Monthly Archives: July 2016

76. Pozieres July-September 1916

The fighting at Pozieres, as part of the broader Battle of the Somme, involved the infantry battalions from 1, 2 and 4 Division. It covered a period of more than forty days, from 23 July to 5 September 1916,  with the 3 divisions being rotated through the front line to mount an extended series of attacks on the German positions: the village of Pozieres itself, the so-called Old German Lines north of the village – including the Windmill – and finally Mouquet Farm.  For an overview of the fighting see Beaumont (2013. pp 200-212).

There was tension between the British Army HQ and officers in the AIF. Pozieres was when Haig mocked Birdwood about the Western Front being the place where the AIF was up against a real enemy in a real war.

The losses for the 3 Australian divisions came to 24,000, with 5,500 killed and nearly 17,000 wounded. A distinctive feature of the fighting was the ferocious artillery bombardment, with a corresponding incidence of ‘shell shock’ experienced by the soldiers. In only 7 weeks over July and August 1916, the AIF suffered roughly the same number of casualties as it had in 8 months on Gallipoli. The Western Front was different, principally in terms of how little the life of the individual soldier counted. Entire battalions could be sacrificed for no military gain. From Verdun to the Somme and Pozieres it was a war of attrition. The AIF’s shocking casualty figures were set to play out in Australia’s conscription referendum.

There were 15 men linked to Shire of Alberton who died at Pozieres. They have been grouped according to the various phases of the fighting at Pozieres.

The fighting at Pozieres was exceptionally brutal – principally because of the overwhelming use of artillery – and this is evident in the case of the 15 men below. Three of them died of wounds. This meant that they were evacuated from the line, treated in at least a casualty clearing station behind the main action and then, when they died, buried in a near-by military cemetery. This leaves 12 men. Of this number, only 1 was buried in a recorded grave. Eleven of our small sample have no known grave. They disappeared at Pozieres. Their names are inscribed on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

1 Division initial attack (23/7/16)

Leonard NOONAN 217
Herbert Ilott GEORGE 408
John Henry MANDERS 2865
Angelus Basil ELLIOTT 3741

2 Division relieves 1 Division and attacks (27/7/16)

Harold Christopher HOW 367
Roy Harry NEBBITT 2720

2 Division attacks again (4-5/8/16)

James Edward McINTOSH 3897
Percy James DAVIDSON 140
George Victor AUBREY 546
Arthur George INSEAL 1914
George Thomas MORLEY 4479

from 10/8/16 all three divisions (1,2 and 4) rotate in attempts to seize Mouquet Farm

Gordon William APPLEYARD 865
Alfred REEVES 3342
James NEIL 3897
Patrick Joseph MILLS 4236


Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.

page revised – to include Arthur George INSEAL – on 2/8/16.
page revised – to remove James Noble ROBINSON – on 16/8/16
page revised – to remove Arthur MORGAN – on 17/8/16

75. Fromelles: 60 Battalion – C CLAYTON

60 Battalion

60 Battalion suffered approximately 750 casualties from a nominal strength of 1,000. The entry in the war diary for 19 July 1916 reads, in part:

…Battalion scaled parapet and advanced in four waves, the first wave leaving at 6.45 [pm], the last at 7. Each wave advanced under very heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, suffering very heavy casualties. Advance continued to within 90 yards of enemy trenches. The attack was held up, although it is believed some few of the battalion entered enemy trenches. During the night 19/20 a few stragglers, wounded and surrounded, returned to our trenches.

The entry for the next day provides the grim casualty figures:

60th Battalion relieved by 57th at 7 am and survivors returned to former billets. Roll call held at 9.30 am, 4 officers and 61 other ranks being present.

Charles John CLAYTON 850

Charles Clayton was born in South Melbourne. At the time of his enlistment both parents were dead and his next-of-kin was his oldest brother who was living at Yarram. There were 2 sisters, both of whom were also living in the Yarram. As he was only 19 yo at the time of enlistment, his brother gave the written approval for him to join the AIF. Charles Clayton was single and his occupation was given as labourer. He gave his religion as Roman Catholic.

Private Clayton enlisted in 24 Battalion, left Melbourne on 10/5/15 and joined the Gallipoli campaign on 30/8/15. In the divisional reorganisation that occurred before the Australian troops were sent to the Western Front, Private Clayton found himself from April 1916 in the newly formed 60 Battalion.

While still in Alexandria, Private Clayton was hospitalised with enteric fever and pneumonia. He was in hospital for 3 months and was on the ‘dangerously ill’ list. In fact, he was taken off the list only to be put back on it again. The convalescence was long. There is a series of 6 telegrams (20/1/16 – 29/2/16) sent to the older brother (HR Clayton of the Yarram Club) from Base Records in Melbourne, revealing the effort made to keep him informed of his younger brother’s condition. The episode suggests that away from the confusion of battle, where there was a regular supply of accurate information relevant to the family, every effort was made to keep them informed.

Private Clayton was finally discharged from hospital on 5/4/16 and his battalion left Alexandria on 18/6/16 to disembark at Marseilles on 29/6/16. He was one of the hundreds listed as ‘missing’ after Fromelles and it was not determined that he was ‘killed in action’ until a court of enquiry was held one year later on 4/8/17.

Witness statements from the Red Cross report on Private Clayton’s death were unequivocal:

Casualty went over the parapet on the 19th July, 1916 at Fleurbaix. I passed his dead body in No Man’s Land on my return to the trench. He was lying face upwards. I am positive about my identification. I knew him well. I was one of the 64 who came through unscathed on that memorable occasion.
A.R. Heaney, 4520 60th Battalion.

However, the problem is that the statement is dated 14/11/17, some three months after the court of enquiry. Presumably, in cases such as Fromelles, where so many had been killed but the bodies never recovered, the policy was to wait for an extended period of time to establish if the missing soldier had been taken prisoner – nearly 500 were taken prisoner at Fromelles – before then determining that he had been killed in action. In the interim, and as a separate activity, the Red Cross Society, working on behalf of the missing soldier’s family, continued to record witness statements. In this particular case, the authorities had determined by the time of the court of enquiry that Private Clayton had not been taken prisoner and must therefore have been killed in action. The eye-witness confirmation of the soldier’s fate – or, more correctly, eye witness statements recorded by the Red Cross – came after the court of enquiry.

Pointedly, in the above witness statement, Private Heaney refers to himself as … one of the 64 who came through unscathed on that memorable occasion. This figure supports the muster roll call, referred to above, from the battalion war diary: Roll call held at 9.30 am, 4 officers and 61 other ranks being present.

There is a letter written to Base Records, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne by the older brother in late July 1917, a full year after Fromelles, which reveals the tension associated with the uncertainty of the status of ‘missing’. Without the formal Report of Death of a Soldier (Army Form 2090A), issues associated with wills, deferred pay, pensions, life assurance and such could not be resolved.

The brother began his letter pointing out that he had had no further official news from the Defence Department. However, he also noted that he had just received a parcel containing the effects of his brother, with a label attached describing it as ‘Deceased Soldier’s Kit’, with his brother’s name and unit details shown. This was similar to cases where the family received returned mail with ‘KIA’ written across the envelope, even though the soldier’s official fate had yet to be determined. To add to the uncertainty, the brother also pointed out that the latest communication he had had from the Red Cross – this was July 1917 – indicated that they still could not be definite about Pte. Clayton’s fate.  Faced with the conflicting information, he closed the letter with what seems a understated plea,

If you would only clear up what has happened to my brother all that long time [ago] I would be happy.

The letter (2/8/17) in response from Base Records is interesting on several counts. It opened with the official statement that …no further report has been received concerning your brother, No. 850, Private C.J. Clayton, 60th Battalion, since he was reported as missing, 19.7.16.

It then sought to explain the return of the kit; but it did not address the real issue of the label that described the kit as that of a dead soldier:

Personal effects of missing soldiers are returned after a certain period, if no definite information can be obtained concerning them.

Lastly, it pointed out the normal process that applied in such cases and requested a copy of the Red Cross correspondence. It stated that if the Red Cross information was deemed relevant it would be forwarded overseas. This arrangement highlighted how the Red Cross operated as an independent agency. Its records could assist the AIF but they were generated within a separate organisation. The AIF did not have, as a matter of course, access to all Red Cross records.

A Court of Inquiry is held in due course with a view to finalising these unsatisfactory cases, and it is suggested you forward to this Office, for perusal, the Red Cross communication received by you. If the information contained therein is of a definite nature it will be referred to the overseas authorities to facilitate their investigations.

The brother on 20/8/17 duly sent off the Red Cross report. However, such information was by then redundant because a cable from London on 21/8/17 conveyed the outcome of the court of enquiry, which had been held on 4/8/17. The brother was duly informed, and from 5/9/17 he began a series of letters requesting additional information so that he could attend to his late brother’s estate. As tragic as the final outcome was, there was now at least certainty, after more than a year of confusion and doubt.

Private Clayton’s body was never – has not been – recovered. His name is recorded at VC Corner, Fromelles. It also appears on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial, in the main street of Yarram, and on the Shire Roll of Honor.


National Archives file for Clayton Charles John 850
Roll of Honour: Charles John Clayton
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Charles John Clayton
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Charles John Clayton


59 Battalion

The war diary for the battalion has only short entries for 19-20 July 1916 but the reasons for and extent of the casualties are clear:

7pm: 59th Battn. attacked enemy position in four waves, first wave going over parapet at 6.45 p.m. other three waves following at five minute intervals. Attack did not penetrate enemy trenches being held up by intense rifle and machine gun fire approximately 100 yds from enemy front line.
8 am: Enemy shelled heavily during early morning. Battn. relieved by 57 Battn at 8 am. Muster roll called in RUE DE BOIS. 4 officers and 90 other ranks answered. Battn moved to billets.

The next day (21/7/16) near Sailly, there was another muster roll called. This time it was … answered by 8 officers and 202 other ranks.

There was also an appendix (A2) which detailed more precisely the casualties sustained in action of 19th/20 July 1916. It gave 13 killed, 394 wounded, 274 missing and 13 died of wounds. The total casualty figure was 694 or more than two-thirds of the Battalion’s strength.


War Diary 59 Battalion


Herbert GILFOY 2641

Private Herbert Gilfoy was the last of the Shire of Alberton men to die at Fromelles. He died on 26/7/16, one week after the battle, from wounds he received on 19/7/16.

Herbert Gilfoy was another young man from England. He was born at Barton on Humber, Lincolnshire and came to Australia as a nineteen year old. At the time of enlistment he was working as a farm labourer in the Yarram area and had probably been doing so for at least one year, and certainly long enough to be identified as ‘local’. His name is on both the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and the Roll of Honor.

Gilfoy enlisted in Melbourne on 2/8/15 and at the time he was 21 yo. He gave his religion as Methodist. He had had his first medical at Yarram on 29/7/15 and was then re-examined in Melbourne. On enlistment, he was assigned to 23 Battalion. In Egypt, at the time of the AIF reorganisation, he was transferred first to 58 Battalion (23/2/16) and then to 59 Battalion on 15/3/16.

There was one minor charge in Egypt which was related to being improperly dressed on guard duty and destroying government property, for which he was fined 7/6 from his pay.

Private Gilfoy was wounded on the 19 July. He was shot in the head and someone must have managed to get him back to the casualty clearing station on the 20/7/16, most probably in the early morning.  The wound was described as GSW [gun shot wound]. Head & Hernia Cerebri (severe). The next day he was transferred to an ambulance train which transported wounded to the 30th General Hospital at Calais, some 100 kilometres from Fromelles. He was admitted to the hospital on the same day so he reached the hospital in Calais within two days of being wounded at the front. He died from the head wound five days later on 26/7/16. He was buried in Calais Cemetery on the same day. The Reverend Maurice R. Harby, the chaplain from the hospital, officiated.

The Report of Death of a Soldier was prepared within less than one month – 23/8/16 – and the parents in Lincolnshire would have received news of his death relatively quickly. It also appears that they were cabled that he was ‘dangerously ill’ when he was admitted to hospital. There is no correspondence from the family in the service file. However, the mother – Mrs Ellen Gilfoy of Lincolnshire – did complete the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour and on this she gave Yarram as the location with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’ She also gave Mr Jeffs as a contact in Australia who might be able to provide further information. This suggests that the son was working for Jeffs before he enlisted. There were several families of Jeffs who were farming in the Carrajung district.

The family received the following personal items: Disc, Letters, Wallet, Note Case, Belt, Pipe, Wooden Cross, Cuff Links, Photos, Pencil Case.

Private Gilfoy was one of the many young British immigrants to Australia who had enlisted in the AIF and returned to Europe via Egypt. But like so many of them, he did not have the chance to reunite with his family in England – or, for the others, Wales or Scotland or Ireland – before he was killed.


National Archives file for Gilfoy Herbert 2641
Roll of Honour: Herbert Gilfoy
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Herbert Gilfoy

Vincent GRENVILLE 1811

It is not clear if Vincent Grenville was born in Sale or Alberton. Nor is there not much to tie him directly to the Shire of Alberton. His name does not appear on either the Shire of Alberton War Memorial or Roll of Honor. Nor is his name on any local school honor roll. At the same time he gave his father’s address, as his next-of-kin on enlistment, as Yarram. More importantly, the Gippsland Standard and Albertonshire Representative, on 8/9/15, noted: Private V. Grenville, Yarram, is reported as killed in action.

He enlisted in Melbourne on 29/11/15 and acknowledged that he been rejected earlier on medical grounds (teeth). He was 32 yo and gave his occupation as labourer. His religion was Church of England.

After 59 Battalion had reached France, and only 2 weeks before he was killed, Private Grenville was charged with 2 offences. The first on 7/7/16 was for “not saluting an officer”. The second was on 16/7/16 for being … absent from Billet without leave. For this latter charge he was given 2 days Field Punishment No. 2, which meant that he would have finished this punishment the day before the fighting at Fromelles and the day before he was killed.

Private Grenville was killed in action on 19 July 1916 and his body was recovered at the time. He was buried on 21/7/16 in Rue du Bois Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix, with Rev. D S Brumwell officiating. The Report of Death was issued on 6/9/16. Personal kit was returned in May 1917: Identity Disc, Testament, Handkerchief, Postcards Wrist Watch & Strap.

As indicated, the father – George Robert Grenville – was given as next-of-kin on enlistment but the AIF was unable to trace him after the death of his son. Information about the death, burial were then sent to the mother – Rose Grenville – who lived at Welshpool. The mother also received the relevant medals once it was established that the father could not be traced.

The mother also provided the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, and in this she gave Pozieres as the place of death – evidence at the individual and personal level that Fromelles, for all its unique horror, was incorporated within the bigger picture of the fighting on the Somme.


National Archives file for Grenville Vincent 1811
Roll of Honour: Vincent Grenville
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Vincent Grenville [Greville]

note: 26/7/16 – information from Linda Barraclough confirms that Vincent (de Paul) Grenville’s birth was registered (6360) in Yarram in 1883. Pioneer Index. Victoria 1836-1888

Isaac James LEAR 4130

Isaac James Lear was born in Tarraville. He attended Tarraville State School. At the time he enlisted he 21 yo, single and he gave his occupation as boot maker. His religion was Church of England. He had his first medical in Yarram on 28/7/15, was issued with a railway warrant on the same day and completed the enlistment in Melbourne on 3/8/15. He joined 23 Battalion and left Melbourne on 7/3/1916.

Private Lear’s unit was involved in the re-organisation of the AIF in Egypt prior to moving to the Western Front and in April 1916 he was transferred to the newly formed 59 Battalion.

Private Lear was killed in action less than one month after reaching France. He had not seen service at Gallipoli and had not even been in front line trenches until Fromelles.

As with so many others at Fromelles, Private Lear was initially reported as missing and it was not until 28/8/17, more than a year later, that a court of enquiry determined that he had been killed in action on 19/7/16.

There is no Red Cross report for Private Lear and the paperwork in his file is sketchy. However, it is clear from the limited correspondence that the mother did pursue the circumstances of his death. The following letter from the mother in 1921 – five years after Fromelles – was written in response to the standard request to families for any information that could assist the work of the Graves Services Unit.

I am very sorry to have kept you so long waiting my reply, [the request for information was made on 27/7/21 and this reply was dated 3/9/21] but I have been trying to locate a returned Soldier (Private Long) who knows all concerning the death of my Son. But I cannot trace him. He is a South Richmond man but went to Wonthaggi to work. He was with my son advancing with fixed bayonets; after abandoning the Lewis Gun, which they were carrying and were tired of, they crossed a gully only to get on the level ground and my Son was shot in the throat. Private Long could give the exact place should we be able to find him, as he lost his leg a few minutes after he saw my son fall. This is the only information I can give, with the exception of a few articles that I am sure would be on his person should he be recovered without an identification disc. 1 shire medallion medal blue enamel presented by Alberton Shire (Gippsland) for duty done, a brooch made out of two sixpences, a blue enamel wristlet watch parcelled up and pinned in tunic pouch. The medal was initialled I. J. L on back.

I am sorry this is all the information I can give but hope it will be of some use.
Thanking you so much for all the trouble you have taken.

The Private Long referred to in the mother’s letter appears to have been William Joseph Long (4823) 59 Battalion who was seriously wounded – ‘GSW L Hip and R Knee severe’ – on 19/7/16 and who, after an extended period of hospitalisation in England, was returned to Australia on 4/8/17. He was discharged early 1918. Interestingly, information to families in relation to the wounded was reasonably prompt. Private Long’s family was advised by cable on 30/7/16 – ten days after Fromelles – that he was in hospital ‘seriously ill shell wound hip arm’ (sic).

As indicated, the court of enquiry that determined Private Lear had been killed in action on 19/7/16 was held more than one year later on 29/8/17. It is not possible to determine exactly when this information was conveyed to the family, but a letter of 6/11/17 suggests it was late October or early November 1917. The letter is also interesting in that it gives an insight on how clergy were employed to deliver the fateful news when it finally came.

I was absent from my home when the clergyman called and left the message with my daughter that her brother was killed in action. I have had nothing from the Defence department to confirm this message. If you would let me know the particulars I would be very much obliged.

The response from Base Records on 12/11/17 was not able to add any ‘particulars’.

In reply to your communication of 6th inst., I have to state the only information available at this Office to date regarding your son, No. 4130 Private I.J. Lear, 59th Battalion, is that contained in the brief cable message – Previously reported missing, now reported killed in action on 19/7/16. It is confidently anticipated however, that further particulars will come to hand by Mail, and these on receipt will be promptly transmitted to you.

However it is clear that no further details on the particulars of the death did emerge. Moreover, there was no kit returned to the family. This was unusual, because no matter how limited the personal belongings of soldiers were, there was generally something returned to the family. The mother wrote several times, and as late as February 1919, asking for the return of her son’s personal effects but to no avail. A formal response from Base Records on 12/7/18 – some two years after the Battle of Fromelles – is interesting for the directness of the explanation if offers.

As this soldier was posted missing for about fourteen months, it is probable his body was never recovered and anything he had with him at the time of his death would have disappeared. In the circumstances it is not likely that any effects will now come to hand.

However, the response is disingenuous because it does not address the issue of the soldier’s kit that was routinely handed in to the Company Quarter Master Sergeant before the troops went in to battle. As already noted, kit was returned to family even in cases where the soldier was listed as missing and there had not yet been any formal determination of his fate. Overall, in the case of Private Lear, after Fromelles there was literally no trace whatsoever. His name at least is recorded on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and Roll of Honor and also at VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles.


