Doug Heazlewood is on a personal quest to ensure that World War I diggers are not forgotten, and a tour of Warrnambool cemetery on Sunday will bring their stories back to life.
The tour will visit the graves of a dozen soldiers including Private William Ryan whose eye was “shot out” while dodging heavy machine-gun fire to deliver an important message to the frontline.
Despite losing the sight in one eye and being severely wounded, he made sure he completed his mission.
“He made light of his wounds and refused anyone to accompany him back as he pointed out it would weaken the post at a critical period,” Mr Heazlewood said.
The runner was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his bravery on the battlefields near Corbie, France on April 5, 1918. “A DCM is not common. You have to do something quite exceptional to get that,” Mr Heazlewood said.
Private Ryan returned to the south-west after the war and lived at Naringal, passing away at the age of 80 in 1972.
He is one of between 250 and 400 WWI veterans buried in the Warrnambool cemetery. Other graves pay tribute to those who were killed in action overseas, but their bodies were never returned home.
Mr Heazlewood said there would be at least 500 Warrnambool and district soldiers who were killed on the battlefields during WWI, many of them not listed on memorials or honour rolls.
He said that he came across the grave of one soldier in the Warrnambool cemetery who was not listed in any book, memorial or honour board in the region but was one of the first to sign up in his battalion just 10 days after war was declared in Europe. “He went to Gallipoli and all the rest and who’s going to remember him?” he said.
“The only reason we know he’s here and know he served in WWI is I’ve walked every grave in the cemetery here, with the help of others, looking for a sign on the headstone which might indicate that that person served in WWI when there’s no other way of knowing that.
“I’ll be trying to focus on people during the cemetery tour who have a slim chance of being remembered if we don’t do something about it.”
Mr Heazlewood has also been researching and documenting the story of Major Thomas Redford who was played by Bill Hunter in the film Gallipoli. He is remembered on his family grave in the Warrnambool cemetery. Major Redford was the commander of B squadron of the 8th Light Horse and they were down to do the first charge at a battlefield called The Nek.
“In that fateful charge of 100-odd men, in the three or four minutes it took for them all to be mown down by the machine guns, there were 15 local soldiers lying dead on the battlefield and two more that didn’t make it out the rest of the day,” he said.
“They all marched off to join up together and all died together at The Nek,”
Last month he visited that site in Turkey and while there gave a talk for the Order of Australia Association.
A health scare which delayed Mr Heazlewood’s planned trip overseas last year to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary meant that he could be in Turkey this year for the talk.
Last year, while undergoing tests for another health issue, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. “I’m so lucky to be around. I was having an ultrasound for another reason. The radiographer doing the ultrasound had to look at my kidneys. She also could see my liver and she reported there was something wrong,” he said. “If she hadn’t done that I would have eventually got sick and gone to the doctor and it would have been too late.”
He had surgery to remove part of his liver and, despite a bout of pneumonia while recovering, has not had to have any further treatment.
As well as visiting Turkey, Mr Heazlewood toured other battlefields across Europe and bring closure to a sad family history at the location where his great uncle John Patrick Heazlewood experienced perhaps his finest moment.
He said his grandfather and younger siblings had been sent to live in different places after their mother died and never kept in touch until one day a letter arrived in Warrnambool.
John, who had been gassed and wounded towards the end of the war, would be soon arriving in Melbourne and would need someone to meet him because the war had rendered him an invalid.
When Mr Heazlewood’s grandfather went to get a train ticket to Melbourne to meet the brother he’d not seen since he was child, he was told the trains weren’t running that week because of the influenza outbreak.
There was no other way to get to Melbourne in those days, and when he did finally get to Melbourne there was no sign of John.
“His brother was lost to the family from that date on until, courtesy of a book on the Warrnambool war memorial, I discovered which soldier was my great uncle,” he said.
For the past decade he has been researching his history
“He was badly affected by his time in the war,” Mr Heazlewood said.
After arriving in Melbourne he married and had two daughters. “He left and was pursued by his wife because deserting your wife was a criminal offence in those days and a warrant was taken out for his arrest,” he said.
“He started to give false names when he was on the run from the NSW police.”
He ended up working on a saw bench in a sugar mill in Rockhampton in 1940 where he was killed when a piece of timber flew off the bench and hit him in the chest. “He died that night as a destitute and he’s buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave,” he said.
It was a tragic end for a soldier who during the war had been awarded a military medal at Passchendaele.
“He was blown off his mule. He was shelled and buried in the shell hole and had to dig his way out. One of his mules was wounded and the other one was dead,” he said.
“I had the opportunity to visit where that happened. So I’ve kind of closed a loop from being lost to the family to visiting the place where his finest hour was.”
Mr Heazlewood’s maternal grandfather Corporal William Donald McDonald also served in WWI but because of his age saw no active service and was sent to work in a depot in England and played the bagpipes for the 14th battalion.
- Sunday’s cemetery tour starts at 1.30pm at the rotunda and will run for about 90 minutes.A gold coin donation is appreciated to help support the work of the Warrnambool Family History Group.