A letter from a grieving father

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

The file contains correspondence to and from Douglas’ father, James Simpson Stewart of Holbrook, New South Wales; a small town near Albury. Some of it has to do with the medals that his son was entitled to, and I have written about those in a previous post. Then there is the correspondence about Douglas’ grave.

Douglas was killed in action on 8 August 1918 in France. In October General Pau of the French Army visited Australia, and even visited Albury in southern New South Wales, by train, where he was “accorded a hearty welcome by several hundred representative residents” (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Oct 1918, p13).

James, who was quite possibly one of those residents, was moved to write to the General:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Letter from J.S. Stewart to General Pau.

He wanted a photo of the grave where his son was buried.

The joy to the Mother especially would be great were she to get a Carte of that Grave 12000 Miles away.

James says that he wears a ‘Reject Badge’. I had never heard of such a thing. A quick search in Google tells me that Reject Badges were issued to those who were rejected for military service on medical grounds, and perhaps other grounds as well. James himself was over 50 by this time, and his son was only 17 by the end of the War.

With my minimal knowledge of French I can only guess that this is a translation of James’ letter into French:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. French translation of letter from J.S. Stewart to General Pau.

The General replied through the AIF Base Office a few days later:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Copy of reply to J.S. Stewart from General Pau.

The Base Office replied to James on 10 January 1919:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Reply to J.S. Stewart on nehalf of General Pau.

Photographs were being taken of all graves “as rapidly as the conditions obtaining in the late theatre of war will admit.”

I can only assume that James was sent a photograph eventually. I have no knowledge of such a photograph being in the family, but then the descendants are my distant cousins. I can only try to imagine the feelings of the family when it arrived, showing a hastily-built grave with a cross stuck in the top in what had recently been a field of battle.

I do not know if anyone in this family ever travelled to France to see the grave. I imagine not – it was not easy in the years after the war, and not done lightly, as it is today.

Douglas is now recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as being buried in Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres:

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Harbonnieres was captured by French troops in the summer of 1916. It was retaken by the Germans on 27 April 1918, and regained by the Australian Corps on 8 August 1918. Heath Cemetery, so called from the wide expanse of open country on which it stands, was made after the Armistice, next to a French Military Cemetery, now removed. Graves were brought into it from the battlefields between Bray and Harbonnieres and from other burial grounds in the area…

– Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres.

It looks a peaceful place now. It’s a shame that Douglas’ family couldn’t see what I am seeing now so easily on the internet.