National Archives file for Lear Isaac James 4130
Roll of Honour: Isaac James Lear
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Isaac James Lear

Aubrey LIDDELOW Captain

Aubrey Liddelow appears on the roll of honor for Tarraville State School, as does his brother, Roy Liddelow.  He was born at Tarraville in 1877 and his father was a school inspector with the Education Department.  When his wife – Fannie T Liddelow – completed the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour, she noted that he had been a student of Scotch College and also South Melbourne College [closed in 1917]. She gave his ‘calling’ as school master and also noted he had attended Melbourne University.

The embarkation roll recorded that 2Lt. Liddelow’s occupation was state school teacher. It also gave his age as 38 yo. The wife at the time was living at East Malvern. His religion was Church of England.

There are missing papers in Captain Aubrey’s service file but it is likely that he was involved in the Citizens Forces in his role as a state school teacher because he was appointed as a second lieutenant when he joined 8 Battalion on 11/11/14. Subsequently, in 7 Battalion, he was made full lieutenant at Gallipoli and then promoted to the rank of captain in February 1916. He transferred to the newly created 59 Battalion in March 1916. At Gallipoli he had been wounded twice: bullet wound left ankle and injury to eye.

Captain Liddelow was posted as missing as of 19/7/16 until a court of enquiry held on 21/7/17 found him killed in action on the same date. To this point no remains have been identified and his name is recorded at VC Corner, Fromelles.

The Red Cross file for Captain Liddelow is extensive with no less that 13 witness statements. There are inconsistencies, as was common, There was a question over whether he was shot and killed outright or died shortly after being wounded. There was also inconsistency over how far into the attack he was killed. However, there is no doubt that he was killed in the attack on the enemy lines.

The witness statements also reveal that Captain Liddelow was well-regarded by his men.  Pte. J E Rice 59 Battalion was reported as stating that, Capt. Liddelowwas killed on July 19th. I was not an eye-witness but as I lay wounded several of my chums who passed me said “Poor old Liddelow is gone”. There was a similar sentiment evident in the witness statement by Pte. C H Saunders:

Saunders C. H. No. 4588, Ward 18. states he saw Capt. Liddelow wounded at Fleurbaix. Mr.[sic] Liddelow had been over to German trenches, and was coming back, he was severely wounded in forehead. Saunders tried to help Mr. Liddelow back, but being badly wounded himself Mr. Liddelow ordered him back., this was between one and two in morning of 19th & 20th. That is the last seen of Mr. Liddelow, who was nearer the German trenches than his Battalion … Saunders says it was a bad job, as Mr. Liddelow was very popular and much liked by his Company.

There is correspondence from family members seeking a final determination of Captain Liddelow’s fate so that his estate could be finalised. The family had accepted that he was dead long before the formal notification came. Indeed, whereas the formal notification took 12 months, personal items were despatched to the wife within 6 months of the point he was declared missing.

The amount of kit returned to the family in Australia for Capt. Liddelow, as an officer, was far greater than for ‘other ranks’. It was far too extensive to itemise but it included the likes of : 2 Revolvers, 3 Ancient Pistols, 2 holdalls, Civilian Suit, 9 prs. socks, slippers, pr. boots, 5 collars, Cane, 1 Fur Cardigan Jacket, 1 Tunic, 1 Khaki Drill Uniform, 1 pr. Khaki Drill Riding Breeches, 1 Pr. White Trousers … and items such as Brushes in Case, Metal Mirror, 1 Spirit Flask and polishing outfit. Clearly, commissioned officers, even in the AIF, represented, and were treated as, a higher ‘class’ of person.


National Archives file for Liddelow Aubrey
Roll of Honour: Aubrey Liddelow
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Aubrey Liddelow
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Aubrey Liddelow

 Archie Fred LIDGETT  4832

Archie Fred Lidgett enlisted in Melbourne on 3/11/15 and embarked for overseas service on 7/3/16. Initially he joined 7 Battalion but was transferred to 59 Battalion when its was formed in Egypt early in 1916. With the rest of the battalion he reached Marseilles on 29/6/16.

Archie Lidgett was another immigrant rural farm worker. He came from a small village, Springthorpe, near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. His attestation papers indicate that his father, as next-of-kin, was still living in England and his mother was dead. At the time of enlistment he was 20 yo and therefore required the signed permission of his guardian to enlist. His papers are annotated with the comment ‘Father in England. Mother Dead. No Guardianship Available’ which is signed by him. His religion was given as Church of England.

Archie Lidgett was working in the Yarram area – most likely at Darriman – at the time of enlistment and had his first medical in Yarram on 18/10/15. He was re-examined in Melbourne on 3/11/15, the date of his formal enlistment. His occupation was listed as labourer. It is not clear how long he had been working in the district before his enlistment. However, the fact that he is on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial suggests that he was certainly known. Oddly, his name is not included on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.

The record on Private Lidgett is very brief. Even though he was initially reported as ‘missing’ on 19/7/16, there is no Red Cross report. There is no family correspondence in his service file. Nor did the family in Lincolnshire complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. Yet, oddly, there is a picture of Private A Lidgett.

A court of enquiry held in the field in France on 29/8/17 finally determined that he had been killed on action on 19/7/16. His name is recorded on the memorial at VC Corner, Fromelles. To this point no remains have been found. He is another of the very many who effectively disappeared from history at Fromelles. It is also worth noting that, like other British farm workers who came to Australia pre WW1 and enlisted in the AIF, he was killed on the Western Front well before there was the possibility of leave to reunite with his family in Lincolnshire.


National Archives file for Lidgett Archie Fred 4832
Roll of Honour: Archie Fred Lidgett
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Archie Fred Lidgett


Leonard John James NEIL 2406

Leonard John James Neil was born at Port Albert and attended the state school there. His name is included on the honor roll for the school.

Neil enlisted at Foster on 28/4/15. At the time he was 21 yo and single. He gave his father – William Neil –  as next-of-kin, and he gave his father’s address – Oakleigh – as his own. However, his occupation was given as fisherman, and it appears that he was living and working at Port Franklin. He was single and his religion was Church of England.

He left Australia in 7 Battalion and served at Gallipoli. He was evacuated from there on 19/10/15 suffering from dysentery.

In 59 Battalion in France, he was appointed lance corporal on 6/7/16. He was first listed as missing (19/7/16); but the Report of Death was issued relatively soon after on 13/9/16, with missing changed to killed in action. There was no body recovered and on one of the forms there is a reference to the fact that he was ‘presumed buried in No Man’s Land.’ There was no Red Cross report but, judging by the promptness of the Report of Death, there must have been strong evidence that he had been killed. His name is recorded at VC Corner, Fromelles.

A small number of personal items were returned to the family in April 1917: Identity Disc, Wallet, Photos, 3 Coins and in July 1917: Scarfs 3, Cap Comforter, Kit Bag Handle, Belt, Handkerchief.

In the service file there is a letter from the father to Base Records in Melbourne in which he asks for the address of the sergeant of the company – C Company 59 Battalion – in which his son served. It shows yet another way families pursued the quest to find out what had happened to their sons. This letter was written not much more than a week after the family would have been informed that L/Cpl Neil had been killed. The father is keen to learn the precise details of his son’s death.

Could you let me no (sic) the sergeants name of the C Coy 59th Battalion 15 Inf. Brigade. I received word my son LCpl L J J Neil was killed on the 19th of July in France but have not had any particulars. I would like to no how he met his death.

In response, Base Records forwarded the address of the Officer Commanding,”C”  Company, 59 Battalion and suggested that the parent contact him. It also noted – and it would have been an unintended irony – that it was unable to … furnish the name of the officer acting in that capacity. Change in personnel was a constant on the Western Front.


National Archives file for Neil Leonard John James 2406
Roll of Honour: Leonard John James Neil
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Leonard John James Neil

Stephen SLEIGH 3244

None of the usual sources of evidence links Stephen Sleigh to the Shire of Alberton. His name does not appear on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or War Memorial. Nor does it appear on any local school or other community honor roll. His name is not on the electoral roll for the subdivision of Yarram Yarram.

However, there was a strong link. Stephen Sleigh does appear in the 1915 Rate Book for the Shire with land at Binginwarri. Further, on the embarkation roll his address appears as ‘c/o Bank of Australasia, Yarram’. Lastly, throughout his service file there is correspondence from B P Johnson, solicitor of Yarram, requesting relevant documentation from the AIF so that he (Johnson) can settle the estate of the late private S Sleigh. Johnson complained, repeatedly, about the length of time it was taking the authorities to issue the death certificate. He argued that this delay was costing the estate considerable amounts in interest and, worse, as Johnson put it, the land itself, with no one to manage it, was ’going back’. Finally in late December 1918, the property was able to be offered for sale. The advertisement appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24/12/18. The property was described as … the Estate of the late Stephen Sleigh, who was killed on active service. The ad continued:

100 acres of very rich grey soil, situate 12 miles from Gelliondale Station, with two-roomed hardwood house. Carrying capacity, 30 cows.

On the embarkation roll, Sleigh’s occupation was given as ’shunter’ and elsewhere there was a reference to him being a ‘railway employee’. His mother described his calling – on the (National) Roll of Honour – as ‘civil servant’. This occupational background does not, on the face of it, appear to line up with his land holding and dairy farming activity. However, it is definitely the same person. At the time he enlisted (16/7/15) in Melbourne, he was 28 yo and single. His religion was Church of England. He gave his mother – Mrs Mary Jane Sleigh – as his next-of-kin and her address was first Bunyip and then Koo Wee Rup.

