Friday, 26 April 2013

ANZAC Stories - The Kerswell family

War destroys so much. For the non-combatants in the area their lives and livelihoods are turned to rubble and dust, they suffer harshly for the hell visited upon them. The soldiers, ordered there by men and women who sit worlds away in secluded comfort, their lives are ended or forever altered. And then there are those back home - family, sweethearts, friends, colleagues, even the bus driver or the person at the corner shop who said hello every morning. War tears through them all.

These are never stories of one person only. As John Donne wrote, "no man is an island, entire of itself". Each life comes with many other lives entwined.

The Kerswell family lived in Burragorang Valley, that fertile farming haven now deep below the waters of the Warragamba Dam. Henry (or Harry, as he was known) was the eldest child of Elizabeth Kerswell, and stepson to her husband George Pearce. He was born in the Valley in November 1869 and grew up on the family farm on the Cox's River. He married Sabina Tollhurst and together they raised a family, first in the Megalong Valley and then back at Cox's River. They had six children:

Arthur Leicester Kerswell (b. 1896), John Lewis (Jack) Kerswell (b. 1897), Thomas Henry (Tom) Kerswell (b. 1900), Eleanor Ruth (Poppy) Kerswell (b. 1903), Owen George (Dick) Kerswell (b. 1906) and Olive Annie Kerswell (b. 1909).

The Kerswells, like most people, worked hard. They ran the farm and the post office and operated a mail run by pack horse. Harry also transported his goods and those of his neighbours to Camden and brought back supplies with his horse and waggon. They had good neighbours around, many of whom were family - the Pearces, Shoobridges, Maxwells and Clarkes, to name but a few.

Then one day, on the other side of the world a bullet struck a man, an Arch-duke, and the world shifted. It took a while for that shockwave to hit the Valley, but hit it did. The young men of the Valley began to sign up. Arthur, the eldest of Harry and Sabina's children, went to Camden to join up, but was turned down as unfit. He gave it up for a bit, but then his brother, John Lewis Kerswell, got in, and Arthur tried again. On 12 October 1916, Arthur Leicester Kerswell joined the Anzac Mounted Division, signing up at the Sydney Show Ground. He was a Private, no. 1608 and answered no to "Have you ever been rejected as unfit for His Majesty's Service?"

Arthur was a farmer, 20 years and 9 months of age and 6 feet tall. He weighed 10st 4 lb and his chest measured 32 35 1/2 inches, his complexion unreadable, eyes brown, hair brown, denomination C of E. Arthur had a number of scars - an appendix scar, a supiapubic scar and a large scar on the rear of his left leg. The doctor declared him fit but noted that he had had an appendix operation 12 months before (perhaps why he failed the first medical?) and wrote something indecipherable about Arthur's wrist.

Along with his mates, Arthur was but aboard the Bakara on 4 November 1916 and disembarked at Suez exactly one month later. He was promptly put in the Isolation Camp at Moascar. If there was an outbreak of illness on board a ship, such as measles or flu, it was not unusual to put everyone in isolation on arrival to prevent further spread. Arthur was discharged on 14 December 1916.

It was straight into action then with the Battle of Magdhaba. This was an assault on an Ottoman garrison in the Sinai Desert. There was little water and supply lines were still under construction. On 20 December Allied forces reached El Arish, only to find that the Ottomans had retreated to Magdhaba, a village about 8kms away, with a network of trenches and well-camouflaged redoubts or forts. The ANZAC Mounted Division was noted for its tactic of riding up and then dismounting to fight hand to hand. Magdhaba was taken on 23 December 1916. It took six more days to get the wounded out and heading back to Suez.

There was a reorganisation making the ANZAC Mounted Division part of the Desert Column under the command of Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode. On 9 January 1917 they were out again, this time attacking Rafa. Once more the Turkish army was defeated, despite no reserve ammunition and Chetwode insisting that all wheeled vehicles remain behind.

Map of the Battle of Rafa, Powles, C. Guy (1922). The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine Volume III Official History New Zealand's Effort in the Great War. Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, pp. 80–81
Arthur was readmitted to Moascar Hospital on 20 January 1917. His records merely say "sick", but on 2 February he was sent to Abbassia with bronchitis, where he stayed until 13 March. He joined the 1st Light Horse Training Regiment on 17 March. This regiment used recuperating men to train new recruits. It was a good strategy, enabling men to get better while still being of use to the army, but it didn't initailly work for Arthur. He was back in hospital on 26 April with measles, this time at the 26 Stat Hospital in Ismailia. He was not discharged until 8 May 1917, when he went back in to the Training Regiment at Moascar.

On 27 May, 1917 Arthur was transferred to the 1st Field Squadron Engineers to be trained as a sapper. Wikipedia explains this well:

A combat engineer, also called pioneer or sapper in many armies, is a soldier who performs a variety of construction and demolition tasks under combat conditions. Such tasks typically include constructing and breaching trenches, tank traps and other fortifications, bunker construction, bridge and road construction or destruction, laying or clearing land mines, and other physical work in the battlefield. More generally, the combat engineer's goals involve facilitating movement and support of friendly forces while impeding that of the enemy.

