It’s because of the advent of digitised records – birth, death, marriage and war service records – and family tree web sites, particularly Ancestry, that I know now what I didn’t know a short time ago. I’d heard about my father’s time in Egypt as a WW2 soldier and I’d heard about his own father’s time in France as a WW1 soldier.
But I’d never heard of the family members who were killed in action.
My grandmother had two cousins, the Burley brothers, James and Frederick, who were killed in Northern France.
Can you imagine losing two sons who voluntarily went to war?
Now imagine losing three sons.
My grandfather had three cousins, the Shaw brothers, George, D’arcey and Frank, who were also killed in Northern France.
But because their cousin, my grandfather Ernest Bruce, survived gassing and a concrete wall falling on top of him, he returned to Australia to produce my father, who in turn produced me.
I’ve discovered most of this information through online records and family history websites. Many many family historians are using these resources now. This means that the great numbers of people commemorating the centenary of the armistice today, 11th November 2018, have learnt, like me, that they are the descendants of the ones who returned.
I have three sons. I feel absolute anguish for the parents who lost two or three of their children in war.
And I now have a greater appreciation of the struggles of Australians trying to build our nation a hundred years ago when the total population was 5 million, and 62,000 of their young people had been killed, and 156,000 were wounded, and many like my grandfather were unable to work again.
This building in the photo below, the Australian War Memorial, is ten minutes from my home. I’ve visited it countless times, and in the past few weeks as the crocheted and knitted poppies were displayed, and as I’ve read and heard so many stories from descendants of soldiers like me, I realise how fortunate I am that I have a comfortable home, enough food to keep me healthy, and a family that is gainfully employed. And I realise that WW1 was not the war to end all wars, there have been many wars since then, and I must not take my fortune for granted.
This new knowledge is greatly due to the digitisation of historical records, a technology I’m very grateful for.
The 11th of the 11th is not far off. The Australian War Memorial here in Canberra is demonstrating the community’s sorrow over all those who died in World War 1, the war to end all wars. Not. Crocheted and knitted poppies have been planted in the lawn, 62,000 of them, one for each of the dead, forming a sea of red spilling out in front of our beautiful war memorial building.
Poppy posts and photos are appearing all around the country. I’ve read that 62,000 poppies was the goal for the project, but the women (mostly women) contributed many many more. The extras have been used in a display in Parliament House and in towns around Australia. I made 12, and I taught my Japanese student to crochet and then she made 12. Our 24 poppies are there in the crowd somewhere.
All this talk about the centenary of the armistice reminded me of a poem I read in my father’s poetry book that he brought back from World War 2. He recorded poems he wanted to remember, and re-reading this one leaves me wondering what it meant to him, especially the final verse. The poet was Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy who allowed it to be circulated among the soldiers. It speaks of a death by gassing and may have comforted some of those who had lost mates to this horrific weapon. My father’s father was gassed in 1916, but survived. Perhaps Dad had him in mind when he recorded this poem in 1942. Here’s his first page:
Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a volunteer British chaplain to the army on the western front, and was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying. He was a great anti-war poet.
Here’s the whole poem written in 1917 in soldier-dialect :
Thy Will Be Done A Sermon in a Hospital
by Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy, from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, 1918
I WERE puzzled about this prayin’ stunt,
And all as the parsons say,
For they kep’ on sayin’, and sayin’,
And yet it weren’t plain no way.
For they told us never to worry,
But simply to trust in the Lord,
“Ask and ye shall receive,” they said,
And it sounds orlright, but, Gawd!
It’s a mighty puzzling business,
For it don’t allus work that way,
Ye may ask like mad, and ye don’t receive.
As I found out t’other day.
I were sittin’ me down on my ‘unkers,
And ‘avin’ a pull at my pipe,
And larfin’ like fun at a blind old ‘Un,
What were ‘avin’ a try to snipe.
For ‘e couldn’t shoot for monkey nuts,
The blinkin’ blear-eyed ass,
So I sits, and I spits, and I ‘ums a tune;
And I never thought o’ the gas.
Then all of a suddint I jumps to my feet,
For I ‘eard the strombos sound,
And I pops up my ‘ead a bit over the bags
To ‘ave a good look all round.
And there I seed it, comin’ across,
Like a girt big yaller cloud,
Then I ‘olds my breath, i’ the fear o’ death,
Till I bust, then I prayed aloud.
I prayed to the Lord Almighty above,
For to shift that blinkin’ wind,
But it kep’ on blowin’ the same old way,
And the chap next me, ‘e grinned.
