133. Menin Road, Sept. 1917: G E Withinshaw, F W Butler, J Kennedy, C Saal & J D McLennan

Menin Road

The battle of Menin Road – the road itself ran between Menin and Gheluvelt, just outside of Ypres – was launched at 5.40 on the morning of 20 September 1917 and ran through to the following day. There were 11 divisions involved – 9 British and 2 Australian. The 2 Australian divisions – 1 and 2 – were positioned near Westhoek. It was the first time 2 Australian divisions had attacked side by side.

The military rated the operation a success. The planning was detailed, highly technical and strategic, and the men well prepared. All objectives were achieved.

The British politicians were far less impressed: the objectives themselves were limited and the casualty levels were unacceptable. Overall there were 21,000 casualties – including 4,000 for the AIF – and the ground gained was just over 5 square miles.  Success on these terms was unsustainable, particularly for the AIF.

The allied troops were not sent to attack the conventional line of trenches but rather a system of apparently haphazard outposts, reinforced pill boxes and machine gun emplacements which became denser and more effective the further the attacking troops penetrated. The German plan was that such a defensive system would first slow and then absorb the attack, at which point they could counter-attack.

The British counter strategy was to use artillery to protect and support the attacking infantry. This was to be done in the most direct and scientific way. The men would attack, in a closely orchestrated progression, behind the protective cover or ‘curtain’ of a barrage that gradually moved across the entire width of the chosen battlefield – to 1,000 yards and further – and was then sustained after the objectives had been achieved to break up any German counter attack.

Menin Road was rated as a triumph of allied artillery. It was the use of artillery that defined the success of the battle. Bean wrote about the success of the artillery in such ‘step-by-step tactics’:

The battle of September 20th (Menin Road), like those that succeeded it, is easily described inasmuch as it went almost precisely in accordance with plan. The advancing barrage won the ground; the infantry merely occupied it, pouncing on any points at which resistance survived. Whereas the artillery was generally spoken of as supporting the infantry, in this battle the infantry were little more than a necessary adjunct to the artillery’s effort. The barrage was the densest that had ever yet covered Australian troops. “Excellent-the best ever put up,” “as near to perfect as possible,” “magnificent in accuracy and volume,” were descriptions applied to it afterwards by Australian officers. Nevertheless it may fairly be claimed that infantry such as the Australian gave the artillery the best prospect of success. Provided the going was good, the difficulty was, never, to keep Australians up to the barrage, but, almost always, to keep them out of it. With guns so concentrated, a fair proportion of shells inevitably burst short of the rest, making a fringe to the barrage, and in this fringe the Australian infantry worked. (p 761)

However there were problems. Bean himself alludes to one: keeping the troops out of the barrage. For a whole range of reasons the attacking troops could be hit by their own artillery. Sometimes, not surprisingly, the close coordination required between the movement of the barrage and the troops on the battlefield broke down. Also, artillery shells could fall short and, given the closeness of the fighting, these ‘shorts’ often fell among the British and Australian troops.

That such ‘friendly fire’ was a real problem at Menin Road is revealed in the war diary of 5 Battalion. On the one hand the diary noted how effective, overall, the barrage had been. It stated that The barrage put down by our artillery was excellent. But it then went on to note how the … inevitable “shorts” fell amongst our men and made casualties. It also lamented that the men were too eager to move forward and some of them …  got into the barrage. Summing up, it noted:

Perhaps as many as 100 casualties were caused by our own barrage and “shorts”.

The significance of the figure of 100 is that total casualties for 5 Battalion at Menin Road were 70 killed, 189 wounded and 12 missing. Overall, potentially nearly 40% of the total casualties were caused by friendly fire.

It also important to note that in the final stages before the attack, as the men were assembling in the jumping off areas, German artillery put down a heavy barrage that claimed many casualties. In some cases, this barrage was so heavy, concentrated and deadly in its effect that the men, to escape it, launched the attack several minutes in advance of the scheduled start time.

Again, to give some indication of the intensity of the artillery used at Menin Road, 3.5 million shells were used over the period that covered the week leading up to the attack and the first day of the attack.  Many German troops surrendered, shell-shocked and demoralised.

In his account, Bean also described how some German troops who thought they had surrendered or who tried to surrender were killed. Most of these deaths appear to have occurred when the troops were overpowering the German pill boxes. In at least one case, it took the intervention of officers to stop the killing (p 772). In another case Bean described how German troops tried to surrender … but the excited troops “filled the place with bombs” until, growing tired of killing, they allowed a remnant – an officer and 40 men – to go to the rear as prisoners. (p. 764)

After the ‘success’ of Menin Road, planning for Polygon Wood continued with new enthusiasm.

It is worth noting that of the 5 men linked to the Shire of Alberton who died at Menin Road, and whose accounts appear below, not one of them has a known grave. All are simply remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. Arguably, the lack of graves also points to the way the artillery of both sides churned up and obliterated the battlefield.

References

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, 11th Edition 1941

Chapter XVIII Step By Step. (1) The Menin Road

For a general background on Menin Road see,

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [p 335 ff]

Carlyon, L 2006, The Great War, Pan Macmillan, Sydney NSW
[Chapter 29]

 

George Edgar WITHINSHAW (3456)
23 B KiA 19/9/17

The name of George Edgar Withinshaw is not included on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial, but he was definitely a local of the Shire of Alberton. He was yet another another young English immigrant. He was born in Burslem, Staffordshire. When he enlisted in November 1916, he was 22 yo – nearly 23 yo – and the information supplied by his father – Harry Withinshaw – for the (National) Roll of Honour indicates that, at the time, he would have been in Australia for between 12 and 18 months. He must have arrived sometime in 1915, as a 21 yo.

On his enlistment forms he gave his occupation as ‘butcher’ and it appears he had completed several years apprenticeship in England before he came to Australia. However, in the local area it is most likely that he was working as a farm labourer. He gave his address as c/o C J Stockwell, Yarram. Charles John Stockwell was a prominent local grazier with at least 240 acres near Yarram. The father listed the same Charles J Stockwell Esq. on the (National) Roll of Honour form as someone … to whom reference could be made… for further information. The father also gave Yarram as the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’.

While he had not been in the local area for long before he enlisted, there is no doubt that George Edgar Withinshaw was a local. Indeed, there is even a record of him being fined for being on the premises of the Yarram Hotel ‘during prohibited hours’. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 6/10/16, just a months before he enlisted, reported on the prosecution of 4 locals – James Mitchell, George Withinshaw, Joseph Mills and Edgar Mitchell – who had been apprehended by Constable Herkes at 11.55 PM in the ‘bar parlour’ of the Yarram Hotel on the night of Saturday, 26 August. All 4 were found guilty and fined between 10/- and 15/- with costs (another 6/- to 10/-). Interestingly, on his enlistment papers, George Withinshaw wrote that he ‘had not been convicted’. Further, he enlisted at Warragul. Perhaps he chose to enlist outside the local area so as not to draw attention to his recent brush with the law.

Private Withinshaw was single and he gave his religion as Church of England when he enlisted on 10/11/16. He was taken on as reinforcements for 2 Pioneer Battalion and he embarked from Melbourne on 16/12/16, which was just over one month after he had enlisted.

In training in the UK in March 1917 he was hospitalised for 2 weeks with influenza and then in September he spent another week in hospital with a serious ear infection.

He transferred from 2 Pioneer Battalion to 23 Battalion in July 1917 and he proceeded overseas to join 23 Battalion in late August 1917. He was killed in action on 19/9/17 which meant that his service lasted just 10 months and, in fact, he survived less than one month at the front.