That's Arthur, but then there was John. John had joined up first, on 11 January 1916. he was a farm labourer and listed his dad as his next of kin. Harry and Sabina had both written letters giving John permission to join. John was 18 years and 3 months, 5 feet 11 3/4 inches and 9 stone exactly. His chest was 32 34 1/2 inches, complexion fair, eyes hazel and hair brown. He gave his religious denomination as C of E. There were no distinguishing marks and he was declared fit for service, although the doctor noted "Conditional teeth". He was no. 5058 and assigned to the 13th Reinforcements 18th Battalion at the Victoria Barracks in Sydney.

John sailed out of Sydney aboard the Kyarra on 3 June 1916 and arrived in Plymouth on 5 August, 1916. The men of the 13th Reinforcements 18th Battalion put out a magazine while on board, "The Pink Un", three issues of which are in the War Memorial Library. It contains "Humour, verse and stories for the soldiers aboard the troopship Kyarra".

Upon disembarkation John was assigned to the 5th Training Battalion and then on 29 September 1916 to the 33rd Battalion. He sailed out of Southampton on 21 November 1916, bound for France. The Battalion sat through an appalling winter and John was admitted to hospital at the end of January with severe muscle pain. He was discharged to duty on 11 February and rejoined his unit on 14 February 1917. The Battalion continued to wait, serving in the trenches along the Western Front, but not seeing a lot of action. And then the order came. The Battalion was to join the attack on Messines as part of the 3rd Division.

The attack was set for 7 June 1917, beginning at 3.10 am. The 3rd Division had already come under gas attack at Ploegsteert Wood and were having to regroup. Some time between 3 and 5 am the 3rd dug in near the Douve River. German counterattacks were driven back. John Lewis Kerswell fell during this time. According to his file he was buried about 1 mile south of Messines, between an old front line and a tramway track (tramways were rails put down for hauling ammunition on hand carts).

There is a commemorative cross in the Strand Military Cemetery in Ploegsteert Wood - Plot 7, Row A, Grave 43, but the note in John's file says "Actual grave[s] unknown". Two letters sent to the family do not make the situation clearer. One, from Lieutenant Colonly Leslie J. Morshead, John's CO, says "His body was buried in this Battalion's Cemetery in Ploegsturt Wood and his grave has been registered by the Graves Registration Unit". The other letter, from the 33rd Battalion Chaplain, George S. Richmond says "Your boy fell bravely fighting the great battle of Messines Ridge on 7th June near to where he lies buried".
Memorial stone for John Lewis Kerswell, Strand Military Cemetery

I don't know when Arthur was informed of his brother's death. He remained in the Middle East with the 1st Field Squadron for the duration of the war. Once the Sinai had been captured, Allied forces moved on to Palestine. I haven't yet ascertained what battles Arthur took part in, but his health took a turn for the better. He was not admitted to hospital again, and the next entry on his record, following his transfer to the Engineers is "To embark HT Malta at KANTARA for Australia 8.7.19" He arrived home in the Burragorang Valley on 13 August and was discharged on 18 September 1919.

But the war was not finished with the Kerswell family. When Arthur came home he brought something else with him, Spanish flu. His mother died exactly one week after his return, and then his little brother fell ill. Owen George Kerswell, known as Dick, was almost thirteen. Owen Pearce writes in "Rabbit Hot Rabbit Cold"

"After his mother's death he must have known that he was going to follow her, for he said "I only hope that I can last until Tuesday and I will be thirteen years old." He did, and died on his thirteenth birthday." Dick and Sabina were buried at Lagoon Flats.

Harry and Poppy raised little Olive and when the girls were married Harry sold the farm and spent his life moving from one relative to the next, working hard all the while. He died in Liverpool on 30 August 1964, at almost 90 years of age.

Arthur went to Queensland to work after the war, and married Myrtle Stevens. He and Myrtle eventually returned to NSW. Arthur died in 1969 in Port Kembla Hospital and is buried at Shell Harbour.

The heartache caused to this family by World War I was cruel, but unfortunately not unusual. First there were the notifications of Arthur's illnesses. Measles doesn't sound so bad now we have immunisation, but back then it could be a killer. How worried must Harry and Sabina have been for their boy so far away? And then came the death of John, the son to whom they had both consented to join the army, followed by two years of tense waiting for Arthur's return. How joyful must his homecoming have been, here he was safe, unhurt, seemingly healthy. And that last, cruellest of strokes in the deaths of Sabina and Dick.

That gunshot that killed the Arch Duke killed so many other people because leaders and politicians decided to rattle their sabres rather than sort their differences, because pride and conquest were more important than human lives, because generals thought that throwing young men into the paths of guns and shells was a valid tactic. If any of these "decision makers" were required to be the first in the fight, would the outcome have been different? Would the Kerswells and so many others like them have been spared these horrors?

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