23 April 2023

Our first Gallipoli hero: a Canberra family remembers Ernest Murray

| Sally Hopman
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picture of soldier from World War I

Ernest Murray was the first Canberra man to land at Gallipoli. Photo: Murray family.

If you look at the face of Ernest Murray, at first glance, you see that of a larrikin. But if you look a little closer, you see the sort of bloke you’d probably want on your side if times got tough.

Turns out Ernest was both kinds of men.

He was, it’s recorded well, the first Canberran to land at Gallipoli. He initially served with the First NSW Field Engineers, among the first to arrive at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Born on 1 December 1880, he served his country from 1915 to 1919, or the next four years in whatever theatre of war was asked of him, returning to Australia in August 1918, discharged as medically unfit the following year. He had been gassed.

A former Queanbeyan fireman, Jamie Murray didn’t meet his great-grandfather Ernest. But he’s made it his job to learn as much as possible about him. That job’s been made a little easier after he and his wife Sally rediscovered boxes of Ernest’s medals, papers, ribbons and other documents while preparing for their recent move out to Majors Creek.

Man with war medals

Jamie Murray with some of his great grandfather’s war medals. Photo: Sally Hopman.

Among the collection was a huge, handwritten folder of Ernest’s war diaries, copied neatly by his wife Ruby in pen and ink. Jamie knew Ruby had sold the original diaries to the Australian War Memorial (AWM) for £50 to feed her family.

“She had no choice but to sell it,” he said. But before she did, she painstakingly recorded every word so there would still be a copy in the family’s hands.

For Jamie, his great-grandfather is always in the back of his mind – and it always comes back to the number 151 – Ernest’s service number. From his email address to the name of his property, those numbers will always be ever-present.

“You’d be talking to these old blokes who did service and they’d ask what number he was and I’d say 151, and they’d want to know what the rest of the numbers were, and I’d tell them that was it – 151. He was one of the first.”

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According to his official biography in the AWM records: “Sergeant Ernest Murray MM and Bar, MID, 11th Battalion, of ‘Kurrumbene’, Canberra ACT, was a mechanic prior to enlisting with other Canberra boys on 27th August, 1914, he embarked from Sydney, NSW, on 18 October 1914 aboard HMAT Afric.

“He is believed to be the first Canberra resident to have landed in Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April, 1915. He was mentioned in dispatches on 1st June, 1917, and awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and determination during operations between 25 September 1917 and 28 September, 1917 at Polygon Wood.

“He was awarded the bar to the Military Medal for his actions at Westhoek a month later on 30 October, 1917. He returned to Australia aboard HMAT Boorah on 21 July 1918. He died of leukaemia at the Randwick Military Hospital in Sydney in 1935.”

He was 54.

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Jamie Murray wished he’d known his great-grandfather better. He and his father, Stephen, tried for the 100th-anniversary ballot to win them a place at Gallipoli for that anniversary but weren’t lucky.

But he is more than grateful that he has the box of his great-grandfather’s war memorabilia, but it doesn’t equate to really knowing the man himself.

Early map

The original Kurrumbene property at Fyshwick in the mid-1960s which was granted to Ernest Murray for his national service. The family produced milk there for many years. Photo: Supplied.

He is also concerned that the Anzac stories are disappearing at such a rapid rate with no originals left to relay them to younger generations.

“Our governments and our schools need to keep these stories in the education list, not hide from what these men and women did. I tell my kids what Ernest and others did so they can have their freedom today. It is so important for these stories to stay with us.

“It is heartbreaking to see these people not remembered, not just the Anzacs, but by everyone who fought for their country.”

Jamie said he tried to visit the War Memorial at least once a year.

“I take my young bloke with me. He’s of an age now where he gets it, where he’s moved by what he sees.”

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