One hundred years ago today my grandfather, Denis Joseph Kunkel, was at sea en route to England thence to the war in France.
He had volunteered with his younger brother, James Edward, on 22 October 1917 probably as part of a push at the time to recruit qualified railway workers to work on the lines to the front in the north of France. I wrote about his life-long railway career some time ago. Denis would join the Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company and given the rank of Lance Corporal.
We don’t know why Grandad left it until 1917 to enlist, as his much younger brothers had already joined up along with their cousins and he had already lost two cousins in the carnage of France and Flanders (James Gavin and James Paterson). Perhaps he was older and wiser, or perhaps he’d been reluctant to serve in a war against Germany while his Bavarian-born grandfather was still alive. Perhaps it wasn’t until the call for railway expertise that he thought he could contribute. We will never know.
At the time of his recruitment Dinny was already living on the Ballymore Estate where I’m told he was renting a room at 33 Bally Street. His attestation records document that Dinny was aged 37 years and 1 month, 5ft 6inches tall, weighed 165lbs, had a fresh complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His chest measurement was 36-39 inches. He had a scar on his right thigh and another on his left knee. He was regarded as medically and dentally fit. Denis gave his religious denomination as “None” though a later notation has been made to suggest that on the rolls he had given Church of England as his religion. From a family point of view this is interesting because his parents, and grandparents, were devout Catholics. Family anecdote tells that he had a major falling out with the clergy out west (obviously pre-dating his enlistment) and he never returned to Catholicism.
Denis left Brisbane by train for Melbourne and was accompanied by his brother, James. Gossipy war news was part of the journalism of the day and on 5 November 1917, The Toowoomba Chronicle reported that “On Tuesday’s troop train, Privates James and Denis Kunkle (sic) passed through Toowoomba for the front. They are sons of Mr Geo. Kunkle of Toowomba and well known in this district. They are also nephews of Mr Gavin, of Pechey, who has five sons at the front”. Their much younger cousin, Anne Kunkel, who was only a child at the time of the war, remembers that the Murphy’s Creek school children would see long trains with “carriages of khaki-clad young men going off to war” as they passed through en route to the south. She also remembered meeting Dinny at some stage when he returned safely from the war.
Denis sailed to war on the ship Port Sydney which left Melbourne on 9 November 1917. I was fortunate that there was an enthusiastic photographer on board, documenting some of the sights and events along the way. Today I’ve also discovered a digitised copy of The Limber Log, a souvenir journal on the voyage edited by Lt H Garland. (As it’s under copyright, those who are interested will need to follow the link). It includes references to the joy and pangs of the departure, the sad death of one of the railwayman soon after leaving Colombo, and his burial. Many of the comments will raise eyebrows today with their political-incorrectness and racial slurs, but it’s well worth a read if you had relatives on this voyage. At the end of the journal, they included a Roll of Honour of all the men on board, including one Corporal, Kunkel, D J.
My father recalled that Denis, as part of the ABGROC, was responsible for taking the heavy artillery to the Front along the railway line, unloading heavy weaponry, then quickly re-hitching the engine to make good their escape before the German’s “Big Bertha” gun could get a “line” on them. The 49th Battalion’s historian tells us that the Australian military had railway lines as extensive as those of the British. The threat may have been very different from that experienced by the front-line troops who had to go over the dugouts, but having heavy weapons taking a line on a large piece of rolling stock would surely have made the heartbeat race! The railways were pivotal to the movement of men and supplies and the railwaymen played their part, however mundane, and largely forgotten. The war diaries provide a surprisingly rich description of life for the members of the ABGROC.
A few years ago we did a tour of the Western Front and I asked if it was possible to visit Poperinghe, near where my grandfather had worked at Peselhoek. At the railway station, I went down the platform looking for someone to speak to. My first reaction was to speak in German (hmm, perhaps not a good idea), and as my French is very poor and my Flemish non-existent I was dithering about what to do. Along came our tour guide and did the obvious: spoke in English to the railway worker we saw.
In a bizarre Who Do You Think You Are moment, the gentleman went into his office and then handed me about six photographs taken around 1917-1918, as well as talking to me about where the lines went. I was beyond thrilled and quite blown away by it. The guide swore blind he had not organised it, and as he was very chuffed with what I’d got, to this day I don’t know if it was serendipity or pre-arranged. Either way I was extremely happy to have a better sense of where Grandad had been during the war.
It has to be said, that compared to many, Grandad’s war was a short one, less than one year, although he did not return to Australia until August 1919 on board the transport ship Karmala. It seems the men had a fairly lively time of it on the way home with a wide array of activities. An orchestra was established and dancing took place every night. An on-board newspaper was established called the Karmala Kuts. No doubt Dinny, who liked a good joke, rather enjoyed the railway-based story which appeared in Vol 1 No 2. Sports were held daily and chess, bridge and drafts competitions occurred. The men also had four lectures from the ship’s master who had been a member of Scott’s polar expedition. Education classes were also offered. Yet again the men were given gifts from the Comforts Funds with 1000 pairs of socks distributed. The ship stopped at Cape Town, Fremantle and Adelaide on the way home. “The people of Cape Town were very kind to the men who had a splendid time there with picnics, dances, motor trips etc”. It is difficult to imagine in this day and age how mature men would respond to such simple pleasures. Denis disembarked in Melbourne on 17 August 1919. His military service was at an end.
To the best of my knowledge, Grandad never went to Remembrance Day ceremonies, though he was elderly when I knew him and perhaps did so when he was younger. His service medals and his RSL membership badge have been safely preserved in the family. As far as I know no photographs of him in uniform have survived.
LEST WE FORGET
Are you looking for the service records of your WWI soldier? You can search through this link (select WWI) where they have been digitised.
There are also often letters/stories home in the local newspapers of the day. Our good friend Trove may have the answers.
 The Courier-Mail, 23 October 1917, p. 8 reports on the previous day’s volunteers including the two brothers. Denis Kunkel’s service number is 2311.
 This was atypical of the Kunkel height genes.
 Sons were James, Stephen, Patrick Joseph, George and John Joseph. James was killed in action in the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916 and is buried in the War Cemetery at Rue Petillon, near Fleurbaix. He is remembered on the War Memorial in Crows Nest.
 Toowoomba Chronicle, 5 November 1917, p. 5.
 F Cranston, Always Faithful: The History of the 49th Battalion, Boolarong Publications Brisbane, 1983, p. 18.
 “Any activity out of the ordinary, such as …a light railway at work… served as a tonic for the Diggers”. D Winter, Making the Legend: The War writings of CEW Bean. UQ Press, Brisbane, 1992, p. 154.
 AWM 31. Karmala 306.
 AWM7. Karmala 4. Report on the Karmala 17 August 1919.