Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

“Hard ill-fortune”: a lost distant cousin and a place called Pozières

A chance reference leads to a bloody battlefield and a different Australia

Tom Hyland 25 April 2019 3925 words

Scattered Australian graves on the battlefield of Pozieres, 16 September 1917. Australian War Memorial

A postscript to a letter written forty-four years ago sent me searching for a long-lost distant cousin who joined the Australian army in 1915 and seemed to disappear from view almost immediately. The letter had been received by an uncle when he was engaged in his own search, for descendants of relatives who had migrated to the Western Australian goldfields from Ireland early last century.

Written in 1975 and rediscovered by a cousin this year, the letter filled gaps in the family history, confirming that my great-great uncle, a miner, had settled in Kalgoorlie, and that he had been followed out from Ireland by a niece and a nephew. I knew about the niece — my mother had talked about her — but the nephew, mentioned only in the postscript, was news to me. “Another relation from Ireland was Frank Gorman,” it said. “He enlisted in World War I and was never heard of again.”

While I was aware of a vague family connection to Western Australia, I grew up assuming my family’s Australian story didn’t start until 1950, when my parents arrived from Ireland. No mention was ever made of a relative who had joined the Australian army and sworn to defend the British king and his empire. The only soldier I knew of in my family’s past was on my father’s side, a much-loved great uncle, and he was an Irishman who had fought to defeat that same king and empire.

Family histories, like those of nations, are tangled and nuanced. My search for Frank Gorman unearthed digitised fragments — names, dates and places — but left questions that can never be answered. What I found was that Australia’s way of commemorating war can shroud complex truths in comforting myths.

These are the facts. Frank Gorman was born somewhere between 1878 and 1886 — the record is inconsistent. The 1901 Irish census says he was twenty-three but the census held ten years later says he was thirty-five, which is the same age he gave four years later when he enlisted in the Australian army.

He was the youngest of four children of Thomas Gorman and Bridget Maxwell. I’m connected to him through Bridget, my great-great aunt on my mother’s side. He worked in the family bakery in the village of Multyfarnham in County Westmeath, a place my mother spoke of fondly all her life and which Frank would still recognise if he went there today. The census forms record that everyone in his household could read and write, a fact considered noteworthy in those days.

Immigration records reveal that Frank travelled to Australia in 1912 on the liner Otranto, arriving in Fremantle on 9 July. Why did he migrate? For adventure, perhaps? Or maybe it was because his elder brother Thomas had inherited the family business and Frank needed to seek an income elsewhere. Either way, migration was painfully common among the rural Irish at the time.

The Otranto’s passenger list gives his occupation as farmer, his “race” as European, and his nationality as British. He arrived just eight days after his cousin, Mary Anne Maxwell, who had reached Fremantle on the liner Armadale. Her nationality was listed as British, too, and her “race” as white, details required under Australia’s aptly named Immigration Restriction Act, since matters of race were fundamental here in those days. Frank made his way across the outback to Kalgoorlie, where he lived in Boulder with his uncle Michael Maxwell, his aunt Catherine and their children Laurence, Leo and Anne.

The document trail next leads to army enlistment records, digitised by the National Archives of Australia. Frank applied to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, or AIF, at Kalgoorlie on 19 August 1915. When he was medically examined he was found to have blue eyes and greying hair, and to stand five feet, six and a half inches tall. He gave his age as thirty-five, but it’s possible he was thirty-nine. Did he understate his age to ensure he was enlisted? Whatever the truth, he was at least ten years older than the average AIF recruit.

His occupation was baker, his religion Roman Catholic, his next of kin his brother Thomas, head of the household in Ireland. Frank was single. He declared he had no criminal convictions and had never been discharged from His Majesty’s forces “with ignominy or as incorrigible or worthless.” He said he was a “natural born” British subject (Irish citizenship didn’t legally exist at that time, and neither did Australian), and stated he would voluntarily serve in the military forces of the Commonwealth of Australia “within and beyond the limits of the Commonwealth.”

On 23 August he was sworn into the AIF at Blackboy Hill Camp near Perth, signing an oath to serve “our sovereign Lord the King” for the duration of the war and “resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained.”

We’ll never know why Frank enlisted, but we can speculate. He might have felt it was his duty, heeding the appeal of Irish politicians who believed supporting the war would ensure Ireland would gain Home Rule — a degree of devolved government — from Britain. Perhaps after just three years in Australia he felt a duty towards a country that was tied to Britain by bonds of sentiment and strategy. Maybe he was influenced by propaganda about Australian exploits at Gallipoli, where the army had been fighting since 25 April. Maybe it was the prospect of adventure with his mates who were joining up. Perhaps, though Australia only sent “volunteers” to the war, he was pressured to go, lest he be seen as a shirker of doubtful loyalty — a suspicion that could hang over all military-aged civilian men, but especially Irish Catholic ones. Whatever the reason, he would have known from the Gallipoli casualty lists that he wasn’t signing up for a short, glorious war.

