Australia's First World War fallen: The stories behind the faces
Over the past few months the Memorial has been increasing its efforts to acquire photographs of men and women who died on active service whilst serving in the Australian military forces. 102,000 names appear on the Roll of Honour, and where possible, the Memorial has been trying to put faces to names by acquiring photographs of these men and women to link to their online Roll of Honour records. Over the past three months, the Memorial's Photographs section has received over 2,000 public inquiries regarding the Roll of Honour project, resulting in the offer of 1,800 photographs.
Recent acquisitions over the past few months have uncovered some incredible stories of Australians during wartime, and tell the true nature of loss and sacrifice througout Australia's military history. Many recent donations have been photographs of those who died on active service during the First World War. Either forgotten over the years, not known at the time, or far too distressing to inform bereaving loved ones, revealing these personal stories involves a thorough examination of the historical record, and goes far to extend the commemoration of the fallen to beyond the bare minimum record of a rank, name, unit and date of death.
Like so many casualties of the First World War, many recent acquisitions are shrouded in mystery, and an all too familiar story for those killed during the Third Ypres campaign in late 1917 is that of 1973 Corporal (Cpl) Leslie Henry Robinson of Minore via Dubbo, NSW. Cpl Robinson enlisted in the AIF in August 1915, and served on the Western Front with the 54th Battalion. He was killed by a shell which landed amongst a group of men from the 54th Battalion during the battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September 1917 and was buried with five others near the Polygon Wood Butte. The cross marking the grave was destroyed in later fighting, and the location of his grave was subsequently lost.
A similar story is that of 4315A Pte Cyril Donald Johnston, of Delungra, NSW, who was a school teacher before enlisting in October 1915 and left Australia for Egypt with the 13th Reinforcements of the 2nd Battalion in December 1915. Transferring to the 54th Battalion as part of the 'doubling-up' of the AIF in April 1916, Pte Johnston was in France for less than a month before taking part in the attack on German positions at Fromelles on the night of 19/20th July 1916. Pte Johnston was last seen wounded in front of the German trenches and was not recovered when the attack withdrew. Initially listed as missing, Pte Johnston was later confirmed by German sources to have been killed in action, aged 24. Whilst his pay book and identity discs were later found in the Royal Prussian War Office in Berlin, the location of his grave remains unknown. Sadly for the Johnston family, his older brother, 1629 Trooper Osborne William Johnston, 1st Australian Light Horse, was killed in action at Khuweilfe, Palestine, on 3 November 1917.
Whilst some stories remain a mystery, others tell the grim reality of war. Enlisting in the AIF in February 1915, 1318 Pte Errol Sydney Watkins of Waverley, NSW, was an original member of the 17th Battalion who served on Gallipoli and the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer. According to his Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau file, Watkins went out on a patrol after the counter-attack at Lagnicourt on 15 April 1917 to collect the wounded from the German positions. He responded to repeated calls for stretcher-bearers believing they were wounded Australians, but was last seen surrounded by a group of Germans who had been calling out in English. Repeated attempts were made by the Red Cross to determine whether he was a prisoner in Germany, but discovered after the war that Pte Watkins had been shot in the stomach and died of wounds at Rumancourt on 15 April, age 21.
Some photographs are particularly poignant, such as that of Lieutenant (Lt) Leslie Norman Ward of Charleville, Qld. Lt Ward had enlisted in July 1915 and served on the Western Front with the 47th Battalion. He was commissioned from the ranks in November 1917 and was awarded the Military Cross for actions at Dernancourt on 5 April 1918, and after the 47th Battalion disbanded in May 1918, he was transferred to the 48th Battalion. In a letter which accompanied the portrait to his parents in Australia, Lt Ward writes on the 15 September 1918: “We are doing OK and move up to take over the trenches tonight. We do a big attack in a few days I think. Oh well I sincerely hope that my usual luck sticks to me through this show”. Tragically, Lt Ward was killed four days later on the 19 September 1918 - just a few days after his portrait was taken in London - during an attack on a German trench at Bellenglise near Mont St Quentin, aged 25.
Perhaps one of the most striking stories is that of 1462 Private (Pte) Marshall Trigellis Fox, 11th Battalion of Subiaco, WA (left) and 1504 Pte (later Lance Corporal) John Shaw Anderson, 11th Battalion of Fremantle, WA (right). Pte Fox and Pte Anderson were friends and prefects of the Perth Modern School before they enlisted in January 1915. Fox had qualified for admission to university, and Anderson had passed to study as an accountant. Although they enlisted separately, and were in separate reinforcement groups, the pair met up and left Australia for Egypt on the same troop transport in February 1915. According to the Perth Modern School newspaper 'The Sphinx', Fox's departure was: “…so sudden that he was unable to come up to the school to say good-bye. ‘I don't want you to think that I am one of those fellows’, he wrote to the Head Master, ‘who get all they can from the school and then let it pass away completely out of their mind’”. Arriving on Gallipoli in May 1915, both Fox and Anderson were killed during the 11th Battalion's attack on the Turkish positions opposite Tasmania Post on 1 August 1915. According to the school newspaper "It was later still that we heard that the two friends had died together, the one succouring the other as he fell". Later correspondence received by the school from a member of the 11th Battalion read: "I feel particularly sorry for two boys who had just left the [Perth] Modern School who I am sure, had great careers before them...They died side by side, the second one while looking at the first one's wounds. All who know say the same as I do, that they feel sorrier over their loss than anybody else's". Both Anderson and Fox were aged 19.
The Memorial’s collection of Roll of Honour photographs is a visual memorial to those who died on active service throughout Australia’s military history. Not only do they help us connect with a story of long ago, they put faces to the thousands of names listed on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour.