Friday, December 27, 2013

Podcast: Episode 1- A Brief History of Western Australia in 1914

2014 is going to be a huge year around here with the centenary of the Great War coming up. I have a number of different ventures going on, including the completion of my novel Between the Lines, a series of monthly podcasts, and the big one- a television series along the same lines as this blog, called Diggers From The West.

You'll hear more about all of those in the months to come, but for now, I give you the first episode of the podcast series- a brief history of Western Australia leading into the Great War, and a war story that will be familiar to regular readers of the blog.

As promised in the podcast, the transcript of the episode follows, with added links and photographs.

Please feel free to share, and I look forward to talking more about our Great War soldiers in the year to come.


Welcome to Episode 1 of The Road to War and Back.

I’m Claire Gregory, Western Australian author of the First World War novel Between the Lines. Writing fiction is my pastime, but in my day job, I’m an archaeologist and historical researcher, and I combine those skills to investigate local stories from the Great War at my blog:

Please visit the blog to see the text of these podcasts, plus the associated photographs and documents that tell the story.

In this series of monthly podcasts, as the centenary of the Great War approaches, I’ll talk once a month about what Western Australia was like a hundred years ago in 1914, and I’ll hunt through the archives to reveal the hidden tales of individuals who went away to fight. As we walk in the footsteps of those who went before us, we’ll see the impact the war had on this state, and understand why we remember the ANZACs so many years later.

So, without further ado, this is Episode 1: A Brief History of Western Australia in 1914
More than 40,000 years ago, Western Australia was inhabited by the Aboriginal people of various language groups, who lived on this land, belonged to it, and cared for it, as they still do.

But from the 17th century onwards, people of other countries began to take notice. Most of their impressions were not favourable; Dutch travellers passing by on their way to the East Indies could only hope to keep going, lest they end up shipwrecked and stranded, as happened to many, and nobody wanted to take a chance on what looked like such desolate and dry land.

It wasn’t until the 1820s that the British government decided to make Western Australia a colony, some forty years after the first European settlement of Australia in New South Wales. The town we now know as Albany came first, in 1826. Three years later in 1829, Captain James Stirling arrived to establish the Swan River Colony, and the city that would eventually become the capital- Perth.

Over the next century, Western Australians of all walks of life did it tough, from the Aboriginal people who struggled to hold onto what was rightfully theirs, to those who built the cities from the ground up, to those who went out on the land to make a go of sheep and wheat farming. Perth grew steadily, as did the harbour city of Fremantle and the suburbs between the two, and everything really took off from the 1880s, when gold was discovered around the state.

In 1901, the six separate colonies in Australia became a Federation of States, and our national identity was born. In Westralia, as we called our state, we were sometimes known as Sandgropers to people from t’Otherside, and we had a reputation that hasn’t changed much with time. We’re tough, sometimes rough, and always hard-working, with a sense of humour to see us through the hard times.

By 1914, this was a prosperous place to live for most of the 320,000 inhabitants, with graceful city streets on the edge of the wide Swan River, and all manner of industry contributing to a thriving economy.

On August 5th that year, it was an unusually warm day in the city of Perth. Outside the offices of the West Australian newspaper on St Georges Terrace, a crowd was beginning to gather. For weeks, news of the conflict in Europe had been trickling through. Since the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June, the world had been slowly tipping towards an unavoidable war, and today it had all reached a peak. Around midday, the paper boys brought out a new broadsheet, and the crowd began to cheer.

The British Empire had declared war on Germany, and Australia was ready to fight.

One of those who answered the call as soon as he could was Frank Seccombe, listed in the Embarkation Rolls as a piano expert. Frank, it turns out, was a musician of some renown, known around the state for his piano skills and his basso-baritone voice. The Sunday Times in July 1915 described Frank like this:
More than once down in the jarrah country, when a mill hand or sleeper-cutter had allowed his tonicked tongue to outrun common decency, it was Seccombe who warned him to desist, and it was the same Seccombe who, when the lout repeated the obnoxious epithet or expression, put him to sleep for half an hour with one of the piston punches he kept handy for such occasions. Apart from such affairs, F. D. was a breezy, good-natured Bohemian, and was splendid company at a private festivity or smoke social. 
Frank enlisted at the Blackboy Hill camp up at Greenmount- the place where most of Western Australia’s 32,000 Great War soldiers passed through for training on their way to war. Sadly, his story is a short one. He landed on the beaches of Gallipoli on ANZAC Day, April 25th 1915, and was one of the first to fall, shot dead in seconds. He left behind a wife and step-daughter, and his memory has faded with time.

But we see Frank in the records if we look closely enough, just as we see his fellow ANZAC soldiers. Their names may rest on memorials, but they live on in history. Join me next month for Episode 2, and uncover more memories of Western Australia at war.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


The Great War changed this nation in so many ways- it's no surprise that the losses are commemorated everywhere.

Researching for my novel recently, I wanted to check what people at home knew about Australian casualties as of July 1915, three months into the Gallipoli campaign. I checked out the The West Australian newspaper from the time, and what I found there was a stunning statistic that brought home exactly the reason those days still echo down the through the years with such resonance.

On July 19th 1915, 85 days after the ANZAC landing and the start of Australia's war, the newspapers published the Fifty-Third Casualty List. And the totals at that point in the war, just three months in, were as follows:

That is:

2307 Australians killed
8418 Australians wounded
746 missing in action.

A total of 11,471 casualties in just three months. Eight-five days to take a whole nation from innocence, to utter devastation.

It's a stunning impact on a population of only 4.9 million, which included 2.58 million males. What it means, when you break it down into cold, hard numbers, is that nearly five in every one thousand Australian men had been killed, injured or lost in just three months.

One in every two hundred men in this nation, in three months.

It is a mind-boggling number, and the war was only just beginning. There would be another three-and-a-half devastating years to come, over the course of which close to 40% of the men of this country would enlist to fight, and of whom more than one in ten would never come home.

It's why we can't, and won't, forget. The sacrifice belonged to everyone in this country, and it still does today. Nobody was left unaffected.

Wherever I travel within the state of Western Australia or in the rest of the country, I make a point of stopping to see the local memorials. With Remembrance Day marking another point to pause and remember tomorrow, here are just a few of those.

Albany, Western Australia

The Desert Mounted Corps memorial (top left) in Albany sits at the top of Mount Clarence, and the Avenue of Honour leads up to it, lined with trees and plaques that commemorate local lives lost. The hill offers a view out across King George Sound, where many of the ships gathered before departing as the first Australian Imperial Force on November 1st, 1914, on their way to war. Most of Western Australia's troops departed from the port city of Fremantle to join the convoy, but Albany will always have a special place in our war history, and I plan to be there for the centenary of the departure next year.

Perth, Western Australia

There are multiple memorials to many different conflicts at Perth's Kings Park, which sits above the city centre. This is the principal state First World War memorial, with the Cenotaph at the far end, overlooking the Swan River, and the Court of Contemplation, the Flame of Remembrance, and the pool of reflection in the foreground. The largest ANZAC Day dawn service is held here every year; this year the numbers were some of the largest ever, with more than 40,000 people coming along to remember.

Blackboy Hill Commemorative Site, Greenmount, Western Australia

As a couple of previous posts have discussed, the great majority of Western Australia's 32,000 troops passed through the training camp at Blackboy Hill (now Greenmount) in the Perth hills over the course of the First World War. There's little left at the site now, but the memorial is very special- on the eve of ANZAC Day each year, the setting sun aligns with all parts of the memorial to create a unified shadow representing the spirit of the ANZAC soldiers whose legacy was born here.

Mingenew, Western Australia

Most country towns in Australia have a memorial to the Great War, and this one in the small mid-west town of Mingenew is one example. There was a high enlistment rate from the local population, and the losses are remembered today, there as in so many other small towns that lost sons, brothers and fathers.