Private Sleigh left Australia (26/11/15) in 23 Battalion. He shifted to 59 Battalion via 58 Battalion. He was reported as ‘missing’ as of 19 July 1916 and then ‘killed in action’, as of the same date, by a court of enquiry held 29/8/17. He was another soldier …  presumed buried in No Man’s Land. His name is recorded at VC Corner, Fromelles. When the mother completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave the place of her son’s death as either Fleurbaix or Pozieres. There was no Red Cross report for Private Sleigh.

There are 2 pieces of correspondence is the service file which give additional insights into how attempts were made to uncover details of those missing. The first was the standard form sent to families by the AIF asking if they had received any additional letters or other communication  … that contain any reference to the circumstances surrounding his death, particularly the exact location at which it occurred, or where he was last seen alive. This was sent to the mother in July 1921. Her reply, dated 3/8/21, noted that she had not received any letters – from mates or officers or the chaplain in the same unit – ’surrounding his death or burial’.   She was unable to contribute any information, but she did add a postscript to the effect that she believed that the death occurred at Fleurbaix.

The second piece of correspondence was a letter from Johnson, the Yarram solicitor, to Base Records in Melbourne. It was sent 17/9/17 – after the court of enquiry in France held on 29/8/17 that had found Private Sleigh ‘killed in action’ on 19/7/16 – and stands as an example of how locals back home carried out their own investigations, trying to uncover what had happened:

No 3244 Pte S. Sleigh 59th Battalion
Referring to previous correspondence as to this missing soldier I have received information that may be of use to a Court of Inquiry. There is a returned man (Pte. Lithgow) who is now living with his father Mr J W Lithgow of Hiawatha via West Alberton & who says he was in the same Battn. as Sleigh & about 20 yds from him when crossing a creek full of liquid mud & that if a man got hit there he was sure to fall in & get smothered. Lithgow says he never saw Sleigh afterwards & feels sure he came to his end in that creek.

In the case of Johnson, it is not clear if he was being paid for his service in trying to settle the affairs of Sleigh or if in fact it was pro bono work. The latter possibility relates to an agreement made by those on the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1916 whereby the local professionals would assist men from the Shire who enlisted. For example, local doctors were to treat the families of enlisted for free. Under this arrangement Johnson had undertaken to represent the legal interests of enlisted men. There were qualifications but it was a genuine attempt to support recruitment in the Shire.


National Archives file for Sleigh Stephen 3244
Roll of Honour: Stephen Sleigh
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Stephen Sleigh

73. Fromelles: 31 Battalion – H MATES & H V WILLIS

31 Battalion

The war diary for 31 Battalion gave the casualties for 19-20 July 1916 as 573, with 67 killed, 421 wounded and 85 missing. Its succinct account of the action was:

(19th July) Bombardment on both sides during the day. Assault launched at 6pm. Enemy’s position captured & an attempt made to consolidate during the night. …
(20th July) Both flanks were broken & a general retirement to our original lines necessary. Casualties very heavy. Btn withdrawn from front line and re-billeted in FLEURBAIX.

There was also a more detailed report which highlighted the following: the casualties caused by the Australian and British artillery falling short on their own lines; the lack of command as the result of high casualty rates among the officers; the lack of materials – sandbags, shovels, picks etc- that could be used to make captured positions safe from enemy fire; the incorrect intelligence on the disposition of the German lines and defences; the devastating effects of German enfilade artillery and machine gun fire; and, pointedly, the impossibility of defending and holding the forward positions that had been taken, particularly after the flanks gave way.

The CO of 31 Battalion – Lt. Col. F W Toll – wrote:

To sum up under the hellish concentrated enemy fire the battalion did magnificent work in capturing and holding the positions for so long without reinforcements and necessary material to consolidate captured works, and it was only on the breaking of both flanks that it was finally forced to retire to its original attacking position.

The CO’s account of the last part of the action – the withdrawal to their own lines – was particularly graphic:

The retirement of both flanks had left us up in the air and it was apparent that we would have to retire. At 5.45 a.m. the remnants of our troops broke and retired and it was impossible to restrain them although an attempt was made to keep them at the point of the revolver. The C. O. was the last man to leave the enemy’s trench.

The enemy then swarmed in and the retirement across no man’s land resembled a shambles, the enemy artillery and machine guns doing deadly damage. Our own lines were reached at last, but the artillery bombardment was intense and even under shelter of our own trenches the casualties were awful.

Harold MATES 515

Harold Mates was born at Nyora, South Gippsland. He attended both Welshpool State School and Carrajung South State School. In July 1917, on Arbor Day, there was a tree-planting ceremony at Welshpool SS in honour of past students who had been killed up to that point in the War. The report of the event in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (13/7/15) noted that the first tree planted was … in memory of Harold Mates, the first to fall. His name is also reported on the honor roll for Carrajung South SS. It appears that the family must have moved again because there is another reference (Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 23/816) to the father as a resident of Traralgon.

There was a brother – Roy Mates (1081) – who had enlisted earlier (August 1914) but his name is not included on the Carrajung South SS Roll of Honor.

It is difficult to uncover his movements round the time of his enlistment in July 1915. When his wife completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave his ‘calling’ as clerk in the National Bank, Melbourne. Yet he enlisted (21/7/15) in Brisbane. Moreover, when he enlisted he was single and gave his next-of-kin as his father – Richard Mates, Kyabram – but he must have married – Dorothy Edith Mates, nee Barnett – prior to embarkation for overseas service. Further, pension details in his file show that there was a daughter, Gladys Elizabeth Mates.

One version of events is that the marriage took place in Melbourne some time after early October 1915. This was when the part of 31 Battalion formed at Enogerra in Queensland moved to Broadmeadows and merged with the part of the same battalion formed there. The merged 31 Battalion then embarked from Melbourne for overseas service on 9/11/15 which meant that there was one month for the marriage. However, the embarkation roll still showed Harold Mates as single, with his father as next-of-kin. Possibly there had not been time to change the record. The wife’s address was the suburb of Camberwell.

At the time he enlaced, Harold Mates was 24 yo ands he gave his religion as Roman Catholic.

When in Egypt, Private Mates had several run-ins with military authority. In April 1916 he was charged with failing to report for duty and received 2 hours pack drill as punishment. In May, it was ‘breaking out of ranks without permission’ and the punishment was 24 hours F. P. No. 2. Finally, again in May, he was charged with being ‘(1) absent from parade’ and ‘(2) refusing to obey an order given by a superior officer’ and received a very punishing 168 hours F.P.No. 2. It was certainly not uncommon for those in the AIF to be charged for breaches of military discipline, but 3 charges in such a short period time would have drawn attention.

Private Mates was killed less than 1 month after landing in France.

Private Mate’s body was recovered after he was killed in action on 20/7/16. There was one reference to him as ‘missing’ from 19/7/16 and another to the effect that he ‘died of wounds’ but both of these were corrected to ‘killed in action’ on 20/7/16. He was buried at Eaton Hall Military Cemetery, Croix Blanche near Armentieres. Rev. G Cranston, who was attached to the battalion, officiated. Subsequently Private Mates was re-buried in the early 1920s at Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix.

The Report of Death was issued on 11/10/16. Personal items – Identity Disc, Religious Book, 2 Photos, 4 Coins, Book, Pencil, Religious Medallion –  were returned to the wife in June 1917.


National Archives file for Mates Harold
Roll of Honour: Harold Mates
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Harold Mates
War Diary 31 Battalion


Henry Victor WILLIS 983

Henry Willis was born in Alberton. He grew up in the Shire of Alberton and attended Alberton State School. At the time of enlistment his father was dead and so his mother wrote the formal parental permission for him to enlist. He was 19 yo and his occupation was listed as farm labourer. His religion was given as Presbyterian.

Alberton 10/7/15
Dear Sir
I am quite agreeable that my son may enlist for active service abroad.
Janet Willis

Private Willis had a medical examination in Yarram on 12/7/15 and then he completed his enlistment in Melbourne on 14/7/15. He joined 31 Battalion (D Coy) and left Melbourne for overseas service on 9/11/15, just 2 months after enlistment. After nearly six months in Egypt, the battalion left for the Western Front in June 1916 and reached France on 23/6/16. Like many others, Private Willis was killed less than one month after reaching France.

The local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – carried a report on 25/8/16 that Private Willis was listed as missing.

The interesting feature in relation to Private Willis’ death is that the date of death is recorded as the 21 July. This is incorrect. There is sufficient documentary evidence to show that he was first reported ‘missing’ as of 20/7/16. Further, he appears on a German list of the dead as having been killed on ‘19/7/16 near Fromelles’. Additionally, eye-witness accounts prepared for the Red Cross make it clear that he was killed during the Battle of Fromelles – 19-20 July, 1916 – not the day after.

The following advice to the Red Cross was written on 5/12/16 by Private Albert Edmund Hickson MM, 872, 31 Battalion:

I knew Willis. He was in the same tent as myself. He was a stout fair man about 21. He came from Yarram Gippsland Victoria. He was killed at Fler Bay [sic] in No Man’s Land. I saw his body about 12 hours later lying dead. We had to retire and leave our dead there.

Additional advice came from Private Henry Irvine Rogers, 1560, 31 Battalion:

Informant states that on 19th July at Fleur Baix Willis was shot through the jaw. He was in same Machine Gun Section as Informant, but they were not together at the moment. He thinks that Pte. Ellis (nickname Paddy) is likely to know particulars.

Overall, there is no doubt that Private Willis was killed in the actual battle and not on the 21 July. It appears that the incorrect date was entered very early in formal records and then it effectively became ‘locked in’. The incorrect date probably explains why his name does not appear on the memorial in VC Corner.  Instead, it is recorded on the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. However, this is all somewhat academic as Private Willis’ body was one of those identified by DNA testing (2009-2010) and has been re-interred at the new Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles in an individual plot. The date of death on the headstone is given as 19-20 July.

