V is for the Valiant of Villers-Bretonneux: Lest we forget

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. Today’s post is both historical and genealogical, as in Australia and New Zealand we celebrate 25 April as Anzac Day, commemorating the landing at Gallipoli and all the Australian and New Zealand military contributions since then. Tying in the with Trans-Tasman Anzac Day challenge I’ll also talk about the effect of one soldier’s death.

Villers-Brettoneux war cemetery and Memorial on a foggy, freezing winter's morning . © P Cass 1992.

On a freezing cold morning in late November 1992, we set forth from Amiens on a pilgrimage to the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Despite the national significance of the site to both Australia and France, our purpose that day was personal. We’d come to see the name of my grandfather’s cousin, James Thomas Paterson, on the Memorial’s large wall, among the names of those whose bodies were never found.

Villers-Brettoneux © P Cass 1992

So dense was the fog that we drove straight past this immense Memorial without seeing it and had to turn back. Perhaps it was the fog and the crunching of ice underfoot as we walked the cemetery that brought me undone. I sobbed for those men lost so far from home, who had fought in conditions such as these, to which mostly they were unaccustomed, fighting for duty and a cause they believed in, for a people in a foreign land. As we wandered among the immaculately kept graves, the French gardeners worked respectfully to ensure the final resting place of the soldiers buried in the cemetery section was kept immaculate.

Part of the Memorial wall at Villers-Brettoneux which lists the names of the soldiers with no known grave. © P Cass 1992

Slowly we approached the Memorial at the back of the site, and its vast list of engraved names: the one you see in Anzac Day TV broadcasts. There are 10,765 names on that wall[i]; 10,765 Australian Diggers fallen in France but with no known grave; 10,765 men whose names are engraved in the hearts and minds of families who would never be able to visit their grave. Imagine the sheer loss behind those numbers if you can.

Let me tell you a story behind just one of those names. James Thomas Paterson was the grandson of Bavarian-born George Mathias Kunkel and his wife Mary O’Brien. James’s parents were Archibald and Catherine Paterson. When James was a lad, his family moved from Stanthorpe west to Pickenjennie near Wallumbilla where his father purchased land and worked on the railway lines by day. By the time of the big droughts in the 1910s, James was working as a farmer. Times were tough and that may have contributed in some way to his decision to join the war effort in World War I.

Jim had already served with the Roma Commonwealth Light Horse (a militia force) and there’s no doubt he felt a strong sense of duty to join up, as he made his wife-to-be promise before he married her that she would not stop him joining up. The recruiting train steamed into Wallumbilla en route to Roma on 17 August 1915, and the local men were encouraged to enlist[ii] through meetings and appeals for troops. Jim was not among those who signed up immediately but he left Wallumbilla by train on 27 August to enlist. Days later the small town held its Patriotic Day celebrations, attended by 500 people and raising £140 for the war effort. Paradoxically the Dalby recruiting officer complained that “it was a serious thing that the sinews of the country were going away in such shoals”[iii]when Brisbane men were not pulling their weight.

Wedding photo of James Paterson and his bride, Lizzie Cahill, kindly provided by their grandson.

James married Lizzie Maud Cahill on 1 November 1915, shortly before he was to leave for the front. The Toowoomba Chronicle[iv] reported on their wedding in detail and Jim’s grandson has provided a copy of the wedding photo to the AWM.  Oral history reports that while Jim had some money set aside, Lizzie insisted they splash out a bit.

Initially posted to the 25th Battalion, Jim was absorbed into the 49th on arrival in Egypt and was transferred to the Western Front, via Marseilles, in June 1916.  Jim copped a Blighty, a wounded elbow, at the Battle of Mouquet Farm near Thiepval.  Returning in December 1916, he was probably in time[v] to celebrate Christmas behind the lines with his battalion including snowball fights, building snow kangaroos in lieu of snowmen, and partaking of the Australian Comforts Fund’sgood tucker and treats.

James Thomas Paterson's daughter, grandson and great-grandson at his memorial tree in the Avenue of Heroes, Roma, 2002. Photograph courtesy of the family and used with permission.

It was a shocking winter in northern France in 1916/17 with arctic conditions and thunderstorms. In April the allied forces attacked the German front line and during this battle James Paterson and C Company were attached to the 50th Battalion. During the assault of 5 April 1917, half of C Company were killed or injured, including James Paterson. As Lizzie followed the news at home over that Easter weekend, she would have had no inkling that her husband had been killed. There is no record on the file of when she was advised of his death but it wasn’t until late May that James’s death was confirmed. Lizzie’s nomination for Jim’s Roll of Honour entry says simply “Man’s Duty”.

The couple had a daughter, born in late July 1916. Jim had insisted that she be given a good Aussie nickname, and so Elizabeth Maud (Mary) came to be called Cooee as a young girl. Although Jim never met his daughter his family believes he did see her photograph. Imagine the tragedy of a man never seeing his child before he dies, and his child only knowing her father through his photograph and her mother’s stories.

Lizzie was a petite redhead in appearance but she was strong and determined, supporting her daughter through her hard work as a station cook. She continued to write to the Army seeking further information and any of her husband’s effects for their daughter. How wonderful that although this man died in the service of his country, Jim’s family line continues through his daughter (still alive) and her family.

James Thomas Paterson's plaque in Roma's Avenue of Heroes.

Of course a death like this also affects the whole family. We know nothing of how Jim’s parents took the news of their son’s death but it would have been a great shock and his mother died of cancer six months later. From oral history we know that his grandmother Mary Kunkel was not told of her grandson’s death, protecting her from further sadness as her husband had died only a few months earlier. Jim’s brother Dan Paterson joined up soon after Jim’s death. Dan’s own experience and that of his brother meant that he hated war, and eventually burned his own Light Horse uniform, plumed hat and all.

The town of Roma in western Queensland planted an avenue of bottle trees in honour of its fallen World War I heroes.

Towns throughout western Queensland felt the losses of their men keenly. Every town and village had contributed men to the war effort and most had lost one or many. Each town commemorated them in different ways. Roma’s memorial was different. The town planted rows of bottle trees, one for each soldier lost in the war. James Thomas Paterson was one of those men whose sacrifice was remembered in this way by the community and by his family.


[i] Various numbers are cited in different sources. I have used the number from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

[ii] The Brisbane Courier of 23 August 1915, reported that as of that date 109 fit men had been recruited from this recruiting train.

[iii] The Brisbane Courier, 2 September 1915, page 7.

[iv] The Toowoomba Chronicle, 2 November 1915, page 6

[v] While he left for France on 4 December 1916, the records show him rejoining the unit on 6 January 1917, hence the uncertainty.