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Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Family History and World War I

My great uncle joined the 4th Battalion of the Australian Infantry Force in 1916 at the age of 18 years 10 months.

He signed up for an adventure and died on the Western Front battlefields of the Somme, in France, on July 9 1918, just four months before the guns of World War I fell silent. His body was never found.

Here he is pictured just before embarking for Europe. The boy is my father James.

It is estimated that 59,000 Australians died during the war. Of the 330,000 of my nation's youth who were mobilized for service it is thought 152,000 were injured. That adds up to 64 per cent who were seriously affected.

The entire Australian population of the time was just five million.

This week the world is commemorating the 90th anniversary of the official conclusion of the horrors of that war.

Generations later, to the very many families so intimately involved, those horrors remain in memory.

Robert Hamilton Saville - Bob to adults in his family and 'Bobo' to his nieces and nephews - was the apple of our family's collective eye. Indeed, my father named his only son (and my brother) after him.

Five years after his death his mother Jessie described her existence as 'a living agony'. She said this in a letter to the Australia armed forces pleading for information about her son.

The letters she wrote over many years, always seeking news of Bob, sketch in graphic fashion the horrors faced by loved ones because of war.

This is Robert Hamilton Saville's mother Jessie in happier times.

And the letter below is one of many similar ones which my brother Bob recently discovered in the records of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Actually, so far as Bob was concerned, the army tried hard to get information for Jessie, including interviewing soldiers in Bob's unit.

There was so much confusion on those battlefields, with shocking battles being fought time and again over the one small piece of ground. Bodies were often blown to pieces and were buried where they lay, by falling earth and rocks.

One soldier recounted how he saw Bobbie Saville 'killed near me by bomb or bullet at Merris about midnight during a hop over just before reaching our objective. He died instantly.'

Another said that Bob had been buried where he lay, by members of his own platoon. 'The ground was held' he added, in seeming satisfaction.

A Lance Corporal testified that he had also seen Bob killed - 'with a bomb'. 'On the way back I examined Saville and found him quite dead. He was buried later on. I knew him quite well.'

A Private said he had seen Bob killed outright by machine gun fire, and had seen him lying dead on the ground soon afterwards.

An officer added: 'According to informant Saville was well thought of by his mates.'

Jessie had nine children all together, including three sons and a daughter who all died within a year of birth. Obviously she prized every one of them.

But it seemed that her gravest sorrow was not knowing exactly what had happened to Bob, or where he lay. On the other hand, she may never have received these eye witness accounts. I wouldn't know.

During World War I Jessie and the family also worried about Bob's brother Herbert Nathaniel (above) who made it the the end of the war in the same battalion. This portrait depicts him five months after the official ending.

Some time afterwards Jessie also wrote letters seeking to know what had happened to her brother William, who fought in Europe as well. Records tell us that he returned, but I understand that Jessie herself never find out.

This is a form Bob filled in to enlist. The crossings-out and alterations are changes made whenever Jessie contacted the army from a new address - she moved around a lot.

Jessie never wanted Robert Hamilton to go to war, and did what she could to prevent it happening.

When Bob was 18 years and four months old and his mother was away in Queensland he enlisted without parental consent. Jessie found out and wrote to the army saying she absolutely refused her son permission to join up.

Bob had been training for two months and the army was obliged to discharge him 'at his mother's request'. By this time the Gallipoli campaign was in full swing.

It seems Bob was determined to serve and finally both his parents agreed to him joining up again only four months after he was released.

His new enlistment form stated that Bob was but 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 130 pounds, with a 32 inch chest expanding to 35.5 inches. He had a 'fresh' complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair.

Bob embarked on the 'Wiltshire' among reinforcements for France via England on August 22 1916. By this time the 4th Battalion had moved on from Turkey.

Herb Saville also joined the 4th Battalion in France and like so many of their mates the brothers protected those at home from much of the horror they were facing. This was especially the case, naturally, where children were involved.

On March 22 1917 Herb wrote a letter to his niece Edie who was nine at the time. It's a lovely, gentle letter.

Edie was one of the sisters of my father Jim who was then aged eight. Here they are pictured around the time.

Edie also received a letter from Uncle Bobo:

Bob spent some time in hospital in France and England with scabies and dermatitis (no wonder in the conditions) and also served as a batman to Captain R.A. McAlpine MC at the training school at Aldershot in England before being shipped back to the Western Front.

It is such a waste that fine people are drawn into such horrors. The sooner wars of all varieties are ended forever, the better.

How do you feel about war and the effect they have on families? Do you have similar stories?


  1. WOW! I was only talking to my mother today and saying the thing about everyone writing rememberance day posts is that no-one ever tells the story from the families side. And you HAVE!!!!! Well done.

