Archive for the 'WWI' Category

Book Review: From the Top of the Hill, by Kevin Peoples

Jack Peoples was nobody particularly unusual. One day in August 1915 the 18-year-old farmhand from country Victoria walked with his younger brother up a small rise near the family property. Leaving the younger boy at the top of the hill, he walked down the other side and into the nearby town of Mortlake to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He never came back, killed in action in France with no known grave.

The story was a familiar backdrop when a man named Kevin Peoples grew up. Sitting by the fire with his brother and sister, he would ask his father – who had been the boy who watched from the top of that hill as his brother Jack walked away – to “tell us about the day Uncle Jack went to war, Dad”. Aware of the shadow that the memory had cast on his father’s life, and aware of how little he knew beyond that oft-related vignette, Kevin would, after his father’s death, embark on a life-long journey to find the story of his lost uncle.

The result is a little blue self-published book named, appropriately, From the Top of the Hill, which I discovered after Tony Wright wrote about it in the Saturday paper a few months ago. It’s not a long book (I read it in a single afternoon), but it is a deeply heartfelt and honest account.

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Peoples breaks the book into three sections. The first is the shortest at just four pages and tells his father’s story, writing about how the “dark, solemn presence of Jack lived on the wall in the corner, directly above my father’s chair.” Oh how I can relate to that concept. The second bit (twelve pages) is what perhaps you’d expect from a self-published book like this: a reasonably straight account of what Peoples knows of Jack’s life. But it’s what comes next, and what makes up the remaining 45-odd pages of the book, that is what sets this little story apart.

Starting with watching his university history lecturer breaking down in tears when trying to describe the horror of what happened at Pozieres, Peoples explains how he came to understand something of what his father felt when thinking of Jack. He visits what’s left of the old homestead to which Jack never returned, describing how “the sad old ghosts of my people have come out to welcome us”. He searches in dusty files at the Central Army Records Office (this was in 1977, pre-National Archives of Australia online catalogues) for something tangible of his uncle’s life. He visits France, twice, and he watches as the Unknown Australian Soldier is entombed at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, feeling somehow that the man in the coffin is Jack even while knowing it’s pretty well impossible. “That’s the wonderful thing about being unknown”, he writes. “…we can all name him and claim him as our own.”

There are occasional little things that betray the book’s self-published origins: one or two typesetting errors, one photograph that’s been printed upside down, and some inconsistent editing: I’m not a fan of the way Peoples mixes the present tense with the past tense. But From the Top of the Hill is for the most part beautifully written, and occasionally reaches the eloquence of poetry. “I see a letter signed by my grandfather, which I push to one side and instead start writing down all the dates and statistics,” Peoples writes of viewing Jack’s files at the Central Army Records Office. “As I write I become conscious of an old brown couch, an open fire, long legs resting on the sides of the fireplace and a hill with a young boy sitting and watching his brother walk away.”

What’s clear is that Peoples realises the importance of place when trying to understand history. The description of his first return to the ruins of the family homestead hints of an even darker history to that place, nearby which 35 or more Aboriginals had been massacred in 1839. His first visit to France, in 1998, left him feeling like there was an “unease insisting this matter of Jack and me was not yet finished.” (Funnily enough, I can relate to that feeling too.) So he returned to France a decade later – and you’re going to have to read the book to find out what happens there.

I found From the Top of the Hill a sad but lovely tale, well-told. I can very much relate to several aspects of Kevin Peoples’ search for ‘Uncle Jack’, to his sense of story and place and to the way an old family story like this one can embed itself in your bones and not let go. Well worth a read.

 

From the Top of the Hill (ISBN 9780994570307) is available as a print-on-demand title from BookPOD Australia, $19.95

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

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Richard Moffat and the Lost Identity Disc

Servicemen of all hues have long carried identification tags into battle. Frequently, when soldiers are killed the tags of fibreboard or tin are all that is left to identify the bodies of their owners. But just as frequently, even the tags themselves are missing or destroyed, making the task of identifying the casualty that much harder.

