World War I and the Wellington Quarries

It’s so long since I wrote my monthly post for the Worldwide Genealogy blog that I’m a day late…oops. This blog is a great international collaboration initiated by Julie Goucher from Anglers Rest and participated in by family historians from around the world. If you haven’t ever visited it, why not do so, as it’s got such interesting and varied stories. And while you’re there, sign up for future posts or add it to your RSS feeds.

I decided to make this month’s topic the story of the Wellington Quarries in Arras, northern France. The Kiwi tunnellers were heavily involved with this, so I’m hoping this will be of Trans-Tasman interest.

 

100 years ago: Declaration of War

BRITAIN AT WAR. INVASION OF BELGIUM. (1914, August 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 7. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795

BRITAIN AT WAR. INVASION OF BELGIUM. (1914, August 6). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795

One hundred years ago Australians woke to the news that the Britain had declared war on Germany. In 2014 it’s difficult to appreciate how enmeshed Australia’s politics and life was with Britain’s, but the summary on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald gives us a retrospective glimpse:

“An unparalleled scene in the history of the State Parliament took place in the Assembly yesterday…..Members sprang to their feet and sang the National Anthem (which was then God Save the King) and “Rule Britannia” and gave cheers for the King”. [i]

In the “home country”, the navy was already mobilised and the army was to be mobilised by midnight on 4 August, just an hour of the declaration of war (then the next morning Australian time).

Last night (UK time) many in Britain commemorated the start of this long tragic war by turning their lights out and lighting a candle in remembrance (see twitter #lightsout). In 1914 the declaration of war must truly have seemed a terrifying prospect despite assertions it would all be over before Christmas, but it was not to be in 1914, or 1915, rather more than four long years later.

Already on this first day, in Australia, motor cycle clubs were volunteering members as despatch riders, immigrants of German and Austrian descent rushed to take up Australian citizenship, the St John Ambulance had been placed at the disposal of the Defence Department and men were offering to enlist. The 8th Infantry Brigade had also been mobilised for coastal defence, along with the citizen naval forces. [ii]

Nothing would remain the same in society for decades to come, not least the impact of the loss of the talents, skills and love of the men killed in this battle for freedom. The loss of life, the impact on families, communities, and not least the men who returned was to be incalculable at a local, national and international level. Women would remain single for lack of men to marry, married women would not recognise their husbands as they returned with ferocious injuries to the bodies, and even more inexplicably to those at home, their minds. It astonishes me that more men on the Western Front didn’t lose their minds listening to the repeated noise of guns, artillery and bombs combined with the fear of imminent death or terrible injury. Mercifully the Australian Expeditionary Force, comprised of volunteers, prohibited the execution of a soldier for shell-shock, more often called cowardice.

The World War I memorial in the Darling Downs town of Crows Nest, Qld.

The World War I memorial in the Darling Downs town of Crows Nest, Qld.

Those who had lost loved sons, brothers or husbands erected memorials throughout the country to have a tangible reminder of those who had died in foreign lands, often with no known grave. Forlorn and tragically pleading letters from families can be read in the military files of the men, begging for any small item of their loved one’s belongings with no understanding that often they’d been blown to pieces, just like the person who’d owned them. These heart-wrenching letters begged for some small memento to give a child left behind, perhaps one whose father had never even seen them, when men rushed to marry before they left for war.

The names on this wall of the Menin Gate are only a fraction of the total listed.

The names on this wall of the Menin Gate are only a fraction of the total listed.

The walls of the Menin Gate evocatively lists 54,000 men from the British and Commonwealth forces[iii] whose lives were lost on the Ypres/Ieper salient during WWI and who have no known grave. It is sobering to think this is only a part of the losses to the British Empire during this horrendous period.

The ideals of war are the fight for freedom, justice, humanity and home soil and yet “the war to end all wars” with such a fierce loss of life was only to be a precursor to another greater social cataclysm a bare 20 years later with even greater losses of life, both civilian and military, and the massacre of whole communities.

Lest We Forget

Menin gatee

[i] SUMMARY. The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW 1842-1954) 5 August 1914 page 1. http://nla.gov.au/news-article 15527541.

[ii] ibid and also http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1552795 page 7, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 1914.

