Walter Stephen FILMER (4426/2Lt)
22 Battalion KiA 3/5/1917
Walter Stephen Filmer was born at Noradjuha near Horsham. However he grew up south of Horsham, closer to Hamilton. He attended the state school at Byaduk and when he enlisted his mother – his father was dead – was still living there. Similarly, on the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour, his mother gave Byaduk as the location with which he was ‘chiefly connected’.
At the time of enlistment in February 1916, he was single, 22 yo and he gave his occupation as school teacher. His religion was Presbyterian. On his enlistment papers he indicated that he held the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the Citizen Forces. His mother also recorded – for the (National) Roll of Honour – that he had had two and a half years experience, as an officer in the Senior Cadets, in the Hamilton and Casterton district before he joined the AIF.
Walter Filmer trained as a teacher in the Hamilton area which was where he had the involvement with the senior cadets. Then, as a very young man, he was appointed to the state school at Womerah in the Shire of Alberton. The school had only been opened in 1906. Filmer would have been appointed there in 1914. He was the head teacher at the school when he enlisted. He was well known in the district. Initially, he played football for the local team West Alberton but then in April 1915 he transferred to the team based on the local Fire Brigade. He was a member of the local branch of the ANA and his name is recorded on the their honor roll.
He played a key role in the raising of the first group of recruits from the Shire. There are numerous references in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – from the period. Given his recent experience with the senior cadets he was soon playing the role of drill instructor and giving the young volunteers their introduction to military discipline. The following appeared on 9/9/14:
A capable instructor [ for drill] has volunteered in the person of Lieut. Filmer, who has had charge of the citizen forces in Hamilton and Casterton district, and he will be assisted by helpers who have had military experience in various arms of the service, and a suitable building has been arranged, viz, the new stables at the Co-operative Store, by the courtesy of the directors. It is proposed to start forthwith, and a parade of all interested is called for Friday evening [11/9/14] at 7.30 p.m. at the place named. This movement has the co-operation of the rifle club and ambulance association.
Another report (11/9/14) noted that his position as drill instructor had been approved by the military authorities:
Lieut. W. S. Filmer has received a letter from the headquarters of the 3rd military district stating that his offer to instruct local riflemen and civilians is much appreciated, and expressing the hope that a great number will avail themselves of the offer. Drill starts this evening in the Co-operative Store stables at 7.30.
Other reports (16/9/14, 18/9/14) made it clear that he also played a role in vetting the initial large group of recruits and conducting their formal enlistment. In fact, the following assessment by the editor (Rossiter) which appeared in the paper on 23/9/14, just after the first large group of recruits had left, made it clear that Lieutenant Filmer’s role had been very significant:
Arrangements [for drill sessions] were made with the directors for use of the large stables at the Co-operative Store, which made a first-rate drill room. Each Friday evening Lieutenant Filmer gave instruction, and to him and the gentlemen mentioned [Rev. Geo Cox, Mr. Jas. Farmer and Mr. Geo Davis] is credit due for having started the recruiting movement in this district. But for Lieutenant Filmer’s efforts we doubt whether as many young men would have responded to the “call to arms’.
At the time, Filmer could only have been 20 yo and it is reasonable to speculate how the local men and boys would have responded to his drill instruction. Certainly, the Shire of Alberton had been an exempt area under the universal compulsory military training scheme then in place – senior cadets were not introduced in the local area until August 1915 – and so the response by the young locals to military instruction and notions of military discipline might have been challenging. Also Filmer’s youthfulness would have set up some natural antipathy. Besides, he played football with many if not most of the recruits; and they were probably disinclined to take his military rank and bearing all that seriously. It does appear that for all his enthusiasm and commitment, there were some issues. For example, one report in late August 1914 talks about Lieutenant Filmer still ‘persevering’ with the drill instruction. Another discussion, reported in the local paper nearly one year later (6/8/15), suggested that Lieutenant Filmer’s efforts were not up to the mark:
Mr. Fleming fired a telling shot. He explained that unless drill was conducted by a warrant officer sworn in until termination of the war, the effort would be in vain. It must be under military authority.
At this very point in time, Filmer was involved in the establishment of the local senior cadets. However, the concern seemed to be that his military qualifications and status, while suitable for the cadets, were not up to the mark for those enlisting in the AIF. He would have found this criticism harsh.
Through 1915, Filmer was a strong advocate for the recruiting campaign. At a farewell held at Womerah for 3 new recruits – D Brown, J Loriman and J Morgan – he praised the loyalty of the men, championed the Australian soldiers and made it clear that he also intended to enlist. His comments were recorded in the local paper on 4/8/15:
These men [the 3 recruits] were certainly doing their duty. Personally he envied them very much, but trusted that before long he would be permitted to go with them. He advised them to try to emulate the example set by the brave Australians on Gallipoli, of whom the naval men said, “Fiercer fighters God never made.”
When the Education Department approved of his enlistment, he was given a large send-off from Womerah. It was reported in the local paper in detail on 3/3/16. He was praised as a dedicated and very popular teacher, a selfless and highly regarded member of the local community who went out of his way to help others, and a true patriot. The night of the farewell saw atrocious weather and the road to Womerah was described as unsafe. Yet despite the dreadful conditions, it was noted that people travelled from Yarram to attend. Those there from Yarram included A J Rossiter, editor of the local paper, and A E Paige, head teacher of Yarram SS. ‘Sergeant’ Filmer, as he was referred to that night, was presented with the Shire Medallion and a ‘valuable pair of prismatic field glasses’. The field glasses would be returned in his personal kit after his death.
Private Filmer enlisted in Melbourne on 2/2/16. He was taken on as reinforcements for 22 Battalion. He gave his address as ‘Helensville’, Yarram. He included his previous military service with the Citizens Forces. While he was enlisted as a private, by early March 1916 he was made sergeant, the rank by which he was referred at his farewell.
His group of reinforcements left Melbourne at the end of March 1916. There was further training in England and then in September 1916 he finally joined 22 Battalion in France. His promotion history was complex and in the end there had to be an enquiry and formal ruling. Effectively, he was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 16/12/16.
In February 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Filmer spent about 3 weeks in hospital with parotitis/mumps but rejoined the battalion on 9/3/17. Two months later he was killed in action on 3/5/17, the first day of the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
22 Battalion’s involvement in Bullecourt 2 is covered in its war diary. The strength of the battalion that went into the battle – another 200 men had been detached for other divisional duties – was 21 officers and 618 other ranks. Zero hour was 3.45 a.m. on 3/5/17 and the troops went in with a covering barrage. The enemy replied with its own barrage at 4.49 a.m. The battalion was able to push through to its second objective after approximately 2 hours of heavy fighting but, as the diary records, because of the failure of the British troops – 185 Brigade – to take the left flank they were left hopelessly exposed and forced back. The fighting was intense, with bombing parties from both sides moving along the German trenches which the battalion had initially been able to take, or, at least, gain some foothold in. The battalion came out of the line the next day at 4.00 a.m. when it was relieved by 3 Battalion. The casualties – ‘killed, wounded, missing, died of wounds, wounded and missing’ – for just that one day of fighting were 438 or 70% of the force committed. Of the 21 officers, 16 (76%) were casualties, including 2nd Lieutenant Filmer who was killed. There was no chance to recover bodies. Lieutenant Filmer’s name is recorded on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
There is a detailed Red Cross report for Lieutenant Filmer. There were several witness statements to the effect that he was wounded, severely, and that he died shortly after. All agreed that the body had been left when the Australians fell back. The points of difference were over whether he had been hit by shrapnel or a bullet, how long he survived after being wounded, and whether he was conscious or not. One statement had him conscious and even telling those there that he ‘knew he was done for’. The following statement by Private H A Morris (4498) gives the basic information:
I saw him lying dead on 3rd May, just on the 1st. trench we took (old German trench 1.) at Bullecourt, just at daylight. He had been hit by a shell and I believe only lived a very short time. Someone whose name I cannot recall spoke to him before he died. I was knocked out later the same morning near by and his body had not been brought in when I left about 7 a.m. I knew him before he got his commission and came out with him. He was a fine chap.
