Private Ellefsen enlisted on 3/10/1914, at Ballarat. He was 24 at the time of enlistment. He was a labourer. He had been born at Yarram but, as indicated, he enlisted at Ballarat. His father, over the course of his son’s military involvement, lived at Ballarat, Yarram and Alberton. Thomas had attended the local state schools at Devon North and Lower Bulga. He had also been involved in the local Methodist church. The family originally came from Norway.
Private Ellefsen joined the 7th Battalion and embarked from Melbourne on 2/2/1915. Like many others, his papers suggest that he thought he was enlisting in the Light Horse.
The case of Private Ellefsen involves a major problem. The formal record shows that he was killed on 25/4/1915, the first day of the landing; however as for both Privates Tolley and Pallot this was not confirmed until there was a court of enquiry held more than one year later in France. For Ellefsen, the court of enquiry was held – in the field France – on 5 June 1916 . On the Roll of Honour in the Australian War Memorial he is also recorded as killed in action of 25 April 1915. There is no grave and his name is included on the Lone Pine Memorial. The problem is that the only witness statement, contained in the Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing report, does not support either the official date or location of the death. Rather than being killed on 25 April 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey, the witness statement had him killed at Cape Helles about 10 May 1915:
Witness states he knew him well in private life. Saw him lying dead at about 10 yards behind main trenches at Cape Helles about 10th May 1915. He was killed by shell fire. Very badly cut about, chest and shoulders almost blown away. Saw him fall, & seeing that he was dead went on. Ellefsen was about 22 years old, fair and very stoutly built. Came from Bendigo, Victoria. Came over with 2nd Rfts of the 7th Btn. Very quiet fellow but very popular. Left Melbourne 21st February 1915 [21st crossed out and replaced by 2nd], arrived Peninsula 25th April 1915.
The witness was Private James Leopold Julin (1361) and the statement was dated 26/4/16, a year after the events. Both Ellefsen and Julin had been in the same unit – 2nd Reinforcements, 7 Battalion – and both left Melbourne, on 2 February 1915, on the HMAT A46 Clan Macgillivray. They enlisted within a day of each other. There are some slight inconsistencies in Julin’s statement. Ellefsen, for example, enlisted at Ballarat, not Bendigo. Similarly, Ellefsen was closer to 25 years old at the time, but at the same time the physical description given by Julin matched that on the attestation papers. Julin also claimed that he knew Ellefsen in ‘private life’, implying he knew him before enlistment. For all these reasons, Julin would have to be regarded as a credible witness.
Julin was describing the fighting associated with the second battle of Krithia from 6 May 1915, in which the Australian 2nd Brigade was involved. Australian (and New Zealand) troops had been transferred from Anzac Cove to Cape Helles to take part in the battle. The 7th Battalion – together with the other battalions of 2 Brigade (5, 6 and 8) – was involved in fierce fighting on May 8. Prior (2009, p.144) rates this particular battle as particularly misconceived and notes that the 2 Australian Brigade suffered some 1,000 casualties, about half its strength. The war diary of 7 Battalion for that day records casualties of approx. 250. The troops remained in trenches for the next 2 days and were relieved on 11 May. If Private Julin’s witness statement is correct then Private Ellefsen was killed about 10 May 1915, and most likely 8 May. He was not killed on the first day of fighting in the area of Anzac Cove but nearly two weeks later in the infamous killing fields of Krithia.
Closer examination of the 7 Battalion’s war diary offers a possible explanation for the discrepancy. The entry for 25 April 1915 does give a breakdown of the officers from the battalion killed and wounded. It lists them – 18 in total – by name. But there is no detail on the other ranks. Rather there is a note in the margin – See 22.5.1915 for Casualty List. The approximate casualties for 25.4.15 was 400 killed, wounded and missing. Also, there are many references to the fact that in the general chaos all the battalions had become mixed together. Officers are referred to as trying to muster their men, and this continued for several days. Clearly, the battalion’s officers would have had great difficulty in accounting for their men, both living and dead, in the first few days of the fighting. It was not until 22 May 1915, well after Krithia, that the 7 Battalion gave the detailed breakdown of casualties for the period 25 April to 22 May 1915. The total figure given was 808 and the breakdown was as follows: Anzac – both officers and other ranks – 80 killed, 385 wounded and 70 missing (535 total); Cape Helles – both officers and other ranks – 50 killed, 175 wounded and 48 missing (273 total). This accounting rationalisation increases – by 100+ – the level of casualties for 25 April. Overall, it is clear that, at the battalion level, records of when and where men were killed were somewhat problematic. At the same time, it is hard to believe that this confusion could have lasted over a period as long as the nearly 2 weeks involved in the case of Ellefsen.