[iii] http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/91800/YPRES%20(MENIN%20GATE)%20MEMORIAL

Two brothers go to war: Les and Fred Fisher

Les and Fred Fisher and Ted Murray were also known as the Paddington Boys.

Les and Fred (aka Snow) Fisher and Ted Murray were also known as the Paddington Boys. You can pick Les out of future photos by the dimpled chin. There is no date on this photo but it is presumably prior to their departure overseas.

In the early months of 1915, two young brothers enlisted to serve their country in the First World War. It’s unlikely they felt they were going to fight to defend “home” and the “motherland” as their grandparents and uncles were German-born, not unlike my own Kunkel relatives. Perhaps they felt they needed to defend their allegiance to Australia and prove their loyalty as did other young men of German ancestry.

Frederick Charles Fisher was 22 years and 3 months when he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 24 February 1915. He was allocated to the 19th Battalion, 5th Brigade. A motor mechanic in normal life he had also served with the Colonial Forces. His young brother Leslie Gladstone Fisher, 21, enlisted soon after on 2 March 1915, also with the 19th Battalion. Leslie had served in the school cadets and also with the 12th Battery of the Australian Field Infantry.

Les's daughter believes this relates to his militia service.

Les’s daughter believes this relates to his militia service.

Les and Fred were the sons of Martin and Louisa Fis(c)her of 42 Rennie St, Paddington in Sydney. Martin was born in Australia in 1863 to Gottfried and Victoria Fischer who had arrived in Australia with their German-born children on the barque Caesar[i] in March 1855 under the Vinedresser Bounty Scheme[ii]. The Kopittke indexes, based on the Hamburg shipping lists, reveal that the family came from Harheim in Hessen/Nassau.

This is an embarkation of troops on the HMAT Ceramic in 1915. AWM image H19500 out of copyright.

This is an embarkation of troops on the HMAT Ceramic in 1915. AWM image H19500 out of copyright.

Les and Fred boarded the former White Star liner, HMAT Ceramic (A40), in Sydney and sailed for war on 25 June 1915, along with myriad other troops via Albany in Western Australia. On arrival in Egypt one of their shipmates, Ellis Silas, painted some lovely views while TH Ivers chose Bombay as his subject. While on board Les wrote to his mate Teddy Murray apparently yet to sail for war. I love the old vernacular like “bosker“. Lt Wilfred Emmott Addison (KIA) of the 19th has left a diary of the voyage which can be read here. Les Fisher’s daughter knows that he kept some form of diary himself but destroyed it years later after his return to Australia.

1510 eddy postcard low

There is no date on this card, but it seems to me it was sent to Teddy Murray, the young man in the photo above, while Les was en route to Egypt. They sailed on HMAT Ceramic from Melbourne on 24 June 1915.

The reverse says: Taken in Heliopolis Egypt August 1915. Fred Fisher 218 19th  Les Fisher 550 19th

The reverse says: Taken in Heliopolis Egypt August 1915.
Fred Fisher 218 19th
Les Fisher 550 19th

Like so many of the men, both fascinated and repelled by the sights, smells and sounds of Egypt, Les and Fred had their photos taken for posterity.

In many ways these men’s stories reflect that of so many other Anzacs. What’s unusual about them is that they left a photographic trail that has been lost to many families.  Also unusually their family preserved the records and Les at least shared his story with his children.

The photographs reveal the progressive story of their war. They included photos of mates they met, fought alongside, or furloughed with.

Below: Fred Fisher, Unknown and Les Fisher. The unknown man in the centre is believe to have been machine gunned. There is no date on this photo.

Fred Fisher, Unknown and Les Fisher. The unknown man in the centre is believe to have been machine gunned.

Fred Fisher, Unknown and Les Fisher. The unknown man in the centre is believe to have been machine gunned.

The Australian War Memorial documents that the 19th Battalion was sent to Gallipoli where the troops landed on 21 August 1915. “The Battalion participated in the last action of the August Offensive – the attack on Hill 60 – before settling into defensive routine in the trenches. From mid-September…the 19th Battalion was responsible for the defence of Pope’s Hill.

Les Fisher, undated.

Les Fisher, undated.

For many of the Aussie Anzacs, the Gallipoli snowfalls would have been their first sighting of snow. I imagine the novelty wore off pretty quickly. AWM image C00751 out of copyright.

