118. G W Paterson

George William PATERSON (5422)
5 Battalion KiA 10/5/1917

George Paterson was born in Yarram and grew up in the area, attending Darriman State School. The family had lived in the area for many years. They were well-known. The mother gave Yarram as the place with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. The father – John Paterson – had been a logging contractor in the Darriman area and he had also had land – approximately 300 acres – in the same area in the 1890s. The father still appeared on the 1915 electoral roll as a farmer of Darriman, but in the rate book from the same time there is no indication of land in his name. However, there was  small holding of 14 acres in the name of the wife, Mary Young. It was a large family with at least 8 children.

Besides George, another 3 Paterson brothers enlisted. One brother, Archibald Paterson, enlisted with George and they both served in the same battalion. The first brother to enlist, in December 1914,  was Colin Robert Patterson (sic). He enlisted in Queensland. The fourth brother to enlist (29/1/16) was Thomas Paterson. In the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 16/8/18 there was reference to yet another brother – Douglas Cameron Paterson – who was not yet 19 yo who had just enlisted. However, there is no service record for him and it appears that this late enlistment did not go through. Of the 4 brothers who enlisted, all but George survived the War.

When George Paterson enlisted he gave his address as Darriman and his occupation as labourer. When his mother gave information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave his occupation as farmer. Most likely, he was helping on the family’s small holding and also working on other farms in the area.  The family was Presbyterian.

He was single and, officially, only 18 years and 6 months at the time he enlisted. He needed his parents’ signed permission and both of them signed the form stating that he was 18 and 6 months. However, when his mother gave the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave his age at the time he was killed as 18 and 9 months, which means that when he enlisted he was only 17 and 6 months. Also, in correspondence the mother refers to him as enlisting when he was only 17 and 6 months. At the time, the AIF disapproved strongly of such under-age enlistments.

George enlisted (10/3/16) in Yarram and his first medical was with Dr. Crooks. He was then re-examined in Melbourne. There was a brief reference in the local paper (28/4/16) to the farewell at Yarram for the 2 Paterson brothers.

Private Paterson was taken on as a reinforcement for 5 Battalion. He left for overseas service on 3/7/16 and reached Plymouth 2 months later on 2/9/16. There was further training in England (2 Training Brigade). There was also a spell in hospital – rubella/pleurisy – for one month in October 1916.

Private Paterson finally joined 5 Battalion in France on 2/1/17. He was killed four months later at Bullecourt 2 on 10/5/17.

5 Battalion’s war diary has the battalion relieving 4 and 9 Battalions in the fighting at Bullecourt on 7/5/17. On the 8th of May they managed to drive off a German counter-attack and another one the next day. The battalion was relieved – by 57 and 58 Battalions – on 9/5/17. It then moved back, first to Vault and then to Biefvillers. For the 3 days in the line the casualties were 19 dead and 60 wounded. The official record has Private Paterson being killed on the 10th of May but it is more likely that he was killed on the 9th, the day the battalion withdrew.

The following witness accounts from the Red Cross file give a graphic description of the fighting and his death, and it is easy to appreciate why there was no recorded grave. Private Paterson’s name is on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

We were in the line at Bullecourt and were about to be relieved. The Germans had been giving it to us thick and fast and Paterson was pretty well shell shocked. He was sitting in a bit of a dug-out in the side of the trench with Vipond. I was at my post only a few yards away, when a shell burst on the bit of dug-out where they were sitting. When we got them out Vipond was wounded and Paterson was dead…. We were then relieved and Paterson would be buried on the spot if another shell did not bury him first, for the shells were dropping fast. He was a tall, slim fellow of about 5ft 9. He was with the Battalion when I joined it eight months ago.
Pte Kearney. 6669 Sept 3rd. 1917

Private Kearney survived the War. The second witness statement, dated 4/9/17, is by Private T R Vipond (6599), the soldier who was with Private Paterson at the time of his death. Private Vipond was a bit older than Paterson. He too survived the War.

I saw him killed by a shell. He was suffering from shell-shock at time of casualty, and I was with him in a dugout looking after him, when the shell landed into the dugout, killing him instantaneously and wounding me. The ground was held, where casualty took place, but I do not know place of burial and cannot refer to anyone. I knew him well, he was the only man of that name in the coy.

The cable advising of the death was dated 24/5/17 and the formal report of death was completed on 15/6/17. The mother received a pension of 30/- per fortnight from 24/7/17. There was no kit returned. This was despite a specific search for the kit. As for 2 recent cases – Sweeney CJ, Post 113 and Slavin JL, Post 117 – the non-return of personal kit was most unusual. Perhaps the clustering of these instances round the fighting at Bullecourt is significant.

Even though Private Paterson had been killed and the family was advised promptly, the mother struggled to accept the news and held out the hope that there had been a mistake and that her boy was not dead. She clung to this hope in extended correspondence with Base Records that lasted for more than one year. Much of her hope turned round the confusion – at least in her mind – over his regimental number. Basically, his original number – 5737 – was changed to 5422 on 22/9/16, but it appears he never informed his parents of the change. Such changes were relatively common. When the fateful telegram arrived, the mother immediately picked up on the different regimental number and wrote, the very next day (25/5/17), to the ‘Defence Department’.

Dear Sir
I wish to let you know my son [is] G.W. Paterson No 5737 5 Battalion
The number I received about his death is not the number he gave me so I don’t believe it, till I hear further information I hope to God the news is not true as he is my full support.
Hoping to hear sooner about him
I remain yours truly
Mrs Mary Paterson

This was just the first letter and the mother’s grief is painfully raw in the extensive correspondence which followed. There was anxious correspondence even before the report of his death that pointed to the intense relationship with her son. She wrote on 31/4/17 – just before the time of his actual death – because she was worried that she had not heard from him. She wanted help from the AIF.

I am writing to you to see if you can find my dear son George W. Paterson
address B Company
5th Battalion
France A.I.F
[I] last heard from him on Feb 20th(?) 17. I am very anxious I cannot sleep at night thinking of him my dear boy so brave as he was [.] I have 4 sons fighting for their country [I] hear from them all except George
Dear Gentlemen I want you to hunt him up for me
trusting you will & let me know as soon as possible
you will greatly oblige me

Despite the efforts of Base Records to convince the mother that her son had been killed, she continued to clutch at straws. For example, she wrote on July 5 that she had had a letter from one of her other boys – Thomas Paterson, serving in France in 21 Battalion – dated 11/5/17 in which he had reported that George was ‘quite well’, presumably when he had seen him some time prior to his death. She combined this with the confusion – at least for her – over the regimental number and the commonness of the name ‘Paterson’  – …there are many Patersons at the war; I read of them getting killed every day…. to convince herself that there was some hope. She declared that she was hoping to … get a letter from him shortly…

The letters to Base Records continued, fixated on the number change. The mother spoke to many other parents but none of them had had their son’s number changed. She wanted to know why the parents were not told when numbers were changed. The concerns were irrelevant, even irrational; but the raw grief behind them is so clear. The following was dated 21/7/17:

We are terrible all broken up over him & it is causing us such worry & and we are very annoyed of the wrong number and we reared [a] fine lot of sons [.] 5 enlisted & 4 passed & all were at the front & I wrote to have George kept back as we made a mistake in his age he was too young to [have] been sent to the front 17 ½ yrs when he went into camp & 18 ½ got news killed [.] so dear Gentlemen we are broken hearted over it.

The reference to the letter requesting George be kept from the front was repeated several times but there is no evidence of it in the file.

Base Records replying to all the letters, reiterated that the son had been killed and that the change to the regimental number was a common occurrence. But the mother was convinced that it was all a question of the wrong number. She wrote on 4/8/17 that she was

… waiting patiently for a letter from him [.] he never wrote very often he said he had no time [.] he was such a good boy [,] the pet of the house but he did want to go & fight for his Country & was so proud to be a Soldier [.] I would like to know how he was killed if it is true & what with [.] he was in a different Battalion to his other brothers [.] he was the only one [who] helped me and cared for home all the rest never cared. I put a claim in to get something but I suppose I will get nothing as I have a little income
Hoping to hear better news later on.

As indicated, the mother did receive a pension, from July, 1917.

In October 1917 it appeared that the mother had accepted her son’s death. In a letter (12/10/17) to Base Records she indicated that she had not had any letter from him since 25/4/17 . She was still upset that he had been sent to the front because he was so young and she had specifically asked that he be kept back, given that she had other sons there. But she did also write,

Dear Gentlemen it is quite true now about him [.] the dear boy is gone forever. We will never get over him [.] we are so broken up over him being so young, far too young.