Against this background, it was inevitable that AIF communications with the family back in Australia would be deficient and this was again painfully obvious with Private Ellefsen’s family. As with Pallot, the family was informed that he had been wounded. The initial telegram advising that Private Ellefsen had been wounded was received on 9 June. It stated that the case was not reported to be serious and that they would be advised immediately once there were further details. The telegram did not state when he had been wounded. Nor were there any details about the hospital. The response from the family was appreciative in tone:
On behalf of my father Thomas Ellefsen, late of Ballarat now in Yarram Sth Gippsland, I thank you for the telegram concerning Private T. E. Ellefsen 1331 7th Batt 2nd Inf. Brig. Wounded in the Dardenelles (sic). Hoping to hear further progress.
There was another letter on 26 July from the family. They were now … very anxious about him. If he is well enough we should have had letters from him… and they asked specifically about the hospital: We would like to know what Hospital he is in… The response on 28 July stated that there had been no further report but they should therefore assume that he is progressing satisfactorily. The specific hospital … in which he is located is at present unknown.
Two months later, on 13 August 1915, with no additional information, there was another letter to Base Records, Melbourne. The tone was more urgent and someone had even claimed that they had seen Thomas in a procession:
Early in June you notified us that our brother was wounded, could you give us any particulars as we have not had a line from him for over eight weeks.
Someone said they thought they saw him in procession last Tuesday. Please let me know; suspense is dreadful.
The reply on 17 August 1915 was typically unhelpful and dismissive:
In acknowledging receipt of your inquiry dated the 13th inst. concerning your brother, No. 1331 Private T. E. Ellefsen, 7th Battalion, I beg to inform you that I am not aware that he has returned to Australia.
Your father was communicated with on 28th ult. and notified that your brother was not reported seriously wounded and in the absence of further reports it was to be assumed satisfactory progress was being made.
Four months later, at the end of 1915 Base Records informed the family (16/12/1915) that further requests on its part to the AIF in Egypt for details on the case of Private Ellefsen had only discovered that … he was reported wounded on 25th April, and his death cannot be confirmed.
Interestingly, one additional piece of information that was not apparently relayed to the family was that at least one letter addressed to Private Ellefsen serving with the AIF in Egypt was returned to Base Records in Melbourne endorsed ‘killed’ on the envelope. There was no return address on the envelope and consequently it was returned to Base Records. The letter was actually posted in Yarram but it is not possible to make out the date it was posted. This was in November 1915 and possibly explains the reference in the letter to the family in December 1915 – quoted above – … his death cannot be confirmed. By this stage, of course, the family must have assumed that he had been killed.
As indicated, a court of enquiry convened in France on 5/6/1916 determined that Private Ellefsen had been killed in action on 25/4/1915. However, it looks as if the telegram formally advising of his death did not come until October 1916. In the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 1 November 1916 there is a small reference to Private T. E. Ellefsen’s parents, of Devon North, receiving a cable on the 27 October advising of his death in combat on 25/4/1915. The paper noted that the doubt over his death was finally cleared up in a sad way.
A death notice appeared in the same edition of the paper. It stated that Private T E Ellefsen who had previously been reported missing had been killed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. He was the third son of Thomas and Elese Ellefsen of Devon North.
The last word on Private Ellefsen comes from his father in 1921. As per normal practice he had been sent the standard form asking for any information or letters that might help in locating the body of the missing soldier. His reply – 21/6/1921 – is a last desperate plea for information; but given the level of confusion over his son’s death, including time and location,there was little chance that correct information was ever going to be forthcoming,
The last I heard from my son was a letter written at sea on the 24th April 1915. In the letter he stated that they had just received word that to be ready to land any time. His friend W. L. Taylor of the 8th battalion was talking to him at the time and both then wished each other good luck & going below then to write to home.
W.L. Taylor never saw my son again & he himself was wounded just a few days after the landing.
That is all I have heard of my son’s death. Trusting and hoping you will be able to find out further particulars.
The questions of where and when Private Thomas Ellefsen 7 Battalion was killed will probably never be truly resolved. However the case certainly highlights, yet again, the chaos that was Gallipoli and the suffering that flowed from this back to the families in Australia.
Prior R 2009, Gallipoli:The End of the Myth, UNSW Press.