For many of the Aussie Anzacs, the Gallipoli snowfalls would have been their first sighting of snow. I imagine the novelty wore off pretty quickly. AWM image C00751 out of copyright.

As the months wore on and the weather changed, influenza became a high risk, along with frostbite as the men were under-supplied with appropriate winter clothing. Les’s daughter remembers that he talked of melting snow to obtain water to drink. You can read more about how the men dealt with life on Gallipoli beyond the fighting here.  The 19th battalion was withdrawn from Gallipoli at night on 19 December 1915.

1521 hospital pic low

Les Fisher’s casualty record shows he was taken sick on 14 December and admitted to Heliopolis Number 1 Auxiliary Hospital on 23 December 1915 with “mild frostbite”. Judging on Les’s annotation on the postcard it’s obvious the men called it Luna Park – a tongue-in-cheek nod to the eponymous amusement park in Sydney.

Les was discharged fit for duty until 19 January 1916, but not before he’d spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the Heliopolis hospital. The postcard below is not of good quality but it talks of Les’s stay over Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1915, though like many of us, he muddled his dates in those early days of the year.

Les Fisher (right) taken with a mate.

Les Fisher (right) taken with a mate, unnamed.

1522 hospital Heliopolis back low

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can click on any of the photos to enlarge them. 

After another period of training the men were despatched to France via Marseilles, disembarking there on 25 March 1916.

18th and 19th Battalions, landing at Marseilles from Egypt. AWM Image CO4393 out of copyright.

18th and 19th Battalions, landing at Marseilles from Egypt. AWM Image CO4393 out of copyright.

The AWM’s history again: The 19th took part in its first major offensive around Pozières between late July and the end of August 1916. After a spell in a quieter sector of the front in Belgium, the 2nd Division, which included the 5th Brigade, came south again in October. The 19th Battalion attacked near Flers between 14 and 16 November, in conditions that Charles Bean described as the worst ever encountered by the AIF.1515 Nurses

Les’s fighting service was coming to an end. On 26 July 1916, he was wounded and admitted to 32nd Stationary hospital, Wimereux, France on 27 July with a severe gunshot wound to the right foot. He had copped what the troops knew as a Blighty, an injury which merited evacuation to England. Les was transferred via Boulogne on 30 July 1916 and admitted to Wharncliffe War Hospital in Sheffield where he was to stay for five months.

It is unfortunate that many of the Battalion’s War Diaries from 1916 no longer exist, but digitised copies of those that do can be found here.

This postcard was sent to Les Fisher by his sisters, Dorothy or Dorie (left born 1911), Alma (centre, born 1906) and Vera (born 1902). It says “God be with you until we meet again and Good Luck“. It’s dated 20 September 1920 which I have to think might have been a mistake as Dorie is certainly not 9 in this photo, so perhaps it was sent when the family heard of his injury, given its nursing theme. It was Dorie to whom Les gave his tiny bible which the men were given and which was carried in their breast pocket.

1504 Good luck fm Surry Hills low

A few months later Les was transferred to 2nd Auxiliary Hospital on 18 December so once again he was in hospital for Christmas. A further transfer came in April, to Weymouth hospital.

 

1500 Rust Cadigan Fisher McIlveen 1917 low - Copy

FE Rust 50th Battalion, W Cadigan, Leslie Gladstone Fisher (with cane) 19th, H G McIlveen 13th.

1501 Rust Cadigan Les Fisher and McC 1917 hospital low

Slowly Les’s injuries started to heal and he was given furlough in April 1917. His postcards show that he spent at least some of the time with Ned Kent from Victoria. I wonder where they went? 1509 Ned Kent and Les Fisher 1917 low1508 Ned Kent and Les Fisher low

 

 

 

 

After returning from furlough Les was repatriated to Australia on board the Ayrshire in July 1917, and given an honourable discharge due to injury. His daughter has a copy of his certificate but unfortunately I have not scanned or photographed it, though I saw it some years ago.

1526 Les Fisher low

The inscription on the reverse of this photo says: Monte Video Camp, No 2 Company, Weymouth, Dorset, England. 27-4-17. Note boot cut out for wound on foot, comprie (sic). His daughter said he often used this French expression meaning “understand” even though he’s mis-spelled it here.

On his return to civilian life, Les was no longer able to follow his hope to become a police man like his uncle. The injury to his foot had put paid to that aim, and he went to work at the Sydney Victualling Yards. Les would wear a surgical boot for the rest of his life, and receive regular treatment at the repat hospital.

Fred Fisher and a joyous welcome home.

Fred Fisher and a joyous welcome home.

The family must have been pleased to have one son back at home, but older brother Fred was still serving in France. He would not return until 1919 and the family turned on quite a celebration for him at their home in Lenthall Street, Kensington (Sydney). Fred Fisher is pictured bookmarked by his parents and his brother Les is in the background with girlfriend Norah Keane. Many years later a relative approached the new owner of the property to see if they could look inside the house, and there on the wall was this photo -the new owners had always left it hanging in the hall.

Les and Norah would marry and raise a family. Although Fred also married he had no children. The men would live in adjacent houses in Snape Street, Maroubra for the rest of their lives.  Leslie Gladstone Fisher died in 1956 and Frederick Charles Fisher died in 1937.

This photo was taken in the Sydney Town Hall near the end of the war. Les and Norah are among the crowd.

This photo was taken in the Sydney Town Hall near the end of the war. Les and Norah are among the crowd.

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

This post is my contribution to the 2014 Trans-Tasman Anzac Day Blog Challenge hosted by Seonaid from Kintalk blog in Auckland.

Lest We Forget.

 

 

 

[i] For those interested in this voyage, which resulted in the deaths of 66 passengers due to cholera, this website includes a letter from the doctor on board. http://ubrihienfamilyhistory.webhive.com.au/ship-caeser/

[ii] Jenny Paterson’s excellent articles in Ances-Tree are invaluable reading about the German vinedressers. http://bdfhg.weebly.com/ances-tree-articles-by-date.html

Remembrance Day 2013: Erle Victor Weiss

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

For Remembrance Day 2013, I’m going to share with you the brief story of a man who has no family connection to me whatsoever. He made himself known through a photograph found in my cousin’s extensive photo collection.

My 4th cousin in Sydney is one of those people who has myriad photographs stored in suitcases – probably literally hundreds of them. Some have names on them, but sadly not all. She has been a wealth of information about my own family but there are also hidden gems of no direct relevance to me.

Erle Victor Weiss KIAAmong her collection is this photograph postcard from a young Australian soldier who was killed in World War I, Erle Victor Weiss. Erle was another of the young men, descendants of German ancestors, who fought for King and country in World War I. You will see from his note to his friend that he did not affiliate with the Germans he fought, referring to them as “Huns” in the vernacular of the time. Given the social attitudes of the era I often wonder whether those with German names felt they had to be more English than others, and whether it provoked them into joining up as soon as possible.

Erle Victor Weiss to Nora

Click on the image to read the letter.

Erle had joined in August 1915 and was a bombardier with the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. He had been severely gassed in November 1917 and it was during this period of hospitalisation in England that he wrote to my cousin’s mother.

This postcard strikes me as a letter to a young woman with whom he was perhaps in love. Whether she was just a friend or reciprocated his love is unknown, though the fact that the postcard has been preserved all these years suggests she was very fond of him.

Erle was killed on 9 August 1918 nine months after this letter was written and is buried in Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres. His brother, Frederick Alfred Weiss, died on 19 July 1916, in the Battle of Fromelles. These two young men were the eldest sons of Walter Henry and Amy Selina Weiss who lived at Erina, New South Wales where it seems Walter was a school teacher.

Erle’s friend, Norah, married another former soldier Leslie Gladstone Fisher in 1925 in Surrey Hills. Were the two men friends? Had they ever met?

Leslie Gladstone Fisher, WWI.

Leslie Gladstone Fisher, WWI.

It is impossible to read the files for the young men who were killed during the war: there is such pathos in each and every letter written to the authorities by their next of kin. All they had left to hope for were some items of their son’s to treasure, and in Erle’s case this amounted to 2 photos, 1 card, a belt a damaged wallet, a pocket book and a scarf. The significance of the war memorials, especially in Australia, is knowing that a memorial and small personal items were the only tangible reminders of their son’s sacrifice.

Among the photos are two unknown soldiers, I thought I would include it here in case someone else recognises them.

Two unidentified Aussie soldiers.

Two unidentified Aussie soldiers.