There is also a reference to another, older, son – Thomas – having told her that George had been killed.

Yet, there is still the ongoing anxiety over the number change. In fact, it was almost the case that in her mind he had been killed because his number had been changed.

In November (28/11/17) she was again fixated on the number change. She wanted his belongings – as indicated no kit was ever returned – as proof that he was dead; and in any case there was also the possibility that he was a prisoner.

I hope you will try & find out about him & his belongings [.] if I receive them that will satisfy me that he is killed but he gave me his No 5737 [his original regimental number] so it seems strange about the wrong number
Hoping you will see into the matter [.] he might be a prisoner.

In 1918 the letters to Base Records continued. The family was distressed. The mother appeared to be convinced that her son had been, as she expressly put it, … killed by a wrong number. (21/3/1918). In April (14/4/1918) she wrote again, this time wanting to know the reason why the regimental number had been changed. Presumably, she believed some conspiracy had been at work and that the death itself was part of the same conspiracy. Certainly, the repeated advice from Base Records that the number – like so many others – had been changed as a matter of routine was not being accepted. In her mind, there had to be some other reason – a sinister one, presumably – and that was why he was dead, or at least the authorities claimed he was dead.

In June (13/6/1918) after Base Records explained that two soldiers had had the same number and that her son’s original number had been changed to avoid the confusion, she wrote back asking for the name and address of this soldier. She thought she might know him. She also asked again for her son’s belongings and explained that if she could get hold of these then she would be able to see all the letters she had written to him, and then she would know he was dead. The boy’s father, she wrote … is nearly mad talking about it. Base Records duly sent the name of the soldier: Private L Mullaly (5737) 5 Battalion. [Mullaly was a factory-hand from Richmond. He was in the same battalion but had gone overseas several months before George Paterson. He survived the War.]

At that point, the preoccupation with the regimental number appeared to stop and there was no further correspondence, until 1921. It was routine practice by this point to send photographs of the graves of soldiers killed in the War, accepting of course that there was a grave. The mother must have heard other families talking about such photographs and had obviously never appreciated that her son’s body had never been buried or, if it had been, the grave had been lost. Communication from Base Records had always indicated that there was no grave. However, on 21/4/1921, the mother wrote,

I am writing these few lines to you kindly asking you, could you send me the photo of my dear beloved son No 5422 George William Paterson which was killed at Bullecourt on May 10th 1917 [.] his mother is very anxious about him, thinking he was never found or buried, I would be very pleased if I was sure he was buried & to have a photo of his grave
Hoping to hear from you shortly
I remain yours truly
Mr John & Mary Paterson

Base Records had to write back (7/5/1921) explaining that …. no particulars of burial have yet been received here in respect of your son, the late No. 5422 Private G. W. Paterson, 5th Battalion …and reassuring the parents that …an intensive search is now being made over all old battlefields with a view to locating unregistered graves, and should these efforts prove successful in this instance you will be advised. Free photographs were to be sent to the next-of-kin in such cases.

Having taken so long to come to terms with her son’s death, the mother was now faced with the harsh reality that there was never to be any trace of him: no grave and not even any of his kit.

Her son had died crouched in a dug-out suffering shell shock, comforted by a twenty-year-old. It appears from one letter in the service file that she actually knew he was suffering from shell shock at the time of his death. It is reasonable to make the point that her wrenching and unhinging grief seemed to parallel his dreadful end.

The same supposed confusion and unfounded hope over the fate of Private Paterson played out in the local paper. On 15/6/17 it reported:

Mr. Thos. Paterson, Darriman has received word that his son, Private G. W. Paterson was killed in action on 10th May. As the No. given is 5422, and Private Paterson’s No. is 5737, there is hope that the report is incorrect. Private Paterson enlisted twelve months ago at the age of 17 1/2 years.

At the end of 1917 (21/12/17) the family placed an in memoriam:

Paterson – In France, at the battle of Boulecourt (sic) on 10th May, 1917. Private George William Paterson, 5th Bat. 6th Brigade, fifth son of John and Mary Patterson (sic), Darriman, aged 18 years and 9 months.
Foremost was he in the thickest strife,
For God, King and Country he laid down his life
Only a boy, he heard the call:
He did his duty – he gave his all.
One of earth’s brightest, one of the best
Like many others he is laid to rest.
Deeply regretted – Inserted by his loving father, mother, sisters and brothers.