There is no Red Cross file and the details on the death of private Withinshaw are sparse. In fact, while the official date of his death is given as 19/9/17, records in his file suggest that, initially, the date was given as 22/9/17. Significantly, the date of 22/9/17 is more credible. There is nothing in the war diary of 23 Battalion that suggests any casualties for 19/9/17 but 22/9/17, on the other hand, was one of the 2 days over which 23 Battalion was involved in the battle of Menin Road. For 23 Battalion, the casualties for 21-23 September were 13 killed, 77 wounded and 6 missing. The body of Private Withinshaw was never recovered – another reason to support 22/9/17 as the date of death – and his name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

The father in England was advised by cable dated 8/10/17. It appears that personal kit was returned to the father, then at Tottenham in London, at the end of December 1917 but there is no list of the actual items.

There is no personal or family correspondence in the file. However, presumably, George Withinshaw would have reunited with his family when he was in training in the UK.

Private George Ernest Withinshaw would have been another of the young English immigrant workers who were pressed by the locals to enlist and return to fight for the mother country. There is now little, if any, memory of his time in the AIF and his death in service.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for WITHINSHAW George Edgar 3456
Roll of Honour: George Edgar Withinshaw
First World War Embarkation Rolls: George Edgar Withinshaw

 

Frederick William BUTLER (814)
5B KiA 20/09/17

Frederick Butler was born in South Melbourne. The family must have moved into the local area not long after because he attended Womerah SS. His father – William Butler – was dead by the time he enlisted so, presumably, the family moved to the Shire of Alberton when the mother – Maria Butler – remarried. She married Charles Ethelbert Retford, a contractor of Jack River.

The mother was listed as next-of-kin on his enlistment papers and her address was Jack River via Yarram. When she completed the particulars for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave Yarram as the place with which her son was ‘chiefly connected’. His name is recorded on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.

Prior to enlistment Frederick Butler had served two years in the fledgling Royal Australian Navy. His date of enlistment in the AIF was very early – 24 August 1914 – nearly a month before the first large group from Yarram. He enlisted at South Melbourne. He was 23 yo at the time and he gave his occupation as labourer. He was Church of England.

He joined the newly formed 5 Battalion and left for the Middle East in October 1914. He was wounded – gunshot, right thigh – at the start of the Gallipoli campaign and hospitalised.

At this point he was recommended to be discharged from the AIF on medical grounds and was in fact returned to Australia. The report of the medical board from the time (27/5/15) reveals that he had previously suffered a serious knee injury in the RAN and there had been more injury to the same knee when he was serving with 5 Battalion in Egypt, prior to Gallipoli. Then when he had been shot in the thigh, the knee injury had been further exacerbated. The report made it clear that the injury had been sustained on active service. There was a definite recommendation that he be discharged as permanently unfit. He arrived back in Australia in July 1915.

However, on his return to Australia he was not medically discharged. Instead, after spending 3 weeks in hospital he was attached to a unit involved in recruiting and it looks like he continued in this role until another medical board (14/3/16) determined that he was again medically fit for active service. The board found that he was … quite free from any pain or inconvenience; although it did also note that Private Butler himself complained of … weakness in R knee. Ironically, recruitment levels were falling by this point and there was growing pressure to toughen the standards for soldiers being found to be medically unfit.

When Private Butler returned to Australia he was given a welcome home at Yaram as a ‘returned soldier’. Earlier – 12/5/15 – the local paper had reported when he had been wounded at Gallipoli as one of ‘Our Gallant Gippslanders’.

Private Butler returned to duty in June 1916 and reached France in September (2/9/16). He finally rejoined 5 Battalion in the field at the start of October 1916, nearly 18 months after being taken off the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Then in late October he was hospitalised with some injury to his spine. He rejoined his unit in the middle of November 1916. There was a further period of hospitalisation in February-March 1917.

Six months later he was killed on the first day of the fighting at Menin Road (20/9/17). There is no Red Cross report and so there are no witness accounts of his death. There is a handwritten note in his file that records a location for his grave – …100 yards east of Glencorse Wood – but presumably this was a battlefield burial and the grave was subsequently lost. There is no official grave and his name is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

The battalion war diary reveals that over the two days of fighting – the battalion was relieved very late the next day (21/9/17) – there were 273 casualties, with private Butler one of the 70 killed. The war diary specifically referred to the number of deaths casue by artillery ‘shorts’.

