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.

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33 thoughts on “V is for the Valiant of Villers-Bretonneux: Lest we forget

  1. A wonderful post Pauline. It brought me to tears. It is devastating enough that James lost his life, but for him to have never know his daughter is heartbreaking. So many other than soldiers have been affected by war, we can only hope it does not happen again.

    • Thanks Tanya, but sorry to have made you sad. In some way I find it consoling that his daughter has lived such a rich life and although Jim never knew her, he has descendants who will carry his name into the future. War is a truly terrible thing, but I fear we are destined to repeat it in some form or another.

  2. What a great post Pauline. Visiting Villers-Brettonoux is high on my list of things I must do. One of the men I wrote about for the ANZAC Day Blog Challenge this year, my 1st cousin 3 xremoved is one of the names with no known grave. I just discovered today my partner’s gg uncle is also one of those men with no known grave.
    It’s sad to see the families of these men, like Lizzie, trying to get information and possesions back.

    • Hi Merron, Yes I read your post the other day but hadn’t got back to comment. I find the pleading letters from the families so sad -they just wanted some little thing to remember their loved one, or to know what happened to them. Did you watch the Dawn Service from V-B…very evocative.

  3. Hi Pauleen, I’ve recently been updating myself on your fascinating and prolific research and writings. Loved the Dorfprozeltn and Irish additions. I also went through and studied in detail the intreps etc relating to 16 Nov 1952. The controversial aspect was if a standing (observation/listening) patrol was turned into a fighting patrol without authorisation and then its sudden retreat occurred (due to the severity of engagement) without due regard for the gunner/radio and others due to the misjudgement, or if indeed it occurred as a surprise assault on a passive post as reported. While I’ve been studying the overall activity over the period, and the reports etc, there are areas worth studying more closely before possibly offering some further comment on it. Having seen first-hand how field reporting occurs, investigations and courts of inquiry in these contexts, there is often considerable need for testing inconsistencies and unlikelies against logic and procedure. I’m particularly interested in the two sergeants’ roles, K and McN, in particular the former. Dad had some extremely strong views formed from having inquired first-hand of the patrol members immediately following, leading to the court of inquiry. His direct confrontation with who he believed responsible carried consequences for him. I’m sure I let you know at the time (?) but the photo you referred to in the blog a year ago was of Dad, as he was known as ‘Paddy’ in Japan and Korea (not so much the Malayan Emergency as he was married then). That web-site’s no longer up as far as I could tell. Anyhow, fantastic work you’ve been doing – intellectually rigorous and such a massive contribution to creating awareness of heritage. And I hadn’t realised you were with Madonna at All Hallow’s (probably because I was being born…). We knew the O’Gormans quite well when we were growing up, and of course Sister Margaret and Julie: if I understand correctly, your daughter went to St Cath’s but had some connection with St Bernard’s in what must have been the early ’80s if Sister Margaret was still there? The 6 degrees of separation theory just gets thinner and thinner of course because I discovered another connection much later with John O’Gorman I’ll have to tell you about one day! Good night for now, and thanks for the insights. Brett

    • hi Brett, thanks for dropping by. You are one of only a few Kunkel rellies to check the blog out (had been flirting with setting up one especially for the updates to the book). I don’t think you’d told me the story about the confrontation with the sergeants…maybe one for an email correspondence. The copy of his record was given to me at the 2007 reunion at Murphys Creek and it is full of detail. I was surprised/disappointed that key people like Mau weren’t interviewed as he knew Robert well. It seemed odd to me, but then I assumed it was due to war being a crazy place.

      I did eventually realise it was your Dad you had been “Pat” in Korea per the photograph (thanks for letting me know the link’s now broken).

      When we were at AHS I’d never have known Madonna was my cousin since granddad and his sisters had fallen out over religion. However Madonna introduced herself to me as a cousin on my 2nd day there, and from then on, when we swapped holy pictures (as we did at All Hallows’….a girl thing) we signed “sweet my coz”. One of my regrets is that I barely had time to speak to her at the Toowoomba reunion between signing books and looking after Dad and Mum etc. So sad and shocking her early death. And yes, ha ha re age :-)

      As to my girls, not St Catherine’s..our mob went to Sunnybank Hills school, but yes Margaret taught them for confirmation. Coincidences everywhere.

