Digging in his garden in the Victorian Goldfields town of Creswick late last year, a man named Neville Holmes unearthed something unexpected. Under the flower bed was a sort of trench. And in the trench was what was left of an old medicine cabinet. “I could see bits of bottles and broken glass so I kept digging deeper and deeper to see what was under there,” he told journalist Melissa Cunningham of the Ballarat Courier newspaper in January. “There were tubes and tubes of toothpaste, combs, toothbrushes, a pair of dentures and medicine bottles.”
My sister has a degree in archaeology, and to celebrate her graduation a few years ago my father created an ‘archaeological dig’ in the back yard, smashing old plates and mixing in a rusty spoon or two for her to excavate with her brand new trowel (because, as everyone knows, every archaeologist needs a trowel). So finding a real-life pile of old stuff buried under your wife’s irises would, I’d imagine, be pretty exciting. But Mr Holmes found something else hiding away in the old medicine cabinet. Something with even more of a story.
They looked like coins at first. But when he pulled them out, Mr Holmes realised he had found a pair of war service medals. He took them to the secretary of the local RSL club, a man named Phil Carter. Mr Carter was able to identify who the medals belonged to because the soldier’s name is engraved around the rim: a WWI soldier named Private George Bailey. Cunningham writes that Bailey enlisted in Ballarat in April 1916, served with the 39th Battalion and was killed in a gas attack in Messines, Belgium, in June 1917. His brother – Frederick – lived for many years in the house now occupied by Mr Holmes and his wife.
At the time the article was written the search was on for Private Bailey’s family, led by the Creswick RSL. “We knew nothing about George but now we know so much”, said Phil Carter. “It’s like he’s a member of our RSL.”
I can certainly relate to this feeling. After seriously studying the story of my great uncle Jack and the rest of his crew over the last six or seven years, I genuinely do feel as if I know the lads, even though six of them were killed forty years before I was born. The feeling is all the stronger for those members of the crew for whom I have letters or diaries written in their own words, in their own hand. But to find those, of course, I first needed to find their families, and, well, that took a while.
Amazingly, though, less than a week after Melissa Cunningham’s first article was published in the Ballarat Courier and The Age, the search for Private George Bailey’s family came to a successful conclusion when Frederick Bailey’s grandson came forward. If only it were that easy when I was searching for families of the crew of B for Baker three or four years ago!
We initially thought that Jack Purcell’s service medals had been lost in the years since the war and so almost 20 years ago my father enquired about the possibility of acquiring replicas. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that in actual fact they had never officially been issued. Dad duly jumped through the multiple bureaucratic hoops that were required to prove that we were entitled to claim them and one day in 1996 a small box arrived by registered post. Inside were five medals – three circles and two stars – and their associated ribbons.
And, yes. Stamped around the edges are Jack’s name and service number.