The brief official notes on his file, some typed, some handwritten in cursive script in pen and pencil, show he spent five months in training, leaving Fremantle on the troopship Runic on 29 January 1916. A photo taken that day shows the crowd on the dock, linked to the soldiers on the ship by tangled threads of paper streamers. Women seem to outnumber men in the crowd, their wide-brimmed hats and umbrellas sheltering them from the Western Australian summer sun. Perhaps one of them was farewelling Frank.

Frank Gorman was assigned to the 13th Reinforcements of the 16th Battalion, which had fought at Gallipoli from the landing until December 1915, when it was evacuated to Egypt, to where Frank was bound. His ship reached Alexandria on 26 February 1916, and he went to Zeitoun camp, near Cairo. On 2 April he was transferred to the newly formed 48th Battalion at Serapeum, on the Suez Canal. Most of the men in the battalion were Western and South Australians, including dozens of men, mostly miners, from Kalgoorlie.

Their chaplain was William Devine, a Catholic priest and himself a migrant, from County Tyrone in Ireland, who later wrote a history that sought to capture the spirit of the battalion. The 48th, he wrote, included men from England, Ireland and Scotland, “fellows whose coming out in the first instance showed no lack of initiative and whose endurance was further tested by the ups and downs of fortune that the immigrant encounters in Australia.”

Describing the battalion’s formation in the Egyptian desert, Devine wrote: “They were not a kid glove lot of men, and required something firmer than kid glove handling. Those of them who drank, drank deep and were noisy in their cups and strong in their language… Some of them were bad soldiers even after much training. Very few of them proved bad fighters.” There is no evidence in his file that Frank was a “bad” soldier — no records of insubordination, drunkenness, absences without leave, or venereal disease, which were not uncommon in the AIF.

The battalion spent two months training in the heat and sand of Egypt and briefly manned defensive positions on the Suez Canal before leaving on 2 June for France on the troopship Caledonia, arriving in Marseilles a week later. They travelled by train to northern France to spend another two months training for the trenches of the Western Front, billeted with local people in villages and farms. Perhaps the villages and green fields of France reminded Frank of Multyfarnham.

In July, the battalion marched to the Somme valley, where a massive British offensive was under way. Australian troops were sent to capture a ridge held by German forces around the village of Pozières, which had been obliterated by British and German artillery. It was the start of an ordeal unlike any suffered by Australians in that war or since.

None of this is recorded in the sparse notes in Frank’s files, so I widened my search to Charles Bean’s epic official history of the AIF and other sources. Australians were fighting around Pozières from 23 July, under constant artillery bombardments that had shredded two divisions before Frank’s battalion went into action late on 5 August. As they stumbled in the gloom towards the front, Frank and his mates would have seen the shattered survivors of units that had gone in earlier. Some men wept like children.

A few days before Frank went into action, Lieutenant J.A. Raws, a former journalist whose battalion had been pulled out of Pozières, wrote a graphic account of his experience:

I would gladly have shot myself, for I had not the slightest idea where our lines or the enemy’s were, and the shells were coming at us from, it seemed, three directions… The shelling was awful. I took a long drink of neat whisky… I was buried twice, and thrown down several times — buried with dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse. I pulled a head off — was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable… The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight, we have to go through tomorrow night, and next week, and next month.

Raws was killed at the end of August.

Lieutenant-colonel Ray Leane led the 48th. His war diary records that the battalion was ordered to occupy former German trenches and retrieve the wounded of the 27th Battalion, which had lost forty men killed and almost 300 wounded in the previous days. Frank and his Kalgoorlie mates were in A Company, which moved off first at 4.30pm, followed by B Company five minutes later.

“The battalion relieved the 27th Battalion under a very heavy barrage of enemy artillery,” Leane wrote, and “suffered heavy casualties in taking over, no trenches were constructed, the place being just one mass of craters.” The barrage continued “unceasingly throughout the 5th, 6th and up to 12 noon on 7th August.”

Charles Bean records that the inexperienced men of the 48th moved in “under shell fire so dense that men were falling everywhere,” where “dead and wounded lay everywhere, some killed in their stretchers, with stretcher bearers lying dead beside them.” When they reached their objective, some of the men formed flimsy “strong posts” in shell craters to fight off German counterattacks.

