Posts Tagged 'WWI'

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 But he also wrote an unpublished manuscript based on his memories of conversations with his childhood neighbour.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.

12apr-firstquarter2012-001-e1347075108685 copy

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

Advertisements

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

The Lost Diggers

“It’s like looking back into time, looking into the eyes of men who’ve just been in battle.”

-Australian War Memorial historian Peter Burness, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/world/diggers-at-play-frozen-in-time-20110226-1b97y.html

In 1916 a French couple by the name of Thuillier began taking photographs of allied troops as they passed through their village of Vignacourt, just behind the lines on the Western Front. They began it as a means of making a little money – but what they created has become a priceless collection of immense historical value.

The collection was almost lost to history. A French amateur historian first tried to alert Australian and British authorities to its existence some 20 years ago, but nothing came of it. It was only recently that they were uncovered, in three dusty chests in the attic of the old Thuillier family farmhouse. The Sydney Morning Herald article reports that the farmhouse was about to be sold – which could have been the end of the three dusty chests, until Burness and his team intervened.

As Gil Thew told me, his uncle’s effects hadn’t been touched for over thirty years. I don’t have any comparable material concerning my great uncle Jack. The family story is that his letters disappeared sometime in the 1960s. Perhaps they were seen as merely dusty old papers, of no interest to anyone.

But like this story shows, what one person might consider old junk could be a goldmine. I’ve been lucky enough to study closely the archives of ‘dusty old papers’ belonging to two of the crew of B for Baker. Reading this story made me wonder what else might still be out there, largely forgotten – but waiting to be found.

(c) 2011 Adam Purcell


Archives

Advertisements