Stories from The Battlefields: Researching Fallen Relatives

30/01/2016 6:52 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Battlefields expert Andy Steele specialises in personal guided tours through the battlefields of Europe. His unique tour includes visits to specific cemeteries that are not listed on the standard battlefield itinerary. He caters to people wanting to pay their respects to a fallen relative or family friend.

Steele's Back-Roads Touring request family history details from travellers ahead of time, so he can research their war history and actually locate the grave site of a relative, as well as providing background on how they came to be at a particular cemetery.

Steel shared with Huffington Post Australia some fascinating stories, including a battlefield story with a Sydney connection:

John Francis Gallagher.

In Sydney, I’d visited the Susannah Place Museum - a most beautiful line of old terraced houses up in The Rocks. They remind me so much of the thousands of Victorian terraced houses that litter the area in which I live.

When I finished the visit I asked the staff whether anyone who had lived in the houses had served in France and Belgium during the First World War. They told me that a young man called John Francis Gallagher served with Australian Forces and was buried in France, but didn’t know much about him.

I did a little research and found that he had joined the Australian Army in April 1915 at the age of 20. He was sent back to Australia in June 1916 because of illness, but returned to the front line in Belgium in March 1917.

In October 1917 he had been wounded by artillery at Passchendaele and then gassed in April 1918. He had finally lost his life on the 23rd August 1918 and lies buried at Bray Military Cemetery in France next to one his mates, Sergeant Costa, who died in the same battle.

Unusually his records include statements from his pals as to exactly what happened and the original site of the action using old trench map references, in this case - 62D L15.a.4.3.

The research folder is available for anyone to peruse at the museum and his name is recorded on the wall at Sydney Town Hall.

Owen William Eugene Herbert

An article appeared in a National Sunday Paper about a British Doctor called Cyril Helm who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The good doctor kept a diary and on the 27th October 1914 he had set up his aid post in a farm close to the village of Richebourg-l’Avoue.

He recounted;

‘A most pathetic thing happened that afternoon. A young gunner subaltern was on his way up to observe a machine gun post. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms shrieking in agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making so much noise as he really could not help it. Pitiful, as nothing could be done for him except an injection of morphia. I will always remember that incident, particularly as he was such a fine looking boy, certainly not more than 19’.

He was never to find out the identity of the young man.

However, a number of factors came into play that enabled me to identify him. His death can be definitely tied to the 27th October 1914. The location is specific, near the small village of Richebourg. He had clearly moved away from his unit closer to the front line to observe an enemy machine-gun, presumably to direct shell fire onto the position.

There was only one Gunner Subaltern who died on that day and is buried just outside the village and whose name is inscribed on the Le Touret Memorial;

Second Lieutenant Owen William Eugene Herbert, Royal Field Artillery aged 21 years.

A short story involving a lost soldier and a soup ladle.

I was asked to do some research into a chap who had been a Regular Soldier and who, remarkably, survived the First World War.

I established that his mother had died giving birth to him and that his Father quickly formed a new relationship with another woman who had then moved into the marital home. This was, as I remember, the last quarter of the 19th Century. The child was then put into the workhouse, aged about six or seven.

The next time I found him he had joined the Army as a boy soldier before hostilities began, serving throughout the war and retiring in the 1920’s.

A common thread was that on all his descriptive forms (these occur on all service records) it was recorded that had a noticeable dent on the crown of his head. I sent the dossier to the family and then telephoned shortly afterwards to see if they had any questions. They had none, but I then remembered the dent and asked his Grandson if he knew anything about it, he said he didn’t but passed me over to his mother, the soldier’s daughter, who happened to be sitting next to him (and was well into her nineties), to see if she knew anything about it.

She did.

She said it had been caused by his Step-Mother chasing him around the house and bashing him over the head with a soup ladle! She had then packed him off to the workhouse. He was probably quite relieved to join the Army.

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