When the family in Gippsland received the reports from the Red Cross in February 1917 they wrote to Base Records, Melbourne (15/2/17) requesting contact information for Private Ellis who had been mentioned in the statement by Private Rogers.

Enclosed is letter we received from the Red Cross.

We would like to apply to Pte Ellis for further information. Will you kindly supply us with Ellis’ number & initials. You would greatly oblige. Thanking you in anticipation.

Such individual effort by the family to track down information about the death of the son was very common.  As well, in many cases soldiers from the same town or district back home would write to the family informing them about the death. The overall effect was that even though a formal notification of the death had not been received, the family often knew that their son had been killed.

In this instance, the response the family received from Base Records revealed that the AIF itself did not have access to the Red Cross information.  It undertook for the family to follow up the witness statement made by Private Hickson:

I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated 15th instant, with enclosure from Red Cross regarding No. 983 Private H.V. Willis, 31st Battalion, and to inform you the address of Private Ellis referred to therein appears to be:- [address supplied]

As it is noticed Private A. E Hickson gives a definite account of the fate of Private Willis, a cable message is being despatched to London with a view to obtaining confirmation of his report if correct. The reply when to hand will be promptly transmitted to his mother.

The irony is that by this point the name of Private Willis was beginning to appear on the death lists provided by the Germans. The first instance appears to have been on 4/11/16, which was at least two months prior to this series of communications and it is hard to see why the information had not been processed by then.

The Report of Death of a Soldier was finally issued on 28/3/17 and the identification disc, returned by the Germans, was sent to the family in June 1917. There is no record of any personal kit being sent to the family.

There is one final factor that made this particular death even more distressing for the family. A brother, David Geoffrey Willis, had enlisted at the same time as Henry. In fact, there were 4 brothers who enlisted. David was 5 years older and married with three children. Tragically, he died at the Alfred Hospital within six weeks of enlistment from ‘cerebro spinal meningitis’. The family lost two sons within one year.  Both brothers are featured on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.


National Archives file for Willis Henry Victor
Roll of Honour: Henry Victor Willis
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Henry Victor Willis
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Henry Victor Willis
War Diary 31 Battalion

See this ABC report for the link between a good luck charm belonging to Private Willis and the success in locating the Australian bodies in Pheasant Wood, Fromelles.

72. Fromelles: 29 Battalion – R M COLE & D F LIVINGSTON

Reginald Maurice COLE 417

Reginald Maurice Cole was another of the young men born in England but living and working in the Shire of Alberton at the outbreak of WW1. He was born in St Ives, Huntingdonshire and both parents were still living there. He had his medical in Yarram and completed the enlistment in Melbourne on 13 July 1915. At the time he was 21yo. He gave his religion as Church of England. He was working as a farm labourer at Jack River, about 10 Km from Yarram.

His attestation papers indicate that he had served 3 1/2 years in 5 Bedfordshire Territorial Force in England before he migrated to Australia, suggesting that he could only have been in Australia for a short period of time. At the same time, he was sufficiently well-known in the district to be included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. He also received the Shire Medallion, at a farewell in Yarram in October 1915.

He left Melbourne for overseas service on 10/11/15. When he left Alexandria on 16/6/16 for the Western Front he was in 29 Battalion. He had had one run-in with military authority in Egypt. On 20/4/16 he was charged with and found guilty of … neglect of duty whilst on sentry duty: reclining on a heap of bags. He received 2 days field punishment No 2 for the offence.

In Egypt, there was a hospital admission for 10 days in May 1916 but there is no indication of what the illness or injury was. Then on 13/7/16 in France there is a reference to him being ‘wounded in action’ and ‘shrapnel’ given as the explanation. But there is no indication of any treatment or hospitalisation. In any case, he was still obviously on active duty when he was listed, one week later, as missing on 19/7/16. The war diary of the 29 Battalion indicates that he was one of 66 men missing.

The court of enquiry that determined he had been killed in action on 20/7/16 was held more than one year later, on 23/8/17, and the Report of Death of a Soldier was issued on 12/9/17. There is no family correspondence and therefore no way of determining when the parents learned of his fate. There was no grave and his name is listed on the memorial in VC Corner, Fromelles.

The only information provided by the parents was when they completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, where they gave Melbourne as the town with which their son was ‘chiefly connected’.

There is a detailed Red Cross report which highlights the confusion that so often surrounded the painstaking process of tracking missing soldiers. In battles such as that at Fromelles where the casualties were so great, the potential for confusion and error was correspondingly higher, precisely because there were so few men left to provide witness statements for the many missing or dead.

In the specific case of Private Cole there was a significant case of mistaken identity set in train when one informant – Sgt. F. H. Simpson 633 – suggested that the Cole in question was a sergeant who had been taken prisoner. He wrote to the Red Cross on 16/9/16:

This man is a Sargt and I think in D. Coy. I happened to see the letter he wrote to Lt. Stanton from Germany and have a list of men who were in the same camp with him…. I feel certain you will find Sargt. Cole is a prisoner.

There was a Sergeant Cole – Oliver Stanley Cole 1321 – who had been captured at Fromelles and who was a POW in Germany. It took several months to clear up the confusion with Private R M Cole 473.

At the same time, there were other witness statements that did have the right man but there was still confusion. Private Nash 303 wrote on 1/12/16 from his hospital in Boulogne, where he had been admitted with ‘chilled feet’ [trench foot].

Cole was in A.II and was wounded in the attack at Fromelles on July 19-20. We attacked at 6 p.m. and took three lines of trenches, but had to go back to our own line at 4 a.m. Cpl R. C. Adams of the same platoon, was with him, and told me that he saw him wounded in Fritz’ first line. He was left behind, and if alive must be a prisoner.

There was also another second-hand account that must have been closer to the truth. It was written a couple of months later by Pte R. Blake 173 – also recovering in hospital, from Trench Fever & Neuritis (severe)  in England – on 15/2/17. It certainly has the right Cole, whom the informant described as … a little dark fellow, Englishman from St Ives, Huntingdonshire. [According to his medical papers, Cole was about 5 foot 3 inches tall and of ‘sallow’ complexion.] Like the previous statement this one again relies on the memory of Corporal Adams.

Cpl Adams (29th A.I.F. A. Coy, VI Plat) told me R.M. Cole was killed on 19th July while they were retiring. He was in the first line, and I was in the 3rd (supporting line) and R.M Cole was killed as they came back.

While both statements rely on the testimony of Corporal Adams – one had Cole wounded, left behind and taken prisoner and the other had him killed – there was, unfortunately, no first-hand account by Corporal Adams himself.

Presumably, when Private Cole did not appear on list of the dead provided by the Germans and it was equally clear that he was not a prisoner of war he was effectively ‘signed-off’ as killed in action. This protracted process took just over one year.


National Archives file for Cole Reginald Maurice
Roll of Honour: Reginald Maurice Cole
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Reginald Maurice Cole
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Reginald Maurice Cole
War Diary 29 Battalion

note: Service Number for Embarkation Roll is 9, not 417


David Frederick LIVINGSTON 1168

David Frederick Livingston was born in Tarraville and attended Tarraville State School where his name is recorded on the school honor roll. However, on the school honor roll the surname is recorded, incorrectly, as LIVINGSTONE.

At the time of his enlistment in Kerang on 3/11/14 he was 38 yo which makes his the oldest name on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial.  His occupation was given as grazier, suggesting that at the time of enlistment he was living and working in the border region with NSW. However, there is other evidence also that ties him, at the same time, to the Shire of Alberton. His name appears on the local Presbyterian Charge and there is an entry for a D F Livingston in the 1915 Rate Book for land at Binginwarri. Moreover, his name appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor, on which he is recorded as having been killed; and as already indicated, his name is also on the Shire War Memorial.

He married – Lillie Maud Livingston – shortly after he enlisted and before he embarked for overseas service. His wife’s address over the time of his military service – and immediately after the War – was in Melbourne.

On enlistment he joined 8 Battalion but was subsequently transferred to 29 Battalion when this formed at Broadmeadows in August 1915.  He was in D company and was promoted to corporal on 25/4/16. His unit arrived in Egypt in December 1915, after the evacuation from Gallipoli, and then left Alexandria on 16/6/16 for France. 29 Battalion reached Marseilles on 23/6/16.

The War Diary of 29 Battalion indicates that D Company was heavily involved in the fighting at Fromelles, particularly when the Germans counterattacked very early – round 2 am – on 20 July. The fact that his identification disc was returned by the Germans suggests that Corporal Livingston was one of those who made it through no-man’s-land to the German trenches where he was killed. After the German counter attack early on that morning of the 20 July the front line re-established itself in the previous position. Corporal Livingston was buried by the Germans in a common grave.

The Report of Death of a Soldier for Corporal Livingston was issued on 13/9/16 at Rouen. This was a much faster time than for others killed at Fromelles. More surprising is the fact that the family was notified of the death even before this report was issued. There is a letter from Rev W. Borland of Scots Church, Melbourne – Livingston was Presbyterian – that shows he conveyed the ‘sad news’ of the death to the widow on 14 August 1916, which was one month before the official report was prepared. It appears that the cable of the death reached Australia on 8/8/16 and this was confirmed by mail sent from London on 18/8/16. Rev Borland made his visit to the wife about a week after the cable reached Australia.