      Thanks Brett for your comments…will pursue the Korean issues via email.

      Pauleen

  4. Thank you for sharing such a moving, beautifully told story. I’m inspired to try and flesh out the stories of our family’s “Anzacs” now; as well as that of my great grandfather who fought with the Gordon Highlanders in France and lost a leg there.

    • Thanks Suzysu. I’m pleased the story worked. It’s very rewarding to learn more about our family’s military service. I’d imagine the Gordon Highlanders might have good records too.

  5. Wonderful post and photos! It’s so sad to think about how war can impact families. I especially like the picture of the foggy cemetery. Somehow the murky weather seems so appropriate.

  6. Oh dear… I’ve read and re-read this post and don’t mind admitting to shedding a tear, or two. Thanks for telling such a sad story so beautifully and with such compassion. So many young men… so many fatherless children and so many women left to raise families on their own :-( Specaial thanks for sharing the story of your James Thomas Paterson, Pauline. My husband’s grandfather was “on the Somme” that terrible winter, sufferred with pleurisy, sent to England then repatriated to Australia and discharged. He was a “lucky one” … refused to talk about the war… served the in RSL & respected the Salvation Army. However,my paternal grandmother’s brother, John Ogilvie, served the entire war in 6th Batt, East Yorkshire Regiment and was KIA just 6 months before the end… leaving his wife to raise their 5 children, aged 1-11, alone. She, like so many War Widows, did a truly amazing job – 10,765 young Australians with no known grave!… Lest We Forget!

    • Thanks Catherine, though I’m sorry to have made you sad. It’s impossible to truly calculate the social cost of the war in such a small country as ours, and New Zealand. Even the lucky ones weren’t all that lucky but I guess when they thought of their mates they knew they were. Poor John Ogilvie’s wife.

      • That’s OK Pauline. I’m one who believes tears are healing and you need to cry through your pain in order to bounce out the other side. My lovely mum used to admonish me with “your bladder is too close to your eyes, Catherine.” :-)

  7. a lovely poignant story– and my history and geography lesson as well.

    BTW, I had an uncle stationed in Australia during WWII; in fact he contracted malaria while stationed there. Were there a lot of US bases in Australia, or just a few? I know nothing more than I have written (I had requested his war records, but all had been burned, save for his military hospital release and pay sheet.–not too much info contained therein.)

    • Hi Joan, I’m sure the US servicemen were in many places but I know they were in Brisbane and Townsville. Townsville is possible for malaria but I wouldn’t have thought it common. Seems more likely he went on to somewhere in the Pacific and got it there but if he said he got it in Oz then I’d suspect Townsville. Cairns is another possibility but not sure if they were up that far. Hard to be know isn’t it, and frustrating when you can’t get his records.

    • Hi Joan, I’m sure the US servicemen were in many places but I know they were in Brisbane and Townsville. Townsville is possible for malaria but I wouldn’t have thought it common. Seems more likely he went on to somewhere in the Pacific and got it there but if he said he got it in Oz then I’d suspect Townsville. Cairns is another possibility but not sure if they were up that far. Hard to be know isn’t it, and frustrating when you can’t get his records.

  8. Pingback: V is for our valiant Indigenous ANZACs | Tropical Territory

  9. I might be 12 months late visiting this post but it will be just as moving in another 10 years.

    One day I will visit Ypres and the memorial to several family members whose bodies were never located. I think I will need to take a box of tissues as I get tears just watching the services on TV.

    • hi Sharon, thanks for your comments. We visited V-B in mid-November on a freezing morning and I was in tears at the cemetery to see so many young men’s graves. I’d seen war cemeteries before but there was something so evocative about being there as the frost crackled on the ground and thinking of young men from the Australian bush fighting in those conditions so far from home.

  10. Pingback: The Blogger’s Geneameme | Family history across the seas

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