“It’s no use prayin’,” ‘e said, “let’s run,”
And we fairly took to our ‘eels,
But the gas ran faster nor we could run,
And, Gawd, you know ‘ow it feels
Like a thousand rats and a million chats,
All tearin’ away at your chest,
And your legs won’t run, and you’re fairly done,
And you’ve got to give up and rest.
Then the darkness comes, and ye knows no more
Till ye wakes in an ‘orspital bed.
And some never knows nothin’ more at all,
Like my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
Now, ‘ow was it ‘E didn’t shift that wind,
When I axed in the name o’ the Lord?
With the ‘orror of death in every breath,
Still I prayed every breath I drawed.
That beat me clean, and I thought and I thought
Till I came near bustin’ my ‘ead.
It weren’t for me I were grieved, ye see,
It were my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
For me, I’m a single man, but Bill
‘As kiddies at ‘ome and a wife.
And why ever the Lord didn’t shift that wind
I just couldn’t see for my life.
But I’ve just bin readin’ a story ‘ere,
Of the night afore Jesus died,
And of ‘ow ‘E prayed in Gethsemane,
‘Ow ‘E fell on ‘Is face and cried.
Cried to the Lord Almighty above
Till ‘E broke in a bloody sweat,
And ‘E were the Son of the Lord, ‘E were,
And ‘E prayed to ‘Im ‘ard; and yet,
And yet ‘E ‘ad to go through wiv it, boys,
Just same as pore Bill what died.
‘E prayed to the Lord, and ‘E sweated blood,
And yet ‘E were crucified.
But ‘Is prayer were answered, I sees it now,
For though ‘E were sorely tried,
Still ‘E went wiv ‘Is trust in the Lord unbroke,
And ‘Is soul it were satisfied.
For ‘E felt ‘E were doin’ God’s Will, ye see,
What ‘E came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers ‘E prayed
Were ‘Is power to see it through;
To see it through to the bitter end,
And to die like a Gawd at the last,
In a glory of light that were dawning bright
Wi’ the sorrow of death all past.
And the Christ who was ‘ung on the Cross is Gawd,
True Gawd for me and you,
For the only Gawd that a true man trusts
Is the Gawd what sees it through.
And Bill, ‘e were doin’ ‘is duty, boys,
What ‘e came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed
Were ‘is power to see it through;
To see it through to the very end,
And to die as my old pal died,
Wi’ a thought for ‘is pal and a prayer for ‘is gal,
And ‘is brave ‘eart satisfied.
I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean
We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.
Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.
But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.
Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.
Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.
James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.
Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…
James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.
This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.
In recent years, thousands of us have become avid family historians. The more information that is made electronically and freely available, the more we search, and the more we know. I know things that my parents never knew, and some of my ancestors would no doubt be horrified to know what I know about them. To know that I know, for example, that my grandfather stowed away on a ship so he could join the fight that was the First World War.
Ancestry, Family Search and Findmypast have been (not always reliable) sources for my research, not to mention the very generous provision of (more reliable) digitised newspapers going back to the early 1800s on the National Library’s Trove site, as well as the publishing of war service records by the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial.
Because we now know so much, many of us are commemorating various incidents in our relatives’ lives. This week on the news, I heard of a service in Pozières, France for the centenary of the battle for Pozières ridge on the Western Front which began on 23rd July 1916. It was a costly battle in which 6,700 Australian men died, but which has been ignored until now. It is estimated that 4,000 were never given a burial and are lying beneath the soil of present-day farmland. This week, I, too, am remembering this little village where my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, the stowaway, fought, and survived.
On 29th July 1916 he was gassed, and later took cover behind a concrete wall with two fellow soldiers; a bomb went off near the wall, which fell on top of them. The other two died. My grandfather was pulled out unconscious, but alive. The gas ruined his eyesight, and his nerves were shot from the bomb blasts. I learned this from his medical records.
Of this day in Pozières, 29th July 1916, Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent, wrote in his diary:
Pozières today, no brushwood left – only black trunks – more buildings to be seen than before. Red brown earth. Men quietly dying. … Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … that insatiable factory of ghastly wounds. The men are simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them. (Diary of CEW Bean, 3DRL606/54/1, pp. 19 & 90)
This year, since 14th July – Bastille Day – the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra has been flying two French flags out the front of the building. They will remain until 4th August as a sign of respect for the slaughter that occurred in defending the Western Front, in places like the Pozières ridge. By a grim coincidence, the flags might have been raised because of the Bastille Day attack in Nice this month, which is what happened after the attack in Paris last year, but it turns out they were to be raised on that day anyway. A note on the AWM website explains the flying of the French flags:
“The decision was made earlier this month to honour Bastille Day and in recognition of the bond forged between the two nations and the sacrifices made on the Western Front 100 years ago. Given the recent horrific events in Nice and the subsequent loss of life, the flying of the French flag has added significance and our utmost respect.”