The rest staggered through the night under relentless fire. As soon as a trench was rebuilt, it was blown in by artillery, burying men with it. When Leane went forward to see his men on the following morning, Bean writes, he “found the trenches merely a string of shell-holes tenanted by dead and wounded and a bare remnant of his two companies.”

Here’s Bean again: “The shelling at Pozières did not merely probe character and nerve; it laid them stark naked as no other experience of the AIF ever did. In a single tour of this battle divisions were subjected to greater stress than in the whole Gallipoli campaign [which lasted eight months].”

At 7pm on 6 August, the survivors of A and B companies were pulled out after suffering the heaviest artillery barrage ever experienced by Australian troops. By Bean’s estimate, of the 1000 or so men of the battalion, 115 were killed, more than 400 were wounded, and dozens more couldn’t be accounted for. The wounded included uncounted cases of the psychological collapse known then as “shell shock.”

What of Frank? His service file says he was listed first as missing in action. But the next entry, handwritten in ink and with a stark black stamp across the file, says he was killed in action on 7 August and buried by the chaplain, William Devine, in a cemetery at Contalmaison, a village near Pozières.

I take some consolation in the fact that his body could be identified — that he has a marked grave, unlike around 21,000 of the 60,000 Australians killed in that war, and that he was placed in his grave by a fellow Irishman with at least some of the ritual of his Catholic faith. These things are important.

His file doesn’t say how he was killed. A footnote in Bean’s history says the remnants of A and B companies “were brought out to the head of Contalmaison Valley. As they assembled round their cookers [mobile field kitchens], a shell burst among them, killing twenty-six and wounding fourteen.”

William Devine has more on “one of those tragedies of ill chance”:

Some details of the two companies of the 48th that had been relieved on the preceding evening were gathered around a cooker in the cold raw morning for a drink of tea. A shell fell near the cooker and killed twenty-six men immediately and wounded sixteen. The memory of the disaster remained long with the men of the 48th. The great destruction of human life caused by one shell and the hard ill-fortune overwhelming the victims who had already survived so much, were the outstanding features that made it an incident not easily forgotten in the Battalion.

Still no mention of Frank’s name, so I went to the files of the Australian Red Cross’s wounded and missing enquiry bureau. While his army file indicates his death was officially confirmed soon after it happened, the Red Cross was still enquiring about his fate in early 1917.

The organisation took a statement from a mate of Frank’s, Private James Mannix, who had trained and travelled overseas with him, and had been posted to the 48th on the same day. Frank “was a pal of mine and in my section,” Mannix told the Red Cross. “He was with about thirty or forty others around the cookery when a shell fell in the middle of them and there were about thirty casualties. Gorman was killed and buried near the cookery that afternoon. I saw the shell fall and was not very far away.”

Mannix gave his statement in hospital in England, where he was being treated for shell shock. His service file shows he survived the war, having been sent home in 1917 after repeated illness, including dysentery and diphtheria.

Another soldier, Private W.A. Russell, also in Frank’s platoon, told the Red Cross that Frank was “blown up by a shell at the company cookhouse” and that he had seen Frank’s name on a cross in a cemetery at Pozières. A third soldier, Private R.J. Russell, told the Red Cross, “I was alongside him at the time. Baker by trade, about thirty-eight years turning grey blue eyes about 5.7 height hit by shell.”

The army service of Private Frank Gorman, serial number 4370, lasted just twelve months. He spent two of those months in France and, as far as I know, no more than twenty-seven hours in combat. It’s likely that he never saw the enemy and never fired a shot. In the moments before he died, he might have been thinking — if he was capable of thought after the savage bombardment he had suffered — that he had survived. I imagine him and his mates, shocked, silent and shivering, and not just from the morning chill, their faces and uniforms smeared with the slime of battle, as they wait to console themselves with mugs of sweet tea.

The official story doesn’t end there. The army still had paperwork to do, forms to fill, telegrams to send to next of kin. Frank’s uncle and cousins in Western Australia, and his brother and sisters in Ireland, had to be told the fact of his fate, if not the details of how he met it.

It seems likely that the first his relatives in Kalgoorlie knew was on 26 September 1916, when Frank’s name was included in a list of Western Australians missing in action published in the Kalgoorlie Western Argus, which I found in the Trove digital newspaper archive at the National Library of Australia.

On 2 October, Frank’s cousin Laurence Maxwell sent a telegram to the army records office seeking confirmation of the newspaper report. The reply came two days later, expressing regret that Frank, formerly declared to be missing in action, was now confirmed to have been killed. On 16 October the Kalgoorlie Miner published a memorial notice from his relatives, inserted in “sad and fond remembrance of Private Frank Gorman” and ending with a prayer: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on his soul.” In subsequent years, around the anniversary of his death, they continued to place memorial notices “in loving memory of Frank.”