    I think the Archives war records being available online is an incredible step forward. I found a letter from Des' grandmother demanding the Army to return her son (my grandad) to her because he had been injured for 3 months and he was of more use to her than he was to them (he was a light horseman). She was demanding it and her tone was straight down the line. She already had four sons at war.

    My Mum also showed me my grandmother's diary. Her husband (my mums father) was a POW in Singapore for 5 years. Nan had to bring up five children. She kept a diary for 60 years. It is so sad to read about the war years and I suspect she had a nervous breakdown. I said to Mum that I think someone should write a story about the families of soldiers and what they went through while their loved ones were away at War. June maybe you could do this?

    These are the stories, like your post, that should be told. It was fabulous and to think poor little Bob, all of 5ft 4 inches, was courageous enough to do what he did. Bravo. Truly. All those young men (and women) - the numbers are hard to comprehend. And still our leaders learn nothing.

    Brilliant Ms Saville, just brilliant!

  2. Thanks Lilly. Yep, it's a big one - this war business.
    I used to march in anti-Vietnam marches in Sydney with our daughter hanging between us in a car basket.
    And it's still going on!
    All of my bloggie mates will have me writing every minute of the day! I really appreciate your encouragement of course. It's just a shame there's only one of me!

  3. I've just written a post and it has not been accepted - God knows why - made a balls up! probably.. will try again !

    I had read your post and been moved by the reality of how your family had been affected by war, it must have been horrendous for Bobo's Mum in particular ....

    I think it's way past time when the subject of History in schools should be taught a different way. For instance the last hundred years can be traced through computerised details and by memories of real people, their lives have been affected personally by events such as war etc. It shouldn't just be up to teachers who, as often as not are not long out of school themselves. Perhaps then children would understand how their lives would be completely changed by wars etc... It certainly would give children a more rounded education of history than is given today and is much better than the jingoistic claptrap fed to them by teachers .

    The only fly in the ointment would be how youngsters would take to actually listening to 'old folk' now there is a thing... I swear Dr Spock has a lot to answer for - he ruddy well started the generation of - listening to your kids and how 'they' feel about things etc... before that, childrearing was sooo much easier ahem.... I mean, my Mum just said JUMP ! and I asked the obvious! You
    know what I mean though ... Can you see kids listening to oldies, even when they know a hellova lot more about life and love etc ?? ARGGHHH ! back to the drawing board...

    Whatever the answer is I hope and pray that there will be a cessation of War - it never can solve anything .... Why can't women rule the world, they certainly couldn't make a worse job of it !!!

    Love, Kate xxx.

  4. My story was an example of millions of other families'experience of course Kate - not least among them in Britain.

    I do think that personal stories seem to get through well. Getting to know one example up close and personal can often have more impact than huge figures do.

    (By the way I remember just how much Dr Spock influenced my child rearing and wonder!)

  5. I'm absolutely speechless! As a genealogist, I am so happy that you have all of this information on your family.

    And I agree with you- too bad kids don't listen to 'old folk'. We just celebrated Veterans Days here in the States. It's one of the rare times that people actually stop and listen to what the older generation has to say. Then, unfortunately, it's back to business as usual.

  6. A genealogist eh Jeannie? How are you doin' with your family?
    I know a fair bit about our lot in Australia but it gets a bit fuzzy when it comes to England, Scotland, Ireland et al where most came from.
    The stuff I have has been sent on to me by many different parts of my family. In some cases though people have destroyed letters etc that would have been so valuable.
    History is very important, only if we think about learning from the past to live the future better.

  7. Thank you for sharing a beautiful and touching story (along with great photographs), being of an age (70) that I too have treasured memorabilia from yesteryear this posting was a respected and valuable read for me today.

  8. Lovely writing, June, for a story that is too often told. I liked it very much.

  9. Really good, June. There's only one or two lines that I'd like to get back further. Otherwise, I'm pretty much done. I've traced many of my lines back to the 1400's and before.

    I do have some experience with researching English and Scottish ancestry. Please let me know if I can help- free of charge of course!

    P.S. I have a genealogy blog as well:
    The Genealogy Genie

  10. A.J. Memorabilia may seem insignicant sometimes but my goodness when you can't find something in particular that you just know you had somewhere it really strikes home!
    Thanks for the kind words - appreciated.

  11. Too often told for sure Pearl. Just this tragedy happened to millions of families throughout the years in a crazy litany of events. Bringing situations down to details highlights the idiocy I think.

  12. Oh that's dangerous Jeannie. I'm doing some exam supervision at the local uni for a bit of cash for some of the next week or two but after that ....
    There are a couple of things hanging in the air which could get me going in the Old Dart. I'll be in touch.
    You've done well with your family. A lot of work has gone on there ...

