One of the postcards from my great-grandfather’s collection is a black and white photograph of nine Australian soldiers, presumably in France or Belgium during the First World War. On the reverse side, the soldiers (except one) have each signed their name and rank, below the heading “11th Field Coy AE. Sergeants Mess.” The date of the photograph is the 17th of December, 1918.
While I can read the names of these men and look at their faces, some smiling, some gaunt, I know nothing of their stories. Who were they? What are their stories? Why does that man in the back row have a cheeky grin and why do the two men in the front row have thousand yard stares? What happened to them all after the war? These questions prompted me to try to investigate these men through their signatures. Could we find out something of their war service (almost certainly), what about identifying individuals (maybe) and their lives after the war? The results, I hope, will be surprising and interesting. In this post, I will start with a bit of background on the image, its location and subjects and will move on to individuals in later posts.
The best place to start is probably the date of the photograph, 17th of December, 1918, as it is possible to definitively state where the unit was located at this time through its war diaries. On the day in question, the unit was billeted in the French town of Bernapre, just outside of Oisemont, where they would stay for the rest of that month. Earlier in December they had moved from the town of Forceville-en-Vimeu, on the opposite side of Oisemont where they had been located since before the signing of the armistice.[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Bernapre,+France&aq=&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=41.224889,86.572266&t=h&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Bermesnil,+Somme,+Picardy,+France&z=14&ll=49.8992,1.7358&output=embed&w=425&h=350]
The unit diary’s entry for the day in question simply reads:
Coy parade for inspection and continue training etc. as in above syllabus. Commencement of filling in of A.I.F Form 534.
This educational syllabus consisted of a variety of practical classes, presumably designed to keep the company busy and give useful skills. On this date, the documents note that they could expect:
9 – 10 Company Parade
10 – 12 Surveying Lecture Schoolroom
10 – 12 Shorthand Cafe
10 – 12 Mechanical Drawing Canteen Room 1
12 – 1 Lunch
1 – 2 Company Parade
2 – 4 Surveying Practical Canteen Room 2
All in all, these rather dry documents paint a picture of organised but quite laid back activities for the men of our photograph. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, they participated in football matches and took weekly route marches around the French countryside. Corporal Nixon, one of the men pictured, is also listed as the instructor of the mechanical drawing classes!
Beyond these brief notes, it isn’t possible to delve much further into the picture’s story without investigating the soldiers themselves. On the reverse we can make out eight names (what happened to the last man and who he was, I have not been able to find out yet!):
C. E. Bayer Sgt.
H.C. Thomas Sgt.
B. Sloan C.S.M.
J. Welling Sgt.
Colin E. Nixon Cpl.
H. G. Whitrow Q.M.S
C.C. Jones Cpl.
J.J. Mace Cpl.
Luckily, the unit’s war history has complete tables of enlisted men and officers who served with the company and the Australian War Memorial holds detailed records about most First World War soldiers. We already know that these men survived the war to be in France, training and playing football at Christmas, 1918, but the stories of how they made it to this stop are still a mystery. In the next few blog posts, we’ll try to answer some of these questions – stay tuned!Share Post: