The Holden family

Albert Holden and son Norman

In 1898, Methodist chaplain, Albert Holden, and his wife, Martha, welcomed the arrival of their second son, Norman Gladstone. Having lost their first son at birth, it was a very special occasion for the Melbourne couple.

Two years later, Albert accompanied the Victorian Fourth Contingent to the Boer War. The South African conflict lasted for almost three years and almost 16 000 Australian troops were sent to assist the forces of the British Empire. As a chaplain, Albert provided the men of the Fourth Contingent with spiritual guidance and support.

Albert’s skills and expertise were again called upon years later when the First World War erupted in Europe. In 1916, he was commissioned as chaplain-general of the Methodist denomination and in August he travelled to the front line to report on the state of the chaplaincy service.

Albert’s son, Norman, who had not yet turned 18, accompanied him as his batman. Norman had been a student at Wesley College preparing to study medicine, but the opportunity to be in the thick of the action must have seemed like a grand adventure for a boy still too young to enlist. As a batman, Norman was required to care for his father’s uniform and equipment, and convey his orders to other officers.    

Albert and Norman returned home in March 1917, but it wasn’t long until they found themselves once again en route to Europe, only this time Norman was old enough to be assigned to a fighting unit. In March 1918 he farewelled his father and travelled to the Western Front as a gunner with the 11th Field Artillery Brigade.

By September allied forces were becoming increasingly desperate to break through the Germans’ seemingly impenetrable Hindenburg Line. Late in that month, the allies launched an attack against the heavily defended St Quentin Canal.

Positioned near Ronssoy, the 11th Field Artillery Brigade was ordered to provide cover for advancing troops. But on the 29 September, the brigade found itself under heavy shell and machine-gun fire. Among the seven members of the brigade killed during this action was 20-year-old Norman Holden.

Devastated, Albert travelled to the cemetery in Roisel to stand by the side of his son’s final resting place. Albert knew that he was not alone in his grief, so he wrote to some parents at home in Australia whose loved ones were buried beside Norman. Mrs Boulton, whose son, Stephen, died of wounds in October 1918, received this letter:

It has been my privilege recently to visit the little cemetery at Roisel, where the mortal remains of your dear son have been laid to rest. I went to see the grave of my own boy and he lies with over twenty other lads side by side, and one of them is your boy. I thought you would like to have a line from somebody who had stood with bared head at the grave.

On the day that the Armistice was signed, whilst shouts of rejoicing could be heard in every direction, I stood alone with a lump in my throat, feeling in no mood to wave flags, though deeply grateful that hostilities had ceased and that no more precious human lives would have to be sacrificed.

Albert eventually returned Australia to resume his chaplaincy duties. Until Albert died in 1935, scarcely a year went by that a memorial notice for his son did not appear in the Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, on the 29 September.

In loving memory of our darling, Gunner Norman Holden … killed in action, 29th September 1918. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

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