Monday, May 7, 2012

James Dreghorn

Pte James Dreghorn

SERN: 7221
Enlisted: Blackboy Hill, Perth- 17th November 1916
Age at enlistment: 21
Occupation: Farmer
Unit: 11th Battalion, 24th reinforcements

On ANZAC Day this year, by complete coincidence, I found myself in the rural region of Western Australia where my war novel Between the Lines is set.

I first travelled through the Midwest between Mingenew and Morawa while working as an archaeologist back in 2004, and over the course of many months spent walking the land there on surveys, it developed a grip on me that would not let go, and quickly became the setting of the novel, which is about a farming family torn apart and put back together by war. Besides the innate connection I felt to the place, it was a very appropriate setting for a war story- the area, which was mostly farmed for sheep and wheat from the turn of the 20th century, saw disproportionately high enlistment from local men in the war, and the pride remains.

Farming country near Mingenew

With my family, I visited the Mingenew War Memorial on April 25th to pay my respects to those who served and fell in the Great War, and to continue my annual tradition of researching a fallen soldier each ANZAC Day. I chose a name at random to investigate further, and that name was James Dreghorn.

Mingenew War Memorial

Before the war

James Dreghorn moved from Perth out to the Merkanooka area, between Mingenew and Morawa, in 1911 with his parents James and Jessie, his younger brother Gordon, and his sister Christina. He was 16 years old at the time. His father James Snr was a well-regarded architect in the Public Works division of the State government, and the family were part of the social set in the suburb of Subiaco. They were especially well-known for James Snr’s skill on the bowling green, and he assisted in many victories for the Subiaco bowls club. Newspaper reports of their departure mention that the elder James was going on the land for his sons- establishing a place for them in the growing agricultural area of the Midwest, where the future seemed full of unlimited promise.

In the Merkanooka/ Morawa area, the family also became well-regarded. They entered the sheep farming arena as Dreghorn and Sons; James Snr sat on local committees and became a Justice of the Peace, while Gordon became involved with the cricket club. Christina married a local farmer. Even today, there’s a road named after the family.

Away to war

James Jnr, or Jimmy as he was known to the family, has a fairly short war story in the end- but one that reflects the experience of many thousands of Australian families.

When the war began in 1914, the call was put out for fit men between the ages of 18 and 35, who were above 5’6” in height. At 5’5”, Jimmy was on the smaller side and didn’t quite qualify. He had also previously been ruled out of service for a medical condition called varicocele.

But after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the numbers of men enlisting declined to the point where the Army chose to relax the physical requirements. Jimmy finally became eligible to enrol, and did so at Blackboy Hill camp in Perth in November 1916, becoming part of the 24th reinforcements of the 11th Battalion.

He departed for the battlefields of the Western Front on the troop transport ship HMAT Miltiades early in 1917, and arrived in England in March, though he didn’t join his unit in France until September. The 11th were in the midst of intense training for an upcoming top secret advance in which Jimmy would take part.

On the Western Front

Jimmy and the 11th departed for the front on September 13th 1917, headed for military history in the Battle of Passchendaele.

The Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, took place in Belgium between July and November 1917. The campaign aimed to take control of the ridge and village of Passchendaele near the town of Ypres as part of a drive toward the Belgian coast, with the intent of pushing the German Army into retreat and regaining territory. Many of the most famous battles of the entire war were fought in the campaign, and the names of many of the contested places are now legend- Flanders, Messines Ridge, Verdun, and the three locations Jimmy Dreghorn would have known all about- Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde.

The 11th Battalion launched into the Battle of Menin Road Ridge on September 20th, and the battalion diary is written with unusual feeling, perhaps reflecting the emotions that resulted from an overall 5000 Australians killed or wounded on that single day:

The day of days- our boys got out to the forming up position like the disciplined soldiers they are and formed up without a hitch. At a few minutes before zero Fritz noticed them and put down a barrage, but our barrage came down right on the tick and our boys did their job. Considering the operation our losses were remarkably light.

The battle had been a success, despite the high cost. The British commanders who engineered the assault had tried a new tactic that would become known as "bite and hold", in which a charge was made on a small section of the German line, "biting" a chunk out of it that would then become Allied-held territory. This then weakened the German position on either side, allowing for further attacks to take place.

Three bites were made in the initial phase of fighting, but the 11th Battalion retired to Steenvorde and didn't participate in the second at Polygon Wood. They returned to the front on October 5th, just in time for the Battle of Broodseinde. Another success for the Allied troops, but during those weeks the fighting took place in on-and-off pouring rain that flooded trenches and brought new waves of disease to those fighting on the front line.

Jimmy was probably already sick by the time the 11th returned to Devonshire Camp for a rest on the 10th of October. Three days later, he was admitted to hospital with debility and PUO, or pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin. He was diagnosed with trench fever and transferred to the larger 57th General Hospital. Trench fever was an illness borne by lice that normally ran its course in five days, and had relatively non-severe symptoms, such as headaches, leg pain and skin rashes.

But Jimmy’s trench fever quickly became something far more deadly- tuberculous meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal column. Before the days of modern treatment, he stood little chance.

Just over a month after arriving on the frontlines, after fighting in and surviving two of the most vicious and deadliest battles faced by Australian troops in the First World War, Jimmy passed away of illness in hospital.

The aftermath

The Red Cross was asked to investigate his death on behalf of his family, and returned the following account from the 57th General Hospital:

He was admitted to this hospital on October 15th 1917 suffering from tuberculous meningitis, he was very ill and delirious most of the time until his death. He was interred at the Eastern Cemetery Boulougne.

There was nothing more to say. His family placed a sad memorial notice in the newspaper, and there is no further mention of James again in the public record.

The Dreghorn family carried on farming, and James Snr passed away in 1943. Dreghorn and Sons, still named after James, James and Gordon, were still selling sheep from Morawa up to the limit of newspaper archive dates in 1954.

And so life went on without a much beloved son, as it did for so many other families around the country.


  1. Thanks for sharing this history with us, Claire. It hurts to think how many good, strong, ordinary boys were lost in this war.

  2. Claire,

    Thanks for doing such a great job in researching & writing this Article. Jimmy was my Grandads brother and although Grandad didn't talk a lot about him, it was always with sadness that he talked about how he never come back from the war. Although I've been to Boulougne and seen Jimmy's grave I learnt a lot more from your article about what happed to him and what battles he fought in than I knew before. It was certainly sad and makes you appreciate how good we now have it.
    Thanks again
    Stuart Crole

  3. Hi Stuart,

    Thanks so much for commenting! I love to hear from descendants of the people I research, and I'm glad I was able to provide a bit of additional information for you. I am sorry for your family's loss all that time ago.

    All the best,