CROSS Robert Eric (6785)
24 B KIA 28/8/18
Robert Eric Cross was born in December 1899 in Bendigo. He was the youngest of 3 children of Robert Cross and Mary Alice Meatchem who had married in 1890. The father died at only 31 years of age in 1900 and then the older brother – Frederick William Cross – aged only eleven, died in 1903. The mother remarried in 1904. The step-father was Albert Box who had a dairy farm at Hiawatha.
Robert’s older sister – Elsie May Cross – married William Ellwood in 1915. Ellwood had enlisted in early 1915 and before this, he had been the teacher at the state school at Hiawatha. Elwood rose through the ranks to become a major. After the War he had a very successful career in the Education Department, becoming Chief Inspector. Both William Ellwood and his younger brother-in-law, Robert Cross, served in 24 Battalion.
From the age of five, Robert Cross grew up at Hiawatha and he was one of the first students to attend the new school when it opened in 1907. His name appears on the honor roll for the school.
While he would have grown up, and worked, on his step-father’s farm at Hiawatha, when he came to enlist as an 18 yo in 1917, his occupation was given as ‘motor driver’. When his mother completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she described his ‘calling’ as ‘motor mechanic’. Presumably he was working in Yarram at a motor garage.
Private Cross enlisted in Yarram on 17/8/17. His initial medical was with Dr. Rutter. As he was under nineteen when he enlisted, his mother was formally asked to confirm that she had given written consent to his enlistment and understood that he could be sent on active service before he was nineteen. His religion was given as Church of England.
Private Cross joined as reinforcements for 24 Battalion and left Melbourne 2 months later on 21/11/17. By the time he enlisted, his brother-in-law, William Ellwood, had been serving in the same battalion for 2 years. In fact, Captain Ellwood had recently been awarded the Military Cross. Doubtless, the experiences of his brother-in-law had encouraged Robert Cross to enlist and enlist in the same battalion.
Just before embarkation, Private Cross returned to Hiawatha for a formal ‘send-off’. It was written up in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 7/11/17:
Send off to Private R. E. Cross.
At the close of the concert Private R. E. Cross, who is home on final leave, was presented from the members of the Soldiers’ Society with a wristlet watch. Mr. R. Lee, who is president of the society, in making the presentation, spoke in favorable terms of Private Cross as he had known him all his life. He was proud to he able to make the presentation to one who has volunteered for service abroad, and wished him a safe return and speedy promotion. Private Cross, on rising to respond, was received with acclamation. He stated that he did not possess any oratorial qualifications, but would simply thank them for their valuable gift, and assured them that it would he treasured at all times, especially when he was on the other side of the world. “God Bess Our Splendid Men” was then sung by all present.
When his group of reinforcements reached the UK in early 1918, he was attached to 6 Training Battalion at Fovant, near Salisbury. He was finally sent to France and taken on the strength of 24 Battalion in the field in June 1918 (4/6/18). Less than 3 months later, he was killed in action. He was still only 19 years of age.
On the (National) Roll of Honour form, the account given of the death had Private Cross … killed while covering retirement from Sugar Factory at Dompierre [Dompierre-Becquincourt]. As indicated, the official date of death was given as 28/8/18. The mother gave the same date on the (National) Roll of Honour form.
The problem with this version of the death is that it does not line up with the account in the battalion war diary. Certainly, the diary records the attack by 24 Battalion on the Sugar Factory at Dompierre. It describes how B Company took the position without much opposition but then there was a fierce artillery bombardment by the Germans and equally heavy crossfire from their nearby positions in the old trench system. The counter fire was so heavy, and the threat of being surrounded so great, that the troops withdrew. In this particular action there were 2 killed and 8 wounded. However, this action occurred on 27 August, not 28 August. The only casualties recorded for August 28 occurred when one of three patrols sent out to ‘establish touch with the enemy’ ran into … severe M.G. fire from the direction of Assevillers, and 2 men were killed and 1 wounded. Presumably, if Private Cross was killed in the withdrawal from the Sugar Factory then the death occurred on 27 August. If, on the other hand, the date of the death was 28 August, then he was killed in the second action which involved the patrols being sent out to establish the location and strength of the enemy positions.
Unfortunately, there was no Red Cross report completed for Private Cross. Presumably, the brother-in-law (Captain Ellwood) was able to inform the family back in Gippsland about the details of Private Cross’s death.
The cable advising of the death was dated 13/9/18, 2 weeks after the death. Private Cross was buried in Assevillers New British Cemetery.
Oddly, there does not appear to have been a death notice published in the local paper. In early November (1/11/18), there was a column in the local paper which described how the local district Soldiers’ Fund for Hiawatha had requested enlarged photos for a number of local men who had recently been killed, including Alfred Jones (Post 134 ), Albert Sherlock (Post 178 ) and R. Cross. The same article listed the members of this local association and Albert Box, the step-father, was a member.
Private Cross’s mother received photographs of the grave in September 1920. Earlier, the few personal effects reached home in April 1919:
Wallet, Letters, Photos, Cards, YMCA wallet, Photo case.
Well after the War, the mother wrote (29/5/23) to Base Records requesting:
Is it possible for me to get my son’s number disk. I would like to have it very much.
The predictable response would have given little comfort:
I have to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 29th May and regret to inform you that no personal effects of your son, the late No. 6785 Private R. E. Cross, 24ht Battalion, have been received here other than the package transmitted to you on 28.3.19.
In view of the length of time that has elapsed since this soldier’s demise, it is considered improbable that his identity disc will now come to hand.
The mother had made an earlier request – April 1919 – for what she referred to as the ‘Mother’s Badge’. This badge was issued, on request, to the ‘nearest female relative’ of the deceased soldier. The mother also received all the medals and the Memorial Scroll and Memorial Plaque. She was the sole beneficiary of the will. The will included the further provision that … In the event of my Mother’s death I then leave my Property and effects to my Sister Mrs. Elsie May Ellwood.
The (National) Roll of Honour form listed 2 relatives of Private Cross who were also killed in the War. One of these was an uncle on the mother’s side – Sergeant H Meatchem – and the other a cousin, A Tolley. Private Albert Edward Tolley was killed on 5/10/17. He had enlisted from Drouin in July 1915 aged 25 years. He was also in 24 Battalion. It is a striking example of how strong the family links could be in the various battalions. It probably also helps to explains why a 19 yo like Robert Cross would have been so keen to enlist.
Interestingly, the information of the (National) Roll of Honour appears to have been supplied not by the mother but by the older brother-in-law, Major William Ellwood MC.
Private Cross is remembered on both the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honour and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ memorial.
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 1, The Alberton Project
National Archives file for CROSS Robert Eric
Roll of Honour: Robert Eric Cross
First World War Embarkation Roll: Robert Eric Cross