The key point in this series of events is that even though Corporal Livingston was technically ‘missing’ – his body had not been recovered – the wife was advised that he been killed less than one month after Fromelles. The clue to the apparent inconsistency in procedure is contained in The Report of Death of a Soldier.  In the report there is reference to another form that carried notification of the death, and this form was completed on 21/7/16, the day after the battle. Unlike other ‘missing’ soldiers after Fromelles, Corporal Livingston was declared as ‘killed in action’ – and not missing or taken prisoner – immediately after the battle. There must have been strong evidence, presumably by way of witness statements from others in his company, to support the declaration.  To add to the mystery, there is a reference in Corporal Livingston’s file that has him buried at Fromelles.  Yet every other record points to the fact that the body was never recovered after the battle by the Australian troops and that it was in fact buried by the Germans in a mass grave, as it was presumably either in or behind their lines. Possibly, in the face of such staggering casualties after the battle and in the confusion of the first one or two days after, as various parties were trying to recover wounded from no-man’s-land and bury the dead, there was a case of mistaken identity. Whatever happened, there is no formal record of Corporal Livingston being buried by the AIF in an identified grave – his name appears as one of the twelve hundred and ninety-nine on the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles – and at the time he was declared ‘killed in action’ his body had definitely not been located. It appears that the earliest the Germans confirmed his death – they confirmed his death from his identification disc which they subsequently returned – could have been early August. The name was certainly on a German list of dead dated 4/11/16. It appears that the disc itself was returned earlier, on 12/10/16.

Corporal Livingston’s case points to the level of confusion surrounding Fromelles. His body was buried by the Germans in a mass grave and it was identified in 2011. Subsequently, Corporal Livingston was re-buried in the new (2010) Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery, Fromelles.


National Archives file for Livingston David Frederick
Roll of Honour: David Frederick Livingston
First World War Embarkation Rolls: David Frederick Livingston
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: David Frederick Livingston
War Diary 29 Battalion


71. Fromelles

Twelve of the men associated with the Shire of Alberton were killed at Fromelles (19-20 July 1916), or Fleurbaix as it was commonly referred to at the time. Based on the research so far, this number represents the largest single loss of life for those from the Shire in any single battle of WW1.

Each of the 12 men is covered in following posts which are organised by battalion:

29 Battalion

Reginald Maurice COLE 417
David Frederick LIVINGSTON 1168

31 Battalion

Harold MATES 515
Henry Victor WILLIS 983

59 Battalion

Herbert GILFOY 2641
Vincent GRENVILLE 1811
Isaac James LEAR 4130
Aubrey LIDDELOW Captain
Frederick Archie LIDGETT 4832
Leonard John NEIL 2406
Stephen SLEIGH 3244

60 Battalion

Charles John CLAYTON 850

For an account of Fromelles see Beaumont (2013. pp 189-200). Fromelles featured the litany of military failures that characterised so much of the fighting on the Western Front. Beaumont notes the following: the military objective was compromised from the start and there was little if any chance of a successful strategic outcome; the Germans knew the attack was imminent; the planning was poor and rushed; the British and Australian artillery was not up to the task and failed in its pre-attack objectives; the Germans held the higher ground and their defensive fortifications had been well-developed over nearly 2 years; previous allied attempts to overcome the German lines – and in particular to neutralise the infamous ‘sugar loaf’ machine gun fortification – had failed, and only very recently; part of the attack plan involved troops moving over an expanse of no-man’s land that far exceeded the agreed maximum limit for such an operation on the Western Front; the troops, both British and Australian, were inexperienced in terms of the Western Front; communication failed at a critical point in the battle; and, finally, senior leadership was poor. Given this background, it was hardly surprising that the attack, which began late afternoon on 19 July and ended early morning the next day, was a failure. The level of casualties was unprecedented for the AIF. Beaumont writes of the 5th Division losses: 5533 casualties, of whom 1917 were killed or died of wounds, 3146 wounded and 470 taken prisoner.

Fromelles was the first major battle involving the AIF on the Western Front. Admittedly, it was overshadowed by Pozieres later that same month (July 1916) and everything that followed, but the remarkable feature of Fromelles was how little knowledge, or even awareness, of the battle and the scale of the casualties was known in Australia at the time. It was only after the War that the ‘truth’ of Fromelles emerged. For example, in its Saturday edition of 10 April 1920 (p.7 ) The Argus ran a story under the headline: Fromelles 1916! A Glorious Failure. What Really Happened. The last sentence read,

The Total casualties among the Australians from noon on July 19 to noon on July 20 were 178 officers and 5,335 of other ranks.

However, in 1916 the details were heavily censored. There were reports in the Australian press immediately after the battle, but the account was highly qualified. Bean’s official report was published in both The Age (p.7) and The Argus (p.7) as early as Monday 24 July 1916. Both papers did include Bean’s comment that, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. But ‘severe’ was not quantified. Moreover, other details in Bean’s report gave a contradictory picture. For example, when he described the efforts made to enable Australian troops trapped in the German trenches to return to their own lines Bean played down the level of casualties:

This work [cutting communication trenches through to the German trenches] enabled the troops to carry out the retirement with loss which was slight when the extraordinary difficulty of the operation was considered.

Given what Bean had heard, and seen for himself, the entire account was very disingenuous. Moreover, in both papers, the story of Fromelles was presented as part of the wider Somme offensive. The headlines, for example, in The Argus on July 24, 1916 for the section where Bean’s report was included were as follows: Australia’s Share In Great Offensive.  A Heavy Engagement. All is well on Somme Front. Important Russian Gains.

For Bean there was the obvious potential to make the connection between Fromelles, which was after all the first major AIF action on the Western Front, and the heroic story of Anzac. Fromelles presented the AIF with the opportunity to prove and strengthen their reputation from Gallipoli. This would have been a point of considerable interest for those back in Australia: the next chapter as it were in the story of Anzac. But Bean did not have the heroic style of an Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. Moreover, his praise for the men was decidedly qualified:

Our troops in this attack had faced shell fire heavier and more continuous that was ever known in Gallipoli. Many of them were quite untried previously. The manner in which they carried it through seems to have been worthy of all the traditions of Anzac.

Overall, Fromelles was effectively ‘buried’. Presumably, the primary intention was to conceal the level of casualties and therefore it was important not to represent Fromelles as some separate and highly significant battle. And the idea of using the battle to position the Anzacs on the Western Front was, given the level of casualties and the total failure of the action, far too risky. At the time, Fromelles was little more than the AIF’s wretched introduction to truly industrial-scale killing. Fromelles had been a disaster and all involved needed to move on from it as quickly as possible.

One great irony of the reporting of Fromelles appeared in The Argus in the same edition of Monday 24 July 1916.  Immediately after Bean’s account – the one that had as its last sentence, The losses among our troops engaged were severe. – the paper included a very short article headed, A German Claim. It probably attracted very little attention, and would have been easily dismissed as enemy propaganda, but in fact the figures it quoted were remarkably accurate:

London, July 23.
The following official German communique was received in London on Friday night:-
“An English (sic) attack in the Fromelles region yesterday by two strong divisions was repulsed. We made prisoner 481 men, and counted 2,000 bodies in front of our lines.”

In the posts that follow, the protracted and generally unsuccessful efforts made by families back in Australia to uncover exactly what had become of their sons, husbands and brothers who had gone missing on either 19 or 20 July 1916 in France, highlighted the extent to which levels of mystery and confusion were allowed to mask the horror of Fromelles.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative carried no report at all of the  battle at either Fromelles or Fleurbaix.


Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
The Argus
The Age
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative


70. The girl and the young soldier

The first part of the following account is based exclusively on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period late February to early March 1916. While relying so closely on newspaper articles calls into question the accuracy and scope of the evidence presented, it does at least position the modern reader as someone in the Shire of Alberton reading the same material 100 years ago.

Violet Freeman was a 19 yo working as a domestic (servant) for Mrs Ellen Barbara Alford of Commercial Street, Yarram. Violet’s step-father was Richard Cantwell, a farmer from Woodside. Violet had been working for Mrs Alford for ‘some three or four months’.

Violet was engaged to 21 yo Herbert Walter Tolhurst who had recently enlisted. The marriage had been organised for Monday 21 February (1916). Tolhurst was an English immigrant who had been working in the local area. He had met Violet when she was still living at Woodside and he had been working in the same area. It was suggested that Tolhurst … came from England for the purpose of gaining Colonial experience. His people are reputed to be well to do in the Old Country.

Tolhurst was to arrive at Yarram on the Saturday train (19/2/16) for the wedding on the following Monday (21/2/16) but he did not show. Nor was there any communication from him explaining his absence.

That Saturday evening, Violet left the Alford’s home at about 7 o’clock to meet friends. Mrs Alford saw that Violet was upset.

The next afternoon (Sunday 20/2/16), a group of children, down by Carpenter’s Bridge over the Tarra Creek, saw a body in the river. The police recovered Violet’s body from the creek at about 6.00pm that night. The body was found in shallow water. At the coronial inquiry held the very next day (21/2/16), Senior Constable McLeod stated that he

… could see no marks of violence, and from the appearance of the body she had evidently lay in the water and drowned. Her hands were clasped together. He was quite satisfied from the appearance of the body she had deliberately drowned herself. The body may have drifted to the shallower water. There was apparently no struggle, nor was the body in any way tied up.

In none of the reports was there any suggestion that any other person had been directly involved in Violet’s death. The focus was on the motivation for the suicide. There was no post-mortem carried out.

At the coronial inquiry, it emerged that … this was the second time he [Tolhurst] had disappointed the girl about marriage. The step-father claimed that he had not seen his daughter for about 4 weeks – when he had gone to Yarram to give his permission for the marriage – but he was aware that Violet was worried that Tolhurst would not marry her as promised. He stated that he believed Tolhurst’s rejection of his step-daughter was the cause of the suicide.

One of the articles, headed A Sad Case. Young Woman Commits Suicide. Disappointed By A Soldier, claimed that Violet had previously been to the camp at Seymour to confront Tolhurst over his true intentions, and that he had then promised to marry her. The same article attempted to sketch some picture of Violet’s disturbed state of mind on the Saturday after he failed to arrive. It noted that … On Saturday evening the young woman was seen outside the post office reading her Bible. The article concluded that that Tolhurst’s rejection of the planned marriage was the cause of Violet’s suicide:

The young woman had made arrangements for her marriage, having seen a clergyman and invited her friends. Keen disappointment had evidently driven her to the rash act. She is spoken of by those who knew her as a most determined girl, confiding in few, and keeping troubles to herself.