Perhaps in anticipation of this – but probably more likely as a good luck charm – it has not been unknown for servicemen to wear their own, private ‘identity’ tags. And not uncommonly, it has indeed been these unofficial trinkets which proved crucial in identifying a dead soldier.

Such was the case when WWI infantryman Private Richard John Moffat, service number 2698, from Carlton in Melbourne, was killed in France in August 1918. On exhumation of the battlefield grave some years later, Moffat’s official identity tags were missing – but on the body was a small piece of curved brass, crudely cut into the shape of Australia and engraved with his name. He was identified on the basis of this piece of personal property.

His file at the National Archives of Australia[1] notes personal effects connected with Moffat. All it says is “DISC”. Usually personal effects like these would be returned to the family. But, as related by reporter Bridie Smith in an article published in October last year in The Age newspaper, instead of being forwarded on to Moffat’s grieving mother, for unknown reasons the disc was included in his official service record. It was still in the folder when, in 1993, the Army transferred its records to the National Archives. And it was still there when Moffat’s niece, Deirdre Meredith, opened the folder in the reading room at the National Archives in 2001. “It was a heart-stopping moment because it was such a personal thing,” Mrs Meredith is quoted as saying.

But when the file was returned to the Archive’s storage, the identity disc had to go back too. And so started a two-and-a-half year battle to get it back to the family.

The National Archives held the view that the little piece of brass was part of a Commonwealth record, and thus needed to remain under its jurisdiction. But for the Merediths, it was clearly a family heirloom – it had been part of Private Moffat’s personal possessions. Letters were written to the National Archives, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Government Ministers and Members of Parliament. And she wrote to the Australian Army. Expert advice from historians and legal advisors eventually persuaded the Army that the brass plate was, in fact, the property of Private Moffat’s next-of-kin. And so, in September last year, an Army officer flew to Melbourne from Canberra, and returned the little brass identity plate to its rightful owners.

“It was like him coming home”, Mrs Meredith said.

This story caught my eye because I can remember similar feelings to those experienced by Mrs Meredith when the plate fell out of the file from one of my first visits to the National Archives a few years ago. The file I was looking at was Jack Purcell’s A705 Casualty File.[2] About halfway into the stack of papers, I found a letter from January 1945 signed ‘EF Purcell’.

That would be Edward Francis Purcell. One of Jack’s brothers.

And my great grandfather.

It’s a very official letter, dealing with important issues like wills and deferred pay. But the signature pulled me up for a moment. It suddenly reminded me that it was written by someone with whom I share a name, and to some extent a family identity.

There are other letters from Edward Purcell. All are typed, as is the letter in the NAA file. All are signed with the same almost copperplate hand. And all are written in beautiful, almost painfully polite language. As far as I know just four other letters exist – all in Mollie Smith’s collection – and so because they are so rare I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that I had to give the NAA one back when I returned the file after looking at it.

Of course, this is a different scenario to the brass identity plate in Richard Moffat’s service record. Edward’s letter was an official one, written to the Air Force, and so it legitimately forms part of a Commonwealth record. Thus it quite properly stays in the National Archives, ready for anyone else who is interested to read it.

 

© 2015 Adam Purcell

[1] NAA: B2455, MOFFAT RICHARD JOHN. The digital copy of this record still contains a scan of the disc.

[2] NAA: A705, 166/33/163 PURCHELL, Royston William – (Warrant Officer); Service Number – 412686; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LM475; Place – Lille, France; Date – 10 May 1944 [Note mis-spelling of PURCELL]

A Diamond in Emerald

In the central Queensland town of Emerald recently, a lady named Margaret Rawsthorne, a researcher at the Emerald RSL, heard a story about a box of papers belonging to a local man whose grandfather had served at Gallipoli in WWI. Mark Murray, a surveyor, had no idea of what was in the box – and the discovery was so interesting that it led to a small story on ABC’s 7.30 programme in January this year.

Murray’s grandfather, James Nicholas Murray, was a soldier in the infantry when he was sent to Gallipoli in 1915. But when his commanding officer discovered that he was also a licenced surveyor, he was asked to apply his trade to mapping the network of trenches and tunnels at a particularly significant strategic point of the peninsula, a place called Russell’s Top.

The diary entries of the adventures he had while carrying out this work are interesting enough. But along with the diary were notes and maps which have provided the most detailed information yet about exactly what was at Russell’s Top. “The Russell’s Top handover report […] basically says that Russell’s Top is one of the most important lines of defence. It said […] it doesn’t have any second line, and if that line is lost, then ANZAC is lost,” said Rawsthorne.

How often do we hear of this sort of story? A long-forgotten box of papers gathers dust in someone’s shed or attic. Simple curiosity or a chance remark somewhere leads to someone opening the box and discovering a veritable gold mine. Probably the most famous discovery of recent years was the glass plate photographs of Australian and British soldiers discovered in a French attic in 2011. I’d suggest that this discovery in Emerald is of a similar significance. And while not necessarily of national importance, smaller finds can be just as useful for family or researchers interested in a particular time period, unit or even individual. The boxes lie undisturbed until the elderly relatives die and their house is cleared by the family (which is where the McAuliffe Letter came from), or until a chance remark reminds someone of their existence (or a letter arrives from someone like me – as happened to Gil Thew).

Happily, as in each of the cases above, much of the time when boxes like these come to light the discoverer contacts the Australian War Memorial or their local RSL (or even gets straight onto Mr Google if they are interested themselves to find out something about what they’ve found). But sometimes people do not realise what they have found and the documents are thrown out or destroyed. This is likely why we have so little documentation relating to my great uncle Jack Purcell.

This year being the Centenary of ANZAC, I suspect a few more dusty boxes will be coming out of the woodwork before too long. I can only hope that whoever discovers a box of papers like these realises the significance of their find.

 

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Medals lost and medals found

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.

1501-JackMedals 042Words and photo (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Sam Alexander

In September 1916, Private Sam Alexander, of the 9th Brigade, 34th Battalion, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Force, began writing in a diary. Over the next three years or so he would scrawl a few lines on most days about his experiences as a soldier on the Western Front.

Two decades later, as the world was plunging into yet another global conflict, a young neighbour called Kevin Jeffcoat sat spellbound as Sam showed him spiked helmets, medals, gas masks and guns, amazing him with stories of the trenches. “It was awful, it was terrible”, Sam told him. “But it was a grand adventure!”

Kevin would eventually become a professional author, writing books like More precious than gold: An illustrated history of water in New South Wales and Burrinjuck to Balranald: The Early Days. But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour. Called From Kangaroo Valley to Messines Ridge: A Digger’s Diary 1917-1918, it’s a remarkable mix of transcripts of Sam Alexander’s diary entries, with context added by explanatory notes based on research and on Kevin’s own memories.

My parents live in the NSW Southern Tablelands town of Goulburn, where my father is the Principal at one of the two state high schools in the town. Dad transferred to Mulwaree High School almost two years ago, though it took a year before he and my mother moved there. When we visited them a few days after they moved into their new house at Christmas last year, Dad managed to find a little time to show me one of Mulwaree’s hidden secrets. In an unassuming little cinder block building near the school’s main entrance is the Mulwaree High School Remembrance Library.

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Started in 1992, it’s a collection of some 4,000 artefacts, photos and documents relating to local men at war, dating from Vietnam all the way back to the New Zealand-Maori War of the mid-nineteenth century. The Australian War Memorial has described it as perhaps the best collection, outside its own, of war memorabilia in Australia.

Kevin Jeffcoat’s granddaughter is a student at Mulwarree. And in August 2012 she donated to the Remembrance Library a signed copy of her grandfather’s manuscript. It is beautifully written and a fantastic resource for the school. Kevin Jeffcoat has put Sam Alexander’s story into an easily understood form and so has ensured that those stories that he was lucky enough to hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, will remain accessible to new generations into the future.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

This is why we do it.