Geraldton, Western Australia 

The regional city of Geraldton on Australia's west coast has one of the most glorious memorials I've ever seen. It commemorates an event of the Second World War, not the First, but I include it here because it represents the fact that the Great War was far from the only arena in which Australians died in battle. The memorial here is for the loss of the HMAS Sydney, an Australian battleship that was sunk by a German raider not far off the coast, with the loss of all hands. The location of the lost ship was a mystery for many years, until it was finally rediscovered through some fantastic maritime archaeology work in 2008. The dome you see in the picture below is made of seagull silhouettes- 645 of them, each one representing a lost life from the Sydney. As they take flight into the sky, the statue of a woman waits nearby, looking out to sea. There's a stele representing the ship's bow, and a pool with a final seagull marking the now-known location of the ship on a map.

Alice Springs, Northern Territory

This simple memorial sits at the top of ANZAC Hill in the central desert town of Alice Springs, commemorating the fallen from all wars.

Adelaide, South Australia

I just visited the Adelaide memorials last week, and there are several. The central memorial, known as the National War Memorial, is a stunning and imposing structure on the city's North Terrace, with two sides showing the before and after of war. The front side shows the before, with the youth of Adelaide- girl, student and farmer- laying down the tools of their everyday lives to reach for the Spirit of Duty. The reverse shows the aftermath, in which a fallen youth is lifted by the Spirit of Compassion.

This dramatic picture of the front side of the memorial was taken by the talented Melanie Michaels, a fellow war historian and author.

Sydney, New South Wales

One of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring war memorials in the nation is the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney's Hyde Park. The building and the sculptures it contains are extraordinary, and the museum housed within is also well worth a visit. The central sculpture, Sacrifice, is the most perfectly heart-breaking encapsulation of what the Great War meant to this country, depicting a fallen soldier borne aloft by his mother, sister, wife and child. From the memorial's website, where you can also see a picture of it:
'Thousands of women, although not directly engaged in war activities, lost all that was dear them - sons they has borne and reared, husbands, fathers of their children, friends, lovers.

There was no acknowledgement of them in casualty lists of wounded, maimed and killed. They endured all men's sacrifice quietly'.
'In this spirit I have shown them, carrying their load, the sacrifice of their menfolk.'

In modern times, we've seen that load passed down to us, and we carry it still.

This Remembrance Day and all others, we remember them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia

Earlier this year, a group of Western Australian historians and genealogists came together to answer what should have been a simple question: how many Western Australian men were killed at Gallipoli during the First World War?

The answer, as it turned out, was not so simple. Though we have the figures of how many men signed up in each state throughout the war, it appears there has been no previous calculation of exactly how many died from each state in the various arenas.

Part of the complication comes from how to work out who could be considered Western Australian in the first place. Plenty of men signed up here who just happened to be in the state at the time and had no other connection, so the embarkation rolls do not provide a perfect answer. The project set criteria for Western Australian identity, and volunteers then tracked down all kinds of records to verify connections and come up with a final answer.

Project coordinator Shannon Lovelady gave a great interview on ABC Radio last week to talk about the project and the final outcome, which is worth a listen.

I came in on the tail end of the project and assisted in tracking down a few of the trickier cases. Their stories and many others can be found on the Facebook page for the Gallipoli Dead of Western Australia, where Shannon hopes the process of sharing information will continue as we approach the centenary of the ANZAC landing in 2015.

Revisiting the Past- the Archaeology of Blackboy Hill

 In my previous post, I mentioned that I'd be expanding on the Blackboy Hill story with a little detail on the archaeology work currently being done in the area. As an archaeologist myself, I tend to see landscapes in many layers- present and past- and Blackboy Hill is no exception, though there's not a great deal left to see above the ground.

Beneath the ground, there's not a great deal left either, but there is enough to provide some new information. Historical archaeologist Dr. Shane Burke, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Notre Dame, was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the results of his investigations in the wider area.

 1. Can you tell me a little about your work at Blackboy Hill? What are your aims for the project?

The project has many aims – the first to determine if any archaeology of the 1914 to 1918 camp exists. Today it is mostly a school and residential area, but careful survey discovered a few areas containing artefacts with distinct early 20th century characteristics. The main aim is to test the identity of the Australia soldier portrayed in numerous sources with the archaeological record.
2. What was the extent of the original site, and how much of it remains today? Were there any significant features in the preserved area?

The project is on-going. The original site was large but larger than the original maps and photographs show. Areas now occupied by houses had trenches as late as the 1980s; the site of the hospital is now fancy homes built in the 1990s. When I went to school in the area during the 1970s, mates of mine who lived nearby often brought objects to school like rising sun hat badges. The ‘site’ is extensive if one includes the Helena Vale racecourse grandstand where troops practised rappelling down the structure’s wall.

However, for the project, we are keeping to the map from the Commonwealth showing tents, parade ground and hospital. Much of this area is under the nearby school, but the area of excavation provided an extensive range of artefacts. Maps showed buildings, but they often do not show the rubbish pits, and it is these features we discovered during the excavations in 2011. Nearby are most likely brick hearths for the kitchen, but we intend testing this hypothesis in the near future.

The area near the memorial has a row of trees planted in 1914.

3. How has the landscape changed, and how has it stayed the same? What, if anything, would be familiar now to the soldiers who first marched into camp in 1914?

The general feel of the place is unaltered, while the topography of the Darling Range has remained the same. The railway line has gone, but the highway retains a similar route. The hills are the hills, whether 1914 or 2014.

4. What kind of results have you seen from your excavations? What types of material culture are you finding? Have you encountered any surprises?

Much of the material unearthed has passed through cultural and natural filters. Beer bottles of bottle green colour were very common, which was surprising because the camp went through both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ phases – but we did not expect to find so much. There were a number of personal objects, like harmonica reed bases. The soles of army issue boots, with their distinct copper studding, were also found. Very surprising was the discovery of a few French perfume bottles. Blank .303 ammunition was also common.

5. What conclusions have you drawn from your results so far?

The interpretation of life at the camp is altering as more material comes to hand. The perfume bottles could mean women at the camp contrary to army regulations, or it could mean that the men were attempting to overcome body odour. This was the first time many of the men at the camp had ‘roughed it’, and some may not have appreciated certain aspects of army life. The alcohol could be a site-specific find, for officers were permitted to drink while general ranks were not, but it could also mean an obvious flouting of camp regulations.

The ammunition is contrary to secondary sources that state that firearm’s practice was never done at the site.

One must remember that the camp was used in the 1930s during the depression and the 1940s during the second war. However, the green beer bottle glass dates to pre-1922 when the king-brown was introduced, while the .303 cartridges are date stamped to 1908.


A huge thank you to Shane for taking time out from his busy research schedule to share those fascinating details.

And to finish, a sadly necessary reminder: to anyone who goes out to have a look at the Commemoration Site at Greenmount, please remember that Western Australia's heritage laws forbid the removal of culturally significant material from sites like Blackboy Hill. Not to mention, the story can only be told if the material remains where it fell. So, as I tell my kids- look with your eyes, not with your hands, and please respect our ANZAC history.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blackboy Hill is Calling

11th Battalion marching out of Blackboy Hill

Can you with calm, unruffled mien
Peruse the war news daily,
And go about, on business keen,
And take your pleasures gaily? 

Your countrymen in hundreds fall
Before Great Britain's foemen,
Will you not answer to the call,
You stout Australian yeomen?

For Blackboy Hill is calling, ever calling,
At Gallipoli our boys are falling, falling;
But we'll soon drive out the Turk,
If your duty you don't shirk,
So come and lend a hand, for Blackboy's calling.


During the course of the First World War, some 32,000 Western Australian men marched away to fight. The majority had one thing in common- their initial training took place at Blackboy Hill Camp, in the Perth hills.

The first troops marched into Blackboy Hill on 17th August 1914, twelve days after the declaration of war. Western Australia’s 11th Battalion was the first raised in this state, and such was the enthusiasm that there were far more volunteers than were initially needed. As a result, the first 1400 chosen were considered particularly fine specimens of Australian manhood, as were those recruited immediately into the reinforcements, and the beginnings of the 12th and 16th Battalions.

They were the boys from the Western State
Brave Battalion Eleven;
They did not tarry, they did not wait,
When the call was given.
First to respond to their country's need
Nothing they feared, nor death did they heed
Brave Battalion Eleven

The location of the camp had been chosen in part for the train-line that ran nearby, allowing easy movement of the troops from around the state, to and from the city, and eventually, to the harbour at Fremantle, where they would board the HMAT Ascanius on the 31st October to depart for the other side of the world.

The 11th Battalion Unit Diary records the commencement of training on August 17th
(Source: AWM)

The land had originally been part of the estate granted to Captain James Stirling, who established the Swan River Colony in 1829, but from August 17th 1914, the site was host to a swarming mass of activity as the camp was established and the enthusiastic volunteers arrived from around the state. Amongst the first to arrive were a group of navvies and labourers who had been working on the Trans-Continental Railway Line in the goldfields, but on hearing that the call for volunteers had been made, downed tools on the 14th of August to get on board. They were passed as medically fit and duly signed up in Kalgoorlie on the 16th, and hopped straight on a train to Perth, where they would assist in establishing the camp.
It says a great deal for this draft that the men were able to tumble out of the train at Bellevue Station and fall in under Captain R. L. Leane, who marched them off to Blackboy Hill. There was no camp there at that time, and the first thing the boys had to do was to draw tents for shelters and start to pitch camp. Cooks and other details were allotted. The cooks were so only in name, and, after trying their effort, nearly all the boys cleared off to Perth for a feed. At least, that was the excuse given.

Eight companies of men were formed from those who came from Perth and all over Western Australia, with many having served in the civilian reserves under the compulsory Universal Service Scheme that began in 1911. When they first arrived, though, fine physiques or no, the men were for the most part totally untested as soldiers.
The men had been passed as medically fit. The minimum height was 5ft. 6in., but otherwise they were a mixed bag-- clerks, sleeper-cutters, miners, prospectors, tradesmen-in straw hats, "boxers" and felts, serge suits and dungarees, with shining suitcases and dilapidated swags.

Blackboy Hill was to be the making of a battalion that has gone down in legend as one of the strongest, toughest, and most highly respected of the entire Australian Imperial Force. Their initial training was limited, focussing heavily on marching, drilling, musketry practice, and other basic military tasks. In his serialised history of the 11th Battalion, first published in the Western Mail in 1937, Belford shared a letter that described a soldier's average day at Blackboy Hill:
As the battalion took shape, and became accustomed to its routine, the training became more intense, and few of the succeeding units were given more work than the original 11th Battalion. From a letter dated September 24, 1914, the following extract is taken:
"Last night we were aroused at 9.30 o'clock for roll call, dismissed, aroused again at 11 p.m. for an alarm; had to dress, fall in, and march to the parade ground without lights or talking; were dismissed again, and then aroused at 1.30 this morning for a march; each time without previous warning. We marched seven or eight miles out to where 'H' Company was bivouacing, and attacked their lines at daybreak, taking them completely by surprise. They were mostly asleep, and, of course, were all made prisoners. On our return we fought an action with 'G' Company. This was a draw. When we reached home it was just 2.30 p.m."
Which makes the slightly bitter little camp ditty quite understandable, really:

"I'd love to live in Blackboy for a week or two,
And work all day, and get no pay, 
And live on Irish stew."

Members of the 16th Battalion drilling
The weeks had never gone on so long, or at the same time, flown so fast. From the moment the uniforms arrived, it all changed. No more games, no more mucking around like lads gone wild- it was as real as could be, without an enemy to face. They suited up in khaki, and all of a sudden the days went racing by in a blur of drills and gun cleaning, fixing bayonets and jamming them into sandbags, and marching practice- the endless bloody marching practice. He could have walked down from the farm and he'd only have travelled half as far.

Sun up to sunset, it was work, and work, and more work. Enough that he hardly had to think at all, from the minute his eyes popped open at the call of the bugle, to the moment he fell into a boneless sleep as the colour washed out of the sky and the darkness came down.

Claire Gregory (2013)

Ptes Darcy and Pratley entertaining themselves
Despite it all, the soldiers maintained their larrikin sense of humour, with all manner of hijinks and good-natured misbehaviour reported in the historical sources, as in this account of the rough-and-tough Kalgoorlie railway recruits, who came to be known as The Shovellers. 

Their three abiding passions were beer, biff, and bad language, and they indulged in all liberally. Was a soldier awakened out of his beauty sleep by the sole of a No. 10 brogan imprinted firmly upon his countenance he knew without asking that it was a Shoveller. Did an Indian file of lurching forms-- each hilariously brandishing a beer bottle-- swim into a sentry's ken he merely sighed, and said, "Pass, Shovellers." 

And if they couldn't entertain themselves in camp, the men were not shy about wandering off to greener pastures for an evening. In Wes Olson's excellent history Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story, he mentions (pg. 13) that as many as two or three hundred men were rounded up at one point, having broken camp in search of relief from their boredom.

In an effort to avoid these situations as the numbers increased and the weeks of arduous training wore on, entertainment was put on in the form of musical performances and other shows, and visits were allowed from family, friends, and the general public.

But by October, the troops were thoroughly restless. The endless marching practice was taking a toll, and patience was being taxed by repeated false alarms that embarkation was imminent. By the time the call really did come on the last day of the month, the boys were more than ready to leave Blackboy Hill behind.

One of the soldiers who marched into Blackboy Hill camp in the first week, and out with the rest of the 11th Battalion on October 31st, was Frank Seccombe.

SECCOMBE, Frank William (Sgt)
SERN: 497
Age: 32
Occupation: Piano Expert

(Source: NLA)

Frank Seccombe has to be one of the most interesting characters I've come across in researching individual stories of the First World War. When I first noticed his record, listing him as having joined up on 17th August 1914, I wondered just what a "piano expert" did for a living. I half expected him to be a piano maker or tuner.

But he was in fact quite a renowned musician around Western Australia, described during a tour in 1907 as "one of the most gifted vocalists Albany has possessed for many a year". He both played the piano, and sang basso-baritone in innumerable individual and group performances all over the state, and was to be a bandmaster for the 11th Battalion. Besides his reputation for musical talent, he was also well-regarded for his willingness to roll up his sleeves and jump into the fray when the occasion warranted action. Just the kind of man you'd expect to be first to front up for a war, and there's no doubt he would have been one of the great characters of Blackboy Hill in those early days.

Frank Seccombe is officially attached to D Coy, 11Bn- signed by commanding officer Lt-Col Lyon Johnston
(Source: NAA)

Just the kind of man you'd imagine would make it through to tell the tall tales, too. But Frank Seccombe was, instead, one of the first killed during the Gallipoli landing on April 25th, 1915. His official record gives his date of death as the 2nd of May, but other sources say he was killed on the beach on the first day, including fellow D Company soldier Albert Facey, who would later write the well-known autobiography A Fortunate Life. Facey stumbled across Frank's body as he landed on the beach.
Facey recalled, 'Bodies.. were lying all along the beach and wounded men were screaming for help. We couldn't stop for them-- the Turkish fire was terrible and mowing into us.'
Olson (2006) Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story
Pg. 48, quoting Facey's A Fortunate Life (pg. 256)

Frank's obituary in the Sunday Times reveals a glimpse of an extraordinary man.
The late Frank Seccombe, killed on the field of honour at the Dardanelles, will be remembered by numerous amusement seekers in Perth. [He] Was born in South Australia, and from an early age was a musical enthusiast, being in after-years the possessor of a magnificent bass voice ... More than once down in the jarrah country, when a mill hand or sleeper-cutter had allowed his tonicked tongue to outrun common decency, it was Seccombe who warned him to desist, and it was the same Seccombe who, when the lout repeated the obnoxious epithet or expression, put him to sleep for half an hour with one of the piston punches he kept handy for such occasions. Apart from such affairs, F. D. was a breezy, good-natured Bohemian, and was splendid company at a private festivity or smoke social. The present war gave him not his first baptism of fire. Frank acquitted himself well in the Boer War, having sustained a slight injury to one of his eyes through a small splint from a shrapnel shell.

Frank left behind wife Sarah, who he'd just married in 1914, and step-daughter May. His wife had remarried by 1921, and with no children of his own, the memory of him has faded from public view.

His fate was shared by many of the others who called Blackboy Hill home. By 1st May 1915, the Unit Diary records that the 11th Battalion commanders were only able to gather together some 450 of their troops, with the rest of that incomparable first 1400 having been killed, injured, or otherwise lost in the madness that was the first week after the Gallipoli landing.

The sad fate of the 11th Battalion at Gallipoli
 (Source: AWM)

After those original soldiers sailed away to their fate, Blackboy Hill was home to the reinforcements, as well as the originals and reinforcements of many other battalions, including the 12th, the 16th, and the 28th, in which the majority of other Western Australian soldiers were to serve. In the decades after the war, it also saw service as a camp for the unemployed.
Today, most of the site has been overtaken by suburban housing, schools and industry, and there's only a small portion remaining intact, where a Commemorative Site and War Memorial now exist. But even amidst the modern world, with all the changes that have taken place here, there are aspects of the site that remain familiar. The photographs below juxtapose images of Blackboy Hill from 1914 against the current site. They're not the same locations, but you can still see the similarities.

Perth archaeologists continue to study the area to learn more about the lives of the men who lived at Blackboy Hill, and in a future follow-up blog post, we'll hear more from one of the experts who's involved.

On the eve of Anzac Day each year, the setting sun aligns with all elements of the monument, which includes a sculpture representing the Australian Imperial Forces' rising sun emblem, and a pine tree transported from Gallipoli in Turkey. It's a simple but beautifully symbolic memorial.

In the 1950s, when the site was first slated for a new housing development, there was a bit of an outcry, and the push was made to preserve this little piece of the land in memory of those who trained here. And it is small, and there's not a great deal to see, but for me, it was well worth the trip out to the hills to stand on the same soil.

If you're a Western Australian with an interest in the First World War, there are no more significant places in the metropolitan area than this little sliver of history, where men from all walks of life passed through on their way to meet their fate.
They come from the distant stations,
    bushmen bold and free,
The silent men of our silent land, knights
    of the saddle tree.
They come from the rush of the gold
    mines, steady and strong and true--
Sons of the Southland, one and all, ready
    to see it through.

They leave the desk in the city, they come
    from the survey camp,
The pearling boat on the north coast, the
    garden by the swamp.
From every part of the country, from
    every sphere of life,
Eager they come to the training camps,
    longing to join the strife.

Further reading:

Olson, W. (2006). Gallipoli: The Western Australian Story. University of WA Press: Crawley, Western Australia.

Belford, W. C. (1940). "Legs-Eleven": Being the Story of the 11th Battalion A.I.F in the Great War of 1914- 1918. Imperial Printing Company Limited: Perth, Western Australia.

Facey, A. (1981). A Fortunate Life. Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle, Western Australia.

Also, Bedford's original serialised printing of the 11th Battalion history can be found in the Western Mail, with links to all parts in the series here on the Trove digitised newspaper archive.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

ANZAC Day 2013: The Road that Went to War

To commemorate ANZAC Day this year, I decided on a project that is far more ambitious than anything I've attempted before. I look all the time at the impact of war on individual families, and by association, all those around them. But so far, I haven't looked at it in reverse- the impact of war on whole communities.

This is part of a bigger, longer-term project, but what I'm looking at is a landscape of loss.

Check out all the details of the project under the tab at the top right, or here.

A brief recap: I'm hunting down the addresses, details and outcomes of every man who signed up for the First World War and either lived, or had next of kin, in the suburb of Subiaco in Perth, Western Australia. My aim is to look at how the war impacted a whole community, down to individual streets.

For this post, I've focussed my attention on a single block of a single street that saw a lot of men march away to war- and saw far too few march back.

The Road that Went to War: Barker Road

In my research, I've found that one of the highest concentrations of homes where people enlisted in Subiaco was between 198 and 224 Barker Road, between Axon Street and Townshend Road.

Present-day Barker Road, Subiaco, looking west from Townshend Road
(Source: Google StreetView)

Six of about sixteen houses on the street had people go to war, including one that, over the duration of the conflict, housed two different families that sent four soldiers overseas. I also included one house on Townshend Road and one that backed onto a Barker Road property from Park Street, given their proximity to the other homes.

Overall, I've located 430 addresses of individuals, or their next of kin, who were listed in the embarkation rolls as Subiaco residents at the time of enlistment. Of these, 28 lived on Barker Road- around 6% of the total, and the highest number of individuals from any single street in the area.

A page from the 1914 11th Battalion Embarkation Roll, including soldier addresses at the time of enlistment

Barker Road runs from 1 to 446, stretching the whole width of the suburb of Subiaco from east to west, and notable residents of the street include the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women. These days there are many historic homes remaining on the street, but new development has also changed the face of many other properties, including the small stretch from 198 to 224.

These are the men of Barker Road (Axon Street to Townshend Road), and their outcomes.

199 Barker Road (1915)- FERRIS, David
199 Barker Road (1917)- STUART-SINCLAIR, John Francis
                                         STUART-SINCLAIR, Edward
                                         STUART-SINCLAIR, Stanley
200 Barker Road- NELTHORPE, John
211 Barker Road- THRUM, Norman
216 Barker Road- MATSON, Glanville
218 Barker Road- ANGOVE, John
219 Barker Road- PATTERSON, Samuel
152 Park Street- MORRIS, Arthur
91 Townshend Road- GREEN, William

Map of Barker Road (Axon St to Townshend Rd)- houses related to WWI soldiers are shaded

199 Barker Road

The very first house I looked at turned out to have the most tragic story of all, farewelling four men to war from two different families, and welcoming back none. Today, the original home is long gone, and an apartment hotel has replaced it.

1913 advertisement for the four-roomed villa To Let at 199 Barker Road, Subiaco

David Ferris 
Killed in action in 1916

David Ferris was a shipwright, born and raised in Northern Ireland. Through the 1890s, young David did his industry apprenticeship at Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic would later be built. By 1905, he was in Western Australia, working in the pearling industry in the northern outpost of Broome.

It seems everything changed for David in 1915. He enlisted in the AIF in February, aged 38, and sometime between February and his departure in June, he married wife Bertha, who lived at 199 Barker Road, a property rented through the Farmilo family.

David arrived in Gallipoli in September, just as the campaign was winding down to the evacuation which began in December. With the rest of the 28th Battalion, David next moved into France in March 1916, heading toward one of the most vicious battles of the First World War- Pozieres, on the Somme.

Australian troops near Pozieres in 1916

It was there on July 29th 1916, in the thick of the infamous battle, that he was declared missing in action.

What followed for Bertha was two years of heartbreak, all based on rumour and incorrect information. Shortly after being declared missing in action, the Australian military advised Bertha that her husband had been located, and was a prisoner of war in Germany at Dulmen. But from that point onward, nothing was heard from David. Bertha and her sister Hilda wrote repeatedly to the Army and the Red Cross, desperately seeking more information.

Letter from Bertha Ferris to the AIF
(Source: National Archives of Australia)

With her growing desperation evident, Bertha's letter in May 1917 says:
Would you let me know if he was wounded and where he is? Is he suffering from shell shock or has he lost his memory, as I have not heard anything or received any letter since he was captured. Would be glad if you could give me any reason why I never hear from him.
Sadly, it wasn't until 1918 that a court of inquiry determined the answer- he had in fact been killed in action on the day he was declared missing back in 1916, and had never been a prisoner of war at any point. The original source of the prisoner of war information was David's own sister, who said she'd received a letter in his own handwriting stating the name of the prison camp at which he was interned. Given that he was never present at that camp, it appears the sister must have been gravely mistaken, perhaps even deluded, about her brother's fate. The Army took her information and made it part of the official record, thus creating a chain of misinformation that took two years to unravel.

In 1917, Bertha left number 199 and moved to another Subiaco address. In 1920, after news of her husband's death was confirmed, she returned to England to be with her family.

Which brings me to the next family to live at 199 Barker Road- the Stuart-Sinclairs.

John Francis (Jack) Stuart-Sinclair
Died of wounds- 29 October 1917

Stanley (Stan) Stuart-Sinclair
Killed in action- 17 August 1918

Edward (Ted) Stuart-Sinclair
Died of wounds- 29 November 1917

By 1917, the Stuart-Sinclair clan had moved in. The family had three sons, and two daughters, Gladys and Dolly. Father Edward Burrows Stuart-Sinclair, who was the son of Sir Edward Burrows Sinclair, King's Professor of Midwifery at Dublin's Trinity College, was a Sergeant-Major in the British Army in his early life, so perhaps a military destiny was inevitable for Jack (born 1888), Stan (born c. 1892) and Ted (born c. 1898).

Their fate, however, could not have been expected.

Before the war, eldest son Jack was working in the small Western Australian town of Collie as an accountant for the Collie Co-operative Collieries, an amalgamation of local coal miners. Youngest son Ted worked for the same company as a clerk.

Workers at the Collie Co-operative Collieries coal mines, c. 1920

Middle son Stan, a stockman/ station hand, was the first to sign up for war in November 1914, aged 22. At the time, his parents were living in the coastal town of Geraldton, and the family did not yet have a Subiaco association. Jack signed up to the 28th Battalion in September 1915, aged 26, and after undertaking officer training, he married Winifred Bedlington in Collie in March 1916, before shipping out in July. And Ted, fairly hopping with enthusiasm, put his name on the papers to be part of the 11th Battalion in February 1916, just one month after he turned 18, and was gone before his eldest brother, by April 1916.

Details from the wedding of Jack Stuart-Sinclair to Winifred Bedlington, March 1916

Stan arrived in Egypt in early 1915, and was amongst the first Australian troops to land on the shores of Gallipoli on ANZAC Day, April 25th 1915. He wrote to his father from the Dardanelles with great enthusiasm for the momentous battle that had been the first engagement of Australian troops in the Great War:
The landing of our guns came then, and this was no easy matter, as it was impossible to land horses under such fire, and the work of getting them into position was done by hand. Anyway it was not long before the Turks were receiving postcards from Australia through their muzzles. It's wonderful how quickly one gets used to being under fire. After a little while you don't take any notice, although the shrapnel is very thick at times, and the "ping ping" of the sniper's bullets make you feel uncomfortable, but altogether it's not too bad.
From the Geraldton Guardian (22 June 1915)
The Dardanelles Landing- "Australian Postcards"

In March 1916, Stan reached France to enter the lines of the Western Front. His initial time there was short. His earlier brief stay in Egypt had left him, possibly as the all-too-common result of too much of a good time, with a debilitating personal health concern that took him out of the lines for a full 57 days, from May through to July.

Fortunately for Stan, his health improved, and he was able to rejoin his unit, the 3rd Australian Field Artillery, in his rank of Gunner. Unfortunately, his return put him back in the firing line. In February of 1917, he was admitted to hospital briefly suffering shell shock, but was back in the lines quickly.

At home, the Stuart-Sinclair parents moved to Onslow Street in Subiaco in 1916, thus entering the neighbourhood, and this study.

In the meantime, both Jack and Ted arrived in France with their units and went to war. By 1917, Jack had been promoted to Lieutenant and had taken on the duties of Quartermaster, a role that required him to distribute supplies and provisions to the troops. His parents had moved to the house on Barker Road.

And by the middle of that year, things started to go wrong for the Stuart-Sinclair clan in all kinds of ways.

The first bad news of the year came in May 1917, when Ted received a gunshot wound to the head. The injury was mild, requiring only three stitches, but it still removed him from the fighting for three months, transported to England for rest. In June, Stan received a severe gunshot wound to his leg and genital area, and was likewise transported to England for treatment.

On July 13th 1917, the most unexpected news of all reached the brothers from Jack's father-in-law: their own father Edward had suddenly and unexpectedly died, at home at number 199.

The timing of it, coming so close to two frightening pieces of injury news, is interesting. It seems the elder Stuart-Sinclair was under a great deal of stress with all three sons away at war, in peril on the battlefield, and perhaps his own health suffered for it.

Mother Jessie was left a widow. In the space of a year, she'd be a mother with no living sons, too.

It was Jack whose luck ran out first. According to the Red Cross investigation into his death, he was in the pillbox (reinforced bunker) known as Ideal House, the Brigade Headquarters of the Australian troops at Broodseinde Ridge during the bitter fighting near Zonnebeke, Polygon Wood, and Passchendaele, when an enemy shell struck, injury him in the thigh and hand. The same day, October 29th 1917, he died at the 17th Casualty Clearing Station. He was buried at Lijssenthoek Military Ceremony, and his brother Stan was able to place a cross on his grave.

Ideal House pillbox at Broodseinde Ridge in October 1917, the same month Jack was killed there

Devastated by his brother's death, Ted was pulled from the nearby frontlines where his own battalion was fighting, and put on temporary assignment transporting rations by mule between Ypres and Zonnebeke. Just three days later on November 2nd, not during an actual battle, an enemy shell burst over the ration party, and Ted, too, was seriously wounded, in the chest, stomach and thigh. Those who were with him at the time of his injury thought he looked okay as he was taken away by ambulance, with horrible irony to the same Casualty Clearing Station where his brother had died only days before.

But Ted's injuries were in fact critical, and like the great majority of those who received a shrapnel wound to the abdomen, infection eventually overtook him, and he died on November 29th. He was buried in the same cemetery as Jack, but in a separate section- just a month apart, but the space between them had already been filled by dozens upon dozens of other dead soldiers.

Lijssenthoek Cemetery shortly after the end of the war

Stan carried on the fight, and was admitted to hospital a third time in June of 1918 after being gassed. He was back in the lines a week later, and in August 1918, he joined his brothers in the great beyond, also killed in action after receiving shell wounds in France.

A memorial notice for Ted Stuart-Sinclair
(Source: Bunbury Herald, 1917)

I assumed that a story like this would already be out there on the Internet, but I could find nothing on it, and little to tell me the fate of the surviving Stuart-Sinclairs. Jack's wife Winnie remarried in 1920, around the same time the boys' mother Jessie moved to Victoria. I couldn't find anything further on Gladys or Dolly in the Western Australian record, so I can only guess they may likewise have moved interstate.

I got chills to realise, though, that one of the main reasons there's nothing out there, is that there were no further descendants of these three men to carry on their story. The male line of the family, the Stuart-Sinclair name, ended right there. And what an awful, awful waste of young potential it was.

As to their neighbours, some of the other houses in the same street fared better, and some just as badly.

200 Barker Road

John Nelthorpe 

Returned to Australia in 1919, no injuries

Born in London, England, John was an 18-year-old clerk at the time of enlistment in 1916, and being under 21 required the permission of his parents Edgar and Laura to join the Army. He spent more than a year in the local Depot with the 11th Battalion reinforcements before embarking for France, where he arrived in December 1917. But by January 1918, he was in hospital with the first of a string of illnesses, including influenza and German measles. In total, he saw no more than a few months of actual service in France before being returned home in 1919 after the conclusion of the war. His illnesses may well have kept him from harm's way, because he was one of the lucky few to get back without any injuries.

211 Barker Road

Norman Thrum 

Discharged in 1915- permanently unfit for service

Norman was a 21-year-old seaman at the time of his enlistment in the original 11th Battalion at the outbreak of war in 1914. He landed at Gallipoli with the rest of the troops on ANZAC Day, and received a wound to his foot early in May 1915. But he had a bigger problem looming- an existing diagnosis of rheumatism, which was worsened by exposure to the elements in the trenches, to the point where he was completely incapacitated and judged unfit for further service. He returned home in July 1915.

216 Barker Road

Glanville Matson 

Discharged 1916- unfit for service

Glanville enlisted in the 16th Battalion in early 1915, and embarked on HMAT Ascanius in April that year. But almost as soon as he arrived in Egypt, he was placed back on the Ascanius and returned home by October. It transpired the 20-year-old labourer had existing deafness that had been missed in the medical assessments, rendering him unfit for service. Quite amazing that he got all that way before it was noticed, and that the response was to send him straight home! That's a first- I haven't seen it in the records before.

218 Barker Road

John Angove 

Died of wounds in 1917

John Angove was a chemist, 29 years of age when he joined the 28th Battalion Reinforcements and went to war in 1916, eventually joining the same unit as Jack Stuart-Sinclair. He received 21 days of Field Punishment No. 2 (see Arthur Morris, below) for being absent while on duty, and subsequently moved to a role with the 22nd Machine Gun Company. He received a gunshot wound to the back on the 20th of September 1917 in Belgium, dying two days later at the Casualty Clearing Station, and he was buried in the same cemetery at Lijssenthoek that the Stuart-Sinclair brothers would be a month and two months later. He left behind wife Jessie, who subsequently moved to New South Wales to begin a new life.

219 Barker Road

Samuel Patterson
Died of wounds in 1916

Samuel Patterson was an engine driver who enlisted in the 16th Battalion and departed for war in September 1915. After a bout of diptheria on the way, he arrived in France in June 1916. Two months later, on the 11th of August, he (like David Ferris only two weeks earlier) died of wounds received near Pozieres. He left behind a daughter, Viva, and a widow, Jane, who remarried not long afterward. Jane's new husband left her after a year of marriage, and she appealed to the military for financial assistance in the form of an increased pension, but this was, unsurprisingly, denied.

152 Park Street

Arthur Morris
Discharged in 1919 for medical reasons

Like Norman Thrum, 26-year-old teamster Arthur Morris suffered from debilitating rheumatism that had been dormant for many years, but flared up again in the trenches of France upon his arrival in 1916. Arthur had a great many hospital admissions for arthritis, rheumatism and rheumatic fever through the course of the war, and also had a number of run-ins with authority, at one point going AWOL. For his transgression, he received 21 days of Field Punishment No. 2, and was docked 22 days of pay.

Field Punishment No. 2 was the equivalent of hard labour, undertaken while shackled, bound or handcuffed, so Arthur did not have an easy time. Nonetheless, despite illnesses and ill-judged behaviour, he remained with the Army until the war was over, and on his return to Australia in 1919 was discharged from service for medical reasons.

91 Townshend Road

William Green
Discharged in 1917 for medical reasons

33-year-old labourer William Green joined the 28th Battalion Reinforcements in 1915, and ultimately arrived in France in June 1916. Less than a month later, he had the bad or perhaps good fortune to slip while marching along slippery wooden duckboards in a communications trench, and broke his leg. The leg did not heal well, and combined with a dose of influenza that left him with an enlarged heart and shortness of breath, he was judged no longer fit for service, and returned to Australia in 1917.

In conclusion

This little stretch of Barker Road farewelled eleven men to war. Of those, only one returned unharmed, that being John Nelthorpe. Glanville Matson, of course, returned home with an existing condition, but one that had not been affected by the war. Six men died, and the remaining three were incapacitated to varying degrees by their war experience.

It caught my eye that every married man who enlisted on this stretch of street died. Terrible. A street full of widows. Some of the single men died too, but more of them survived.

Nonetheless, in a war where 10% of soldiers were killed and 40% injured, this part of Barker Road was hit far harder than most. More than 50% of enlistees were killed, and 40% injured in one respect or another.

It will be interesting to see how this pattern shifts and changes across the rest of the suburb. For now, though, I think it can only be a good thing that the terribly sad house at number 199 is no longer in existence, because I imagine the walls would have altogether too much to say.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Soldier Pay in WWI

The Australian men who signed up to fight in the Great War had many reasons. Patriotism, a sense of adventure, a sense of duty to King, country and family- and pay.

My novel hinges on one critical point of believability- that one of my farming brothers, Bill, despite having moral objections to the war, nonetheless signs up.

Why? There are other factors at play, including the need to chase down his brother, who's done the family a terrible wrong. But he could just as easily wait for his brother's return to have their reckoning. For Bill to make such a big shift, it has to be a matter of money- not the option of bringing home pay, but the absolute necessity, and the impossibility of getting the same pay anywhere else. Without it, the family will lose everything they've worked for.

As I run through the final draft of the story, I'm pinning down details that have for a long time been left blank. One of those was the assumption that serving in the Australian Infantry Forces would be an attractive source of income for a family whose farm was on the brink of disaster due to years of drought. But to prove that, I needed to find out first what the income was like for a soldier in the Great War, and second, to determine whether men had indeed sent their pay on to family, or whether it had all remained with them (or with the Army).

I'm willing to guess that anyone who knows their Australian First World War research might have been ahead of me on this, because I found the answers fast.

Australian soldier pay rates in WWI

Australian troops were known to their Commonwealth counterparts as "six bob a day tourists", which tells you almost all you need to know right there- the men, at Private rank, were paid six shillings a day, which is apparently nearly three times as much as their UK counterparts. One shilling was held over as "deferred" pay, to be paid out at the end of their service. Soldiers higher in rank were paid more.

Of the 5s they received each day after their deferred pay, the men could choose how much was allocated to Australia and their family, and how much they received on the Front.

The answer had indeed been in front of me for years, on the Embarkation Roll of soldiers departing for war. I've been using the 11th Battalion's embarkation roll to choose soldiers to research for a long time now, and sure enough, there are multiple columns on the right of every page listing the pay in detail.

My character needs to be particularly desperate to warrant a complete reversal of everything he stands for, and I have all the reasons why- I just needed to know how realistic it would be for him to allocate nearly every pence of his pay back to his family.

So, I hunted down the list until I found a man in the ranks who did just that.

Edward Lindsey

Private Edward James Lindsey was a 21 year old mechanic when he signed up for war in 1914. He shipped out with the 11th Battalion in November, leaving behind wife Hilda, who he'd married on August 22nd, just two and half months earlier- and 18 days after war was declared. In his pay, he allocated nearly everything to be sent home to his family- 4 shillings and 6 pence a week, leaving him just sixpence for his needs overseas.

There's something about that allocation that makes me think Edward must have been a determined and selfless young man- and I could only hope like hell, as I scrambled to dig up his record, that he had made it home to his wife.

I'm happy to say, he did. He was invalided out of Gallipoli with influenza, and went into an administrative role for the rest of the war, first in England and then in France. He rose up the ranks, and his pay increased. Hilda moved to London. And in 1919, she gave birth to their first child. Edward, Hilda and their baby returned to Australia together in 1919, and in the decades after, Edward's military correspondence lists him as a successful small businessman with a service station in the Western Australian country town of Lake Yealering.

I plan to look more closely at Edward Lindsey's service and life in a later post, but for now he was exactly the example I needed of a young soldier living for his family.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Royce Constantine Baesjou

Enlisted: Kalgoorlie, Western Australia- March 1915
Age at enlistment: 26
Occupation: Bank clerk
Unit: 28th Battalion, "C" Company

Royce Baesjou in his militia uniform, c. 1915
(Courtesy: Australian War Memorial)


Developments since this post was first made in 2013 have prompted me to add a bit more explanation at the beginning of this tale, and some additional content throughout.

As you'll read below, Royce Baesjou was a First World War soldier from Albany, Western Australia. I started researching him after choosing his memorial plaque at random whilst visiting the Great Southern region. In short order, I discovered that two other Western Australian military researchers were likewise chasing his story. Sandra Playle (Vision Research Services) had encountered Royce while investigating Albany's WWI soldiers, and Shannon Lovelady (coordinator of the Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia project) was researching him as one of those who died at or as a result of service at Gallipoli.

All three of us had slightly different angles on his story, and slightly different reasons for looking into his tale. Combined, we were able to take our investigations to the next level, and after accessing previously unseen medical files, convening a medical panel to discuss the case, publishing a newspaper article (in Shannon's case), and tracking down one very important descendant of the Baesjou family, we came to know him very well indeed.

Royce's story begins with my original search for details, and expands into what we learned collectively.

The War in Albany

We recently took a trip back to the town of Albany in Western Australia, where we lived for several years, and where our hearts still lie. Albany is also the last place in Western Australia that many First World War soldiers saw, as King George Sound was where most of the fleet gathered in 1914 before departing for Egypt, and from there, to Gallipoli.

King George Sound, where much of the ANZAC fleet gathered in 1914

Albany has a remembrance walk along Apex Drive, which leads up to Mt Clarence and the striking Desert Mounted Corps Memorial. The plaques remembering local heroes were once along Middleton Road, but were moved up the hill when the grove of trees was planted in 1955/56.

