A WWI soldier’s death is explained

Otha's letter to Percy

Otha’s letter to his brother Percy

Otha Everleigh Bassett was killed in action in France on 3 July 1916. He had written home a couple of weeks before, telling his family about life on the battle front and comparing what he saw of the countryside with his experience as a farmer back in Condobolin in western New South Wales. That letter was published in the local newspaper, and was transcribed last year, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

The words ‘killed in action’ are a very broad description, and must have been heartbreaking for the family back home, trying to imagine what had happened to their son or brother or husband.

The Australian War Memorial has the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau reports for soldiers killed or wounded, which can be searched by name along with other records of military personnel. There is no report for Otha, another disappointment for his family, who must have been waiting for official word of what had happened.

We are more fortunate in that we can access less official records. Percy Ellesmere Smythe was writing a diary during the same events, and his diary has been transcribed and published online and donated to the Australian War Memorial. He had first-hand knowledge of the events of that night. He wrote the night before:

July 2 1916

After tea we got our wire ready. Can’t do much tonight, as a bombardment starts soon after midnight, and we have to be in by 12. There is to be a raid from the 52nd Battalion’s lines. They are immediately on our right, and it will be pretty lively here. All parties have received orders to be in by midnight.

The next night he wrote again:

July 3 1916

… Heard that B Co’s wiring party and patrol were not warned about the bombardment, and consequently were out in front all the time, suffering many casualties. It was a terrible blunder on somebody’s part, and those men were simply murdered through carelessness. …

Coming back we learned more particulars of B Co’s. terrible blunder. Poor old Tiny Bassett was one of the victims. He and Ireland, who were in the wiring party, were blown up by the one shell. They were both killed instantly. A young fellow named Green who was out got tangled in the barbed wire, and while struggling there was fairly riddled with bullets. Frost was also out, and got three machinegun bullets in the hip. Roach told me he was to have gone out, but being ill, was exempted.

Otha died of ‘friendly fire’ through a lack of effective communication. Perhaps it’s just as well that his family wasn’t informed of the details.

Percy’s diary covers the period from his enlistment in 1915 to his discharge and return home in 1919. His diary was transcribed by his daughter, Betty, and has been made available online. It’s well worth a read, and I am grateful to the Smythe family for making it available.

 

A WWI soldier’s letter from France

Today (3 July 2016) marks 100 years since the death in France of Otha Everleigh Bassett, Keith’s great-uncle. Otha was a country lad, a share farmer from Condobolin in the very centre of New South Wales; he was 5 feet 11 inches tall with a dark complexion, grey eyes and black hair.

When he enlisted in Condobolin on 11 May 1915 he was 24 years and 7 months, and gave his father Alfred Bassett as his next of kin. He was shipped out of Sydney on the Orsova on 14 July 1915, and ‘taken on strength’ on 5 September 1915, joining a composite company attached to the 9th Battalion in Gallipoli as a temporary Corporal before joining the 3rd Battalion. After the evacuation from Gallipoli and training in Egypt he was sent to France in late March 1916.

On 16 June 1916 he wrote a letter home from France to his brother Percy in Condobolin, just over two weeks before his death. The letter was published in The Lachlander on Wednesday, August 23, 1916.

Otha's letter to PercyDear Brother,— I have just received your letter of 17th. May and I was pleased to hear from you, and to know that things are all right. The last I got from you was about two months ago. No, I have not been knocked yet though I may be before morning, for all I know. I can hear the guns roaring, and one might hit just here any minute, but I hope it doesn’t bother though. They throw a lot of iron rations about at times, issue them out pretty freely. It is mid-summer here now, and, about as hot as it is in winter in N.S.W. The days are very long, there are only five hours darkness. It is nearly always raining here and seems to be good seasons.
There is grass, wheat, and oats near the firing line (where there is no stock) three and four feet high around old broken up farm houses, which are all brick with tiled and thatched roofs. I am known in the company as tiny, the hun, the wirer. I have been putting out barbed-wire entanglements between the two firing lines at night which is not a very safe game, a couple of my mates were wounded pretty badly one night, I could tell you dozens of exciting personal experiences I have had, but they seem a bit too shaky, so I will leave them untold, in the hope that I get back to tell them.
I was nearly trapped by the huns once, that is why they call me the hun, they say I go out and have a yarn with them at night. This is a fine place, a great pity to see a war here breaking it up. I have seen places blown to pieces in less than two seconds. Buildings as big as Tasker’s Royal Hotel, Condo, about five or six high explosive shells drop on it at the same instant, and everything is down on the ground in a heap of debris. There is very fierce fighting going on in places at present. One that has not been here could not imagine what it is like, and it is more than I dare write about for it is not in the agreement. I suppose things are much in the same boat with the Germans by the number of shells that our artillery send over to them free of charge, they never say if they get them or not, but I expect they get some of them safely enough. I saw a few letters in the “Lachlander” by Percy Shephard.
Remember me to the folks at home.
Your loving brother,
OOTHA BASSETTT,
France, 17-6-16.

Otha was killed in action on 3 July 1916, and is buried in the Rue-David Military Cemetery in Fleurbaix, a village about 5 kilometres south-west of Armentieres.

Otha Bassett headstone

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:

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:

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

The Base Office replied to James on 10 January 1919:

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 certainly not undertaken lightly, as it is today.

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

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.

This post was originally published in January 2011 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

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

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

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:

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

James had a couple of questions after it had arrived:

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:

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

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.

This post was originally published in December 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

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

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:

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.

This post was originally published in July 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

The last Will and Testament of a WWI 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 embarked for England on 10 May 1917 after months of training and medical examinations and inoculations. Ten days before he left he made out his last Will and Testament, lodging it with the Officer in Charge Base Records. A certified copy of the will was kept in his file. I imagine the original was removed on his death.

Certified copy of the Last Will and Testament of Douglas James Stewart

He left everything he owned to his mother, Annie Stewart. I don’t imagine that his property and effects amounted to much. He was 18, he lived at home with his parents; he was a telegraph messenger. Perhaps he owned a bicycle.

His will was witnessed by W.M. Dorney and A. J. Cowled. A search of the National Archives of Australia RecordSearch reveals the identity of these two witnesses.

William Michael Dorney from Raymond Terrace was a State School teacher who had passed his 2nd Lieutenant’s exam at Duntroon in 1916, before he enlisted, aged 30, in Raymond Terrace, near Newcastle. He sailed from Sydney on board HMAT Port Melbourne on 16 July 1917 with the 33rd Batallion, and was wounded in action in France in April 1918. After two months in hospital he was sent back to France and was killed 12 days later by a direct hit from an enemy 77 [gun] while leading his platoon at ‘Road Wood’ on 30 August 1918. His effects were returned to his wife.

Agustus John Cowled was a farmer who enlisted at Cootamundra on 29 March 1916. He was 22. He was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 1 May 1917 before leaving Australia on 31 October 1917 aboard HMAT Euripides. He lived through the war, despite being wounded and gassed more than once, and returned to Australia on 20 August 1919.

I can’t see that Douglas served with either of these two lieutenants. Douglas had landed in France after training in England on 20 May 1918.

A ‘Certificate re Will’ is also on file. This appears to be a stub from which the will, filled out by the men on a standard form, had been removed. You can see the pin marks on the left hand side. Other men provided their own wills, especially, I suspect, the married ones.

Certificate re Will - Douglas James Stewart

The certificate is signed by by the Commanding Officer of the battalion. I would welcome a more accurate explanation of this form.

Sources for witnesses:

National Archives of Australia: Base Records Office Australian Imperial Force; B2455, First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920.

Cowled Augustus John : SERN LIEUTENANT : POB Junee NSW : POE N/A : NOK F Cowel Albert Clayton

Dorney William Michael : SERN Lieutenant : POB Raymond Terrace NSW : POE N/A : NOK W Dorney Gertrude Margaret

This post was originally published in May 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

Enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force, 1917

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 Application to Enlist in the Australia Imperial Force form shows that Douglas enlisted at Victoria Barracks in Sydney on 18 February 1917.

He was a telegraph messenger, residing in Albury Street, Holbrook, NSW. He was 18 years and 2 weeks old, and both his parents signed the form, giving their consent to the enlistment of their under-aged son for active service abroad. He was 5 foot 9 inches, with a chest measurement of 31-36 inches fully expanded. He was declared fit for Active Service.

The instructions on the back give us an idea of the enlistment process:

The form, filled in and signed by the applicant and additionally signed, in this case, by his parents, was given to the Recruitment Officer. Provided the applicant fulfilled all other requirements the form was given directly to the Medical Practitioner, who examined the applicant for medical fitness. The form was then returned to the Recruitment Officer, who then sent it to the Officer in Charge of the Central Recruiting Depot to which the recruit had been instructed to report.

Douglas was examined at Victoria Barracks on the same day:

He weighed in at 146 lbs; his chest was measured at 36 inches when fully expanded, a range of 5 inches; his pulse rate was 78 [beats per minute, presumably] and his physical development good. He had two vaccination marks on his left arm, given in 1913. His vision, was measured as 6/6 on both sides, which I assume was good. He apparently had no marks indicating congenital peculiarities or previous diseases.

Most of the remaining pages of the Medical History are blank. He was re-examined at Liverpool Field Hospital on 9 May 1918 but not admitted.

At his initial examination he was asked a few questions about fits, insanity, consumption:

Medical History, page 4

He was vaccinated on the same day, on 20 March, 2 April and again on 21 April 1917.

Douglas was then examined at the Sydney Showground Military Camp on 26 March 1917. His teeth were intact, with 13 on each side (feel inside your mouth and count yours).

So he was good to go. This telegraph messenger from a small town in southern New South Wales was ready for the biggest, and worst, adventure of his life.

This post was previously published in May 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

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