Bourke, Edward John (Corporal, b.1892 - d.1930)


Collection relating to the First World War service of 110/85767 Corporal Edward John Bourke, Special Service Unit, Australia, South Africa, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, 1919.

Collection consists of, in folder 1, one black faux leather notebook used as a diary spanning the period 29 May to 16 October 1919. In folder 2 is a typed transcript of the diary with additional information about Bourke at the beginning and end, written by his great-nephew, Michael Victor OAM.

The diary begins with Bourke leaving Australia aboard the HMAT Kursk as part of the Special Service Unit, to return German prisoners of war that had been interned in Australia. In this introductory period of the diary, Bourke discusses some of the more well-to-do and influential prisoners aboard the ship. Many of these include people who had German heritage, yet had lived in Australia for up to 40 years. Included are several former diplomats, an academic, and in many cases, their Australian or British partners. Within several days of leaving Australia, owing to rough seas, passengers begin to get colds which quickly lead to the spread of the deadly Spanish flu. The journey between Australia and Durban is filled with descriptions of the death and suffering mainly of the prisoners, but also of Australian soldiers which made up the approximately 300 people who died in this short period. During this period are descriptions of the soldiers’ morale and behaviour, including taking measures such as not smoking after leaving the hospital deck that had been set up to house the sick. In addition, the soldiers begin to run a competition between different companies to compare the speeds at which they could have a body removed from the hospital deck and thrown overboard.

Following their arrival at Durban, the diary discusses how morale improves and the sickest patients are removed to local hospitals, while the remainder on board are quarantined and taken to a secluded beach while the ship is fumigated. Also mentioned while in Durban are several visits to the edge of the ship (it was quarantined so could not be boarded) by the Angel of Durban, Ethel Campbell, who delivered food, cigarettes, and sent letters for those aboard.

The remainder of the journey, as described in the diary, to Rotterdam via the United Kingdom is far less eventful. Following the arrival at Rotterdam, Bourke writes several very long entries about how their prisoners will struggle to resume life in Germany following, in one case, having lived in Australia for over 40 years and not having any remaining German connections.

Following the dropping off of prisoners in Rotterdam, the HMAT Kursk sails for the United Kingdom. Bourke records in his diary the extended leave he takes to visit the United Kingdom, spending most of his time in London, before moving on to France to tour the battlefields. These battlefield tours in northern France, mainly around the Somme area, and in particular around the towns of Laon and Soissons, feature largely in this diary. During this time, Bourke writes about the company he gains in two American soldiers and two American female civilians, as they survey battlefields and collect souvenirs such as wicker shell holders, and a very rare saw-tooth bayonet.

Following the tour of the battlefields, Bourke returns to Paris, and with a friend makes further trips to Brussels and then to Zurich – the latter of which they only spend 24 hours in owning to their lack of permission in their passports and illegally gaining entry to the country.

Bourke’s last point of call is back to England, following the expiry of his leave. Following several days in London which included viewing the Grand Fleet and several other large celebrations to mark the end of the war, he then describes life in Sutton Veny, the large Australian camp, filled with soldiers awaiting their return to Australia. Included in this period are descriptions of the activities undertaken by soldiers while waiting to be demobilized, including sports and lectures. However also discussed is the bad reputation that Australians had gained around the Sutton Veny area, owing to an increased rate of crime.

The diary ends with descriptions of the first half of the return to Australia aboard the SS Pakeha.

Throughout the diary, Bourke’s use of language and descriptions sets this diary apart from many, creating a compelling read about a relatively unknown part of Australia’s First World War history.