An army marches on its stomach

Sepia Sat 180It seems that my uncle Pat Farraher is determined to have his moment in the Sepia Saturday sun. Pat appeared back in Sepia Saturday 166 and today’s topic is tailor-made for him.

The World War II nominal roll only gives bare details but it lists Patrick Joseph Farraher enlisting on 15 September 1942 in Enoggera, Brisbane at the age of 34. He was attached to the 4th Field Bakery (AASC) as a private. His next of kin was my Aunty Mary.

Among my aunt’s estate were some old family photos including some of Uncle Pat’s military service, including those mentioned above. Today we start moving into the field and the Australian War Memorial’s photographic collection places Pat’s photos in context. I knew he’d served in Papua New Guinea, and immediately recognised some of Pat’s place photos from his time there, but knew nothing about these service photos of his.

It may be this is field training prior to departing to Papua New Guinea -it looks like Australian scrub in the background.

It may be this is field training prior to departing to Papua New Guinea -it looks like Australian scrub in the background. Photograph from Pat Farraher collection.

The cook "train" -you can see this photo links with the one above.

The cook “train” -you can see this photo links with the one above. Photo from Pat Farraher collection.

I could see this was an Army Dukw (amphibious vehicle) photographed, I suspect, at Enoggera army camp by Uncle Pat but what relevance did it have?

Perhaps they were heading off to the ship to PNG.

Perhaps they were heading off to the ship to PNG. Photograph from Pat Farraher collection.

But the AWM website makes it clearer in its caption for this photo: A FIELD BAKERY BEING ESTABLISHED ON THE NORTHERN BANK OF THE BUMI RIVER. THIS PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS MEMBERS OF THE 4TH AUSTRALIAN FIELD BAKERY PLACING SHEER LEGS IN POSITION ON TWO “DUKWs” PREPARATORY TO UNLOADING THE BAKERS OVENS.

Photograph 61074 from the AWM Collection, taken in the Finchhafen area of PNG.

Photograph 61074 from the AWM Collection, taken in the Finchhafen area of PNG. Image in the public domain. Men from the 4th Field Bakery.

Armies need food as well as ammunition so the army bakers were kept busy making bread, rolls, meat pies and who knows what else. I don’t suppose that with people being shot at, any concerns for health regulations went out the window. I was lucky to find so many great photos of the 4th Field Bakery in the AWM collections.

Image 061258 AWM. 4th Field Bakery men preparing bread rolls.

Image 061258 AWM. 4th Field Bakery men preparing bread rolls. Image out of copyright.

In a hot and humid region, working in the bakehouse must have been incredible sweaty work though they were probably well-served by their bush-materials bake house. In the bigger scheme of things I guess the Diggers probably didn’t care too much about a salty addition to their bread rolls.

The AWM states on one picture “with improvised ovens and huts and the help of native boys, the men of the 2/4th Field Bakery baked thousands of bread rolls each day to supply the Division”.

Some bakers from the 4th Field Bakery heading back to quarters after a busy day’s work. The contrast between the featured image today and the men in this image is amusing, I think. No wonder the British officers complained about the casualness of Australian soldiers during WWI.

AWM Image 061613 of the 4th Field Bakery men leaving the bush materials bakehouse at Dumpu in the Ramu Valley, PNG.

AWM Image 061613 of the 4th Field Bakery men leaving the bush materials bakehouse at Dumpu in the Ramu Valley, PNG. Image out of copyright and in the public domain.

Lest We Forget: the Battle of Milne Bay

As you know we’ve just returned from Papua New Guinea, and in particular Milne Bay where we spent most of our time. We had lived there for a couple of years after our marriage but Mr Cassmob had also spent his teenage years in the district, when home from boarding school, and he regards it as his “place”.

It always shocks me how little known Milne Bay is within the history of World War II, while Kokoda gains a much higher profile. Despite contradictory stories, it was in the Battle of Milne Bay that the Japanese suffered their first land defeat, proving they were not invincible. Following the rapid domino effect of their overthrow of the Asian countries such as Singapore, this battle gave hope that their forces could be defeated. While there is now no indication that the Japanese forces intended to invade Australia, there’s little doubt that an enemy force ensconced in Papua or New Guinea would have been cause for grave concern and fears for Australia’s security. This year has been the 70th anniversary of the battle.

