Australians on the Western Front: A loss without equal

CASUALTIES OF WAR: Brothers and 17th Battalion soldiers, Theo, William and George Seabrook, died in the same battle, their first, in Belgium in 1917. Picture: AWM H05568

CASUALTIES OF WAR: Brothers and 17th Battalion soldiers, Theo, William and George Seabrook, died in the same battle, their first, in Belgium in 1917. Picture: AWM H05568

Tens of thousands of Australian mothers grieved for precious children lost on the Western Front in the First World War.

For some the pain was multiplied. Voluntary enlistment, large families, and the deadly toll on the Western Front meant the tragedy of losing two, three or even four sons was not uncommon.

When brothers signed up together and fought in the same battalion, it increased the risk that they might die together.

For some parents of Australian soldiers, it took many months, even years, of correspondence with authorities to get their death certificates and any personal effects, details of graves, if they were known, and collect war medals.

Five sons of Isabel Howell-Price and her husband John, a Sydney clergyman, served overseas but only two came home. Owen was killed at Flers in France in 1916, Richard at Bullecourt in May 1917 and Philip at Broodseinde in Belgium five months later. All three had been awarded the Military Cross.

When the Returned Soldiers’ League journal Reveille published a series in 1929 called Family Quotas, Mrs Howell-Price, of Burwood, wrote: “Owen, Phil and Dick were my baby sons. I still uselessly grieve, but am proud – my blood – and would give them over again.”

Caroline Gilbert, of Subiaco in Perth, lost her sons Robert in 1916 and Albert and Charles in successive months late in 1917.

ULTIMATE SACRIFICE: Kiama-born Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Howell-Price died in France on November 4, 1916. His last words were ‘Give my love to the battalion.’ Picture: AWM P00267.003

ULTIMATE SACRIFICE: Kiama-born Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Howell-Price died in France on November 4, 1916. His last words were ‘Give my love to the battalion.’ Picture: AWM P00267.003

In a letter to the Army’s Base Records Office in Melbourne in August 1918, Caroline sought the personal effects of Albert and Charles, writing: “I have given my three sons for the Empire and have no more to send.”

Fanny and William Seabrook were heartbroken after two of their sons were killed by a single shell in the Battle of Menin Road and the third died of wounds the next day. The trio had left Sydney together and it was their only battle.

A report of their deaths appeared in a Sydney newspaper on the eve of the 1917 conscription vote along with Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ appeal to Australians to vote “yes.”  Hughes said: “The need for men is imperative, urgent, desperate. The men in the trenches call to you for help.”

Fanny Seabrook later told her local Member of Parliament: “Having given our three boys as a sacrifice to the country … I will never recover. And now my husband is a complete wreck.”

Three sons of Alice and Joseph Choat from Clarence Park in SA were among more than 5500 Australians who became casualties in less than 24 hours at the devastating Battle of Fromelles in July 1916.

Archibald and Raymond Choat were killed in action. Middle son Wesley was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans but escaped to Holland 17 months later and made it home in July 1918.

Alice and Joseph, who had given consent for 18-year-old Archibald to join “the colours for the sake of King and country,” waited until 1921 to receive a photograph of his grave.

Sister Hilda Knox, of Benalla in Victoria, died at Rouen in February 1917 of suspected cerebrospinal meningitis, only days after her transfer to France from Egypt where she had served at a hospital near two of her soldier brothers.

It was a double blow for Hilda’s parents James and Mary, coming eight weeks after their son Gordon drowned in the River Nile, a military court of inquiry later finding his death “decidedly suspicious”.

THE LONE MONUMENT: The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres bears the names of 55,000 soldiers with no known grave, including more than 6000 Australians. Picture: Michael Grealy

THE LONE MONUMENT: The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres bears the names of 55,000 soldiers with no known grave, including more than 6000 Australians. Picture: Michael Grealy

Reveille’s ‘Family Quotas’ series in 1929 revealed many instances of multiple family enlistments and loss of life including the Walkers of Ballarat and the Bartrams from Richmond, Victoria.  

Rev. John Walker served in France as a chaplain and his wife Jessie worked for the Red Cross in London.

Their five sons served, four as officers, and three, Arthur, John and Noel, were killed in France. Their daughter Marjorie, a nurse, was awarded the Military Medal.

For Isabella and George Bartram, 1917 brought prolonged grief as three times they received news of a son’s death, in May, June and October.

A fourth son returned home ill in mid-1917.  When Arnold Bartram’s effects arrived, they included his identity disc, a religious medallion, a damaged pipe, six coins, a compass and a lock of hair.

Annie Whitelaw of Briagolong in Victoria and Mary Keid of Graceville in Brisbane each lost four of their six sons who went to war.

Local historians say Annie Whitelaw watched Anzac Day parades from a distance, sitting in her buggy and crying, before she died in 1927.  

After Mary Keid lost four sons, the Queensland Premier intervened to get the last of her two surviving sons brought home.

On the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres are the names of 6191 Australians who were killed in Belgium but have no known grave. They include George and Theo Seabrook, Albert Gilbert and Philip Howell-Price.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.