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.

References

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

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