The coronial inquiry which sat on the Monday (21/2/16) – ironically, the day of the planned wedding – was adjourned for a week … in order to get Tolhurst interviews, also to ascertain if deceased had written to her relatives.

When the inquiry resumed (28/2/16), it was informed by Senior Constable McLeod that there was no evidence of any letter written to any relative. Additionally, the court heard that while Tolhurst had been given leave for Saturday 19 February, he had not reported back to the camp at Seymour and had been classed as ‘absent without leave’ since then. Therefore he could not be interviewed. The police constable who investigated Tolhurst’s movements at Seymour noted that the leave he had for Saturday 19 February did not extend beyond the week-end and that he … should have returned at latest Monday morning [21/2/16]. On this basis, Tolhurst did not in fact have leave to attend his wedding at Yarram on the morning of 21 February. The same police officer had also looked for but not found any letters for Tolhurst at the camp.

Faced with Tolhurst’s disappearance and no written communication, in any form, from Violet Freeman that could point to her motivation, the coronial inquiry closed and returned what amounted to an open finding.

To this point, all the articles were based on the open proceedings of the coronial inquiry, supported by witness statements from various locals who were directly involved. However, one week later (8/3/16), after the inquiry had closed, the paper published another story under the headline, Tarra Creek Suicide. Tolhurst’s Statement. Incredibly, this article was based on the witness statement that Tolhurst made to a police officer who interviewed him after he had been apprehended and returned to the Seymour camp (29/2/16). The statement would have been sent to Senior Constable Mcleod but, somehow or other, the editor ( A J Rossiter) of the local paper managed to obtain it and then reveal its contents in the paper. Perhaps Senior Constable Mcleod, even though the inquiry was closed, considered that it was in the local community’s best interest to learn about Tolhurst’s version of events; but it is hard to believe that he would have simply handed over the statement to the local press. Perhaps Rossiter was able to obtain the statement closer to its source at Seymour. The article in the paper is obviously based on the police report from Seymour:

I questioned him in reference to the suicide of Violet Freeman. Tolhurst was ignorant of the fact that the girl had taken her own life, and seemed terribly cut up when I made it known to him. He made the following statement, dated 29th Feb:- I broke camp at Seymour on 19th Feb. with the intention of going to Yarram to marry a girl named Violet Freeman. When I arrived in Melbourne I knocked about and spent about 10s or £1. I was robbed of the rest of the money I had, about 20s or £2. As I had no money I did not go to Yarram. I knocked about the city all last night, and had my meals at The Rest Rooms, St. Kilda Esplanade, and slept on the beach.

Anyone reading the above would form serious doubts about Tolhursts’s commitment to the marriage. Presumably, he kept ‘knocking about’ Melbourne until he was apprehended and returned to Seymour.

Tolhurst was also questioned about letters he received from Violet. The police would have been following up the issue of her motivation, keen to know if there was a final letter. Tolhurst’s comments point to Violet’s desperation for the wedding to occur:

The last letter I received from Violet Freeman was on the 17th inst. I also received a letter on the 15th inst. I received a letter about a month or six weeks ago, in which she said, “For God’s sake don’t slip me up.” She visited Seymour about a month ago. She had previously spoken of suicide.

In addition to the details presented in the local paper, people in the town would have also had background information on the couple. For example, it appears that Violet was Roman Catholic. At least her brother, Thomas Joseph Freeman, was. He enlisted just a few weeks after her death. Tolhurst, on the other hand, gave his religion, when he enlisted, as Church of England. Yet his name appears on the honor roll for the local Presbyterian Charge.  Violet was buried in the Alberton cemetery by Rev. Frederick A Hagenauer, the Presbyterian minister. Possibly, Violet was going to marry Tolhurst in the Presbyterian Church. Nothing is certain here, but it does appear that locals would have been aware that there was a religious dimension to the tragedy.

Clearly, at the time there would have been much conjecture and talk about what drove Violet to suicide. Equally, people would have made judgements about her character and certainly they would have had strong opinions about Tolhurst’s commitment, and his character generally. The possibility that Violet was pregnant – there was no suggestion of this in the newspaper reports – would certainly have been raised. Some would have taken Violet’s side, others might have felt that she was trying to force Tolhurst into marriage.

But beyond the personal tragedy of Violet’s suicide, the manner of how the case was reported is revealing. The whole story is presented as something of a morality play or even a ‘lesson’ for the local community: a story of what happens when people behave recklessly or irresponsibly. It also stands as a warning to others, with a clear message about trusting too much in young men enlisting and heading off to war. In this sense, whether intended or not, it was an apt counter to all the sermons of Rev Cox and others that focused exclusively on the image of the young soldier as ‘a soldier of Christ’. Clearly, not every young soldier was heroic, selfless and loyal. Perhaps there was even a message there about the need to be particularly careful with young, itinerants who were working in the community but who might not share the same set of values that the local community espoused.

What the people of Yarram probably never knew of Tolhurst after this episode was that he deserted.

Tolhurst’s service file shows that he was born in Maidstone, England. His mother as next-of-kin was still living there. The file also shows that he had had 2 years service in the Officer training Corps at Maidstone Grammar School, which does suggest a comfortable, if not privileged, social background. He gave as his address on his application to enlist as F Growse, Yarram [John Frederick Growse, farmer, Yarram], and he passed his first medical at Yarram on 3/12/15. The oath was taken in Melbourne on 13/1/16. Otherwise his file is very scant. The last entry consists of the proceedings of a … standing Court of Inquiry’ held on 13 April 1916 ‘for the purpose of inquiring into the illegal absence of HERBERT WALTER TOLHURST 18th. Light Horse Reinforcements. The inquiry established that Tolhurst…  had been absent without leave from 10/3/16 to the present date 13/4/16’. The finding was that ‘Private Herbert Walter Tolhurst is guilty of desertion from 10/4/16 and is indebted to the Government to amount of £10-1-10 for Kit issued and retained by him.

Like others, it is possible that Tolhurst re-enlisted under another name. It is also possible that he simply ‘disappeared’.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for Tolhurst Herbert Walter

69. Maurice Edward O’NEILL 1960

This post on the death of Maurice Edward O’Neill needs to read in conjunction with Post 41: Pressed to enlist. Maurice O’Neill was one of the 3 O’Neill brothers from Woodside who were the target of anonymous letters to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over the period  April to June 1915.  As far as ‘Patriot’ was concerned, not enough young men from Woodside had enlisted and the O’Neill boys typified this claimed lack of patriotism. The 3 brothers did in fact enlist – May/June 1915 – and they all served in 24 Battalion. Two brothers – Simon John O’Neill (1958) and Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill (2062) – survived the War but Maurice Edward O’Neill was killed in action (30/6/16).

Maurice O’Neill was born at Darriman. At the time he enlisted (18/6/1915) he was living at Woodside with his mother, Mrs Mary Jane Kerr. As a boy he attended the local state school. It appears that his father – William John Kerr – had died prior to his enlistment.

The O’Neill boys were Roman Catholic. Maurice gave his occupation as ‘labourer’. On his enlistment papers he noted that he had been in the Woodside Rifle Club for 3 years. At the time he enlisted he was 22 yo and single.

The initial medical was held at Yarram on 26/5/1915 and he was then given a railway warrant, dated 31/5/1915, to travel to Melbourne. The enlistment, including the additional medical examination, was not completed until 16/6/1915. He was posted to 24 Battalion and he embarked for overseas on 26/8/1915.

Private O’Neill served on Gallipoli from 11/11/1915 until the withdrawal. He was back in Alexandria in early January 1916. His battalion left Alexandria in March 1916 and was in France by the end of that month.

Private O’Neill was killed within 3 months of reaching the Western Front. He was killed in action on the night of 29-30 June 1916. He was in a raiding party on enemy trenches which set out at midnight (29/6/1916). The 24 Battalion was at Rue Marle, near Erquinghem. The battalion diary recorded the event. Private O’Neill would have been the ‘1 OR [other rank] killed’:

12 midnight. Battalion took part in combined Brigade raid on German trenches. 24 Btn party under Lts Carrick & Kerr penetrated German trenches. Killed about 20 and took 5 German prisoners. Lt Carrick went back twice for wounded. 1 OR killed. 2 wounded.

Private O’Neill’s body was returned with the raiding party and he was buried in … Ration Farm Cemetery near Bois Grenier 1 1/2 miles south of Armentieres.

The cable advising of his death was dated 11/7/1916 and details of his burial were forwarded in a letter to his mother dated 8/11/1916.

Two months after the death of her son, the mother wrote to the AIF asking for information on her son’s ‘money [deferred pay] and effects’. In the same letter she also sought information on one of her other sons – Simon John O’Neill – who had been wounded. Touchingly, but somewhat naively, she enquired,

I would like to know if he was sent to England or of he would be allowed to come home for a while till he recovers from his wounds.

Private O’Neill’s personal effects were returned in February 1917: Cards, Photos, Writing Pad, Leather Case, Turkish Bandolier.

When the mother completed the (National) Roll of Honour form she gave Woodside as the location with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. Maurice O’Neill’s name is recorded on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, where he is also recorded as ‘killed’.


National Archives file for O’Neill Maurice Edward
Roll of Honour: Maurice Edward O’Neill
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Maurice Edward O’Neill
War Diary 24 Battalion

68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity

The last post looked at how political events in Ireland from the very start of the War affected the Irish-Australian community.  However, the tension between Irish Catholic and British Protestant went well beyond the immediate political situation in Ireland. There were several hundred years of division and conflict to draw on. There were fundamental differences in religious faith, identity and practice that directly affected people’s everyday lives, for example, in areas such as marriage or, as it was more commonly described, the particular case of ‘mixed marriage’. Moreover, the differences in faith were overlain with differences between class and culture, with the Irish-Catholic Australians generally characterised as working class and even represented as lower-order citizens. However, notwithstanding long established enmity between Irish Catholic and British Protestant, the start of the War and the promise of Home Rule did see an attempt on both sides to play down the differences and unite against the common enemy.

