Paying homage to a fallen soldier at Villers-Bretonneux in northern France

Emotional journey: Warrnambool's Rhonda Harris will lay a hand-crafted wreath to honour her great uncle Walter Allen in France on Anzac Day. Picture: Rob Gunstone
Emotional journey: Warrnambool's Rhonda Harris will lay a hand-crafted wreath to honour her great uncle Walter Allen in France on Anzac Day. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Among the portraits of bewhiskered gents and handsome soldiers lining the walls of the old family farm Rhonda Harris describes as “a museum”, one in particular stands out.

Depicting a dark-haired, strapping young man posing proudly in his soldier’s uniform, the portrait has retained pride of place in the photo gallery for more than 100 years. 

Corporal Walter Allen never had the chance to grow old. The brother of Mrs Harris’ grandfather Ernest, Walter was 28 when he died at the Somme in the Battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918. Ironically, it was regarded as one of the Allies’ most successful actions of the First World War.

Ready for war: Striking photos of Corporal Walter Allen like this adorned his family's home and were part of a strong family link to the army.

Ready for war: Striking photos of Corporal Walter Allen like this adorned his family's home and were part of a strong family link to the army.

Like so many of the 800 Aussie Diggers killed in the battle that freed the French village from German hands just four months before the war’s end, Walter’s remains were never found, his grieving family denied the chance to lay their eldest son to rest.  Like the other 10,700 Diggers who fell on French soil with no known grave, his name is inscribed on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.

It has taken more than one hundred years, but Mrs Harris is about to do what no one in her family has ever had the chance to.

In a pilgrimage taking her halfway around the world, the Warrnambool woman will pay homage to the great-uncle who died so far from home.

On April 25 at the Villers-Bretonneux Anzac Day dawn service, Mrs Harris will lay wreaths in honour of Walter and also his 16 cousins, including one nurse, who served during World War 1.

She will also walk the fields near Le Hamel where Walter spent his final moments a century ago, the first member of her family to do so.

“It’s like I’m doing what the family always wanted to do,” Mrs Harris reflected.

In training: Corporal Walter Allen rides on a camel while training in spectacular scenery in Egypt en route to England in 1916. He overcame a leg wound before returning to battle where he later paid the ultimate price.

In training: Corporal Walter Allen rides on a camel while training in spectacular scenery in Egypt en route to England in 1916. He overcame a leg wound before returning to battle where he later paid the ultimate price.

“I’m getting the chance to fulfil the family dream of respecting Walter for what he did. I’m very excited.

“It’s definitely a very personal journey.”

The pilgrimage is part of a 16-day battlefields tour of France and Belgium, as well as a visit to the Aldershot Military training facility in England. There Walter spent 18 months in training and training others for the rigours of war before being sent to the front.

Carefully packed in Mrs Harris’ hand luggage will be four wreaths created from hand-made crocheted and knitted poppies. 

She will lay two at Villers-Bretonneux, one on behalf of the Allen family, the other from the Rannock and Coolamon district communities in the Riverina where the Allens have farmed for 120 years.

Two further wreaths will be laid at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium: one for her family’s 17 serving cousins, the other for the Warrnambool Night Owls CWA branch, seven of whose members’ ancestors fought in the war. Four were never to return.

Mrs Harris said the wreaths held extra family significance as her four grandchildren, aged between five and 10, had all made poppies for the project.

Watching the Villers-Bretonneux Anzac Day service on TV and thinking of her great-uncle has always been an emotional experience for the retired legal secretary and Warrnambool TAFE teacher. She can only imagine that attending in person will be even more so.

“It’s definitely going to be very moving,” she said before leaving Warrnambool this week.

Mrs Harris and her husband Brian moved to Warrnambool 30 years ago, but the old family farm, called Friedaville after Walter’s sister Frieda, at Rannock where 25-year-old Walter left from to enlist in 1916, has always held a special place in her heart.

“My great-grandparents’ house was like a shrine. I’ve always loved the old photos on the walls. I’ve grown up with it and I’ve always known about Walter,” she said.

Fearful that the precious photos could be lost should the old weatherboard farmhouse ever go up in flames, Mrs Harris embarked on a project to scan the entire collection of about 300 photos 15 years ago. 

In the process, she discovered that many were war-related.

But it wasn’t until 2016 when she set herself the task of also scanning the 60 letters spanning 300 pages that Walter penned during the war, that she began to gain a better appreciation of her family’s war service. 

It was revealed that Walter was one of 17 cousins from the extended Allen and Pieper families from Bendigo and the Riverina, who served their country in the Great War. Only Walter and his cousin Percival Pieper never returned home.

Through the pages of Walter’s letters, written, even from the trenches in his neat copperplate hand, Mrs Harris learnt that many of the cousins kept in touch and managed to catch up during leave from the front.

Many of the photos she had scanned years earlier, suddenly came to life through Walter’s letters.

“It wasn’t until I scanned the letters that I started to realise the connections to the people in the photos,” she said. As a result, she has been able to add images of eight of the cousins to the National Archives of Australia Discovering Anzacs website.

The letters reveal that as well as many of his soldier cousins, Walter also kept in contact with and met with his cousin, nurse Dorothy May Craike on several occasions. 

Family connection: Walter Allen met and stayed in touch with his cousin, nurse Dorothy May Craike, during World War I.

Family connection: Walter Allen met and stayed in touch with his cousin, nurse Dorothy May Craike, during World War I.

Bendigo-born, Dorothy had moved with her family to Western Australia, where she enlisted with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) when war broke out. It is believed she was assigned in England to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR).

Dorrie, as Walter refers to her in his letters, spent much of the war nursing at various casualty clearing stations behind the front line in France and Belgium, including Etaples, Wimereux, Le Treport and Harfleur. 

The pair had met up in England before being shipped to France and Walter managed to keep tabs on her whereabouts and wellbeing in France through letters and mutual acquaintances.

It was only through Walter’s letters that Mrs Harris recently connected Walter’s “Dorrie” with the “Aunty Dot” who had sewn her her first rag doll as a toddler and who she met once many years later towards the end of Dorothy’s life.

“It was only about three months ago that I realised she was the same person,” Mrs Harris said.

Walter Allen had grown up in Bendigo and moved to the Riverina as a teenager with his family. A popular young man around the district, he worked on the family’s wheat and sheep farm before enlisting with the AIF in early 1916 aged 25. 

Six months later he arrived in England where he would spend the next 18 months before seeing active service. Although only average height at 170cm, his natural athleticism made him well-suited to the physical rigours of army training, later progressing to a training leadership role in bayonet fighting and physical fitness at Aldershot.

In March 1918, just a few months after finally joining the fray in France with the 55th Batallion, Walter was wounded in the thigh but recovered to re-join the action six weeks later in mid-May.

His parents received the dreaded telegram informing them of his death less than two months later.

Today, vibrant yellow flowers of canola crops cover the once blood-stained fields where Walter and his comrades lie near Le Hamel.

There is no headstone, but for Mrs Harris, to walk the canola fields of her great-uncle’s final resting place is somehow fitting. On the other side of the world on the Riverina farm that Walter once called home, fields of yellow canola now also grow.