardment, the Germans counter-attacked the 16th from both the front and the rear. To compound the Australians’ problems, mud had rendered many of their rifles and Lewis guns useless. The 16th was forced to withdraw through enemy positions to their original front line. The battalion’s losses were considerable and some of the company were taken prisoner. On the morning of 31 August a half-hour truce was negotiated so that the casualties who had not been recovered during the fighting could be collected. Two days later the battalion was relieved and the weary men made an arduous withdrawal back to their billets.
Over the next six months the 16th Battalion settled into the monotony of life in the trenches as they shifted around northern France, moving in and out of the front line. Routine maintenance tasks such as improving and cleaning trenches and camps, repairing roads and general fatigues, and participation in the occasional sporting competition was the norm. This was interspersed with relieving other battalions in the front and support lines. The ever-present threat of gas made carrying a box respirator compulsory. Naley’s family have long believed that, even with this precaution, Naley suffered the effects of gas during this time.
In early April 1917, an attack in the Bullecourt sector was proposed following the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line and recent British successes near Arras. There was the promise of tank support and a heavy artillery bombardment to cut the wire. The battalion moved to their jumping-off positions in the early morning of 11 April 1917. Six tanks had been allocated and their first objective was to break down the wire sufficiently to allow the infantry to cross. However, by the time the 16th went over the top at 4.45 am only three tanks had arrived, the rest having broken down or become bogged. The promised heavy artillery was also cancelled because it was decided that tanks would provide artillery support. With key parts of the plan failing, the men pushed on and fought their way, under fierce machine-gun fire, to their planned objectives.
The battalion suffered heavy casualties in reaching their objective and immediately came under sustained grenade attack, suffering further casualties. A runner was dispatched with the message that the first objective had been reached. Their second objective lay ahead but they soon discovered that the wire was still intact. The second line of German trench was taken, but with heavy losses. The battalion’s position was precarious and constant machine-gun fire made movement above ground virtually impossible. At 8 am a S.O.S. signal was made and repeated throughout the morning without response from the artillery due to exaggerated reports of Australian success and the misguided belief that the Australians were in the firing area.
A heavy German counter-attack was forming from the front and flanks making communication with headquarters impossible, and very few of the message runners made it through. Based on the evidence mentioned earlier of the patch sewn onto Naley’s uniform, it is possible that he may have been one of the runners dispatched during the battle.
At 11.45 am, after more than three hours of fierce resistance, and with 75 per cent of the battalion wounded, captured or killed, the left flank gave way and the survivors withdrew as best they could back to their original position. Many men were killed by their own machine-guns while withdrawing. During the fighting, Naley was wounded in the left hip and became one of the many Australians captured. Of the 3,000 men of the 4th Brigade that were engaged at Bullecourt 2,339 were captured, wounded or killed. It was the heaviest loss in a single engagement by an Australian brigade.
Naley’s service record contains two documents recording his capture, and the information varies on each. On the first undated form (in English) he is listed as a lance corporal, born on 20 January 1884, captured at ‘Reincourt’ [sic] and being wounded in the left hip by shrapnel. The second form (in German), completed on 23 July 1917, states that he was born in 1878 and captured at Bapaume; it states that he was not wounded, and that he was initially sent to Limburg prisoner-of-war camp. A later entry records his location as Zerbst, further east than Limburg and closer to Berlin. Little is known about Naley’s time in the prisoner-of-war camps, though an extract from a postcard he sent home in February 1918 states, ‘This leaves me well. Parcels arriving fairly well.’
Naley spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war and arrived back in England on 6 January 1919. Two weeks later, he married Cecilia Karsh in the Methodist Church at Fulham, London. On the wedding certificate Naley’s occupation was listed as a ‘Farmer’ and his bride as ‘Baker’s assistant’. Naley spent a further period in hospital between March and April 1919, and on 1 April 1919 made a Statutory Declaration affirming his correct Christian names to be Gordon Charles. The couple left for Australia on 4 June 1919, and he was discharged from the AIF as a corporal on 21 September 1919 at Keswick, South Australia.
Naley and Cecilia initially went to ‘Boggy Flat’, now known as Taylorville, near Morgan on the Murray River. They then moved to Winkie, in the Riverland, South Australia, to take up a soldier-settler land grant. They had six children but, sadly, their first child died at birth. The back corner of their block adjoined the back corner of the settlement block of Arthur Davis of the Davis family who were Naley's friends from Bookabie. Arthur and Gordon Naley were best friends and were known to reminisce for hours on past times spent on the Nullarbor and West Coast. Naley worked his land and continued to break in horses for other settlers. He participated in local sporting activities, establishing a reputation as a sound cricketer. He maintained his Mirning links and Aboriginal learning. He was known by locals to hunt rabbits using a stick like a boomerang or a throwing stick with great success.
Naley battled health issues, probably a result of having been gassed in France, and passed away from respiratory complications in the veterans’ hospital at Myrtle Bank in South Australia on 28 August 1928 aged 44. Naley was buried in the AIF section of Adelaide’s West Terrace cemetery.
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Gordon Charles Naley
Australian War Memorial, Red Cross Wounded and Missing - Gordon Charles Naley
Gill, I 2008, Bloody Angle Bullecourt & Beyond: 16th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-19, Ian Gill, Perth
Longmore, C Captain 2007, The Old Sixteenth: Being a record of the 16th Battalion, A.I.F., during the Great War, 1914-1918, Hesperian Press, Carlisle
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Charles Gordon Naley First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; NALEY CHARLES GORDON, 1914-1920
The AIF Project 2014, Charles Gordon NALEY, viewed 8 September 2014, <https://www.aif.adfa.edu.au/showPerson?pid=232520>
nd 2013, South Australian Aboriginal soldiers of the First World War: 1310 Corporal Gordon Charles Naley of Mundrabilla Station, viewed 8 September 2014, <http://aboriginalww1veteransofsouthaustralia.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/1310-private-gordon-charles-naley-of.html>