The Battle of Milne Bay was a relatively short but difficult campaign exacerbated by challenging terrain, heat and the hazards of malaria. It raged up and down the northern coastline of Milne Bay exactly where we were visiting last week and where we had lived in the 70s. The major air base was on Gili Gili Plantation where my husband worked briefly in the late 60s (see the story of his discovery of a wartime artefact here).

Rather than give you chapter and verse I’m going to show you the images of the War Memorial near Alotau and also the information plaques which tell the story of the battle. You might also be interested in the images on my Tropical Territory blog which show the stained glass windows in the Catholic Church in Alotau, honouring those lost in the battle.

The map shows the range of the battlegrounds. Alotau, the provincial headquarters, where we’ve just been, is slightly to the left of the arrow.

The memorial overlooks Milne Bay: a far more tranquil scene than 70 years ago.

The Australians gained great support from the local people who risked much to help them.

Lest we forget

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

In Memoriam: Crows Nest Memorial to those who gave their lives in World Wars I and II. The memorial includes the names of Cpl French VC and my grandfather’s cousin, James Gavin.

Thoughts on The Last Blue Sea

In the midst of the jungle men pray for strength. MASS BEFORE BATTLE ON SALAMAUA TRAIL. (1943, August 16). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42021915

Lately my mind has been turning to Papua New Guinea again as we plan an upcoming trip back to Alotau after a mere 41 years. As it does in these circumstances, one thought leads to another and before long I’m off on a tangent.

No surprise then that I picked up my copy of The Last Blue Sea the other night to re-read it. Originally published in 1959 the book won the inaugural Dame Mary Gilmore Award. My guess is that it would be the best part of forty years since I last read it, having first encountered the book in high school.

News of the day: the battles near Salamaua. 11 ZEROS SHOT DOWN. (1943, August 4). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 4.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48762488

In theory the novel is entirely fictitious except for the presence of renowned war photographer Damien Parer.  Whatever the truth of the specifics, there’s little doubt that the story builds on personal experience and a deep knowledge of World War II in New Guinea circa 1943 (post-Kokoda). It has an unusual writing style which ultimately seemed very effective but I confess I occasionally got confused as to which soldier was which, despite the list of key characters in the beginning.

This is one book in which the place (the jungle near Salamaua in what was then New Guinea) is very much a major character, shaping the individual soldier’s experience and responses. Having the tiniest understanding of just how impenetrable the jungles of PNG can be, I am in awe of their survival and persistence.

My take-away thoughts from this book were:

  • The all-encompassing power of the jungle, the impact of the leaves and the enemy hidden within
  • The sheer physical and mental brutality of survival, let alone fighting, in such conditions
  • The impact of poor leadership and equally the commitment of the men to leaders in whom they believed
  • The men’s tendency to hide the truth of the horrors they saw from their loved ones at home
  • The courage of the men was very low-key and it evoked a memory of a family friend who fought as a sniper near Kokoda: you’d have thought it was a doddle from the way he spoke.
  • The platoon leader calling his men’s lives “the crown jewels of Australia”: the loss of these men impacted Australia for decades afterwards
  • The sheer horror of men who, severely injured, had to make their own way out of the jungle over precipitous mountain ranges, often alone because there was no other option.
  • I was intrigued by references to the militia units at Bargara near Bundaberg at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. So far I haven’t tracked down the truth or otherwise of that element.

I found this novel to be very powerful and will be rereading it again soon, to absorb the finer points I missed in my rush to follow the story.

The nom-de-plume of the author was David Forrest and in fact I never knew it wasn’t the author’s real name. Turning to Google I found that David Forrest was the aka for Dr David Denholm. As soon as I read that, bells rang in my head. Sure enough he is the author of a BA (Hons) dissertation at The University of Queensland, on the Coming of the Germans to the Darling Downs 1852-1861, which I’ve referenced in my Dorfprozelten research. I was quite tickled to discover this link.

As I read the book the words of an Australian poet echoed in my mind. David Campbell’s poem Men in Green carries some of the same resonances. This is a short extract but please do have a look at the full poem from this link:

Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,

Their skin had turned to clay

Nature had met them in the night

And stalked them in the day.

And I think still of men in green

On the Soputa track

With fifteen spitting tommy-guns

To keep a jungle back.

