Nathan (Nathan Walbourne) (William Nathan) Hepburn was another young man who had been born in the Shire of Alberton (Alberton), attended school (both Yarram and Port Albert State School) and grown up in the Shire, but who, at the time of enlistment was living and working in Queensland. He enlisted at Bundaberg, very early in the War, on 19 August 1914.
The family dynamic was difficult. His parents had divorced in 1898 when Nathan was about 12 yo. At the time of enlistment his father – Wilfred Alfred Hepburn – was a fisherman living at Port Albert. His mother – Elizabeth Jane Hepburn – was living in Melbourne at Carlton. Nathan recorded his mother as his next-of-kin on the enlistment papers, but it appears that the authorities lost contact with her from late 1918. Then in 1920 the father successfully challenged his former wife’s status as next-of-kin and, as a consequence, all medals, the Memorial Plaque and photo of the grave were sent to him. There was a sister – Mrs B (Elizabeth) W Morris – living at Darriman in the Shire of Alberton, and another sister – Mrs Sheehan – living in South Melbourne.
Private Hepburn’s occupation was recorded as labourer. He was 27 yo, single and he gave his religion as Church of England. Also on his enlistment papers, he noted that he had served 2 years in the senior cadets and 1 year in a rifle club. The rifle club could have been in the Shire of Alberton, but the 2 years in the senior cadets suggests that he could have lived in Melbourne, perhaps with his mother, as a teenager. In terms of his links to the local area, when the Roll of Honour form was completed, Yarram was given as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. His name is included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and also on the honor rolls for the 2 schools he attended. However, his name is not on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and there is no indication that he – or his father, on his behalf – ever received the Shire Medallion.
Private Hepburn joined the 9 Battalion and embarked for Egypt from Brisbane on 24 September 1914. He was promoted to lance corporal on 19 January1915.
L/Cpl Hepburn went missing on 28/6/1915 and a court of inquiry, held in France one year later on 5/6/1916, determined that he had been ‘killed in action’ on the date he was reported as missing. As in so many other cases, the family had had to wait for a year before his fate was formally determined. Then in early May 1921, the father was informed that L/Cpl Hepburn had been buried at Shell Green Cemetery. The body must have been identified after the War through the work of the Graves Registration Unit. A small number of personal belongings, including 2 diaries, had been returned earlier, in July 1920.
The action in which L/Cpl Hepburn was killed was a diversionary attack on the Turkish lines. Such ‘demonstrations’ were not popular with the Australian soldiers. They were intended to prevent the Turks withdrawing troops from their lines at Anzac and sending them south to Krithia. The war diary for 9 Battalion describes how on 28 June 1915, 2 companies (B and C) were ordered to attack (1) Snipers Ridge South and (2) Razor Back Ridge.
The attack was made with the object of co-operating with the Southern Force [Cape Helles] and preventing the enemy from sending reinforcements down. The attack of B Coy was well carried out. C Coy was under heavy fire from both flanks, both shrapnel and Machine Guns. This attack was not well carried out and a retirement took place without orders from the Co. Commander.
The diary also gave casualty figures for an action that lasted just 3 hours. B Coy had 12 killed, 46 wounded and 7 missing. C Coy lost 9 killed, 16 wounded and 15 missing. These were high figures – a total of some 105 men – for what was no more than a strategic feint. Interestingly, the casualty figures for C Coy, where the men effectively withdrew towards their own lines without waiting for orders to retire were considerably less than for B Coy which was applauded for following orders.
L/Cpl Hepburn was in C Coy and he became one of the 15 men missing on the day. The battalion war diary offered some additional information on the men missing after the action.
The missing in B Coy are almost certain to be killed. It is possible that of the 15 missing in C Coy the party under Lieut Jordan may be prisoners.
It also noted that over the next few days several attempts were made to recover bodies but most of these efforts had to be called off because of enemy fire. The only success was on the morning of 29 June, the day after the action: Secured five bodies early this morning, stripped of boots and clothing.
The reference to the party of men from C Coy who were missing with Lt. Jordan is highly relevant in terms of what happened to L/Cpl Hepburn.
Lt. Jordan was 2Lt. Stanley Rupert Jordan. He had been an accountant before enlisting on 22 August 1914. He was only 20 yo and had been promoted to the rank of 2Lt. on 28 April 1915. His file indicates that he was in fact taken prisoner on the day (28/6/15) and it also shows that he was wounded – ‘gun shot wound to right arm’ – on the same occasion. He was held as a POW until November 1918.
There were 12 witness statements in the Red Cross file on 584 Lance Corporal William Nathan Hepburn. Most statements simply claimed that he was missing after the action on the day. However, 3 statements gave additional information on the connection between 2Lt. Jordan and L/Cpl Hepburn and the likely sequence of events. As indicated in the battalion war diary, the retirement of the men from C Coy. to their own trenches was at their own initiative. Once back in their positions, it was realised that Lt. Jordan was not there and another officer – Capt. Young – sent Hepburn to locate Lt. Jordan and inform him that the rest of the Company had retired. The following witness statement from Pte George Orgill 564 refers to a definite order having been given to retire but, as indicated, the war diary of the battalion notes that, initially at least, no such order was given. In any case, the substance of what happened is clear:
At Anzac about two months after the landing on April 25 Companies B and C were sent out in front of trenches on the right of Anzac to draw the Turks fire. Witness [Orgill] and Hepburn were with them. They were then ordered to retire to the trenches. Capt. Young then sent Hepburn to tell Lieut. Jordan to retire (as Jordan had apparently not heard the order when first given). Neither Hepburn nor Lt. Jordan ever returned.
Another witness – G E Dench 1749 – also stated that Hepburn was with Lt. Jordan when both of them were ‘cut off’.
The following account by Cpl. H Wilson 541 does not mention Lt. Jordan but it does note that Hepburn went out again to try to find missing men:
Informant states that on June 28th at Anzac Cove half of the Company [C Coy.] were sent out in front of our trenches to line the ridge so as to draw reinforcements that were going to reinforce against the British troops at Achi Baba. About 20 men and an officer, (including Informant [Cpl. Wilson] and L/Cpl. Hepburn) went over the hill into the gully. We were then called on to retire, and L/Cpl Hepburn retired with us. He went out again to try and find the others who were missing, and that was the last we saw of him. He could have easily been taken prisoner.
The exact circumstances of L/Cpl Hepburn’s death will never be known. Did he locate Lt. Jordan? Was he killed in the same action in which Lt. Jordan was wounded? Or was he killed before he managed to make contact with Lt. Jordan? On this last point, there was one witness statement – Pte. F E Black 533 – that explicitly recorded his death:
Hepburn was killed on 28th June. I passed him lying dead: shot through the neck.
Perhaps Pte. Black was one of the last men from C Coy to retire and he came across Hepburn’s body as he was returning to the trenches.
Beyond the conjecture, it appears that L/Cpl Hepburn either was ordered or chose voluntarily to return to the battle zone to locate men from C Coy and inform them that all the others had retired. Without doubt, it was an act of bravery. Whether the young Lt. Jordan ever learnt that L/Cpl Hepburn most likely died trying to save him is another of the War’s ironies, on the small but very personal scale.
War Diary of 9 Battalion, June 1915
National Archives file for HEPBURN Nathan
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Nathan Hepburn
Roll of Honour: William Nathan Hepburn
WW1 Red Cross files: William Nathan Hepburn