Thursday, 15 August 2013

A sad tale retold

Family historians always get excited about finding a new source. At worst, you can cite some further support for information that you already have. At best, there may be completely new evidence to add to the narrative of your ancestor.

As the anniversary of the death of Robert Burton at Suvla Bay approached, I have been reviewing what (little) I know about his military career. In the course of that search, I came upon a report of IRELAND’S MEMORIAL RECORDS 1914-1918: Being the Names of Irishmen Who Fell in the Great European War 1914-18

This very beautiful, but very expensive, publication was described as being a "Roll of Honour listing over 49,000 of Irish birth or residence at the time of death, who served and died during the Great War, compiled by The Committee of the Irish National War Memorial with Decorative Borders by Harry Clarke". In the early 1920s, £5,000 of Ireland's War Memorial funds was spent collecting the records of over 49,000 fatal casualties and publishing them in eight volumes. The men and women commemorated either served in Irish Regiments or were born in, or resident in, Ireland at the time of their death serving with units from Britain and its empire.

For those without the several hundred euro required to purchase a hard-bound set of the books, digital images can be viewed on Ancestry or FindMyPast. There I found the entry for Robert Burton. Sadly, it provides no new information.

A young man marched away bravely in search of adventure; never to return. However exquisitely the page may be decorated, everything else is emptiness.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

An angel remembered

Jack Wilkinson's active service with the 15th Battalion in 1919 lasted just six months, but it created a connection that would endure for the rest of his life.

After the war, many returned men resolved to preserve the bonds forged in battle through clubs or associations. The troops of the 15th Battalion had used "Angels" as a code word in the trenches and so named their group the Angels Remembrance Club . Jack was an enthusiastic member and frequent office bearer over the next quarter century.

The Angels Remembrance Club was noteworthy not only for its work in supporting those who came home but also for the vigour with which they fought to protect the memory of those who did not. When the observance of Armistice Day waned in the late 1930s, it was the Angels (with Jack as Secretary) who strove to maintain its importance in the public eye. They were vocal critics of any plans for military reorganisation that might lessen the perceived stature of the 15th.

Many ex-service organisations held annual dinners during Exhibition Week when members who had returned to their homes in the bush might be in town. But the most significant gathering of old soldiers was always for Anzac Day.

Jack Wilkinson died on 24 April 1944 and some might say that he missed Anzac Day. Few who did attend the march would have noticed that the men of the 15th Battalion gave a second salute that day; and fewer still would have recognised its significance. In its report of the Parade on the following morning, The Courier Mail showed that some connections can never be broken.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Which Sergeant?

The image of Jack Wilkinson that illustrated the post about his Military Medal is a detail taken from a postcard that he had made in England on Boxing Day 1917 and sent home early in the new year.

On the back he wrote "Snap of self and my pal Larry ...". Of course, the family members who were delighted to receive news that he was safe and well did not need him to add "that is me on the left" because they would all recognise him immediately. A family historian working almost a century later needs a little help. I have no other photograph that I know to be him.

Fortunately, at the time of enlistment, the AIF recorded and preserved a range of physical characteristics of each man. So I have a sworn statement from Captain Cummins that Jack was 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm) tall and 190 pounds (86 kg).

Measurements made on the postcard indicate that the ratio of the heights of the two pals outside the Sergeants Mess was 17:19. So Larry must be either less than 150 or more than 180 cm tall.

Since the Australian forces did not ever recruit bantam units, Larry must be the towering 6 footer and cousin Jack is indeed the square-built iron worker on the left.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Schwartze Tag

Today is the 95th anniversary of the day that General Erich Ludendorff called the schwartze Tag des deutschen Heeres (the dark day for German forces). August 8, 1918 was the first day of the Battle of Amiens that (with hindsight) came to be recognised as the beginning of the 100-day offensive that ended the Great War.

It was also the day on which Sergeant Jack Wilkinson of the 15th battalion AIF earned the Military Medal for his part in the capture of the occupied village of Cerisy on the bank of the Somme.

Jack Wilkinson was a grandson of John Davies (1846-1920) and so was our first cousin at three generations removed. Both his parents had migrated to Australia as adolescents with their parents; which meant that Jack, his siblings, and their cousins were the first Australian-born generation of that branch of our family tree.

Born 16 December 1895 and named John (the given name of both his grandfathers), Jack Wilkinson was apprenticed as an Iron Turner at the Bundaberg Foundry.

He did not rush to join up at the first sounds of the clarion call. It was 1 March 1917 when he signed up at the age of 21 years 2 months. By this time, the demand for fresh reinforcements was becoming acute and the first Conscription Referendum had been lost. Three cousins (two older and one younger) were already serving in France.

When describing his previous military experience prior to enlistment, Jack listed 4 years in the Senior Cadets and 2 years with the Citizen Forces 4th Brigade, and (most significantly) almost 18 months on the Instructional Staff where he held the rank of Sergeant.

With this background, Jack's initial deployment in Europe was obvious. He spent the first year of his service with the 11th Training Battalion in England, preparing other new recruits. In November and December of 1917, he was an instructor at the Rapid Wiring School where he could apply his knowledge as a metal worker to a task vital to the preservation of life and limb in static trench warfare.

When Jack left Australia he had been designated as part of the 8th Reinforcements for the 41st Battalion. However when he eventually joined a fighting unit in France in March 1918, it was the 15th Battalion where (unusually) he retained his Citizen Forces and Training Battalion rank.

The 15th Battalion was one of the original battalions of the 4th Brigade raised in 1914 and was made up predominantly of men from Queensland and Tasmania. In 1916, it had been divided to provide a core of men with battle experience for the newly-created 41st (also a Queensland-based unit) when it arrived on the Western Front. One must assume that Jack's deployment was part of a plan to strengthen the now battle-weary and depleted 15th before a planned long summer campaign.

In the manner of many military records, Jack Wilkinson's summary of active service is not very informative.

  • 15.04.18 Taken on Strength 15th Btn
  • 25.10.18 Admitted to Hospital sick
  • 03.11.18 Awarded Military Medal

A little more detail can be found in the formal recommendation for the decoration that (then) ranked behind only the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for other ranks.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on Cerisy on 8th August 1918 E of Corbie.

This NCO, when the Company was temporarily held up by heavy machine gun fire, pushed his Lewis Gun forward and enabled his platoon to advance. When reaching the village, he started mopping up and captured a number of prisoners and material. He showed great coolness throughout the attack and gave most valuable assistance. He has previously been commended for his good work.

B Sampson (Maj-Gen)
CO 15th Bn

Perhaps the news (almost three months after the "stunt") that he had been awarded the Military Medal helped to boost Jack's spirits as he was moved through four different hospitals with a case of bronchial pneumonia that it was feared would be fatal. He eventually recuperated in the 4th Canadian General Hospital in Basingstoke until he was able to return to Brisbane for discharge in April 1919.

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