In late October, the Western Mail published this memorial notice: “Gorman: A tribute to my dear friend Frank, killed in action, somewhere in France. Inserted by his friend Vera Stanley, North Perth.” More questions: Who were you, Vera Stanley, and what became of you? Were you one of the young women who flocked to the dances held for the recruits at the Blackboy Hill Camp? Did you cling to one of the streamers that snapped apart when the troopship edged out from the Fremantle wharf on that summer’s day back in January? Did you have a photo of your dear friend Frank, in slouch hat and tunic?

Frank’s workmates remembered him, too. The Kalgoorlie Miner published a notice from the Bakers’ Union saying he had died “somewhere in France.” It included the dedication: “Sleep on dear comrade in a foreign grave, your life for your country you nobly gave.”

It’s unclear from the file when Frank’s family in Ireland — including his brother Thomas, who had been listed as his next of kin on his enlistment papers — received the news. But the file includes a copy of a letter sent to Thomas on 19 January 1917 confirming the “regrettable loss” of Frank, who was killed in action “in the field.” It provides details of his place of burial and advises that William Devine had “officiated.” The letter, written by a major in charge of records, said it was providing these additional details, “it being the policy of the Department to forward all information received in connection with deaths of members of the Australian Imperial Force.”

Finally, a Google search led me to a guide to the cemeteries of the Western Front on the website of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. There, an article describes how to reach the Sunken Road Cemetery along a grass track near Contalmaison. Many Canadians are buried there, as well as sixty-one Australians, among them fourteen men of the 48th: “Some of the 48th Battalion graves here recall an incident when men being relieved were standing around a battalion cooker in the cold morning air waiting for a cup of tea. One of those victims may have been Private Frank Gorman in Plot 1, Row B, Grave 4.”

There’s a photo of Frank’s headstone, set in trimmed lawn with daisies and a rose growing in front of it. On YouTube a video shows the walled cemetery, an ordered garden of the dead surrounded by neatly ploughed farm fields. I’d like to think that someone has visited Frank’s grave in the century since he was buried, but it’s possible no one has.

So what have I learned? I know that a relative from my mother’s home met a sudden violent death after emerging from a night and a day and another night of unimaginable slaughter. As far as I know, no one in my current extended family is aware he ever existed. It’s important that they do know this, even if I can’t quite say why.

But beyond filling a gap in my family’s story and establishing a distant personal link to Australian history, there is nothing extraordinary in Frank’s story. He’s one of 60,000. Imagine that: if one story about one man can send out a ripple of loss one hundred years later, what tsunami of grief did those 60,000 stories send out back then?

I have no idea why Frank, a grey-haired Irishman with soft baker’s hands who was really too old to be an infantryman, became a soldier. If he fought for his country, which country? Ireland? Britain and its Empire, which claimed him as a subject? Australia, whose uniform he wore?

If love of country drove him, it’s possible Frank, like other Irish Australians, held multiple loyalties. Despite hostility or indifference to the war effort among some Irish, about 6000 Irish-born men served in the Australian forces in the first world war and nearly 900 were killed. Frank’s story is part of this wider story. Like many other Irishmen who joined up, he was a recent arrival in Australia and part of a minority who were not always welcome. It’s estimated that about two-thirds of those who enlisted had arrived in Australia after 1909.

Frank took part in a battle that changed Australia’s social and political history. The terrible losses of 1916 prompted the Australian government to try to fill the gaps by introducing conscription — efforts that voters rejected in plebiscites in 1916 and 1917, in part because of the opposition role played by the Irish-born archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. The plebiscites exposed bitter sectarian divisions that lingered for decades, with the loyalty of Irish Catholics, then the nation’s largest ethnic minority, questioned by many in the Anglo-Protestant majority.

Irish Catholic loyalty was under its greatest challenge during the war and the years immediately after. In 1920, though, in a display that defied the prejudices of that time, Archbishop Mannix took part in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Day parade escorted by fourteen uniformed army veterans, all of them Victoria Cross winners (but not all of them Catholics). The escort had been recruited by William Devine, the man who placed Frank in his rough battlefield grave.

The paperwork that sketches stages of his life shows that Frank came from a world in which Australian and Irish citizenship didn’t exist, Australia’s national identity was defined by race and loyalty to the British Empire, and religion mattered. Because they came from a different world, the words we hear now, about the diggers of the first world war fighting to defend our way of life, don’t ring true. They would not recognise our way of life, nor we theirs.

Despite all I’ve learned, Frank Gorman remains an unknown soldier from that other world. I still don’t know what he looked like, but I hope on some distant relative’s mantelpiece there sits a photo of him. •

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