This particular post is the first of two to show how sensitive relations were between these 2 dominant religious and cultural groupings in the local community. The specific focus is on education. Differences over the provision of schooling in the local community demonstrated how deep the divisions went and how apparently insurmountable they were. The War focused even more attention on these differences.

The provision of schooling in rural areas in late 19C and early 20 C Australia was always a problem. Settlements and townships were small and isolated. Schools could be created overnight and disappear as quickly. Most were one-teachers schools and many were part-time. There was competition between communities for the provision of schooling. Schools were often not set up in purpose-built buildings but in local halls with very rudimentary facilities. It was hard to attract and hold teachers. It could be difficult for students to access the school and many parents were reluctant to forego their children’s labour.

If anything, the problems faced by the Shire of Alberton in setting up schools across its district were more challenging than in other rural settings in Victoria. This was particularly true in relation to the spread of settlement into the very difficult and isolated ’hill country’ of the eastern Strzelecki Ranges from the 1880s.

Analysis of the WW1 honor rolls of the local schools reveals that students often attended more than one local state school. In part, this represented the movement of rural working-class families across the district as they followed work opportunities. But it also highlights how the schools themselves opened but then closed, shifted from full-time to part-time, relocated to another site and so on. The following extract from the standard text on the local history of the Shire of Alberton (Adams, 1990) gives some indication of the situation. It is looking at the provision of state schooling in the specific location of Darriman round the turn of the century.

At Darriman two schools were opened in the 1890s, one at Darriman, no. 3013, in the kitchen of the public hall erected on an acre of E. Kuch’s selection, and opened in 1892, and the other at Darriman West, no. 3070, off the main Sale road in a building leased from Mr. Geddie, with Charles Barchan, the first teacher. Numbers were poor and in 1893 Darriman closed to be reopened in 1896 half-time with Darriman West. The Darriman school closed again in 1907 while Darriman West school no. 3070 was worked part-time with Woodside until 1911. (p. 169)

Clearly, the difficulties facing the individual local communities in establishing, maintaining and improving schooling – and it was essentially primary-level schooling – were major and constant. And this level of difficulty related solely to the provision of state schooling. If the provision of Catholic schooling were to be added to the equation, all the difficulties would be magnified considerably. Two systems of schooling in such a rural environment had to increase inefficiency and compromise viability.

The reality was that, with one exception, following the legislation covering the provision of state schooling in Victoria in 1872, there was no Catholic school in the Shire of Alberton, at least up to the period of WW1. The exception was the short-lived (1885-1890) initial iteration of St Mary’s primary school in Yarram. And even before 1872 and the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ legislation, there had only ever been very limited Catholic schooling in the Shire. Setting up another, stand-alone school system, particularly in small townships and settlements, was not a realistic option. Moreover, local politics would certainly have discouraged such moves as being wasteful of limited resources and unnecessarily divisive for the community.

Importantly, the lack of Catholic primary schooling in the Shire of Alberton meant that all the young men who grew up in and enlisted from the Shire had shared a common experience of schooling, in the state system. That system was explicitly and unreservedly Imperialist in outlook and practice. Whatever the boys were told at home – and most of the Irish-Catholic families in the district still had very close relations with wider family back in Ireland – at school they were given the full and glorious version of the history and greatness of the British Empire. In her comprehensive account of the critically important role played by the Victorian state school system in WW1, Rosalie Triolo leaves no doubt of the Imperial outlook that shaped the Department and its schools:

Tate [ Director of Education], Long [Editor of the Education Gazette and School Paper] and most members of the Department’s community, especially at leadership levels, were imperialist. They were products of their culture, educational background and era. They were ‘militarist’ before and during the war in allowing a surfeit of war-related material in the Education Gazette and School Paper, especially on the Empire’s strengths and successes. They encouraged school boys to join the navy, and… conveyed views to their community during the war that able-bodied men should enlist. They gave three main reasons for believing that Australia should be involved in the war: the greatest Empire the world had known was protecting Australia from Asia and possibly other invaders; it ensured the continuation and development of trade between Australia and many countries; and, it ensured that Australians could continue to enjoy what they considered to be a morally, politically, economically and culturally superior standard of life grounded in British ways, systems and institutions.  (p14)

Triolo also argues that the Department effectively backed conscription. She quotes Tate, after the 1916 referendum:

I think the ‘Yes” vote on the referendum in Victoria [it was successful in Victoria] was a good deal influenced by the war work of the State Schools. (p59)

While the legislation of 1872 had ostensibly provided for free, compulsory and secular education, all 3 ideals were compromised in serious ways. In terms of the idea of ‘secular’, while state funding had been withdrawn from all denominational schooling, the prevailing tone of schooling was certainly religious. There was no suggestion whatsoever that state schooling was non or anti-religious. Every Monday morning, round the flag pole, the children would recite: I love God and my country; I honour the flag [Union Jack]; I will serve the KIng and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the laws. In addition to the constant presumption of a Christian God shaping all moral instruction in the school, there was provision for ministers and priests to come into the school and take religious instruction.

Within this common or ‘non-denominational’ Christian ethos in the state school system, Protestantism enjoyed one highly significant advantage. Protestantism was the established religion of England and the assumed religion of the British Empire. Apart from the fact that Protestant missionary zeal was a key force driving the Empire, and the common conviction that the very success of the Empire was proof of the inherent worth and destiny of Protestantism, the Protestant faith had naturally assumed moral and religious ownership and control of the Empire. In Australian at the time, to the extent that the state school system presented the Empire as the bedrock of political and moral belief, it accepted Protestantism as the ‘natural’ religion of the school system. This reality was not lost on Irish-Australians and, in part, it explains the ‘sectarianism’ that became so evident during and after WW1.

The extent to which the interests of Empire, Protestantism and state schooling could effectively overlap and create a trinity of purpose and direction was certainly evident in the case of Yarram SS. At the start of WW1, Yarram SS was by far the largest school in the Shire of Alberton (180+ students) and it was lobbying for the creation of a higher, post-primary level. The three-way overlap was most obvious at Empire celebrations and other patriotic activities that either focused exclusively on the state school – concerts, fund raisers, unveiling school honor rolls etc – or relied on the participation of students from the state school.

Both the composition and dynamics of the management committee of the Yarram SS highlight the three-way interchange between the state school, the local Protestant faiths – primarily the Church of England, but also the Presbyterian and Methodist churches – and Imperial loyalty.

The committee itself was relatively small and, in addition to the head teacher – A E Paige – there were only another 5 or 6 members.

One member, until he enlisted in the AIF in August 1915, was Rev George Cox (Church of England). Cox was one of the most public Imperialists in the community. He was, for example, the driving force for having the 1915 Empire Day celebrations focused on the state school when, as he alleged, the Shire Council, to its shame, was unwilling to organise an appropriate celebration. Cox himself was a member of the local Recruiting Committee and the Belgian Relief Committee. He was also very active in the temperance movement as ‘Chief Ruler’ of the local Rechabite Tent. Temperance was strongly promoted by the Empire and the Royal Family at the time. Cox was also a regular speaker on Imperialism at the school. In short, the local Church of England minister was very closely identified with the local state school.

In something of a reciprocal arrangement, Alfred Edmund Paige, the head teacher, was on the Board of Guardians for the Church of England in Yarram. He was also a member of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, and he regularly took groups of students from Yarram SS to soldiers’ farewells at the Shire Hall. The students would form a guard of honour. More importantly, they effectively made up the numbers at such occasions when too few townspeople made the effort to attend. Poor attendance at the farewells was a constant irritation for the committee.

Another member of the school management committee was Augustus John Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. Coincidentally, Rossiter was also a member of the Church of England Board of Guardians. He was another outspoken Imperialist and a member of both the local Recruiting Committee and the local 1916 National Referendum Committee – local committees set up all over Australia, at the urging of PM Hughes, to promote the Yes vote in the 1916 conscription referendum. Rossiter used his paper to promote all the patriotic causes, including conscription, with which he was associated. He was a keen backer of Rev Cox.

Thomas Whitney, the chair of the school committee, was the manager of the South Gippsland Creamery and Butter Factory. He was also on the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

Another member, George E Ruby, a local land and finance agent, was on both the local Recruiting Committee and the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. He was also a steward of the local Methodist Church. Whilst neither the local Methodist minister (Rev Walter Johns) nor the Presbyterian minister (Rev Francis Tamagno) was on the school committee, both clergymen appeared regularly at school functions and both were strong Imperialists. Rev Tamagno in particular was a leading and highly provocative Imperialist who served on the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, the Recruiting Committee and the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

The interconnections between all the relevant committees in the local community overlapped even more than this short description suggests, and they will continue to be explored in future posts. However, it is apparent that people at the time would have seen and assumed that there were common interests and associations between the local state school, Protestantism and the ideal of Imperial loyalty. While the school was ‘secular’, its Imperial identity inevitably cast it as a Protestant-like institution and the War itself intensified this perception. Given, as argued earlier, that Protestantism was the religion of the Empire, this state of affairs would have seemed perfectly natural to all true patriots and Imperialists. However, for Irish-Australians who, post Easter 1916, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with calls for complete and unquestioning loyalty to the Empire, the state school was viewed with increasing suspicion.

Part B will look at the moves to establish a Catholic school in Yarram during the War and the tension that this challenge to the existing arrangements created.


Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

Triolo, R 2012, Our Schools and the War, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

membership of local committees, boards etc taken from:

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative