Roland Murray Biggs

Roland was born on 21st August 1883 at 41 Selborne Road, Camberwell, South London, the son of Frederick William Bigg (no ‘s’) and Augusta, née Buckland.  His father was a Civil Servant, a writer or ledger-keeper at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, having formerly been with the Board of Trade.

In the years before and after Roland’s birth, the family lived at various addresses in South London and at Bexley Heath, Kent, as the family grew to seven (surviving) children.

As a young man, Roland joined the East Kent Militia, serving with them for three years.  He then enlisted with the regulars, completing eleven years’ service with the East Kent Regiment (‘The Buffs’), and then being discharged on completion of his service.

In about 1912, Roland emigrated to Australia, settling in Boolaroo, a mining and industrial town on the north central coast of New South Wales, where he worked for a number of years as a labourer for the Sulphide Corporation at their Cockle Creek Works.

At some point his younger brother Stanley also emigrated, settling in Brisbane, and later serving as a Private with the 12th Machine Gun Company.

Roland enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 18th July 1916.  His Attestation Paper, preserved by the National Archives of Australia, shows that he was 32, unmarried, and had twice been rejected as unfit for military service on medical grounds.  It also shows that he had by now added the ‘s’ to his surname.

He joined as a Private in the 54th Infantry Battalion, which had been raised earlier that year as part of the ‘doubling’ of the AIF.  Half were Gallipoli veterans, the others were fresh reinforcements from Australia.  It was mainly composed of men from New South Wales, as Australian forces were locally raised and so the AIF consisted almost entirely of ‘Pals’ Battalions. The 54th Battalion became part of 14th Infantry Brigade, 5th Australian Division and moved to France in June 1916.

Roland himself embarked at Sydney on HMAT Anchises on 24th January 1917, bound for England as part of the 9th Reinforcements.  His address was given as Fourth Street, Spears Point, Boolaroo, and his rank was now given as Acting Sergeant, service number 3491.

The 1911 census shows Roland’s brother Stanley working as a footman at a household in Wimbledon.  Also working there at that time as a lady’s maid was one Louisa Streat of Kintbury, Berkshire – Roland’s future wife.  It must have been through this association that Roland met Louisa. 

The Streat family were well-known in the local area.  Louisa was the daughter of William Streat, a carpenter, plumber and painter, whose family had for many years kept The Plasterer’s Arms public house in Kintbury High Street; Louisa’s aunt Rosa was married to James Nutt, landlord of The Five Bells at Wickham for many years; and her younger sister Alice had married Francis Merrit, landlord of The Bell at Boxford.

Roland and Louisa were married at Welford Church on 18th August 1917.  He gave his address as ‘Salisbury’ – presumably Salisbury Plain, where many troops were in training at that time – and Louisa gave hers as ‘Wickham’, probably The Five Bells.  Understandably perhaps, none of Roland’s family was present to act as witness at the wedding, these roles being taken by Alice Merritt and James Brown of Wickham, the elderly Verger of Welford Church.

The couple were only to spend a short time as man and wife, before Roland was posted to France on active duty.

The town of Péronne stands at the confluence of the Somme and Cologne rivers.  In 1918 it was at the centre of a heavily defended area that dominated the Somme river crossings, thereby blocking a direct advance on the Hindenburg Line.  It became the objective of a series of concentrated operations by the Australian Corps, beginning on 29th August 1918.

Their first attempt to take the town, by advancing along the south bank of the Somme, met with failure, and they switched their focus of operations to the north bank.  The taking of Mont St Quentin, a key strongpoint which dominated the area north of the town, between 31st August and 1st September, allowed for an assault on the town itself from that direction.  14th Brigade was to take part in the attack, which was set for Sunday 1st September; the 54th and 53rd Battalions were chosen to act as the Brigade’s attacking troops, with the 54th on the right, at the southern end of the advance.  Their objective was to clear the area between the town and the river, and then, if not too strongly opposed, to take the town itself. 

The Brigade was in good condition, having seen no serious action for over a month, with the troops being reported as eager to share in their countrymen’s successes.

With the attack timed to begin at 6am - apparently an hour later than the Australians would have preferred – the 54th Battalion moved forward to Florina trench, east of Halles, relieving the 23rd Battalion.  About dawn, a German artillery bombardment fell behind the front line among the assembling Brigade, and an enemy attack was anticipated, but none came.

The 54th Battalion advanced towards the German-occupied Anvil Wood, about 1,000 yards north west of Péronne.  As they moved across the landscape, cratered from previous actions but now grass-covered again, a misty drizzling rain began.  Approaching the German front trench, they unexpectedly found their way barred by dense barbed wire, but a determined advance and effective use of their Lewis Guns cleared the trench of its occupants, and the second line was also taken.  The Germans were in full retreat and the 54th advanced after them at a half run, pursuing them back towards Péronne, firing as they went.  In due course the town’s ramparts were reached and entry gained, the 54th Battalion working their way south-east across the town towards the Cologne River.  Péronne had to be cleared street by street but was finally secured on the morning of 2nd September at the cost of some 3,000 Australian casualties. 

Roland Biggs was among those who fell, killed in action on Sunday 1st September 1918. 

The taking of Péronne has been described as one of the greatest achievements of the AIF and the actions of 14th Brigade, including that at Anvil Wood, are acknowledged as having played a critical role in its success.

Roland is buried in the Péronne Communal Cemetery Extension, Sainte Radegonde, which was begun by British troops in March 1917 and later resumed by the AIF in September 1918.  It now contains over 1,500 Great War casualties, including many brought in from the battlefields north and east of Péronne and from other small cemeteries in the area.

Roland’s name was recorded on the Honour Roll at the Boolaroo Presbyterian Church and the Sulphide Corporation’s own Honour Board.  When the Church was demolished the tablet was removed to the Club House of the Speers Point sub-branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia, where it is still displayed.  His photograph is displayed on their own Honour Board in the Flanders Room, where their ANZAC Day dinner is held each year.