The mother as next-of-kin was notified of her son’s death by cable dated 15/10/17, 3 weeks later. She received a pension of 20/- per fortnight from 17/12/17. The official report of death was dated 19/1/18.

The following in memoriam appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/9/18, the first anniversary of his death:

BUTLER – Sacred to the memory of my darling boy, Fred. W. Butler, 5th Battalion. Killed in the Battle of Menin Road on September 20th, 1917, aged 23 years and 9 months.
The midnight stars are shining
O’er the grave I cannot see;
Where sleeping without dreaming
Lies my boy so dear to me.
A hero and a man.
Inserted by his mother, step father, sisters and brothers – Lizzie, Lily and Ivy, and Charlie and Jack.

In December 1917, BP Johnson – solicitor, Yarram –  wrote on behalf of Private Butler’s mother asking for details of deferred pay and also for his personal effects. Nearly two years later (28/7/19) Mrs Retford herself, now living at Tara Valley via Traralgon, wrote requesting again her son’s personal effects. She also wanted to know why she had not received the formal badge made available to mothers who had lost sons in the War. There is a sense of frustration – if not outright anger – evident in the letter:

I am writing to know what has become of my boys property. He has been dead nearly two years now and I have never received one thing back. My boy done as much as any other boy over there and I think it is not right that I am to be left out altogether.
Would you kindly see to this. His address was No 834 Pte F. W. Butler 5th Batn.
I have also written 3 times about a broach I am entitled to. I see everyone about here with one, but I have none. Is there no way I can get anything.

The reply that came from Base Records on 1/8/19 was rather terse. The detail could also have come as a shock to the mother:

In reply to your communication of 28th ultimo, I have to state two packages of personal effects of your son, the late No. 814 (not 834 as quoted by you) Private F. W. Butler, 5th Battalion, were returned to this office and forwarded to Miss Ada Thomson, 119 Miller Street, North Fitzroy, who is shown as the sole legatee under his will.
That portion of your letter with reference to badge has been referred to the Assistant Adjutant general, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, for attention and reply direct to you.
Your change of address has been noted.

The issue of the personal kit was complicated. In fact, it appears that one lot – 2 religious Books, 2 post cards, 2 Photos – was returned to Miss Ada Thompson of North Firzroy and a second lot – Post cards, Photos, Gift tin, Cigarette case, Note book, New Testament, 3 Brushes, Bag handle. – was returned to the mother, Mrs C Retford, Jack River P.O. via Yarram.

There is a copy of Private Butler’s will, dated 9/1/17, and taken from his pay book that describes Miss Ada Thomson of North Fitzroy as his sole beneficiary. She is described as his fiancée. Presumably, he met her when he working in the recruitment unit after his return to Australia. Whether his mother knew of her son’s engagement before she received this letter from Base Records is not known. However if she did there was obviously not much in the way of communication between the two women.

The mother did receive all her son’s war medals and the memorial scroll and plaque.

More than 2 years after the War, the local paper (14/5/20), reporting on the welcome home to another Womerah local – Private H Lawson – made special mention of Priave Butler and his mother:

Later in the evening a presentation of a gold medal was also made to Mrs Redford in memory of her son, Pte. Fred Butler, who fell in France. Pte. Butler was wounded at the landing in Gallipoli, was invalided home. Recovering, he went again to the front, where he was killed by a shell in an attack on the enemy lines.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for BUTLER Frederick William 814
Roll of Honour: Frederick William Butler
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Frederick William Butler

Private F W Butler, courtesy of Australian War Memorial

 

John Kennedy (309B)
5B KiA 20/9/17

John Kennedy’s name is not recorded on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ memorial. Yet there was a connection to the local area. His name is recorded on the honor roll for Darriman SS and also on the roll for the local Presbyterian Charge.

