Saturday, April 25, 2015

Looking for grandfather

For a bloke who writes about our past I don't know much about my own family's history. Both of my mother's parents were killed in an accident before she married. Mum couldn't bring herself to discuss them at any length - it was just too painful for her. The only grandparent I knew was my paternal grandmother - we lived with her at Annerley for several years until I was about ten. Unfortunately my mother and my grandmother never really got on and having three little kids running around seemed to get on grandmother's nerves, so we didn't interact much.

I didn't know my paternal grandfather either - he died when I was about a month old. My father, a man notoriously reticent about such information, passed on very little of his family history. About the only detail that I knew about my grandfather was that he served overseas in WWI and had medical issues as a result.

This year's centenary of the Gallipoli campaign prompted me to do a little digging to see if there was anything I could add to this very incomplete story. First stop - the National Archives of Australia web site that provides details of our WWI diggers. This is what I found.

My grandfather enlisted in Brisbane, and his papers were dated 9 September 1915 when he was 39 years and 9 months old. Rather too old for joining the army, I thought. His enlistment papers indicated that his occupation was a "traveller" - new information to me. I assume that it meant commercial traveller rather than tourist. He wouldn't have realised how much travelling he was about to experience.

Next I read that he was married with five children. What was he doing joining the army when he had five kids to support? Perhaps the war was already affecting jobs, perhaps he felt peer pressure to join up - I'll never know now. From the meager family information that I did know, the youngest of his then five children was my aunt who was born on 25 April 1915 - the first day of the Gallipoli campaign and the reason we celebrate Anzac Day. So grandfather went and enlisted when his wife was nursing a child only four and a half months old, in addition to having another four kids - he must have known that he would probably be sent overseas. My father, the youngest in the family, wasn't born until a few years after the war ended, when grandfather was 45 years old. So if grandfather hadn't made it home...

The file shows a typed address "Buccan on the Southport Line" - then that was crossed out and a Broadway St, Red Hill address was handwritten next to it. I did know that my grandmother came from around Logan Village, so perhaps they had lived there for some time. Perhaps she and her children lived there with relatives while her husband was caught up in the war, I don't know.

Next he had to swear the oath, promising to serve the king until the end of the war and for four months thereafter.

His physical details were noted - height 5'7" (about 170 cm) and weight 11st 4lb (approx 72 kg) with a scar on his left knee. He had grey eyes and brown hair; visual acuity 6/9 in each eye. Now I can almost imagine him - I've never even seen a photograph of him, so I picture him as looking like my father who had a very similar build.

Grandfather became part of the 10th reinforcements to 26th Battalion, AIF - largely comprised of Queenslanders. In March 1916 they were sent on their way to Tel el Kabir in Egypt for training. Within a couple of months grandfather was hospitalised, the first of many hospital visits to come. His records note that he was suffering from mumps, a painful complaint for an adult male. This is a photo of the Tel el Kabir camp.

In July 1916 he was transported to Etaples, a training base and hospital town in France. The battalion became part of 2nd Division, and it seems their first major battle came around Pozieres between July and August, after which they were sent to a quieter sector in Belgium having suffered over 650 casualties. 

In September 1916 he was temporarily promoted in the field to corporal as a result of a fellow soldier being listed as missing, and the promotion was ratified in November with the confirmation of that man's death. From these details it is apparent that grandfather was involved in actual fighting involving loss of life. I can't imagine what that would be like.  

He was hospitalised again in November of that year - this time with haemorrhoids. It must have been a serious case because he was repatriated from Etaples to England to be admitted to the war hospital at Beaufort, where he remained for about a month. He was probably safer there as the Germans were fond of bombing Etaples, hospitals and all. Here is a photograph of the remnants of a British Red Cross hospital in Etaples after a bombing raid.
(Photo: © The History Press)

It seems that grandfather then spent most of 1917 attached to the 69th Battalion in England before being marched out to Le Havre in September of that year, rejoining his former battalion as a sergeant after having been promoted in August 1917. The battalion was moved south to the Somme Valley and the 26th participated in two attacks to the east of Flers. These attacks took place in atrociously muddy conditions, were largely unsuccessful and resulted in over 300 casualties. A month later grandfather reported to the field ambulance with scabies whereupon he was transferred to hospital in Camiers, France.