Fromelles, Lt Col WEH Cass and family collections.

A studio photo of Lt Col Cass perhaps around the time of his posting to France. AWM photograph A01470, copyright expired. The photo is shown as Lt Col ERH Cass CMG so it appears the initials are a mistake.

“But the toll of missing is getting smaller. It is not quite the disaster which at first appeared. I would say we lost something between 4000 and 5000”. Such are the relatively dispassionate words entered in the diary of Australia’s military historian, Charles Bean, after the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916.[i] However the personal reality for the men was quite different. Lt Col Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass commanded the 54th Battalion during that battle and also had a role with the 53rd who’d lost their commanding officer. The 54th had come too close to being outflanked by the Germans and only a calm head and experience combined with the extreme bravery of the messengers Cass sent to HQ, got the survivors of the battalion away safely.

Only days later on 22 July 1916 Cass was admitted to the Officers’ Rest Home with shell shock and discharged 10 days later.[ii]  The human devastation of the battle hit him hard and he reportedly accused his superior officer, General McCay, of slaughtering his men – an insubordination that might well have seen Cass court-martialled in another army.[iii]  Fromelles was one of Australia’s most severe battles and regarded by soldiers who’d been there as worse than Gallipoli[iv].  Australia’s casualties totalled 5533.

Colonel McCay and his Brigade Major WEH Cass in Egypt, December 1914. AWM photograph PO3397.01 copyright expired.

To put Cass’s injury in perspective he had just spent over a year in the Dardenelles and was wounded twice before being evacuated.  He had also served in the Boer War. This was a man who was experienced and familiar with the devastation and human costs of war. He had been mentioned in despatches by General Haig and been awarded the Cross of St Michael and St George (CMG) in January 1916. He was once again mentioned in despatches in 1917 and recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his role at Fromelles but he would never go back into battle. It seems to me that he must have been held in high regard to be exempt from being returned to the field on the Western Front. Charles Bean, official historian for the AIF in WWI, wrote of Cass: “the leaders of the AIF were mostly generous men, and marked for their sense of duty; but there were perhaps few in whom the recognition of duty was quite so strong, or sympathy with the rank and file so keen, as in Walter Cass”.[v] Cass relinquished command of the 54th and took over command of the 14thTraining Battalion at Larkhill. His experience in South Africa, and at Gallipoli and Fromelles would have been invaluable to those under his command.

Two excellent exhibitions at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance in June 2012. Both had personal interest to us.

Soon after arriving in England Cass married his long-time correspondent, a Canadian nurse and journalist, Helena Holmes.  The silver tea tray given to the couple by his men, testifies to the regard in which the soldiers held their commanding officer.  Extracts of his correspondence with Helena, kindly shared with us by his granddaughter, reveal a witty, clever, ambitious and romantic man. Interestingly he was very frank about the risks of war with this woman who he had been courting assiduously for a number of years: a tribute to her resilience, or perhaps even a test of her capacity to be a career officer’s wife.

Walter Cass had some amazing experiences, serving in the Army both before and after World War I. He attended the 1912 Delhi Durbarwhich was held to celebrate the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India.  After returning to Australia in 1917, Cass held a number of roles which gave him remarkable social opportunities. He was State Marshal for the 1927 Melbourne visit of the Duke of York (later King George VI); was involved in the organisation of the celebrated arrival in Melbourne of Ross and Keith Smith after the great London-Australia air race 1920 and in his official capacity met many interesting people from Japanese naval officers to the Governor. The man who had survived war and battles, died at home after an operation for appendicitis on 6 November 1931, shortly before penicillin became widely available.

Mr Cassmob learning more about his great-uncle Walter Cass at the exhibition.

Our trip to Melbourne last month was primarily to visit an exhibition on Brigadier General WEH Cass and his wife Helena Holmes, and to meet some newly-found rellies.  This exhibition is being held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and has been extended until September.  You might recall that I used “J is for Jealousy” in the Family History Alphabet series. If you are at all interested do go and visit this exhibition and you will see why I might use “jealousy”. The exhibition is primarily an amazing family collection of memorabilia which illustrates Walter Cass’s diverse career. There are invitation cards and souvenirs from the Durbar; formal gifts from Japanese naval officers who visited Australia officially pre-World War II; the cigarette case given to him by the Duke of York; some of his personal letters to Helena as well as his uniform and accoutrements. Cass was a keen and very good amateur photographer. The exhibition included his photos taken during the Boer War, Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Helena’s nurse’s uniform is featured as is her typewriter which she used to write her news stories, many published under her own by-line.  It really is a fascinating display at a number of levels and while we might all wish for such a family inheritance of memorabilia, imagine the responsibility of caring for and preserving it all.