My grandfather volunteered to help defend his king and country, and even stowed away, which seems to mean his application was initially rejected. He was nevertheless signed up on arrival in Egypt. After more than a year, he returned home in poor health, which continued to deteriorate for the rest of his life. He couldn’t work for long stretches, had little money and even less sympathy from the government when he applied for a pension as a young man. It took many years and many requests before his debility was acknowledged as war related. But he did marry my lovely grandmother and they had nine children.
A hundred years later, France is under attack again. She will survive, she always does, but it must be easier if she has friends to help her fight and recover.
Since last year the Australian War Memorial has been projecting names of Australians who died in WWI onto the front of the building. I’ve been to the Memorial on cold dark nights to see the names of two brothers, D’Arcey and Frank. Recently, it was their brother George’s turn.
George Ronald Shaw, my grandfather’s cousin, was killed in France, near Sailly-sur-la-Lys, on 20th April 1916, a hundred years ago this week. He was 24, the first of the three brothers to be killed in action, all of them in France. (My grandfather was wounded on the Somme a few months later but returned home alive.)
George had disembarked in Marseille on 3rd April and made it all the way to the Somme in northern France, where he was killed 17 days later when his billet, a farmhouse, was shelled. His record says he was KIA, killed in action, but he actually didn’t get to fight against anyone.
An aside: the last couple of times I’ve been to the War Memorial to photograph my relatives’ names, I’ve read the banners advertising the presence of Mephisto, the Rarest Tank in the World (they were still there when I took the photo above, but in preparation for Anzac Day on Monday, they’ve been removed). Today I decided to see Mephisto for myself. It’s a Sturmpanzerwagen A7V invented by the Germans, and Mephisto is the only one of its kind left in the world. It has a painted red Faustian demon on the right side, carrying a British rhomboid-shaped tank under its arm. Hence the name Mephisto, short for the Faustian character, Mephistopheles. It was a great lumbering vehicle, hot, cramped and noisy inside, but it was one of the first of many tanks that would change land warfare for ever.
The War Memorial was quite crowded this morning, and Canberra generally seems to have more people moving around this weekend than usual. Perhaps they’re here for the Anzac Day long weekend. I’m considering going to the dawn service on Monday. I’ve never done it. Yet.
Walter Burley had two wives and seven children. His wives had short lives, and four of his children died in infancy. The three who survived to manhood, Alfred, James and Frederick, went to France to fight in World War One, even Alfred who had his own wife and six children. Fortunately for them he returned. Pity about Alfred’s two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, for both their lives ended in France in 1917. With all his siblings dead, Alfred came home to Australia in 1919 to find his wifeless father, Walter, was also dead and gone. All of Alfred’s original family were in the ground.
I learned this little story of big losses through the Australian War Memorial’s prompting. It’s reminding us nightly, from sunset to sunrise, that 62,000 Australians died in the fight that was World War One. Walter’s sons, Frederick and James, are on the Honour Roll currently being projected onto the Memorial’s facade. They are two of my grandparents’ cousins who did not return from France, so I’ve been zipping over to the Memorial to catch the names as they appear. This month it’s Frederick’s turn.
I’ve read the army records, including a few letters and the immediate family history, of Frederick and his brothers. I’m struck by the number of deaths that left Alfred the only standing family member.
The abundance of our ancestors’ details now available means we’re discovering their long-forgotten joys and losses. But look closely; there are even a few of their untruths. Frederick’s details on the Roll reveal that, when he was young, he wished he was younger; the Memorial records his age at death as 24, but he was born in 1887, which in 1917 made him 30… Frederick died and was buried in April 1917 at Vaulx-Vraucourt, Pas de Calais, forever youngish. He lied to the Australian Army, but he can’t lie to me because his birth details are these days online for all the world to see.
These Burley men were my first cousins three times removed. I snapped this photo of Frederick’s name at 8:05pm one evening a couple of weeks ago, when it shone for 30 seconds. In June 2016 his brother’s name, J.E. Burley, will be projected. I’ve marked it in my diary.
The names of three other men, my grandfather’s cousins George, Frank and D’Arcey, were projected onto the Memorial during this year’s cold, starry winter evenings. The significance of all this for me? My grandfather also went to France, but he was a cousin who returned. His name, like Alfred Burley’s, is not one of the 62,000 being projected, 30 times over 4 years, beneath the dome of the Memorial.
