In March 1916, two brothers from Triabunna on Tasmania’s south-east coast enlisted in the AIF. William was just 18, and Frank was 25. Both had wanted to volunteer a year earlier, but their father refused to let Billy go until he had reached the statutory age. So Frank waited because his little brother wasn’t going anywhere without him.
Because there were nine children in the family, both boys had been sent out to work after just a basic education. Frank became a blacksmith, as well as a clever forward on the football field during the winter months. Likewise, Billy left school at 13, and soon could turn his hand to anything to do with farm work. He loved chasing the footy as well, and the pair enjoyed a couple of seasons together at Triabunna before the war changed everything.
Welcomed into Tasmania’s own 40th Battalion, Frank was assigned to the Divisional Transport section. Billy found his place as a rifleman in a line company – only to then have his life turned upside down when his girlfriend Nellie told him that she was pregnant. Immediately, Billy asked her to marry him, but her family refused, because they were devout Catholics, and he had been raised a Protestant. Amid the furore, Nellie was eventually turned out of home. Meanwhile, the 40th Battalion was training on the mainland, and in November 1916 they sailed off to war.
By March 1917, the Battalion was enduring its baptism of fire on the Western Front when Frank’s supply column was hit by a barrage of gas shells. He couldn’t get his respirator on quickly enough, and the deadly vapour seared his lungs. Medical attention saved his life, but he was to spend much of the next 12 months in hospital.
In June it was Billy’s turn, when a bullet tore through his left leg. After being evacuated to hospital, he was patched-up by August – just in time for another offensive. Back in the firing line, he took charge of his section of four men when their corporal was wounded, and together they destroyed an enemy strongpoint. For his individual bravery in that action, Billy was Mentioned in Despatches and promoted.
Two weeks later, at Broondseinde Ridge, the Australians were attacking a line of enemy trenches when Billy and his men were caught in the open by a salvo of artillery. The heavy shells pulverised the landscape, and they never stood a chance. Literally blown to bits, Billy’s remains were never formally identified.
Frank survived the war, to be invalided home soon after the armistice. He tried to carry on as before, but his health was broken. He died in Hobart hospital in 1920, shortly before his 30th birthday.
Earlier, a package had been delivered to an address in George St, Hobart. In it were some shiny service medals, a slouch hat, and a series of letters written by a father to a son he had never seen.
Indeed, Lest We Forget.