Lance Corporal Wallace was the first of the men form the Shire of Alberton to die in France.
Percy Allen Wallace was born at Glengarry, Gippsland. The family must have moved into the Shire of Alberton when he was a child because both Percy and his younger brother – Leslie Roy Wallace – went to Yarram SS and both feature on the school’s honour roll. Percy Wallace also appears on both the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.
At the time he enlisted, Percy Wallace gave his occupation as ’mill hand’ and also ‘butter maker’. He appears on the Electoral Roll as ‘butter maker’, with the address given as Yarram. His father – William Wallace – is also listed as a ‘sawyer’ of Goodwood Mills, via Port Albert.
The 2 Wallace brothers enlisted in late September 1914. It appears that Percy enlisted first, as one of the initial group at Yarram, on 21/9/14 and then Leslie went directly to Broadmeadows and enlisted 2 days later (23/9/14). Leslie served in the AIF until he was returned to Australia on Anzac leave in December 1918.
Private Percy Wallace’s first term with the AIF did not last long. He was discharged as ‘medically unfit’ on 19/12/14, just 3 months after enlisting. There is no indication what the medical issue was but when he re-enlisted on 8/2/15, just a couple of months later, he did acknowledge the earlier discharge – ‘medically unfit’.
Interestingly, the brothers appear on the Methodist Circuit honour roll, yet Percy’s religion was given as both Presbyterian (enlistment papers) and Church of England (embarkation roll), and Leslie gave his religion as Church of England. The anomaly points to the tendency to employ ‘CoE’ as the default Protestant denomination.
On his re-enlistment, Pte Percy Wallace joined 22 Battalion. He served on Gallipoli from late August 1915. In mid March 1916, the 22 Battalion left Alexandria and on 26/3/16 it disembarked at Marseilles. Within 3 weeks of arriving in France he was dead. He died of wounds – G.S.Wound Right leg & Left forearm – on 15/4/16.
22 Battalion had only moved into the front line trenches at Fleurbaix – about 10 Kms from Fromelles – the day before Lance Corporal Wallace was wounded. The entry in the war diary of the battalion details his fate:
Trenches (Fleurbaix). Sniping & observations, very little movement noticed. Patrol moved out from Sec 42. 1 officer 1 O/R. When returning at 11.20 PM when noticed & caught by M.G. fire. Lt McCAUL slightly wounded. L/Cpl WALLACE seriously wounded.
L/Cpl Wallace was taken to No. 8 Casualty Clearing Station but he died just over 12 hours later. He was buried at Merville Cemetery, with Rev. Anthony Fenn officiating.
The family back at Goodwood was informed of the death within 2 weeks. It took 2 more years before all the personal items – (1) Identity Disc, Letter, Photo, Testament, Cigarette Cards, Cigarette Case; (2) Cards, 2 Pieces Fancy Work, 2 Brushes – were returned to the family in 2 shipments.
There was extensive coverage of L/Cpl Wallace’s death in the local paper (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative) from the end of April to late July 1916. Essentially, the coverage was based on 4 pieces of correspondence that the parents received in the weeks after their son’s death. The family must have provided this correspondence to the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the paper who then used the letters with their approval. As already noted – see Post 65 – Rossiter was a member of the 1915 Yarram Recruiting Committee and a key supporter of the War effort. The cumulative effect of the 4 letters definitely pitched L/Cpl Wallace’s death as a classic and instructive example of heroic sacrifice in a just war.
Letters such as the 4 considered here were common and, obviously, they would have meant a great deal to grieving families, desperate for any personal accounts of their sons’ final moments. However, extensive publication of such letters in the local press was uncommon. Arguably, the editorial decision reflected the reality that L/Cpl Wallace’s death was the first death of a local from the Shire of Alberton on the Western Front. The War had moved from the Gallipoli Peninsula to France; and while there had been a hiatus after Gallipoli, this first death on the Western Front reinforced for everyone back in the Shire of Alberton that the local boys were back in the firing line. There would be so many more deaths to come that it would prove impossible to devote the same amount of copy to each of them. The reporting and grieving processes associated with the dead – and injured – had, inevitably, to become more abbreviated and succinct.
The first news of L/Cpl Wallace’s death came in the ‘editorial’ written by Rossiter for the edition of 28/4/16. At this point it appears that Rossiter did not even appreciate that the death had occurred in France. He was keen to remind readers that Percy had been a star local footballer. In fact, L/Cpl Wallace had answered the call to the sportsmen – particularly the footballers – of Australia, well before it had been made public in the mid 1915 recruiting campaign.
The sad tidings reached Yarram this week of the death of one of our soldier boys, Private Percy Wallace, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Wallace, of Goodwood. But meagre particulars are to hand, stating that he died from wounds in the legs and arms on 15th inst., probably received in a skirmish with the Turks. … Like others who have enlisted, he was a foremost footballer in this district, men who make good soldiers, of that virile type Australia can ill afford to lose.
In the edition of 3/5/16, under ‘Personal’, Rossiter revealed the contents of the official telegram sent to the family via the postmistress at Port Albert. The cause of death was given – died from gunshot wounds arms and thigh, 15th April – and the customary expressions of sympathy from the King and Nation noted.
Then in the edition of 23/6/16, 2 letters were published relating to L/Cpl Wallace’s death: one from a British nurse working the casualty clearing station where he died; and the other from a mate in the same unit (22 Battalion).
The British nurse – Sister Jean Todd – gave a detailed account of L/Cpl Wallace’s death. Interestingly, in her letter there is no attempt to attach any of the usual expressions of duty done and sacrifice made. Nor are there religious platitudes. Rather, it is short and direct, with a pervading sense of resignation. At the same time, because the letter itself was an act of kindness, the parents would have read into the letter her sense of compassion for their son and taken comfort from the fact that she was there with him when he died.
