Wednesday, 24 April 2013

ANZAC Stories - Stanley Archer O'Toole

Stanley Archer O'Toole was born in Balmain, NSW in 1889, the eldest son of Archer O'Toole and Gertrude Margaret Robinson. Archer was a journalist who had begun on the Sydney Morning Herald and had been the editor of the Balmain Leader. Stanley was followed by Clarice, Hermoine and Keith. When Stanley was ten, the family moved to Teneriffe in Queensland, where his father opened a tobacconist's and stationer's shop. In 1906 the family moved again, this time to Rockhampton. Archer and Stanley went to work in a printer's. They were typesetters. They then both worked for the Daily Record newspaper, Archer as a journalist and Stanley as a mechanic. Archer later worked on the Evening News and the Morning Bulletin.

Rockhampton had a rifle club and Stanley was a keen member for three and a half years, taking part in competitions. His name frequently appeared in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin when the results were posted. In 1913 Stanley and his team from the Rockhampton Rifle Club won gold in the Robinson Challenge Shield.

Morning Bulletin 28 June 1913 p6
He must have felt well prepared when war came.

Stanley joined up on 26 August 1915, entering the 9th ReInforcements of the 25th Battalion of the AIF (Australia Imperial Force) as a private, no. 3884. His next of kin on his form was his mother, Gertrude O'Toole of 100 Kent Street, Rockhampton. He listed under previous military service his three and a half years with the Rifle Club.

Enlistment papers give a physical description of the applicant on page 3, along with the medical examination. Stanley was described as 26 years and 0 months, 5 feet 11 3/4 inches, 10st 6lbs, his chest was 36 7/9 inches, complexion dark, eyes brown, hair dark and religious denomination was given as C of E. He had a scar on his right forearm and he was declared fit for active service.

A few weeks after he joined up, Stanley's colleagues in the Typographical Society made a presentation to him as a means of congratulation on enlisting.

Morning Bulletin, 22 November 1915 p7
The telling part of this little article is for me the last paragraph. Amidst all the congratulations of gallant young men off to war is a report of a cablegram "Driver W. R. Lude suffering from gas poisoning".

On 31 January 1916, Stanley boarded the HMAT Wandilla at Brisbane. He sailed to Egypt and was transferred to the 49th Battalion on 2 April 1916 at Heliopolis. On 8 April he joined the Battalion at Serapeum. About half the Battalion were Gallipoli veterans and the rest raw recruits like Private O'Toole. There are poems and letters in the newspapers about Serapeum, complaints of heat and dust and the stink of the Suez Canal. A commanding officer of the 15th Brigade threatened to shoot any man he found drinking from the Canal.

By June the 49th was on the move again, and Stanley was put aboard the Arcadian at Alexandria, arriving in Marseilles on the 12th of June. A week at sea and a journey from the shores of hell into the very realm itself. On 21 June the Battalion moved to the Western Front. How many of the 49th wished a return to the heat and flies and a confrontation with the Turks?

The 49th's first major battle was at Mouquet Farm, known to the Australians as Moo-Cow farm. This was an area about 300 square metres just north of Pozieres. The Australian War Memorial gives the following description:

the site of nine separate attacks by three Australian divisions between 8 August and 3 September 1916. The farm stood in a dominating position on a ridge that extended north-west from the ruined, and much fought over, village of Pozieres. Although the farm buildings themselves were reduced to rubble, strong stone cellars remained below ground which were incorporated into the German defences. The attacks mounted against Mouquet Farm cost the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions over 11,000 casualties, and not one succeeded in capturing and holding it. The British advance eventually bypassed Mouquet Farm leaving it an isolated outpost. It fell, inevitably, on 27 September 1916.

Charles Bean, in his official history of WWI, gave over three chapters to the Battles of Mouqet Farm, and there is a reasonably detailed account online at Australians on the Western Front. The whole area around the Farm was so badly shelled that there were no landmarks, just craters. It was easy to get lost and the area turned into a quagmire every time there was rain. Confusion reigned as commanders tried to work out where the lines were and British command refused to listen to Australian advice about the futility of the exercise. The Germans were well dug in, with underground bunkers and the Australians were always in view of the ridges. They were frequently shelled on three sides as they sought to advance. Percy Nuttall's first hand account can be found at Australians at War.

Nuttall wrote of the day Stanley was reported wounded in action, 14 August 1916:

"Rain and mud galore. No sleep, little drink and nothing to eat. Wounded craving for a drink, but not many casualties until 3pm when Fritz turned his artillery on and he did stir us up and wrecked our trenches. My platoon, who I was in charge of, lost heavily and about 5 o'clock 12 Platoon was handed over to me 16 strong. They having only 1 NCO, 1 L/Cpl left. W Riches and Musgrave were sent to hold a shell hole and are dead. [Someone] told me a shell burst either on or over them. After some persuasion the Major let me go over to see what happened and there I found Riches dead & Musgrave a pitiful sight under Riches, shell shocked and smothered with his mates blood.

About 7pm, orders came that we had to make another advance at 9.30 and dig in between a quarry and Mouquet Farm. Major Herbert wrote back to headquarters that we were not strong enough to undertake the job. They replied it had to be done at all costs. So at the given time we moved out with our 300 men. Headquarters got to know Fritz was going to attack us, and soon as we moved we got full force of their barrage which killed or wounded half our strength. I got one in the ribs, and one half of my body went numb, but I heard the Captain say 'follow on C Company, so I went and took up our position after trying to rally the lads together. When we had dug in about 3 feet, word came that we had to retire as the battalions on our left and right did not join up, which was heart breaking.

I was told to go over to the right flank to take charge. There I went only to find confusion as the lads did not know how far to go, so I called for the bombers and only one responded. So the two of us went down the trench, me with the bayonet and Tom Ryan with the bombs but only ran across a platoon of A Company who were challenged and luckily let in as they came in from 'no man's land'. It proved afterwards they had got lost. We stood to the rest of the night and only Fritz's patrols were seen, but we kept them off at daylight. I was told off to count the battalion, which comprised 156 men and 3 officers unwounded. I was then put on rationing them and the sights I saw is indiscribable. We tried all day to get the wounded back but Fritz's fire delayed operations."

Back in Rockhampton, Archer and Gertrude received a brief cablegram "Regret reported son Private Stanley A. O'Toole wounded Will promptly advise if anything further received. Base Records 16-9-16." The news of Stanley's wounding made the papers.

Morning Bulletin, 20 September, 1916, p6
And the long wait began.

Archer and Gertrude both wrote to the army for more information. What hospital was he in? Had he been evacuated to England? What were the nature and severity of his injuries? Why had they heard nothing?

They sent telegrams. The Editor of the Daily Record wrote, friends wrote, the federal member wrote. Mr. J. W. Parsons of Bancroft Street stated in his own letter that the "suspense is seriously impairing [Gertrude's] health". Miss Dorothy Mirle of the Brisbane Tramways Company wrote that it had been seven weeks since the notice of Wounded in Action and nothing more had been heard. All that came back to each of these letters was an acknowledgement of receipt and "no further report".

Archer finally wrote to the Minister and on 21 November received a letter from a Major in Base Records saying that a cabled message had been sent asking for updates and when something comes back Archer would "be again communicated with". Meanwhile, Admin HQ were listing "No further report" in their memos.

This was the case again on 17 February, 1917 - no further report. But something moved. By the next week the listing was "Wounded and Missing".

On 23 April, 1917, the CO of the 49th Battalion held a Court of Enquiry, which decided that Stanley was more likely "Missing Believed Killed". There was another Court of Enquiry on 31 July, 1917 which changed the verdict to "Killed in Action".

My research has unfortunately revealed that this kind of mistake was not uncommon, and that the wheels ground slowly in finding the probable truth. In the defence of the Army, however, it pays to bear in mind that the four weeks of Mouquet Farm resulted in 23,000 casualties, amongst them 6,800 dead, an unfair number of whom were never found - buried or blown to bits, or just having to be left because of the ferocity of enemy fire. But my heart goes out over the decades to Archer and Gertrude waiting so long to hear of their son and sinking under the weight of the truth they fear and know will be confirmed.

All that was left was to get back Stanley's effects. The package arrived aboard the Barambah and was delivered to Gertrude. It contained a Safety Razor in a case, a periscope and the set of brushes given to Stanley by the Typographical Society.

It is not known where Stanley's remains lie, but his name is on the Australian National Memorial at Villiers-Bretonneux, and on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour

Stanley's full record can be found at the National Archives of Australia. Click on "view digital copy". The Archives have a good collection of service records, all digitised and you can search by name and service number.

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