Tellingly, there were many similar testimonials to his character in the witness statements. He was commonly described as a fine chap, a good sportsman/footballer and someone who was popular.
In the Red Cross report there is correspondence from February 1918 from the mother, at Byaduk, asking that they – the Red Cross – carefully check POW records. She stated that she had had a letter from a Captain L A Kennedy, of the same battalion (22 B), giving an account of her son’s fate. She wrote that Kennedy stated that … my son was wounded & left in a trench on the Hindenburg line on the 3rd of May 1917. Captain Kennedy says that they applied a field dressing to his wounds & made him as comfortable as possible but they were driven out of the trench by the enemy & could not take him with them. Capt K. did not think my son would live but the fact remains that he was alive & left in the hands of the enemy and if he did live he must be prisoner of war.
The mother’s interpretation of Kennedy’s account, not surprisingly, was that it left open the possibility that the had been taken prisoner. The Red Cross replied in April 1918 that they very much regretted that there was no trace of her son as a POW and that there was no reason to doubt the official report of his death.
Lieutenant Filmer’s death was specifically noted in the battalion’s war diary at the time. The cable advising of his death was dated 19/5/17, just over 2 weeks after his death. The official report of death was dated 10/6/17.
His death was reported back in Gippsland in the local paper on 25/5/17. His success in the AIF as an officer was emphasised, as was his record as head teacher at Womerah. In fact, Lieutenant Filmer had kept in contact with the school while in the AIF. In March 1917 (7/3/17), about one month before he was killed, the local paper reported at the opening of the new Womerah school that a letter from Lieutenant Filmer had been received by the local district school inspector (R H Greenwood). In the letter Filmer was reported to have said that … he would rather put in another two years in the Womerah mud than be in the trenches. He had kindly recollections of the old place in the hills.
The local paper also reported (1/6/17) that the school had erected a ‘fine flag pole’ and that … On Tuesday [29/5/17] the flag was flown at half-mast in memory of the late Lieut. Filmer. The local paper also reported (14/9/17) on further commemorations:
An enlarged photo of the late Lieut. Filmer, formerly head teacher at the Womerah school, has arrived in Yarram. The enlargement, which is a handsome piece of work, suitably inscribed, is being presented to the Womerah school by the pupils of late Lieut. Filmer, as a tribute to the respect in which he was held by them…
Another enlargement of the Lieut. Filmer has been sent to Mrs. Filmer, mother of the late soldier, by parents of the children of Womerah school.
Even though he had only been in the district for not much more than 2 years, Lieutenant Filmer had obviously made an impression on the local community. Probably what struck people was the seriousness of his manner and commitment, and this impression would have been reinforced by his relatively young age. His name is recorded on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.
Personal kit, including the binoculars, was returned to the mother in October 1917. It came in a sealed valise: Numerous Books, Letters, Cards, Photos, Maps, 1 pen Knife, 2 Pencils, 1 Collapsible Cup, Binoculars in Case, 3 Sword Frogs, 1 Revolver in Holster, Ammunition Pouch, 1 Bolt, 2 Scarfs, Cigarette Case, 1 Pyjama Coat, 1 Mirror, 1 Testament, Regimental Colours, 1 Pipe, 4 Collars, 1 Pr Mittens, 1 Tie, 6 Handkerchiefs, 1 Pr Riding Breeches, 1 Linen Bag, 1 Kit Bag Handle, 1 Leather Purse, 1 Disc, 1 Badge.
There was a brother – Albert George Filmer – who also enlisted (14/2/17). He was farmer and he enlisted in Queensland. He was wounded in September 1918 and invalided to the UK. But he did survive the War, returning to Australia in January 1919.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
National Archives file for FILMER Walter Stephen 4426/2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Walter Stephen Filmer
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Walter Stephen Filmer
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Walter Stephen Filmer