Tonight at 7.52 when it was 6 degrees Celsius and blowing an icy gale, I took this photo of D’arcey Richard Nottingham Shaw’s name projected onto the Australian War Memorial. It was hard to hold my camera still in the wind, but the photo is not too bad. D’arcey was killed in action on The Somme in France in 1917, yet he has no grave; his remains were never found. On his Roll of Honour card, digitally available on the A.W.M. website, it is noted that D’arcey Shaw’s wounds were the result of being buried twice from bombs bursting near him in Pozières. How ironic that they should write that, when in the end he was buried nowhere.
Because he died defending Australia, his name was written in light for 30 seconds tonight, perhaps for my benefit alone. As far as I know, none of his other family members live in Canberra. Since I’m just ten minutes away, it’s easy to whip down to the Memorial and see the names when they come up between sunset and sunrise.
D’arcey was my grandfather’s cousin. I want to remember him and his two brothers who also died in France, in the war to end all wars, because my grandfather was there too, but he didn’t die.
Nineteen-year-old D’arcey was the second son in his family to be killed in France. The first one was George, and there would be a third, Frank Percy Shaw, whose name was projected onto the War Memorial on 21st June, a night that was cool but not freezing like tonight. I wrote about him here.
As I was leaving around the back of the Memorial I saw four kangaroos standing guard in the dark. They’re delightful at a distance and are happy to be photographed from a car window, but if I’d got out and approached them they would have either hopped away or hopped towards me and treated me as an enemy.
The next date that I will have a relative’s name up for viewing is in early spring. I’m happy knowing it won’t be another chilling evening.
Last night I went to the Australian War Memorial for an 8:58 pm appointment. At this moment, Frank’s name would be projected onto the exterior wall of the Hall of Memory, an honourable way of remembering the soldiers who died for Australia in World War One. Every 30 seconds a new name appears. There are 62,000 names on the Roll of Honour which will all be displayed several times between 2014 and 2018, from sunset to sunrise.
Frank was my first cousin twice removed. Or, if you like, my grandfather’s cousin. He was the third son in his family to be killed in action in France; the first one died in 1916, the second in 1917, and Frank in 1918. He was 23, had been promoted to Lance Corporal, was twice recommended for decorations and was congratulated for conspicuous gallantry and daring in reconnoitring enemy positions in February 1918. Five weeks later he was killed by the enemy on 5th April, 1918 in France.
After receiving news of the death of a third son to die on the Somme, Frank’s father asked the Defence Department to send home his personal effects. And so, in July 1918, the effects of Frank Albert Percy Shaw were sent with the SS Barunga. In case no. 1153 were a two-Franc note (damaged), a wallet, a note case, photos, two prayer books, a letter and a YMCA wallet cover. On 15th July, the Barunga was torpedoed by the enemy and was lost with all cargo. But, at last some good news, she was carrying invalided troops back to Australia, and all on board were saved.
The Barunga, with the personal effects of a number of soldiers who had died, is still sitting on the ocean floor off the Isles of Scilly, south-west of Lands End, England.
On 25th April it will be 100 years since Australian and New Zealand soldiers charged the beaches in Gallipoli, Turkey, in an attempt to beat the Turks and give the Allies a chance to take Constantinople. They were mown down, slaughtered. The battles continued for months until December 1915 when they withdrew, defeated. Out of a population of less than 5 million, Australia lost 8,000 young males at Gallipoli.
The following year, 1916, my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, joined the army after stowing away on a ship of volunteers headed for Egypt. In July at Pozières, France, on the Western Front, he was trapped under concrete in an explosion, and then gassed. But he survived. He was one of the 40,000 Australians killed or wounded in 1916 on the Western Front (see AWM). That’s a huge part of a population of 5 million.
When he returned to Australia, he was too ill to work for more than a few days a week, yet it took the government years to offer him a pension.
His oldest son was my father, Ronald Bruce, who hadn’t learnt a thing about the futility of volunteering to fight in a war. In 1941 he joined the army, was sent to Egypt, and months later was sent home with shell shock. He couldn’t hold down a job, and at 25 was offered a pension.
This Anzac Day, I honour my father and grandfather for volunteering to participate in Australia’s defence.
At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra there is a wall called the Roll of Honour. It’s covered in the names of Australians who have died in war. My grandfather and father are not on the wall because they returned alive; but my grandfather’s three cousins, the Shaw brothers, and my grandmother’s two cousins, the Burley brothers, did not. They are all buried on the Somme in France, and their names are here on the wall. I put poppies beside their names.
Since I learnt that they were all killed while my grandfather returned, I haven’t looked at life the same way.