On his enlistment papers he gave Woodside as the place where he was born. He was the second of 4 children of Robert and Catherine (nee Regan) Kennedy. His parents had lived in the district and in fact there is a record of his father enlisting for the war in South Africa in 1900 as a rifleman from Darriman. The previous generation had also lived in the district and it appears that, for some period at least, John’s grandfather – Farquhar Kennedy – had held land at Darriman. Both John’s parents were dead at the time he enlisted. The father had died at Yarram in 1905 and had been buried at Sale, and the mother had died in 1907.

John had 3 sisters and the oldest – Kathleen – was given as his next-of-kin. Presumably, she also gave permission for him to enlist as he was only 18 yo at the time. This oldest sister – Mrs Kathleen Jean Hobson – lived at Rosedale. Another sister lived near Sale. At the time he enlisted John gave his address as Mossiface, near Bairnsdale, and he enlisted at Sale. He gave his occupation as labourer. It would appear that at the time he enlisted he was not living and working in the Shire of Alberton but certainly the family did have strong links to the shire. Also, the fact that his name appears on the local Presbyterian Charge – he gave his religion as Presbyterian – suggests that the links to the Shire of Alberton had lasted till very recently.

Private Kennedy enlisted as reinforcements for 5 Battalion on 5/2/16. He left Melbourne on 3/6/16 and eventually joined 5 Battalion in France in early October 1916. He was hospitalised with mumps for 3 weeks in March 1917. There was also a minor charge for AWL in May 1917.

It appears that Private kennedy was killed in action early in the morning of 20/9/17. The following witness statement – Pte A. J. O’Connor 65561 – in his Red Cross file is very definite:

Knew [him] very well, he was in same platoon as myself. … On Sept 20th about 7 a.m. in front of Dickebusch I was walking with him after we had gone over when he was hit at the back of the head with a shrapnel pellet- it was no bigger than a marble and I noticed then hole in his tin helmet. He dropped down beside me and never uttered a sound and I feel positive was killed. I had to continue but we gained our objective and held the ground. At the time he was hit he was talking to me and we were trying to locate some of our fellows. At the moment he appeared to be in very good spirits.

Similarly, the second one from W. J Canning 2127 describes the death and its random nature. It literally did come down to where you were standing at any point.

I knew casualty. … I was in the same advance. He was in my section. An H. E. shell exploded near casualty killing him instantly. I was 3 yards away at the time the shell exploded, and I saw his body immediately afterwards. He was about 200 yards from our objective at the time he was killed. He was most severely wounded in the head. I do not know if he was buried.

Private Kennedy’s body was never recovered and his name is included with the others on the Menin Gate Memorial. In his file, there is in fact a reference to where he was buried – Verbick Farm 100 yds of Glencorse Wood E of Ypres – but if this was accurate the grave must have been subsequently lost. As part of this general confusion, he was initially reported as wounded. The sister at Rosedale was in fact advised on 13/10/17 that he had been wounded, but no details were given. Then 12 days later, on 25/10/17, she received word that he had been killed.

A very small amount of personal kit – 2 Note Books, Tobacco Pouch, 2 Pipes – was returned to the sister in May 1918.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for KENNEDY John 309B
Roll of Honour: John Kennedy
First World War Embarkation Rolls: John Kennedy
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: John Kennedy

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project

 

Christopher SAAL (6151)
26B KiA 20/9/17

Christopher Saal’s link to the Shire of Alberton was that he attended Binginwarri SS and his name – C Saal – is recorded on the school’s honor roll. Beyond this one definite link, the background story of this young man is unclear.

The surname is most unusual and in fact it appears that there only ever 3 with the Saal family name who served. In addition to Christopher, it appears there were 2 cousins – 2 brothers – who came from Clifton, near Toowoomba, in Queensland: Henry Nelson Saal and Sidney Lane Saal. Christopher himself was born in Toowoomba and he enlisted from there. It appears that his 3 sisters and parents were also living in Toowoomba, or nearby, at the point he enlisted.

Overall, there was only ever one C Saal in the AIF and he was killed on active service. At the time he enlisted he was obviously living in Queensland; but this C Saal has to be the person on the Binginwarri roll of honor.

There is a slight complication in relation to the honor roll because C Saal on the Binginwarri roll is not marked as ‘killed’. However, the explanation appears to be that after it was unveiled on 24/8/17, the honor roll at Binginwarri SS was not updated – or at least not fully or correctly updated – and so the status of C Saal, who was still alive at the time the roll was unveiled, was never adjusted. Ironically, C Staal was killed just one month after the unveiling.

Fortunately, there is one additional piece of evidence that ties Christopher Saal to the Shire of Alberton. He was killed on 20/9/17. Exactly one year later, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/9/18, the following in memoriam appeared:

SAAL. – In loving memory of my dear friend, Chris Saal, who was killed in action in France on Sept. 20th, 1917.
“His duty nobly done.”
– Inserted by his true friend, Victoria Hiho, Hedley.

Exactly what the connection between these 2 people was is unknown. Perhaps it was nothing more than that the 2 of them had been to school together. The Hiho family, incidentally, was a very prominent one in the local area. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the Christopher Saal killed at Menin Road on 20/9/17 had at the very least attended Binginwarri SS as a child and that there were still some locals who remembered him.

Private Saal enlisted in Toowoomba on 12/7/16.He was single and 19 yo. He gave his occupation as turner. His religion was Church of England and he gave his sister – Miss Eva Saal – as his next-of-kin.

He joined as reinforcements for 26 Battalion and embarked for overseas on 27/10/16. After further training in the United Kingdom he proceeded to France in June and finally joined 26 Battalion in early July 1917. In the UK he had been hospitalised with mumps for nearly 3 weeks in February 1917.

Unfortunately, the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour was not completed by the family. Nor was there a Red Cross report. Consequently, there is little detail on Private Saal’s service and death. The cable advising of his death was dated 29/9/17. There was no grave and, instead, his name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial.

The war diary for 26 Battalion suggests that the battalion was in a support role over 20-21 September. The casualties were not as high as other battalions: 18 killed, 102 wounded and 8 missing.

The personal kit – 2 Wallets, Photos, Enamel bangle, Metal wrist watch guard and strap, cards, 2 Coins. – reached the family in May 1918.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for SAAL Christopher 6151
Roll of Honour: Christopher Saal
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Christopher Saal

 

John Donald McLENNAN (6811)
6B KiA 21/9/17

John Donald McLennan was born at Lyonville in 1886. Two younger brothers were born at Welshpool. By the outbreak of war in 1914 the family was living at Hedley. When the father – Alexander C McLennan – came to complete the particulars for the (National) Roll of Honour, he listed Hedley as the town with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’.

John McLennan grew up in the local district. His name is included on the honor rolls for both the state school at Alberton and the one at Welshpool. Similarly, his name is included on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial as well as the equivalent memorials in Welshpool.

Hedley, while not within the boundary of the Shire of Alberton, and closer to Welshpool than Alberton, was still regarded as sufficiently ‘local’ at the time. Moreover, the McLennan farm – approx. 300 acres – was at Alberton West. Overall, at least to the point that John McLennan enlisted – he was the third and last of the 3 sons to enlist – the McLennan family was closely associated with the local area. After he enlisted it appears that the parents moved to Avenel, near Seymour.

On the enlistment papers John McLennan gave his occupation as ‘farm labourer’ but he must have been helping his father on the family farm. His father described his son’s work as ‘farming and dairying pursuits’. More than one year earlier, on 27/5/15, his two younger brothers had enlisted together in 13 light Horse Regiment. Alexander Christopher McLennan was not quite 21 yo and needed his parents’ consent and the other brother, George Trail McLennan was 23 yo. The 2 younger brothers survived the War and both were decorated, with, respectively, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal.

Most likely, all 3 brothers were helping their father with the family farm at the outbreak of war. possibly there was tension over who was to enlist and when. It appears that John, as the eldest brother, held land in his own right, and, possibly, he was persuaded by his parents to hold off enlisting when his two younger brothers joined.  But in the end he too enlisted. There is some sense of this scenario in the comments written by his father on the form for recording information for the (National) Roll of Honour:

His conduct was always exemplary – and as soon as circumstances would permit he determined to do his duty by enlisting and would not be restrained, although his two (only) brothers had enlisted and were abroad for nearly a year.

