When I was growing up I knew all my uncles. On both sides of the family. Except one. He died before I was born. In France. And lies buried somewhere in the battlefields of the First World War.
My mother always referred to him as Eddie and called him “My favourite brother”. So he remained Uncle Eddie right through my life and he was the only contact I had with the First World War and the devastating battlefields of France.
Keeping records was not a strength of my family and mostly it was word of mouth.
It wasn’t until there was an emergence of more intense focus on Gallipoli and other battlefields that I became interested in my Uncle Eddie. By then my mother and many other members of my family had died and research was a challenge.
The starting point was the name Eddie. All my contact with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission kept drawing blanks. It was very frustrating. After a number of months I happened to have contact with a cousin I hadn’t seen for many years. She was able to find a box which contained my Grandmother’s bible. On the flyleaf she had recorded the names of all her children. And there it was. George Edward.
And so with this knowledge I was able to piece together a very sad piece of family history. I had access to both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the National Archives.
Eddie enlisted 6 December 1915 at the age of 23 and was assigned to the 19th Battalion AIF at Casula. Following his training he embarked from Sydney on 11 March 1916 on board the “Orsova” and arrived at Tel-el-Kebir School of Instruction in the Middle East on 6 May 1916.
On 20 May 1916 he embarked from Alexandria on the “Ivernia” and arrived in Marseilles on 26 May 1916. Then the drama really started. He had only been on the battlefields of France for two months when he suffered a gunshot wound to the right shoulder on 27 July. As a result he was transferred back to England where he spent time in several hospitals.
Finally, on 9 December 2016 he was transferred from Hospital to France and was reported Killed in Action 23 December 1916. From the battle records of the 19th Battalion it is presumed this was somewhere in The Somme.
The official record of Eddie’s death is on the Villers - Bretonneux Memorial. It was never seen by my Grandparents. Our son has visited and was able to pay his respects to a life given, and lost in the records and memories of the family he proudly represented.
The human side is even sadder. Eddie died 23 December 1916 but his parents weren’t notified until 15 January 1917. On 26 January they wrote asking for particulars of his death and a reply was sent 2 February 1917.
There was no further contact until 2 April 1917 when my grandparents wrote to the Government for a death certificate and also for his effects to be returned.
In July 1917 the first of two small packages was sent by boat. When opened it would have been a distressing contact with a son lost forever. It contained an identity disc, chain, wallet, Devotional Book, photo case, fountain pen, photos and three coins.
In August 1917, eight months following his death, the second package was sent by boat. Opening it would have added to their pain. It contained knee protectors, three knitted bags, kit bag handle, cigarette case, cards, three handkerchiefs, brush, Arabic book and a note book.
In any other circumstance those everyday items would have been taken for granted. But to my grandparents each would have been treasured as a long-distance link to a son who lay in the cold earth of France thousands of miles away from them.
It was all that remained of the uncle I never met. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
Lest We Forget