Multiple losses devastated families in small town Australia

Three brothers from Berry posing in readiness for service in the Australian Imperial Force. It’s the sort of photo you might find languishing in many a sideboard or bureau drawer. Maybe more will be searched for today, the centenary of the Armistice signed at the end of World War I.

The story of enlistment in Berry was a microcosm of what was happening in communities, small and large, across Australia.

William De Boynton, 27,  a labourer, was first to sign up in April 23, 1915, for the 26th Battalion, nine months after the start of the war in July 1914.  His service number was 476, evidence that he was among the first to enlist. His brother Francis, 19, a farmer, followed in August, enlisting in the 13th Battalion.

The De Boynton brothers, left to right, William, Francis and Arthur.

The De Boynton brothers, left to right, William, Francis and Arthur.

William was also the first to die. He was reported missing in action on July 29, 1916. An informant said he believed William was taken prisoner in the first charge of the 2nd Division, according to a German prisoner.

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Francis died soon after. He was reported missing 11 days later. He was hit by a “shrapnel shell” near Pozieres.

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Information was often slow to emerge. It wasn’t until August 1917 that a letter arrived back home from the Australian Red Cross Society confirming William’s death. He had been hit by a shell and killed outright, also near Pozieres.

Military records show a statement from a Private Reginald Whittingham from Melbourne who wrote: “I saw his dead body lying in Tom’s Cut, a gap leading up to the front line at Mouquet Farm. He was quite dead when I saw him. One of my pals took a penknife from his body to send to his people.”

Step forward the third brother, Arthur, 23, also a dairy farmer. According to relatives he thought he might be able to discover more about his “missing” brothers. Less than three months after reports that Francis was unaccounted for, he gave his oath “to serve our Sovereign Lord and King” in November 1916, enlisting in the 45th Battalion.

The Great War claimed Arthur the following June. He was killed in action at what appears to have been the early days of the Battle of Messines, described at that time as “the biggest bang in history”. He was shot through the heart.

Imagine the despair of their parents, dairy farmers George and Mary of Woodhill, Berry. You’ll need to imagine it because the extent of their grieving isn’t documented. It was an era when personal emotions weren’t openly displayed. They had three other sons and a daughter, all anxious for news. All three were unmarried with their lives ahead of them.

All the records reveal are a few matter-of-fact letters in George’s fine handwriting to the authorities trying to track down missing military service scrolls, evidently misplaced.

Today John De Boynton, a great nephew of the boys, and his wife Marie live in Woonona, north of Wollongong. They have a pile of cuttings and papers on the table in front of them. Arthur is buried at Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium. Francis is named on the memorial wall at Villers-Bretonneux and William is buried at Courcelette in France. No unity, then, even in death.

John De Boynton holding a keepsake of, left to right, William, Arthur and Francis.

John De Boynton holding a keepsake of, left to right, William, Arthur and Francis.Credit:Fairfax

Marie said: “We went to Villers-Bretonneux cemetery. As I walked up towards the wall, I’d looked at so many names, it was late in the afternoon and there was a storm brewing. I wondered how on earth we would ever find his name.

“As I was standing, I looked up above me and his name was right above my head. That was Francis. It was the eeriest feeling. It was overwhelming.”

John added: “It was a very emotional time when we found William’s headstone at Courcelette. I attached a photo of the three brothers to his headstone.”

There are more names duplicated on the Berry war memorial. There are four named Boxsell. Two died, two came home. There are three named McClelland. Three Sackleys, three Shepherds, four Peppers. Evidence, if it were needed, that the small dairy farming community was doing its bit.

The Berry Cenotaph lists the three De Boynton brothers.

The Berry Cenotaph lists the three De Boynton brothers.Credit:Fairfax

The appalling statistics of loss in Berry emulates much of what happened throughout the country. Three years before the outbreak of war, the 1911 census showed Berry to have  a population of 1621. Assuming an equal divide between males and females, 202 men enlisted which equates to 25 per cent of the population. Of those men, 54 were killed. That means about 27 per cent of the young men who left Berry never returned home.

Robyn Florance, a local historian and author,  writes in Berry Remembers the First World War: “Six nurses from the David Berry Hospital also enlisted. They wanted to be there, with their boys, when they went to war.”

She states that in 1915 the Waratah Recruitment March, which commenced in Nowra, passed through Berry on its way to Sydney. It began with 50 marchers but by the time it reached Sydney, 120 had volunteered. It was reported that nine recruits came from Berry, not bad for a country town serving the needs of the dairy farming community.

“Most of the women worked really hard with fundraising, the Red Cross and knitting all the time to send socks over. They lost sons but they still wanted to help,” she said.

“Here we are, from a little town in Berry, with all these deaths that really impacted on their families, but we are still impacting on our families because we are still sending our boys to war. That’s what saddens me.”

Dr Kerry Neale, curator of the After the War exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, said research indicates about 150 families lost at least three sons. Five families lost four or more sons.

“You can’t begin to imagine the amount of grief that comes with such devastating losses,” she said. “Every loss is significant and if you sent your only son and he didn’t come back, and that’s only one, but that loss is your world.”

She cited the story of brothers Stephen and Robert Allen from Manly, which is included in the exhibition.  They enlisted as privates within a week of each other in July 1915, both with the 13th Infantry Battalion. They were first sent to Egypt for several months, then found themselves on the Western Front. The constant shelling and horrendous conditions at the front did not prevent the brothers remembering their sister Minnie’s birthday. They both sent ornate birthday cards from the front.

The Allen family. The two boys (Robert, left, and Stephen) were killed by same shell in the First World War.

The Allen family. The two boys (Robert, left, and Stephen) were killed by same shell in the First World War.Credit:Australian War Memorial.

On August 14, 1916, in the midst of the fighting around Mouquet Farm in France (which claimed William De Boynton’s life), the brothers failed to report back after fatigue duty. Originally listed as missing in action, it took several months and several witness testimonies to ascertain their fate. Eventually a letter from Private Will Hale to one of the Allen sisters described what happened.

“When the shell had exploded I knew by the screams that someone had caught it. I could not get through for some time, as I was half silly through the shock. However when I could get through, my brother was seriously wounded and your [two] brothers were laying there, they had been killed.”

The brothers who had embarked and served together, were killed outright by the same artillery shell while walking beside each other. Stephen was 25 and Robert was 27. The bodies were never recovered and their names are on the Villers-Bretonneux memorial.

Dr Neale said: “In a lot of instances it is the correspondence that we see after the families have received the telegrams informing them that their loved ones have been killed in action.

“When it is missing in action, you just get this flurry or correspondence to the Red Cross or the army just desperate for details. They have accepted the loss but it is the not knowing where the bodies have been buried or what has been done for their loved ones when they are so far away.

“It’s a distant grief; you can’t go to their grave site, you can’t pay your respects that way. The families are just desperate for information to know that the bodies were given a proper burial or a location so that they can at least know where their loved ones are.”

Tim Barlass is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald