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.


  1. I'm glad he was able to have a family, even if for a brief while. I always wonder/dwell on all the boys that never made it back home, and what the world might have been like had they lived.

  2. A wonderful and fitting tribute Claire. Thank you :)

  3. Wow, So much detail in your research. Working as part of team allows group knowledge to come to the fore and build such a detailed understanding of the life and battles of this young soldier.

  4. Margaret SwanbergMay 6, 2015 at 5:34 AM

    That was a fascinating piece of research and a great complement to the Monash University course. Thank you.

  5. Fantastic research, thank you, which has brought Royce to life. Glad he had a chance to have a life of his own on return before he to paid the ultimate sacrifice.

  6. Fantastic research, thank you, which has brought Royce to life. Glad he had a chance to have a life of his own on return before he to paid the ultimate sacrifice.

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