David George Sutton (1552) enlisted in Brisbane on 31/12/1914. He joined the 15 Battalion. At the time of enlistment, he gave his occupation as labourer. He had been born in Gippsland (Devon North) and at the time of enlistment his father – Thomas Sutton – as next of kin, was living at Tarra Valley. According to the 1915 Rate Book for the Shire of Alberton, the father was a dairy farmer with 71 acres at Devon North. There were 3 Sutton brothers who enlisted, with David the youngest. When he enlisted he gave his age as 22yo but when his father completed the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour he gave his son’s age at death as only 19yo so it would appear that he had put his age up by a couple of years when he enlisted. The father also indicated that his son had attended Max Creek State School and he gave Yarram as the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. Of the 3 brothers who enlisted, it appears that 2 of them had moved to Queensland for work, probably not very long before they enlisted, while one had stayed behind to work on the family farm. The 2 brothers who enlisted in Queensland both described themselves as ‘labourers’, although the father specifically described David’s occupation as ‘bush labourer’. Presumably, there was not enough work for all the sons on the family dairy farm so 2 brothers had moved to Queensland – the most common destination for young men from Gippsland – to start out on their own.
Private David George Sutton was killed on 29/5/1915. The war diary for 15 Battalion reveals that very early (3.15AM) on 29 May the battalion was rushed from Monash Valley to Quinn’s Post where the Turks had ‘blown in’ some of the Australian trenches and occupied them. Some 100 men of the 15 Battalion were ordered to charge the occupied trench. The men were successful in re-occupying the trench but in the engagement the enemy threw a large number of bombs which inflicted severe casualties. 17 Turkish soldiers surrendered and the bodies of another 23 were removed from the trenches. On the Australian side there were 11 men killed – including Major Hugh Quinn himself – and another 14 wounded.
Private Sutton was buried the same day in the New Monash Valley Cemetery, with the Rev. Green (Church of England) officiating. The New Monash Valley Cemetery became in time the Shrapnel Valley Cemetery.
On the face of it, there was little chance of either error or confusion over Private Sutton’s death. However, on 18 June 1915 – some 3 weeks after the death – the father, as next of kin, was advised by cable that his son had been wounded. The cable stated: Regret Son Private D. G. Sutton Wounded Not Reported Seriously No Other Particulars Available Will Immediately Advise Anything Further Received. This was followed up by a letter on 31 August 1915 stating that No. 1552, Private D. G. Sutton, 15th Battalion, was wounded on the 29th June (sic), and there is no further report regarding him. It was not until 29 October 1915 that a formal report of his death, stating that he had been killed in action on 29 May 1915, was issued. Presumably, even though the final, formal report stated that he had been killed in action, Private Sutton must have been wounded on 29 May and this detail was recorded and passed on, prompting the cable a few weeks later. The fact that he actually died from the wounds on the same day must not, again presumably, have cancelled the advice about being wounded. It is hard to believe the mistake but, once again, the episode points to the poor record-keeping on the part of the AIF in the opening months of the fighting. More than this, both the enormity of the error and the length of time it continued, suggest that the battalion commanders were struggling to keep up with what was happening to their men.
Even though official confirmation of the death did not come until October 1915, the family back at Tarra Valley knew by early August 1915 what had happened. As for so many other families, news of the death came from a letter sent by a relative or friend. In this case, the letter was from one of his brothers – William Henry Sutton – who was in fact in the same battalion. He had also enlisted in Brisbane, but not until January 1915. The letter was published in full in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 11 August 1915. The other Sutton brother referred to in the article was Thomas James Sutton (2025) who enlisted in Melbourne in June 1915. The ‘W. Sutton of Yarram’ who was witness to David Sutton’s death on 29 May at Quinn’s Post, was William Owen Sutton (1253) who had enlisted at Yarram on 16 September 1914. He was serving in the 14 Battalion. He had been born in Footscray and, as far as is possible to determine, he was not related to the 3 Sutton brothers. The article was headed: Private D. G. Sutton Killed. Letter from His Brother.