In April 1918 grandfather was taken on strength to No 1 Australian Convalescent Depot in Le Havre. A convalescent depot was a sort of half-way house for soldiers that were no longer hospitalised but were not yet fit to return to their units. He was still there when the 26th Battalion captured the German tank Mephisto near Amiens - it was repatriated to Brisbane where it has been on display at the museum for many years.
(Photo: Jose Luis Castillo ©

It would appear that grandfather was on active duty until December 1918 when he embarked Orantes for return to Australia. During this time he received a promotion to company sergeant-major.

The final note on the file says that on 3 April 1919 he was discharged from the army as medically unfit, suffering from rheumatism. Judging by a Particulars of Service form issued to the Department of Repatriation in 1925 I assume that, almost at the age of 50, grandfather applied for a disability pension.

Service Medals: 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

So there we have the war service of a WW1 digger - not much glory in these details, no heroics, just the hard physical and mental cost of vicious fighting in deplorable conditions. I'm sure that this story is no different to the stories of thousands of other Australians who were sent overseas to fight in WW1. No wonder so many came home ill or disabled, let alone the enormous number who lost their lives. My grandfather came home to his family, and even though he lived to the age of 73, the war took its toll on his health.

Thank you for your service Granddad. It's sad that we never had the opportunity to get to know each other. 




  1. I enjoyed reading about your grandfather's service history. The crash records are harrowing!!! I had no idea. Your poor dear mother at the time. Who would have thought??? x

    1. Thanks Flora
      My poor mother had only just got over the death of her infant sister from diphtheria when this terrible accident robbed her of both parents and a brother. Mum carried these scars for the rest of her life.

  2. *agreed* Your grandfather was a quiet and brave hero.

    I am also sure that this story is no different to the stories of thousands of other Australians who were sent overseas to fight in WW1. And New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans, Indians and every other nation that raced to defend God, King and Country. Misery, pain, lost adolescence and, if they were lucky enough to survive, returning home to find they didn't have a place in normal society any longer.

    My grandfather worked as a Russian-French-English translator between the Allies in 1916-18 and lost one kidney to a bullet. He was in and out of hospital for the rest of his life, but at least he married a gorgeous woman (my gran) in 1923 and had a very happy family life.

    1. Indeed, soldiers from many cultures and faiths were killed or injured in this terrible war.

      And as you have previously pointed out many returned home psychologically devastated and unable to work.

      As a teenager I went through a phase of rejecting Anzac Day because I saw it as glorifying war.
      Thank goodness I now realise that Anzac Day recognises sacrifice on many levels and in fact is a fervent reminder of the horrors of war.

    2. Re the rejection of Anzac Day. My brothers and I were born after dad was demobilised in Dec 1945.

      I am guessing that our rejection of Anzac Day, the RSL and every other military campaign came, not because of WW1 and WW2 but because of the Vietnam War. People born in 1946-50 were target fodder for conscription and propaganda re Vietnam. So it seems inevitable that the original concept of Anzac Day got lost in the fear that belonged to the 1960s.

    3. Very important point. The Vietnam conflict was in the forefront of people's minds in the sixties.
      I feel for the unlucky conscripts who were sent there after a random number "ballot". Imagine experiencing the horrors of war only to came home to stinging criticism and vilification.
      It's no wonder many of them have ongoing issues still.

  3. It's amazing how much you were able to find out about your grandfather. My husband's grandfather was in the Boer war and enlisted in WW1 when he was 36. Like your grandfather he suffered a lot of ailments while on active duty, but did get a letter from George v after he won the Military Medal. If he had have been an officer he would have got the Military Cross...class distinction eh?

    1. I must say I was surprised at the number of "older" volunteers to WW1. They must have been a very patriotic group.
      A letter from the king would have been a wonderful recognition to your husband's grandfather.
      I do feel that we owe so much to those who served.


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