Similarly, the report of his death in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 24/10/17 noted how the younger brothers were the first to enlist:

It will be remembered that George and Alex McLennan enlisted from Hedley shortly after the war began, leaving Jack, the only other son at home. The brothers fought through Gallipoli, and are so far safe. About 18 months ago Jack enlisted, and after training at Salisbury Plains, went to France. Last Friday word came that he had been killed in the service of his country, and to the family we extend our sincere sympathy.

When John (Jack) McLennan enlisted in September 1916 (8/9/16) in Melbourne, he was 30 yo and single. He gave his religion as Presbyterian. He joined as reinforcements for 6 Battalion.

Private McLennan left Melbourne in October 1916 (25/10/16) and reached England at the very end of 1916 (28/12/16). He spent another 3 months with 2 Training Brigade in England before being taken on the strength of 6 Battalion in France at the start of April 1917. He was killed in action 6 months later on the second day of the Battle of Menin Road (21/9/17).

According to its war diary, casualties for 6 Battalion for the 20-21 September were approximately 260 (10 officers and 247 other ranks) although there is no breakdown given for deaths, wounded etc. Again, as for 5 Battalion, the diary makes it clear that at least some of the casualties were from ‘friendly fire’,

At zero 0540 our barrage fell and the whole Bn moved forward. Almost immediately a few casualties were caused by our own shells falling short which they did throughout the whole advance, a few batteries for about an hour firing about 500 yards short of the barrage.

Specific details of Private McLennan’s death are not included in his file. There is no reference to any grave and his name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial. The cable informing the father, as next-of-kin, of the death was dated 13/10/17 and the formal report on the death was completed on 21/12/17.

Personal kit – Wallet, Diary, Bible, Photos, Letter and Tie, 2 testaments, Military Book – were returned to the parents in May 1918.

A letter to Base Records written by Private McLennan’s father in May 1918 suggests that he knew little of the circumstances of his son’s death and that he was desperate for any information.

Can you supply any more details of the passing of my Son? I have been patiently awaiting for months for more particulars from your Dept but as yet none have been given. If you can supply anything further I will be grateful.

The reply merely reiterated that he was killed in action in Belgium on 21/9/17; although the letter did promise to provide more particulars if they became available.

What is interesting in this particular case is that there was an offer from the Red Cross to follow up the death of Private McLennan but this was turned down, by one of his brothers.

In November 1917 (23/11/17) the Red Cross wrote to Private McLennan’s two brothers – both were then serving in France – extending sympathy on their loss and also offering to conduct the usual enquiry. The Red Cross offered to … do our best to get full particulars [on the brother’s death] which we shall at once send to you.

However, in a reply to the Red Cross written some 6 months before the father’s plea for additional information, one of the brothers (AC McLennan) revealed that he had already made his own enquiries to 6 Battalion and had …learned all there is to be known. Basically, he thanked the Red Cross for the expression of sympathy and the offer of help but indicated that his brother’s name did not need to go on the enquiry list. Obviously, whatever this brother had been able to find out about the death was not relayed back to the father in Australia, or at least had not been relayed by the time the father wrote to Base Records requesting information on his son’s death. Presumably, at the very least, the family learned of the circumstances surrounding the death when the two surviving brothers returned to Australia in 1919.

An in memoriam was placed in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/9/18, one year after the death :

McLENNAN – In loving memory of our dear son and brother, Private J. D McLennan (Jack), killed in action at “Polygon Wood” (sic) in France on the 20th of September, 1917
Fondly remembered.
-Inserted by parents and sister.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for McLENNAN John Donald 6811
Roll of Honour: John Donald McLennan
First World War Embarkation Rolls: John Donald McLennan
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: John Donald McLennan

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project

 

 

 

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