Mr. Thos. Sutton of Tarra Valley, who had three sons in the firing line, received a wire on June 19th from the Defence Department: – “Regret son, Private D. G. Sutton, wounded, not reported seriously. No other particulars available. Will immediately advise anything further received.”
No further information was received, until a letter came to hand last week from Private W. H. Sutton, to his mother, giving an account of his brother’s death.
Private W. H. Sutton writes:- Just a few lines to let you see that I am all right, and I am hoping this will find all well at home. I have not been able to write since I landed at the front, 2nd May, and I have been wondering whether you were cabled about George being killed. It happened on the morning of 29th May. We made a bayonet charge to re-take part of our trench from the Turks. They had mined it and blown it up, with the Australians in it at the time, killing some, and then rushed the trench with bombs, which drove out the remaining Australians, and got in the trench themselves. We soon pulled them out with the bayonet – not one escaped. It was just after we had charged the trench that George was hit with two bombs. His right leg was broken above the knee, and left leg blown off above the ankle almost half way to the knee. He died from loss of blood three hours afterwards. I did not see him at all, and did not know it had happened (and he was only 50 yards from me) until next afternoon, 30th; but he died alongside of W. Sutton, of Yarram, who told me about it. The few things found on him were handed to headquarters to be sent home to you by the Church of England chaplain who buried him. His deferred pay is left to you in a will in his pay book. No doubt you will be notified about it. I hope you have been cabled, as I suppose you have been by this anyway.
This account confirms that Private David Sutton had, strictly speaking, not been ‘killed in action’(kia) but, rather, ‘died of wounds’ (dow).
Of the 3 Sutton brothers – David George Sutton (1552), William Henry Sutton (1559) and Thomas James Sutton (2025) – only Thomas James Sutton, the middle brother, survived the War. William Henry Sutton – the oldest of the brothers – survived right through to the second half of 1918. He was killed in action on 11 August 1918. By that point he had been wounded 3 times. All 3 Sutton brothers appear on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, with both David and William recorded as killed; and both David and William are listed on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.
Notwithstanding his brother’s comments about the recovery of personal items after the death, there were no personal belongings returned to the family. But then in 1920 the family received a letter advising them that, per separate post, they were to receive … a Bible, the property of your son, the late No. 1552 Private D. G. Sutton, 15th Battalion, which was discovered amongst the personal effects of the late No. 1214 Private N. Matheson, 15th Battalion. Private Matheson was killed in the same action as Sutton. While it is possible that Sutton had given Matheson his copy of the bible, the more likely scenario is that when others went looking for the personal belongings of both men the various items were mixed up. The bible only came to light because the authorities were not able to locate a next-of-kin for Matheson – he was an immigrant from Scotland – and, again presumably, at some point in the multiple handling of his personal belongings someone finally noticed that the name in the bible was Sutton’s not Matheson’s. This also raises the possibility that other items in Matheson’s kit – ring, wallet, papers, cards, medals – belonged to Sutton. Both this apparent confusion over the personal property of the men, and the far more significant confusion over Sutton’s death, point to the highly problematic quality of the AIF’s organisational capacity at the time. On this point, the letter from William Owen Sutton published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 11 August 1915 also highlights the significant problem that men were having with mail deliveries. The sense of frustration, if not anger, is evident:
You people complain of us not writing, but we were always writing and getting no letters in return in Egypt. I wrote 17 letters home to you people. George would not get his photo taken, as he said nobody would write to him, so I did not get mine taken when he would not have his done.
The editor of the paper added as a footnote:
Mr. Thos. Sutton informs us that letters were written from home every day, and he is at a loss to account for the non-delivery. The authorities appear to be at fault.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 – The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edition.
Chapter VII – May29th -The Turks break into Quinn’s