‘My Dear Mother and Father ...’ Two brothers lost in battle not forgotten

AFTER six tortuous months without word, Mitchell McKellar’s parents received the telegram that would crush all hope of their son’s survival amid the First World War carnage of northern France.

They were spared the same agonising wait when, nine days later, a second telegram delivered the devastating news to their Ballangeich home that Mitchell’s older brother Jack, too, had been killed in action.

It was a cruel blow for the McKellars, who had lost their eldest son Frank to typhoid five years earlier on the goldfields of Western Australia.  

In a bittersweet twist, Jack’s last poignant letter home, penned after learning of his brother’s fate, was received by his grief-stricken parents weeks after his death.

Nearly a century later, the letter is a treasured memento for Warrnambool man Bill McKellar of the uncles he never knew.   

It was passed down by his father William — the youngest and only surviving McKellar son, who, turning 18 at war’s end, was mercifully spared the same fate as his older brothers.

Fragile and yellowed by time, the letter is dated October 18, 1917, Belgium. By October 26, Jack would be dead, felled by German machineguns at the infamous Passchendaele   battle.  

Officially known as John Carlyle, he was a 29-year-old schoolteacher before he enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces 18 months earlier, joining the 8th Battalion. 

Mitchell — as he was known in preference to his given name of Duncan Mitchell — was just 24, a farmer at his parents’ Ballangeich grazing property before following Jack into battle six months later. 

Just days after his arrival at the front as a reinforcement with the 46th Battalion, the young private was shot down, caught in barbed wire entanglements in the deadly first battle of Bullecourt on April 11, 1917. Severely wounded, Mitchell was taken prisoner by the Germans but died soon after. 

His final resting place, though documented in German records as being “near the French village of Queant”, remains unknown.

Official confirmation of his death was not received until six months later.

In what must have seemed to his parents like a voice from the grave, Jack’s final letter home tells of his distress at learning of Mitchell’s death.

In neat pencil-written cursive script, Jack writes prophetically: 

“My Dear Mother and Father, I got a great shock when I received the cable last night. 

“Somehow, I had given up hope when we were so long getting word. 

“We just have to bear it as well as we can, as we know that Mitchell died doing his duty.  

“It is very hard to realize, but there are very few loyal families who have not suffered a great loss. I shall write again in a few days. 

“Your loving son, Jack.”

The letter takes pride of place in a box which holds Bill’s collection of precious wartime mementoes, among them Jack’s pocket bible with a tell-tale shrapnel hole on its spine, medals, photos, cards, newspaper clippings and numerous letters chronicling the brothers’ life at the front.

But perhaps most poignant is a crumbling pressed flower picked from a marigold bush on Jack’s grave near Ypres, Belgium, in 1923 by Wangoom woman Farlie Weatherly. 

Her visit in her capacity with the Red Cross coincided with the sixth anniversary of Jack’s death.

The flower, along with a touching letter illustrated by a sketch of Jack’s grave at the Ypres Asylum Cemetery, was sent by Mrs Weatherly to Bill’s grandmother Jean. 

It was a gesture which Bill says would have been a  great comfort to the grieving mother who never had the chance to visit her sons’ graves.

Nearly a hundred years later, Bill, 71, and his wife Margie, finally had the chance to do what Jean McKellar could not and pay their respects in person.

In an emotional Anzac Day pilgrimage this year, the couple visited Jack’s final resting place — now reinterred at Bedford House cemetery, Ypres. 

There they buried a time capsule.  

They hope its contents — small photos of the two brothers and a copy of Jack’s last letter home — will provide a lasting reminder to future generations of the sacrifices made by the McKellar boys and their comrades.

With no known grave for Mitchell, Bill and Margie did the next best thing they could to pay their respects.  

They visited the grave of an unknown soldier of Mitchell’s battalion at the Queant Cemetery and walked the battlefields at Bullecourt where Mitchell fought.

“We walked the fields, and when we saw what they had to do — advance up the slope in the snow with the German machineguns waiting — it was very sad,” Bill recalled. 

Jack and Mitchell died on foreign soil, but Bill did his best to bring them a little closer to home. 

 From the McKellars’ former Ballangeich farm, he took a small quantity of dirt, half of which was sprinkled on Jack’s grave, the remainder over the Bullecourt battlefields.

Bill lives in hope that efforts to locate the remains of missing Aussie Diggers at Bullecourt, in the wake of the successful Fromelles discovery, may one day identify Mitchell’s remains so that he may be buried with the same dignity as his brother.

“I would certainly be happy to supply DNA if it would help to identify him,” Bill said.

As a child, Bill was permitted to look through the contents of the precious box of wartime memorabilia, but it is only since becoming its keeper in the past 15 years after his father’s death that he has taken a keen interest in the stories it holds.

On the eve of another Remembrance Day, Bill is left to reflect on what stories it may have told had circumstances been different.

“Sometimes you think about how things change your life and wonder what life would have been like without war.” 

jmclaren@standard.fairfax.com.au  

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