Fay Howe had a captive audience when she stood on a windswept cliff above Albany’s King George Sound and sent parting messages to thousands of men. Using the early 20th century equivalent of a text message – Morse code – her farewell words, communicated over a period of days, represented the last contact from home for up to 30,000 ANZACS heading off to war.
On November 1, 1914, it was the biggest convoy of ships ever assembled in the Southern Hemisphere. The lighthouse keeper’s daughter returned to the same spot on Albany’s Breaksea Island each day for several days, her electric lamp flashing out words of hope and encouragement to the floating throng.
“She could have been there on the cliff, flag-chatting to the guys, a bit like old-fashioned texting, for days,” says local author Dianne Wolfer who wrote a book about Fay's story. “A young woman, surrounded by sea and sky, stuck out there in isolation – perhaps the men saw Fay as a symbol of what they were going to fight for.”
The soldiers signalled back asking Fay to telegraph their families around Australia to let them know they had reached Albany safely – which she did. “It must have been a fine sight from the lighthouse to see 38 boats and several warships pass out of the Harbour in single file,” wrote Private W.A Kirkland, a soldier onboard one
of the ships. The convoy carried troops on the largest journey an army had ever made to enter a war, and his diary contains a glimpse of what the departing soldiers saw. “Left Albany at 6.30 am.
A beautiful day. As we passed down the Harbor the sun lit up the hills on either side and our last view of Australia was a very pleasing if sad one.” Albany marked the beginning of a fateful journey, with many solders never to return.
Says local MP Peter Watson, “As they left the harbour you could hear the cooees from the Aussies and the haka from the Kiwis, and this is where the ANZAC spirit was born.”
A century later, Albany will be the curtain-raiser for Australia’s ANZAC centenary commemorative events, six months before the rest of the country. With the Federal Government contributing $1.3 million and the State Government over $9 million for local projects and infrastructure, celebrations will run between October 30 and November 2.
Laurie Fraser, of Albany RSL, says naval ships from around the globe will participate in a partial re-enactment of the departure of the convoy, plus there will be a troop march along York Street and commemorative service at Albany’s ANZAC Peace Park. Other events include pop-up restaurants, an open-air market, a series of public concerts, a naval ship open day and projections of WWI images and footage onto Albany’s landmark buildings.
A century after Fay Howe’s infamous gesture, her son Don Watson still feels chuffed about the good cheer she spread.
A pretty woman, Fay would receive “beautiful embossed postcards” from soldiers after they reached Egypt, simply addressed to “The Little Girl on Breaksea Island.”
“They were thanking her for telegraphing messages to their families,” says Don.
“I’m very proud of what she did.”
- The Stirling Terrace Mess Hall will be a hub through the celebrations, with pop-up restaurants, coffee stands and market stalls offering the best of Great Southern produce. Performances and readings are also scheduled. October 30 to November 2.
- Each evening from sunset, stories from the First World War will be brought to life with images, video and personal accounts at locations all around Albany. October 30 to November 2.
- One of the oldest Naval ceremonies, the Royal Australian Navy Ceremonial Sunset, dates back centuries to the age of sail and reflects the worldwide naval tradition of saluting the lowering of the Ensign at sunset each day in ships moored in harbour. October 31.
- The Princess Royal Harbour Lights show will light up the night sky on the edge of the harbour just after sunset. This artistic interpretation of the convoy departure will include historical stories and commemorate those on board the naval ships that left Albany. October 31.
- Personnel from the Australian Defence Force, the New Zealand Defence Force, and representatives from the veteran community will march along York Street, preceding a commemorative service at the ANZAC Peace Park to remember those in the First Convoy Departure fleet. November 1.
- WASO will join Australian artists The Waifs, Dan Sultan and Katie Noonan for a free Community Concert at Centennial Park West. The program will also feature a performance from the Royal Australian Navy Band and local ensembles. November 1.Naval ships docking at the Albany Port and involved in the centenary commemorations will be open for viewing. The public is invited to tour the ships and learn more about what life on board is like for our naval friends. November 2.
- The official opening of the National ANZAC Centre will include content developed by the Western Australian Museum and Australian War Memorial for a compelling insight into the ANZAC experience. October 30.