The same edition featured a report – with some obvious errors – that apparently confirmed that Private Paterson had been killed, and even formally buried:

The sad news reached Mr. and Mrs. John Paterson, Darriman, about 8 months ago, that their fifth son Private George William Paterson had been killed in action at the Boulecourt (sic) battle. The news was not believed, owing to what was considered to be a different number being given. It has since become known to his relatives that he bore two numbers. Lately word has been received from Private Thomas Patterson (sic), his soldier brother, that just after the battle, when leaving the trenches for furlough, a shell burst over his head and killed him instantly. The remains of this brave soldier are buried in the Boulecourt cemetery.

In January 1918 (23/1/18) the paper published the last letter sent home by Private Paterson. In its preamble to the letter it gave another version of his death. It stated that he was killed on 10/5/17 at the battle of Boulecourt and that he … was killed in “no man’s land”, having with others gone too far owing to misadventure. A shell burst over the dug-out killing him instantly and wounding a mate, just as relief was at hand.

But in August 1918 (16/8/18) there was this commentary which continued the claim that he had not even been killed:

Private George Paterson is reported killed, but another number having been given to the Defence authorities, the parents still hope that he may be a prisoner “somewhere in Germany,” and that, after the war, he will turn up safe and sound, even if somewhat underfed by the enemy. His number was 5737, and 5422 is reported killed.

Overall, the case stands as the classic example of the inability of parents to face the death of their son and, instead, to grab at any piece of potential evidence to challenge the official position. Presumably, from the perspective of the local paper, it was only right that the local community supported the parents in their desperate hopes.

Private George Paterson’s name is recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. The names of all the Paterson brothers who enlisted are on the honor roll for the state school at Darriman. Additionally, George Paterson’s name is also on the honor rolls for the local Presbyterian Charge and the state school at Woodside.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project

National Archives file for PATERSON George William 5422
Roll of Honour: George William Paterson
First World War Embarkation Rolls: George William Paterson
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: George William Paterson

Additional information

The following photographs and commentary have been provided by Colin Coomber, grandson of Archibald Paterson.

John Paterson and Mary Young had 11 children – 6 of whom were boys. John
and his brother Archibald (married to Mary’s sister) selected adjoining
blocks at Darriman in 1884 (ref: Gippsland Mercury, Feb 7, 1884, Sale
Land Board report) Both lots fronted Warrigal Creek and were believed to
be roughly where the 1843 Warrigal Creek massacre occurred. John made
some poor decisions involving purchase of a large amount cattle during
the 1890s recession which left him virtually bankrupt and so he spent
the rest of his working life in the employ of major landholder Patrick
Brennan on his Woodside run. Brennan also owned Warrigal Creek run
between 1875 and 1879. His bother Archibald had returned to Learmonth
but retained the Darriman property for some years and it is possible
John ran some cattle there.

Older brother Colin Patterson spelt his name with a double T all his
life although in the family’s birth registrations there is a mix of
single and double Ts. John Paterson may have had limited literacy
because his wife Mary wrote most letters and in registering births the
spelling of the surname was whatever the registrar decided.
Interestingly John had a sister who signed her wedding certificate with
the double T even though it was filled out with a single T.

Another interesting fact is that of the four brothers who served in WW1,
Tom, Arch and George all sailed on the one troopship HMAS Ayreshire on
July 13, 1916. Tom enlisted two months before his younger brothers.

The extended Paterson family was hit hard by the war. John and Mary had
their son George killed at Bullecourt, and a nephew Albert Rands (son of
Janet Mary Paterson and John Alexander Rands) was killed at Bullecourt
seven days before George. To add more to this story, John Rands’ sister
Lydia Lyon died in childbirth and the baby Israel Edward Lyon survived
and was brought up as a child of John and Janet Rands) Israel (known as
Ned) was killed at Gallipoli on November 29, 1915. A second sister of
John Rands, Sarah (m William Grey of Dunolly) had a son Horace (sometimes
spelt Horris) killed at Gallipoli on August 1, 1915.

Regards Colin Coomber
(Grandson of Archibald Paterson, son of John).

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