And the songs played on…

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Music is heard in some unlikely places during wartime, including from a troopship sinking in the English Channel during the First World War. As the more than 1,700 men on board the HMAT Ballarat made their way onto lifeboats, Bandmaster 535 William Headen lifted a cornet to his lips and began to play.

The Ballarat was a passenger liner built in 1911 in Scotland by Caird & Company. Prior to the war she was used to transport emigrants from the UK to Australia but in 1914 the British government requisitioned her for war service. Ballarat initially served as an Indian transport vessel before becoming a troop transport, carrying Australian troops.

In February 1917, Ballarat left Melbourne on passage to Devonport with Australian troops (reinforcements from Victoria for the 2nd and 4th Brigades) and a general cargo, which included copper and bullion.

On 25 April as Ballarat steamed into the English Channel, the Australian officers on board arranged a memorial service to commemorate Anzac Day.

War ship

At 2pm, as preparations were underway, a massive explosion tore a hole in the starboard side of the ship and Ballarat quickly started taking water. Despite a number of lookouts and an escorting destroyer, nobody had spotted the German U-boat UB-32 approaching and firing a torpedo.

Vessels were summoned to take the Australian soldiers and crew off the sinking liner and miraculously within an hour all of them had been safely rescued. All the while, the sound of Headen’s cornet led the survivors in a medley of popular songs including ‘Australia Will Be There’, ‘The Long, Long Trail’ and ‘So Long, Letty’.

Efforts were made to tow the Ballarat to shallower waters in the hope she might be saved, but in the early hours of the next morning she sank approximately 9 miles south of the Lizard Point.

Today, the remains of the Ballarat lie in approximately 80 metres of water off the Cornish coast.

Headen’s playing created such a memorable impression that the Ballarat Survivor’s organisation requested an encore at every Anzac Day reunion throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Despite promising to donate his cherished cornet to the Australian War Memorial in 1925, he found it difficult to part with, writing in 1936 'I prize it more than I can express'. Headen played his last tunes, including the Last Post, for the Ballarat Survivor’s on Anzac Day 1937. With mixed feelings, he donated the cornet just before Christmas that year. He died on 5 July 1968.

Cornet

Pictured: Cornet played by Bandmaster 535 Sapper William John Headen during the sinking of the troop transport HMAT Ballarat on Anzac Day 1917.