Fromelles. The name evokes intense sadness for those who are familiar with the major battles involving Australian soldiers during World War I. Noted as the “worst 24 hours in Australian military history” by some, the battle began on the 19th of July, 1916 and was over by the early morning of the 20th of July.
It was in this battle, that two of my 1st cousins 3x removed, Samuel Charles Wilson and Eric Robert Wilson, were killed. Samuel and Eric were born to Isabella Cameron Way and George Wilson. Isabella’s younger brother, George Cameron Way, is my great great grandfather. The parallels with these families is uncanny. Both Isabella and George C. Way had twelve children each. In both families, three of their sons enlisted in World War I, totalling six children across the two families. Out of George’s sons, his eldest came home without a leg, one survived and one was killed (Uncle Norman). I hope the families were close. I think they would have really needed each other to lean on in those dreadful times.
According to service records, Private Samuel Charles Wilson enlisted at 29 years old on the 26th of July, 1915. Being single at the time, his father George Wilson was listed as his next of kin. Private Eric Robert Wilson, only 19 years old at the time, enlisted on the same day. A couple of days later, on the 28th of July, the youngest brother, James Arthur Ernest Wilson enlisted. He is listed as being 18 years and 5 months, however by my calculations, it would appear that he exaggerated his age a bit. He was 17 years old at the time of enlistment. The three boys commenced their training together, until James (known as Jim) and Samuel (Sam) left Australia together with the 3rd Battalion (11th Reinforcements) on the 2nd of November 1915, aboard the Euriphides. Eric followed in March the following year with the 1st Battalion. The boys, whilst reunited in Eygpt in early 1916, were all transferred to the 53rd Battalion between February and April. They all ended up in the same platoon.
The Battle of Fromelles is considered the “worst 24 hours in Australian military history” for a reason. According to the Australian War Memorial, this was the first major battle fought on the Western Front by Australian forces. This battle resulted in 5,533 Australian casualties and 1547 British casualties. To put this number into perspective, this number exceeds the combined Australian casualties of the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars. Back home in Australia, the Wilson brothers parents, my 3rd great aunt Isabella Cameron Wilson (nee Way) and George Wilson were informed that one son had been wounded in this battle (Jim), then, only days later were told that another was missing (Eric) and finally, that same day, it came to light that their remaining son, Sam had been killed in that same battle. I can’t imagine the fear and grief they and their other children would have been feeling at that time.
Jim had been shot through the neck and was left in No Mans Land before being rescued by British stretch bearers. He did survive his injuries. According to the Australian War Memorial, Sam Wilson was last witnessed keeping a portion of German soldiers at bay, doing so by pulling pins on a number of Mills bombs, throwing them between himself and the looming Germans. Eric was reported missing on the 28th of July 1916. His name did eventually come through as being killed in action on the same day as his brother Sam, on a German Death List. Sam and Eric were buried together, amongst many of the other casualties by German troops in a mass grave in Pheasant Wood.
When I visited the Australian War Memorial last year, I remember reading about the mass grave at Pheasant Wood that went unnoticed for nearly a century, containing 250 of our Australian troops. Little did I know at the time, two of my relatives, Sam and Eric were amongst that number. For nearly a hundred years, their exact burial location hadn’t been known. Being one that craves closure in just about any instance, the thought of having to endure that as an immediate member of the family, never knowing where your sons, brothers, or cousins were buried doesn’t sit well with me. A farmer in Fromelles made a discovery of the first portion of the mass grave in 2008. An Australian amateur historian then went on to instigate a major archaeological project in Pheasant Wood, which involved the exhumation and identification of those found in the mass grave. Identification was done via DNA testing wherever possible. Sam and Eric were both formally identified via DNA and were reinterred in the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) War Cemetery on the 18th of July, 2010.
I was searching through the AWM website last night, coming across these three portraits, depicting each of the Wilson brothers:
I was looking at these three, noting a level of familiarity that I felt with them. That happens sometimes with relatives I find, no matter how far back they lived. But I could have sworn I’d seen them before. So I went looking back in my files, focusing on the photographs from Uncle Norman’s wallet, a number of the people depicted in them I am still in the process of identifying. Sure enough, I found this image and it clicked:
These HAVE to be the Wilson brothers. Does anyone else think that these three look like the boys pictured in the solo photographs? Sam sitting on the left, Jim standing in the middle and Eric sitting on the right. I also have this image:
This soldier looks insanely like Samuel Charles. This one I am less sure of, but I’m open to opinions on this.
So what happened to Jim after the deaths of his brothers? He was discharged from the Army in 1919 and began his journey home to Australia. Sadly, his mother Isabella died whilst he was en route. He married Catherine Stanton in 1921 and lived until the age of 61, leaving Catherine and their son Eric to grieve his loss in 1959.
“Today I lead my battalion in an assault on the German lines and I pray God that I may come through alright and bring honour to our name. If not I will at least have laid down my life for you and my country, which is the greatest privilege one can ask for. Farewell dear people, the hour approacheth.!.”
-Major Geoffrey Macrae, 60th Battalion, 19th July 1916 (Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)
The recent discovery of the mass graves in Pheasant Wood has received a tonne of media attention in the last decade. Some even directly reference Sam and Eric. Links to some of these articles are as follows: