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.

World War I medals for an ordinary soldier

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.

Douglas died on 8th August 1918. In 1920 his father James Simpson Stewart apparently had a question for the Department of Defence:

Memorandum 6 Feb 1920

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Memorandum dated 6 Feb 1920.

What medals was Douglas entitled to? A copy of the answer is on the file:

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. Simpson dated 13 Feb 1920.

The Victory Medal and the General Service Medal. The Victory Medal, at least was sent a couple of years later, and James signed and returned the acknowledgement of receipt:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Receipt for Victory Medal.

James had also been sent the Memorial Plaque six months earlier:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Receipt for Memorial Plaque..

James had a couple of questions after it had arrived:

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 re Memorial Plaque.

In the reply he was told that the correct dates of the Great War were 1914-1918, and the plaque’s materials and emblems were described in detail:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Replay to J.S. Stewart dated 5 Dec 1922.

The service record shows all of the medals and plaques Douglas was issued:

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718.

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718.

I wish I knew more about these medals and plaques – what they looked like, what they feel like in the hand. I just can’t imagine how Douglas’ parents felt when they received them in the mail back in Holbrook, NSW. Proud, perhaps.

Of course, four or five years had passed by the time they arrived. The surviving soldiers had returned, and life had gone back to normal, so perhaps each time one of these things arrived the devastation returned.

A World War I soldier’s girlfriend?

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.

Most of the documents in the file are fairly self-explanatory. This one has a small mystery. Alongside the correspondence with Douglas’ father James Simpson Stewart, which I will cover in a future post, is this letter:

Letter from Miss J.M. Byrne dated 31 Dec 1918

NAA: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers. 1914-1920; 3013311, Stewart Douglas James : SERN 3718. Letter from Miss JM Byrne dated 31 Dec 1918.

Miss J. M. Byrne lived in Glebe Point in inner Sydney, and on New Year’s Eve in the year that Douglas was killed she sat down with her patriotic notepaper to ask for more information about his death.

She knew to whom to write, she knew Douglas’ rank, serial number and battalion, and she knew the date that he was killed.

Who was she? Douglas had five sisters, that I can find, and none of them had the initials ‘JM’. The correspondent was a ‘Miss’, in any case, and not a ‘Miss Stewart’. Douglas’ mother’s maiden surname was Lawson, and I know little about her or her extended family. Perhaps Miss Byrne was a cousin on his mother’s side.

I must be a romantic though, because I prefer to think of Miss Byrne as a girlfriend or a potential girlfriend. She must have been so upset, imagining all the dreadful ways he could have been killed, to have written to request more information from the Base Records Office. She clearly wasn’t in a position to obtain news directly from the family, who could have been expected to have the earliest notification.

Before the war Douglas was an 18-year-old telegraph messenger and lived in Holbrook, a country town near Albury. How did Miss Byrne know him? How did they meet? Was she from Holbrook? Why was she in Sydney?

Two weeks later she received the following reply:

Reply to Miss JM Byrne dated 14 Jan 1919

She was told that there was no further information regarding ‘his regrettable loss’ than was contained in the ‘brief cable report “Killed in Action, 8/8/18″.’ When further information arrived by mail the next-of-kin would be informed. If she enquired again after this time these particulars would be forwarded to her also.

There is no subsequent correspondence from her.

I’ve searched the NSW Birth Death and Marriage index for the marriage of a J M Byrne, and there were a couple in the 1930s, an inconclusive result. I hope she had a happy life.