 The Remembrance Walk, Apex Drive, Albany

As I've done at other memorials around Western Australia, I chose a few plaques at random and photographed them so I could come home and track their stories.

I was particularly intrigued by this one, which says that Private Royce Baesjou died of shell shock, but in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1918, far from the battlefields, and from a malady that has largely come to be seen as psychiatric in nature, not physical.

I am fascinated by the neurological and psychiatric effects of battle on soldiers in the First World War, but I don't recall having seen any previous cases where shell shock was listed as the ultimate cause of death. So, with an idea in my head of what I might find, I tracked down Private Baesjou's story- and I didn't get what I expected.

Before the War

Royce Baesjou was born in Albany in 1887 to a prominent local family. He was the eldest of three children for parents Constantine and Jessie, and by marriage and blood, his relatives extended all over the Great Southern region.

Royce Baesjou as a baby with parents Jessie and Constantine
(WA Museum Collection, courtesy Amelia Moir)
His father was a shipping agent who had been born to the first resident medical officer in Albany, and a mother who was born in Albany in 1836, making this one of the oldest families in the Great Southern.

Royce and his sisters Gwendoline (Gwen) and Petronella (Nella) were a close set of siblings with lively intelligence and wit, and all grew up with a great appreciation for music, literature, and art. For their mother's birthday in 1908, they presented her with a scrapbook to which they all contributed little items for many years. Poems, essays, strong opinions and family photographs all found their way into the book, which none of them knew would become a memorial for one of their own some ten years later.

Gwen and Nella Baesjou
(Baesjou Family Journal)

After leaving school, Royce became a bank clerk, and moved out to the Goldfields region for work. Sister Gwen, by then a nurse, followed him across. They were working in Kalgoorlie when the war broke out, and Royce signed up in March 1915. Not without some effort, either- upon first applying, he was rejected, purportedly for being slightly too short. Undeterred, he went along to the next enlistment point, and there was passed.

Newspaper clipping from the Baesjou family journal
(Unknown origin)

Youngest sister Nella, then 14 years of age, was delighted that her brother had answered the call to go to war, and not a moment too soon. She inscribed a poem in the family journal titled "To My Brother", which read in part:
We would not have you scoffed at
Or called a stay-at-home
When peace, all crowned with laurels
Sits once more on the throne

We pray He will keep you safely
And guide you thro’ your work
We can say then, when war is over
You were not one to shirk.
After basic training at Blackboy Hill, Royce shipped out on HMAT Ascanius in June 1915, headed for the battlefields of Turkey and France with the 28th Battalion. He would leave behind a fiancee, Helen, but he would soon see familiar faces on the other side of the world- sister Gwen sailed to London to join the British Army as a nurse, and his future sister-in-law, Helen's sister Caroline Allen, would join other Australian nurses at Lemnos.

Royce Baesjou (marked X in each) aboard the Ascanius- his own signature above.
(Baesjou Family Journal)

Gallipoli: No Description is Adequate

At Gallipoli in November of 1915, Royce had his first field hospital admission, for debility, or general weakness- a symptom often associated with shell shock or neurasthenia, but also often seen after bouts of dysentery and any number of other illnesses. He was released after three days, but was readmitted a month later, this time specifically for shell shock.

The 28th Battalion was fighting in Gallipoli, in the dying days of the battle winding down to Australia's evacuation of all troops at the end of December 1915. Royce's unit was involved in fighting at Russell's Top, where the Australian forces were under continual heavy fire from artillery. On the day Royce was taken to hospital suffering shock, the battalion diary states:
The enemy shell us rather heavily in the afternoon with both "Seventy-Fives" and Howitzers. One man killed and several wounded.
In a letter home to his uncle, Royce gave further details of what he had endured, and though he had sustained some physical damage, his enthusiasm for war was undented:
Bill Bateman was smashed to pieces right at my side and I never got as much as a scratch, although I was smothered with his blood. Some people call this luck, but I prefer to call it providence. The shell that got Bateman wounded two others, and knocked two others out, with shock to myself included. That is the closest I ever wish to be to a bursting high-explosive shell. Withal there is something fascinating about the business, something that command a man's whole attention. The very noise after a while gets as familiar as the pulsation of one's heart and one begins to wonder what is the matter when there is a temporary cessation. The whole thing is an education and no description is adequate, for you must feel as well as see and every moment is a new sensation.
In discussing Royce's case in many places, such as the Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia Facebook page or the Monash University 100 Stories course via FutureLearn, people often question why he was returned to fighting after suffering that initial shell shock. Partly, the question arises because we assume from a modern perspective that Royce was mentally or psychiatrically affected by shell shock. From the above letter and other evidence, it's clear that he was both ready and willing to get back to the business of war after his recovery from the first blast.

The Western Front: Nothing Serious

As the 28th Battalion moved out to France and the trenches of the Western Front in 1916, Royce was fairly quickly admitted to hospital with bronchitis and pneumonia. Upon his return to the battlefields, he was again evacuated with a shell shock diagnosis in June 1916, and this marked his final departure from the fight.

Royce himself sounded unaffected by his injuries in a letter written to his mother from his hospital bed at the Australian Hospital in Wimereux, France, in June 1916, during the time he was being treated for his second round of shell shock. The letter was later published in the local Albany newspaper, and in it Royce was matter-of-fact about his shaky nerves, and went on to talk with great enthusiasm about the politics behind the war, and his belief that the fight was nearly over.

"You will see by this letter I have found hospital suffering from shell shock; nothing serious. For the second time I have been blown up but never a scratch to show for it."
But his personal battle was just beginning. His medical records show that he suffered from that point forward with a number of different issues, including neurasthenia (often used to describe the more psychiatric symptoms of shell shock, and sometimes described as nervous exhaustion), myalgia, rheumatism and periostitis. The latter would be the final reason given for his return to Australia at the end of 1916- a swelling of joints in the foot.

As one small consolation, descendants confirmed that Royce and his sister Gwen were able to see one another whilst he was convalescing in England, and she was nursing there. It would be their last opportunity.

Sister Gwen Baesjou (nicknamed Hiddie by sister Nella) nursing in England

After the War

The mystery of how Royce died from shell shock two years later appeared to thicken at this point. His discharge papers in his service record suggest that, despite frequent treatment for neurasthenic symptoms, his major ongoing concern was a physical one that, while limiting his mobility, was hardly a threat to his health.

In fact, in the two years between his discharge and death, Royce was able to go back to his former work as a bank clerk, moving back out to the country, this time to the south-west mining town of Greenbushes. Moreover, he married Helen Allen in 1917, and together they had a son.

But the war ultimately caught up with Royce, and his lucky escapes came to an end. He was admitted to hospital, and on 19th May 1918, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

It appears that his death from shell shock was in the most literal sense. Having twice survived being the strike of a heavy artillery shell at close range, which in his own words blew him "yards away", there may have been a latent weakness in his brain caused by the percussion of the impact. Two years down the line, it appears that weakness gave way.

Royce's shell shock was of the variety termed concussion or commotional shock, in other words literally impacted by the concussive force of the explosion of the shell. This fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine quotes the the Official Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into "Shell-Shock" (pg. 3) as stating that only 5-10% of shell shock cases were of this literal variety, with the rest being the more familiar emotional shock that has come to be associated with the term.

From the same article, quoted on the first page, an account of the impact of a shell blast:
“There was a sound like the roar of an express train, coming nearer at tremendous speed with a loud singing, wailing noise,” recalled a young American Red Cross volunteer in 1916, describing an incoming artillery round. “It kept coming and coming and I wondered when it would ever burst. Then when it seemed right on top of us, it did, with a shattering crash that made the earth tremble. It was terrible. The concussion felt like a blow in the face, the stomach and all over; it was like being struck unexpectedly by a huge wave in the ocean.” Exploding at a distant 200 yards, the shell had gouged a hole in the earth "as big as a small room"."
For all Royce Baesjou believed his apparent lack of significant physical injury in 1916 was "nothing serious", it was in fact a ticking time-bomb that would end his life.

Royce Baesjou was well mourned at his funeral. He had been closely involved in his local communities, committed to the church, to the Army, and to his family. There's a small amount of grace in the fact that he was able to return home for a brief period of normalcy, and that in that time he was able to start a family and have a child of his own. Tragically, his son was to grow up without a father, who died on home soil when he should have been safe- seemingly mentally unaffected by a condition that damaged so many minds, but physically affected instead.

Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia investigations

There's a post-script to this case, as mentioned earlier, that adds a little bit more detail. In 2013, Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia coordinator Shannon Lovelady put out a call to her volunteer researchers to see if anyone could shed greater light on the Royce Baesjou case- a call that was answered immediately by myself and Sandra Playle.

Shannon's not-so-simple question: could Royce's untimely death in 1918 be attributed to his service at Gallipoli in 1915?

As a bit of background, the Gallipoli Dead project sought to quantify the number of Western Australian men killed at (or dying as a result of) action at Gallipoli. Having concluded, the project now has an answer: 1023, subject to possible change if any new information comes to hand. To be eligible for the project, an individual had to have a Western Australian connection (born here, enlisted here, or lived here for a significant period). Royce met all of those criteria.

He also needed to have died before August 1921 from wounds or illness received at Gallipoli. Royce had died in 1918, but he had also suffered a second instance of shell shock in France. Could we state with confidence that the first injury at Gallipoli contributed to his death?

My initial instinct was to say no. It was clear from the records and from Royce's own words that he had been physically able to return to the fighting in France after his initial injury.

However, after accessing his detailed medical files, consulting a number of medical experts, and debating it intensively for weeks on end, our final conclusion was that we could not definitively rule out the contribution of his Gallipoli injury, and therefore we could not rule him out as one of the Gallipoli dead.

All the evidence points to a gradually compounding set of physical problems that most likely began at Gallipoli, and was fully triggered in France, leading to a cascade of events that ultimately resulted in his death.

Royce Baesjou's medical file

In our quest to unravel Royce's story, we accessed a previously unopened file held by the National Archives of Australia- his medical file from the time after his repatriation to Australia.

His official cause of death was given as cerebral haemorrhage, and his memorial plaque states that he died from shell-shock. But was this as sudden and unexpected as it seemed? Or were there clues from the beginning that Royce was living on borrowed time?

His medical file makes it clear that the latter is the case. In the following photographs from the Baesjou family journal, taken just after Royce's return from war, the physical impact is clear. These were taken no more than two years after the photograph at the top of this post, and we're seeing a completely different man. He has aged well beyond his years, and holds his left side stiffly. In the seated photograph, he was unable to bend his left leg at all.

Royce's medical file gives us the following detail of how his symptoms progressed on his return to Australia.

When assessed in February 1917, he was initially assessed as being relatively well. The rheumatism and periostitis for which he'd been returned to Australia had settled, though he still had some tenderness. His incapacity for work was assessed as a quarter, and he was able to return to his pre-war occupation, working in the bank. He married Helen Allen in 1917, and their son John was born on 30th March 1918.

What is not mentioned until slightly later in Royce's record is that in addition to his rheumatism, he had been paralysed down the left side whilst in London, and on his return to Australia was still suffering weakness in that left side. His ongoing treatment in Australia included not only the rheumatism, but continued neurasthenic symptoms. After his discharge, the symptoms only increased. In May 1918, when his son was seven weeks old, he returned to the No. 8 General Hospital in Fremantle for help, with a note stating he had "self reported neurasthenic". His file detailed some of what he'd been suffering during the previous year.
After leaving the No. 8 A. G. H. had two months holiday during which time he had 2 or 3 fainting attacks. On 1-5-17 he returned to Bank. No trace of paralysis, slight limp, otherwise well. No rheumatism. About Sept 1917 suddenly lost use of left arm, which recovered in 4 hours except for some stiffness. That did not interfere with his work. About November a rupture (right inguinal) which he had since childhood began to give trouble- painful and getting larger- this has increased lately. End of March 1918 caught chill, this recovered. Almost beginning of May he fainted 3 times, fell by unconscious and lost use of rt arm and leg. This not improving he was readmitted to No. [8] A.G.H. May 17th. At present headaches, bronchitis, paralysis rt arm, leg and rt side of face. Speech affected.
On the same day this note was made in his file, 19th May 1918, another brief comment was added:
Died 6:10 p.m.
It appears to all of us that Royce had suffered a series of strokes leading ultimately into his death. Our medical panel were curious about a number of small extra details, such as that persistent rheumatism (was it more like gout? Could he have had a blood clot from limited movement of that leg?) and the swelling of the inguinal hernia. In the end, though, all agreed- his death from cerebral haemorrhage had been inevitable from the time he was subjected to concussion from those shells.

It was impossible to say how much responsibility lay with the first or the second blast, but it didn't matter. Royce's borrowed time had run out.

The Baesjou Family Journal: All the Little Ghosts of Me

With our research into Royce's story complete, Shannon wrote a story about the overall project for the Post Newspapers, and mentioned the effort we'd made to unravel the mystery of Royce's death.

Gallipoli Dead article in the Post Newspaper
(Courtesy Shannon Lovelady)

Very shortly after, we experienced what Royce himself might have called providence. His great-niece Beverley happened to see the article in this small local newspaper, and not only did she know his story well- she was also in possession of the family journal in which the Baesjou siblings wrote to each other and their mother.

With immense gratitude, Shannon and I met with Beverley and took copies of all the material held within the pages. Not only that, but speaking with her, we came to understand the long-term impact of Royce's death within the family- he was a much loved brother to his two remarkable sisters, and in as Bev said, as a child she grew up thinking that the First World War revolved centred around him, as he was spoken of with such reverence.

 Royce on his return from war, with his mother, uncle, and sister Nella
(Baesjou Family Journal)

Reading the journal in conjunction with a descendant was an incredibly valuable lesson in the fact that historical documents don't always tell the whole story. There were emotions within the family that did not make it to the page, and situations that were far more complex in reality than they appeared in hindsight.

One of the things it showed quite clearly was that Royce was not the nervous wreck one might assume from reading what he went through. He certainly showed neurasthenic symptoms, but the impact on him was in large part physical.

Just before his departure to war, Royce wrote a brief piece of prose that gloried in the natural beauty of an Albany morning.

On his return from war in 1916, he wrote another piece in the same steady, elegant hand, praising the war effort and lauding the valiant dead.

Reading this, we see a man who had been seriously affected by his war service, physically and certainly mentally as well. His medical record shows that he was putting a brave face on an increasingly difficult situation. But the fact that he could write like this, work in the bank, marry, and conceive a child, are all testaments to the fact that his incapacity was far from complete, no matter how much fortitude was required to get through the day.

Nonetheless, not much further through the journal from this last piece of Royce's writing are pages of photographs of his grave at Fremantle Cemetery, including one particularly poignant image of a grieving female relative in black, arranging some of the many flowers that decorate his resting place.

Though gone, Royce was never forgotten by his family. His epitaph, Died of Shell Shock, was written to reflect the most literal sense of the words. His case is a fascinating example of the way war continued to reach beyond the battlefields to affect people at home, with many others dying not long after their return.
We're lucky that Royce somehow captured so many different streams of attention, so that we were able to understand the full breadth, depth and impact of that loss.

In 1990, an elderly Nella wrote a letter reflecting on her life, and all the fortune she'd had to be part of such a loving family, of which she was the last one left. She described her memories as, "all the little ghosts of me" (after poet Alice Meynell). Those of us who have researched Royce find that his little ghosts flutter all around, and we see him popping up with remarkable frequency.

His is certainly a story that demands not to be forgotten.

The investigation into Royce's story has very much been a team effort with a lot of different contributors. Shannon Lovelady and Sandra Playle have provided equal input into researching this case, with the assistance of other members of the Gallipoli Dead from Western Australia research team (particularly Andrew Pittaway), plus the panel of medical experts who donated their time to assist. Michael Gregg of the WA Museum located the photograph of Royce as a baby (which was also present in the family album). Marjorie Bly of the National Archives of Australia made it possible for us to view the previously unopened medical record.
Beverley Taylor provided not only access to the family journal, but also spent hours talking about her great-uncle and her equally remarkable great-aunt and grandmother. She provided us with wonderful insight and has been extremely generous in allowing us to share the details.