If you plan to visit I suggest you ring in advance to ensure the room in which the exhibition is held is not being used for a public meeting. We had to wait around on both occasions we visited but it didn’t matter too much as it meant we were able to have a good look at the Kokoda exhibition which also featured Milne Bay during WW II.


[ii] Another page of his personnel file also indicates he was wounded.

[iii] Don’t Forget Me Cobber, the Battle of Fromelles, 19/20 July 1916. R S Corfield. Corfield and Company, Rosanna, Australia, page 146.

[iv] Quote by HR Williams of the 56th Battalion from his book, The Gallant Company 1933, referenced in Don’t Forget Me Cobber, page 127.

[v] C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929). Extract from Australian Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cass-walter-edmund-hutchinson-5529

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.

Beyond the Internet: Week 16 War service records

This is Week 16 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. In honour of Anzac Day coming up this week, the topic is War service records.  Once again this week, the topic will be a cross-over between online and offline resources.  Please do join in with this series and add your thoughts.

Online with World War I

We have been very spoiled with Australian World War I service records being digitised and made available online through the National Archives of Australia (NAA). All we have to do is put a name in the search bar, limit it to a period (1914-1919), and Bob’s your uncle, up come the list of names with a digitised symbol on the right hand side for you to click on.

Might I make a suggestion if you haven’t already tried this? As well as looking at your own ancestor’s records, have a look at any of his siblings/cousins etc or perhaps anyone with the same unusual name (obviously Smith just isn’t going to work). My grandfather’s service record includes pages from two of his brothers’ service records. Only looking at one record might not give the full story.

Then of course, there are the other options for that period, available online through the Australian War Memorial (AWM): Red Cross, Roll of Honour, and Honours and Awards through the biographical database.  Also don’t forget to search the collections which might pick up additional information eg my husband’s great uncle is mentioned in the write-up of another man’s medals.

But what of those records beyond the internet which is after all what we’re supposed to be looking at?

Boer War Service

There are search facilities with AWM and the NAA but my understanding is that many of these records are available through the state archives, or even libraries. If you have a relative who fought in the Boer War, you might want to explore these options. This is a useful information sheet.

Post World War I Service Records

There are other records which are still only available by ordering from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). They are the World War II service records, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. Let’s assume you want to find out which members of your family served in World War II. You again enter the family name, plus a first name if necessary. It then presents you with the options available and you can choose the correct person. If you’re just using it to fill out information on your families you may want to stop there because you will have acquired some useful extra detail.

I find this search useful to determine a preliminary birth date, while it’s not yet available through BDM searches, even by year.  It may also tell you (with varying reliability) where they were probably living when they joined up, their place of birth, and possibly their spouse’s name as next of kin. Not bad for a quick haul. Of course with WWII we’re also more likely to pick up female family members.

However if it’s your direct ancestor, it’s still worth your while to obtain the full service history from DVA by providing the details (or a printout) found from your search. Why would you bother? Well just think about what you find in your World War I records, and it’s easy to see the benefits. Combine it with other sources like war diaries, photographs and oral histories and you can build a comprehensive picture which tells of your relative’s experience.

For last year’s Anzac Day post I told the story of one of my family members, based on a combination of his Korean service records and the digitised war diaries. You can read it here to see just how you can build a picture from these record sets, probably more so where the person was killed in action.

Catalogue items

It’s true that not all of us can manage to get to see the original records in the archives, but with online catalogues it makes it possible to draw up a list that you might want to look at if/when you’re lucky enough to be on site. If it’s a very specific item, you may just be able to order it directly, for a fee (still cheaper than airfare+accommodation).

I’ve already mentioned the AWM collections search but also have a look at what NAA has available through this link. Of course Ancestry and Findmypast also have overseas service information which you may want to explore.

I hope this post has provided some strategies for building up your relative’s military service history to incorporate into your family story.