  13. I loved the painstaking and loving effort you made to recreate one man's past, in a way that recreated all soldiers' pasts everywhere, on both sides of the battlefield. My favourite war poet is Wilfred Owen and your writing reflected a similar "pity of war".

  14. Thank you Suranga
    That is my meaning.
    The impact of one death upon so many ...
    And there were (and still are) so many deaths.

    Here is Wilfred Owen to say it well:

    This book is not about heroes.
    English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
    Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might,
    majesty, dominion, or power, except war.
    Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
    My subject is War, and the pity of War.
    The Poetry is in the pity.
    Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may
    be to the next.
    All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.
    - Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 from a preface to a planned book of his poetry.

    I (June) would add: writers have similar responsibilities.

  15. Hi June, Reading about your family and seeing the photographs was so interesting to me. I hate war and the lives that are lost in war yesterday, today, and I am sure tomorrow. We should all strive for a more peaceful world.

  16. Hi Judy
    Thanks for visiting. We certainly share attitudes about war.
    I do hope things are brightening up for you personally ... I agree with your email - everyone needs a little happy something right now. Been trying to think of some jokes but I always forget the ending ...
    I have been a busy little body for a week now and will be visiting everyone's sites in the next day or two ...

  17. June,

    I was going through the comments, and saw a comment from one of my blogging friends, Sucharita.

    Then I saw your reply, addressed to me ! Thank you :-)

    Just wanted to say, that I admire your effort at putting together a family history like this. It has to be very painstaking work, and I hope the folks in your family realize what a treasure of information they have. This is real living history. Maybe if we could involve children in schools to research these things, learning history would be so much fun and also relevant.

    More power to folks like you ....

  18. Suranga (I'm correct this time).
    A senior's moment - brought on I suppose because I do speak to you often. Apologies.
    Pursuing family history is popular in Australia. I think we all wonder whether we're descended from convicts sent from England when the Old Dart had no room for gaols and wanted to keep a lid on poorer folk.
    Many convicts were deported here for simply stealing a loaf of bread for their families.
    It's become something of a badge of honour for many if they do find a convict ... especially if he/she was sent out on the very First Fleet.
    So far no convicts in our family.
    Yes, it is living interesting history this way.
    Is there any interest in family history in India Suranga?

  19. June,

    Family history here is more about emigrations of people from , say one part of India to another. Maybe when family histories are written 50 years from now, they will write about folks emigrating to the US, UK, Australia etc, and the cultural chnages in the subsequent generations....

    We have more than 8 main religions, and several , not-s0-main, in addition to a huge amount of languages. As a result, many names are specific to language and religion. Anyone hearing my last name , would immediately know that I hail from my state of Maharashtra, and from the coastal region, and speak Marathi. (This is so unlike, say Australia, where someone with a name , Johnson, could be from absolutely anywhere in Australia).

    They do have a great movement in my state , that is dedicated to publishing "family geneologies". This is like an encyclopedia of everyone bearing the same last name. They trace original villages, the emigrations, the marriages, the offspring, through something like 7-8 generations. I have 2 such books; one for my maiden family name , and one for the married family name.

    Some enterprising and enthusiastic people take up this work, and some are even trying to computerize the thing now. All of us willingly make voluntary donations for such work.

    I dont know too much about other communities in India, tracing their roots. Though I am sure they exist. Our religious and language canvas is too big here, for those who have traversed great distances , to trace their roots.

    I suppose, that folks are at work on it, though......

  20. Surnames specific to language and religion would make it a little easier for you I think. But as you say India is so huge in terms of population. In comparison, Australia is a small town.
    Many people here trace their families back many generations too. For instance in Australia I am back to my great great grandfather, a Scotsman, and have found just two generations in Britain so far in this line. I can't spend too much time on it though ...

  21. June, as an Aussie I loved reading your post, and the others too. Tried to click on Follow This Blog but it didn't work...will try again tomorrow; perhaps just a glitch?

  22. Hi Braja - welcome!
    I see you got Follower to work - I know this happens sometimes. It worked ok on yours when I had a little peek and decided I'd really like to follow your adventures. It's a great blog.
    How long have you been in India? Where's your home town in Oz?
    You'll see that privacy is not one of the core requirements here ... we don't mind asking questions.By the way - look at for writing with an Aussie flavour. Good for the home sickness.
    I've just posted there episode one of my novel called 'Paternity'. Others will follow fairly rapidly ...
    See you around

  23. Excellent post. My aunt has been researching our family for many, many years. She has many photos. Perhaps I can work with her when I have time to post a few of these.

  24. Your family would love that Tropigal - unless you inadvertently let slip on a forgotten secret! Care needed.


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