I am deeply sorry to tell you of the death of your son, 273 Lance-Corporal Wallace, A. I. F., in this hospital [ 8 Casualty Clearing Station, BEF] at 1 p.m. on the 15th. He was admitted before mid-day suffering from gun shot wounds, right arm, right thigh, and the popliteal artery had been severed. From this he lost much blood. The artery was ligatured and restoratives of all kinds applied. He was conscious while the surgeon was dressing the wounds and while injections into the blood stream to try and replace wastage were given. Soon after he became delirious, very restless, finally unconscious, and passed away at 1 o’clock. It is an abrupt tale to send so far, but what more can I say. If possible we grieve more for our overseas men than our home men, but it does not save them.
The second letter was written by L/Cpl Percy Davidson, 22 B. This second Percy was a 20 yo from Tasmania. He described himself as a very close friend of Percy – I mourn his loss very much, as we have been like brothers to each other – and he therefore felt the need to write to the parents to express … the heartfelt sorrow I have for you at this time. This time there was the conventional appeal to God’s mercy: … I pray that God will comfort and bless you. It was His Will, therefore we must bow to it. There was also the reassurance that he had ‘died like a man’: It may be some consolation to you to know that he died like a man and an Australian. There was also the flash of stoicism when Wallace assured Davidson, as the doctors were working on him – they were talking about amputating his right hand – “Oh, I’m not too bad, Dave [sic], and will write as soon as I am able.”
It is important to remind ourselves of what is happening here. The parents have given permission for the local paper to publish the most intimate letters of their son’s death. Not all parents would do this and there is no way of knowing parents’ true motivation in matter like this; but the more important point is that such accounts augmented the official narrative of the War by filling out the personal experiences of soldiers and their families. This was a level of reality that local readers could not ignore and it was a reality that had a powerful moral force behind it, built on notions of duty, sacrifice, national and Imperial identity, and divine sanction. It was an extraordinarily powerful human narrative; and it would have been very difficult either to challenge or stand outside it.
The last detailed report of the death of L/Cpl Wallace appeared on 28/7/16. Under the heading, Late Private [sic] Percy Wallace. Particulars Of His Death., Rossiter featured another 2 letters. The first was from the sister of Lt. McCaul – the officer who had been with L/Cpl Wallace on the patrol where they had both been wounded – and the second from the chaplain with 22 Battalion.
The letter from Miss Nora McCaul of Glenhuntley Road, Elsternwick to the Wallace parents explains itself.
In case my brother has not written or has not your address, I am sending you the following. Your son was wounded on or about April 13th, and I hear he died of his wounds. My brother was intelligence officer for the 22nd Battalion, and about the middle of April was told to choose a man and find out certain information from the German trenches. He chose your son, and at the same time said to him, “There will be no V.C.s to D.C.M.s hanging to this; probably all we will get will be bullets.” Your son was most anxious to go, and I believe the two set out about 11.30 p.m. They got the information and were returning when the Germans opened fire on them. As my brother said, “We both stopped bullets.” They then had to climb through barb wire entanglements and swim some icy water 6ft. deep. The next my brother remembers was in hospital in Boulogne. In a letter dated May 16th from there my brother says: – “I only heard today that the Lieutenant [sic]-Corporal, who was with me, has died of his wounds. I am awfully upset about him, not only because he was one of my best men, but also because I took him with me. Some one, of course, had to go with me, and I naturally chose a good man. He was an awfully good chap. I can’t say how sorry I am at his loss.” I hope this will all interest you. My brother after a month in hospital in Boulogne was moved to London. We had a cable last week, and although doing splendidly he is still unable to put his foot to the ground. Sincerest sympathy in your sad loss.
It is interesting to note just how important – and common – letter writing was at the time. There was a vast ocean of correspondence touching on soldiers’ deaths and their war experiences. However, as noted earlier, this particular case, where such extensive correspondence on one individual soldier’s fate was published in the local paper, was rare.
The second letter, the one from the chaplain – F H Dwinford, Church of England – ran to a very predictable script. He gave the briefest account of the actual death from wounds, reassured the family that the grave was … in excellent order and has on it a wooden cross with a metal inscription … and focused on the manner of and purpose of the death. The death had not been in vain:
But one can only say, what one feels so much, that death for one’s country is a fine death, and a life laid down for Australia is a grand and noble sacrifice. And it is on the lives laid down in this war that a new generation will be built up.
The chaplain concluded with the customary reassurance that there was indeed a higher level of reality and purpose to the horror that then engulfed the world:
I can only hope with so many other chaplains that the great truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings consolation and comfort to you. Death is simply the passing away from one state of existence into another, and the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.
The parents – and the readers of the local paper – were meant to draw all manner of lessons from the tragic death of L/Cpl Wallace. He had lived and died the life of the good soldier and the true Australian. Interestingly, in the correspondence the Imperial references are not as apparent as the National ones. He was stoic in the face of suffering. There was meaning to his death and God would take him unto Himself. The tone of the British nurse is more problematic, but the overall effect of the letters is to gloss human tragedy. Of course, we do not know what effect the letters had on the family – both then and subsequently – although we would have to assume that they provided some support because, at the very least, they would have certainly raised the status of their son in the eyes of the local community. But, as argued, the effect on the individual family was only part of the story. Such reporting was fundamentally important in maintaining the uncritical and uni-dimensional narrative of the War, which had not changed in any substantive way since August 1914. It would be the same narrative that would inevitably support the introduction of conscription.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative