This year marks 100 years since Captain James Peat – the first surveying graduate from the Western Australian School of Mines – was killed by sniper fire on the Western Front.
Captain Peat was born in Melbourne on 27 February 1887. Upon moving to Kalgoorlie, he studied part-time to obtain his mine surveyor’s certificate while working in a local bank. He went on to become chief surveyor of the large Ivanhoe Gold Mine and also joined the Goldfields Regiment of the Citizen Military Forces, the then-equivalent of the Australian Army Reserve.
When World War One broke out, Captain Peat signed up for the Australian Imperial Force and sailed for Egypt in 1914 with the famed 11th Australian Infantry Battalion – the first battalion recruited in Western Australia. It is believed he later took part in the Gallipoli Campaign.
After health setbacks in mid-1915 whereupon he returned to Australia, Captain Peat set sail for the Western Front in 1916 with the 44th Australian Infantry Battalion. He was killed in action on 27 June 1917 by sniper fire in Belgium and was buried at Westhof Farm Cemetery in the country’s north-west. He was 30 years old and left behind a widow, Mary, and a daughter, Joan.
The 11th Battalion A.I.F. on the Great Pyramid of Giza, 10 January 1915 (Courtesy: The State Library of Western Australia, image #4496b, via the Western Australian Genealogical Society).
The diary of a soldier
Now, 100 years after his death, Captain Peat’s story is being commemorated through tributes in the Kalgoorlie Miner and ABC Goldfields by Curtin University archivist Elizabeth McKenzie, who began piecing together the last years of his life by analysing a diary written by him during the war.
The diary, which was entrusted to the WA School of Mines by his daughter, includes Peat’s recollections of his friends who were wounded or killed, observations about daily military life and descriptions of the enemy.
“The diary gives you a strong sense of the man. He was smart, he was a keen observer, he was diligent. He signed up because he felt it was his duty to King and Country,” McKenzie reveals.
“Early on there is a sense of ‘anticipation’ in the diaries. This is understandable as many of the men had probably never left Australia before. Over time, Captain Peat’s tone changes as he describes the tedium of waiting for orders and the ‘hell that is let loose’ when fighting occurs. His writing becomes quite factual in some ways.
“The diary is also interesting because it appears to have three handwriting styles and we can’t be certain if this is due to his injuries or illness, or due to another person writing for Captain Peat. There are gaps in time as well.”
Excerpts of Captain Peat’s diary entries
Selected excerpts of Captain Peat’s diary entries from 2016 – 2017 are featured below. Notice the change in handwriting styles.
Sunday 12 November 1916
Sunday 12th Nov 1916. Seems now pretty definite that the division[?] will move out on 23rd inst. The ANZAC corps is now in front line & we will probably go in as the last division[?] of the corps. Am making all my preparations & had a trial back yesterday. Everything OK but still have to get a torch & a compass.
Wednesday 10 January 1917
Wed 10th. Took over the line again at “of and to”[?] in the night of Company sector[?], the reason being that our raid is to take place. Evidently Fritz also was aware of the fact, because at 2.30 he started to give us a most unholy pasting till dark. Comm. trench[?] to Company __[?] blocked in three places of HE [high explosives?] bursting all around. Never got a direct hit on the dug-out however Plank Avenue[?] he had to a m_[?] & ripped[?] the trees to pieces. Got the Comm. trench[?] cleared & the wires joined up again. At 6pm the raid took place & hell was let loose again. The trench blocked for 20’[?] with his first shell & all […]
Lest we forget
According to the Australian War Memorial, more than 416,000 men enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force in the ‘war to end all wars’. Of that number, 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
It is currently estimated that around 70 WA School of Mines graduates, staff members and associates volunteered for service.
An honour board for Captain Peat, along with his original diaries, medals and papers, are held in Building 701 on the Curtin Kalgoorlie Campus.
Captain James Peat
Note on the history of the WA School of Mines
As Curtin reflects on its past 50 years, it is worth noting that the roots of the University can be traced back more than a century to other early Western Australian educational institutions.
The WA School of Mines opened in 1902 and moved to its current location in 1903 to train more engineers and managers after large deposits of gold were discovered in the Kalgoorlie-Boulder area. The school was administered by the Department of Mines until 1969, when it became a branch of the Western Australian Institute of Technology, which has since become Curtin University.
Students at the school can gain detailed insight into the operation of the mining industry prior to graduation, with courses in applied geology, exploration geophysics, mining engineering and metallurgical engineering, and spatial sciences.