”It’s unbelievable. After 95 years, we finally found him.”

-John Andrews, great nephew of Matthew Hepple, one of the Australians missing at Fromelles

In July 1916 the 5th Division of the Australian Army launched an attack on German positions near the French town of Fromelles. It remains one of the costliest attacks ever mounted by Australian military forces. In one night more than five and a half thousand men became casualties. Almost two thousand of those had been killed.

In 2002 retired Australian schoolteacher Lambis Englezos, following a visit to the Western Front, realised that the number of known Australians buried after the Fromelles battle did not match the number of the recorded missing. He suspected he had evidence of the existence of mass graves dug by the Germans after the battle at a place called Pheasant Wood. He believed that this might have been where the missing Australians lay. This kicked off a remarkably dogged and determined investigation that would eventually find enough information to convince Australian and British authorities to mount an exploratory archaeological dig at the site. British historian Peter Barton was the man, as part of that first dig, who uncovered two buttons showing the Rising Sun of the Australian Army, unequivocally proving that Australians had been there and that Lambis had in fact been right.

In 2009, I was in France to visit the graves of the crew of B for Baker in Lille. I was staying with Joss le Clercq, who by chance lives just outside the village of Fromelles. The week that I was there, a full archaeological dig began on what became known as ‘the Fromelles Project’ at Pheasant Wood. This work resulted in some 250 bodies being recovered and reinterred in the first completely new cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in more than 50 years, just across the road from Pheasant Wood.

Up to the beginning of 2011, some 96 of those 250 had been identified. Last month, a further 14 names were released, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

We are now seeing the vindication of the project begun by Lambis Englezos. 110 families have now received news that had been delayed almost a century. 110 soldiers have permanent, dignified resting places that can become a focus for their families’ remembrance of them. Most importantly, 110 soldiers now have names and stories.

And it all came about through one bloke’s enthusiasm, determination and sheer hard work.

Remembering the men in the faded photographs. This is why we
do it.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

Must be the time of year

There are a few articles like the one that appeared in the Sun-Herald today that tend to appear around this time of year. This one tells the story of a man named Fred Reeves, a Digger killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Or rather it tells the story of how an interested descendant – a great niece in this case – pieced together Fred’s story.

More power to Judy McLeod’s elbow, I say. She started with a name in a family Bible and a hunch that the date given with the name – 1915 – could have been connected with the First World War. She was right. He had been killed in Gallipoli and has no known grave.

“I am glad I looked into this otherwise he would just be another statistic. There is nobody to even say he existed and fought and died for his country.” – Judy McLeod, great niece of Australian infantryman Fred Reeve

This quote for me is the most important part of the article. Through the curiosity of one interested individual, almost a century later, the name scribbled into the Bible has come to life.

There has been a real resurgence in interest in this sort of family research in recent years. Indeed, my own work could be said to be part of it as well. I put it down to a couple of happy coincidences. Perhaps the salient one from a practical point of view has been the information and speed of communications that comes from the internet. It’s become much more accessible to the average person and so it’s easier to turn an idle curiosity into a keen family history interest. We can find records online that previously would have involved letters to archives overseas, if not an actual trip overseas. Investigations that previously would have taken months can now find answers from the other side of the world in literally minutes. In short, people can work in the comfort of their own homes, without having to pore through musty files in some record depository somewhere (though some (like me) might say that doing that is what it’s all about anyway!).

The other factor, more relevant in this case than in my own work into the crew of B for Baker, is the upcoming centenary of the Gallipoli landings in four years time. It means that ANZAC Day is receiving more and more media coverage each year. There are no WWI veterans alive in Australia anymore, but there are more and more people investigating family connections to the conflict – giving names and stories to their own ‘man in the photograph’. For remembering men like Fred Reeves, who would otherwise as Judy McLeod said be just another statistic, this can only be a good thing.

© 2011 Adam Purcell