In World War One (1914 – 1918) many Australian soldiers fought on the Western Front in France and lost their lives fighting the German army. It was the most costly war in terms of life and casualties in Australia’s history - back then the country had a population of less than 5 million people yet according to the Australian War Memorial 416,809 men enlisted and 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or became prisoners of war. These soldiers made up the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) and along with New Zealanders who first fought at Gallipoli Cove in Turkey in 1915 helped form the ANZAC legend.
Two such men were my Great Great Uncles Thomas (Tom) & George Pendlebury. The sons of George Henry and Charlotte Ellen Pendlebury, of Kingwood, Victoria, Australia. The brothers were born in Warracknabeal, Victoria, Australia (my place of birth too). On May 29th, 2012 I had the privilege of visiting their grave sites in France to pay my respects to family members long-lost. This was made even more special because as far as I know so few family members have been able to do this before me (to my knowledge only my Uncle and Cousin a couple of years ago).
- Thomas Gould Pendlebury
- Tom held the rank of Private (Service Number 3446) and was Killed In Action on March 28th, 1918 (21 years old). He served in the Australian Infantry, Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) 46th Battalion (joined February 14th, 1917 and was a Farmer in Lah prior to this). He is buried in the Senlis Communal Cemetery Extension (grave reference: II. A. 5.).
No official record exists of exactly how or where Tom died. Government records just state K.I.A. in France but an old family post card indicates he died at Villers Brettoneux where Australian and British troops stopped the German advance in 1918. Today there is the large Australian National Memorial (completed in 1938) and the Franco Australian Museum in Villers Brettoneux dedicated to Australian troops who fought in World War One.
Finding Tom’s grave was an interesting experience, it is in the village of Senlis-le-Sec near the town of Albert in the North of France. This Commonwealth war cemetery is very small (104 World War One Commonwealth burials) and in what seems such a remote place. According to the register I was the only visitor so far for 2012. The extension to the communal cemetery began in April 1918 and was enlarged after the November 11th, 1918 armistice when graves were brought in from the battlefields of the Somme and from the communal cemetery (23 Commonwealth soldiers who died in April 1918). Tom’s grave was actually relocated from the Millencourt Communal Cemetery Extension.
Once at the cemetery I found Tom’s grave easily and was impressed with the care and maintenance of the cemetery – it is a peaceful and beautiful place with the village on one side, the town communal cemetery on the other side and surrounded by farmland. I stayed at his grave for some time, just taking the place in and thinking about what had happened to all these brave men. As I stood there I started to say a few things to Tom to pay my respects to him and the ultimate sacrifice he paid for his country and the Commonwealth at such a very young age (just 21 years old). I am not a spiritual person but it seemed right to do this, then to my surprise it all got very emotional. I was there alone, on the other side of the world talking to my Grandmothers Uncle, born in the same town as me decades apart but we shared the same blood and a love for our homeland. I couldn’t help but shed a bit of a tear. My thoughts were that the duty he performed was not forgotten by his family or his country. The epitaph said it all “Australian Hero at Rest“.
George Henry Pendlebury
George held the rank of Corporal (Service Number 627) and died on March 1st, 1917 from wounds sustained in fighting at Bullicourt (he was 27 years old). He is buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery (grave reference: XXI. K. 6.). George served in the Australian Field Artillery, 1st Division Trench Mortar Battery (joined August 28th, 1914 and was a Labourer in Warracknabeal prior to this).
George received the Military Medal (approved on April 17th, 1917) which was awarded for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire during a battle between February 21st to 24th, 1917. The level of his bravery and toughness is highlighted by the commentary documented in the official medal recommendation written by the Major-General who commanded the 1st Australian Division on February 25th, 1917:
“for most gallant conduct in serving his mortars under very heavy artillery fire on nights of February 21st and 23rd. Also when on the evening of 24th a shell landed in the gun pit killing and wounding 6 of the detachment, he, although his leg was shattered and despite several nasty body wounds, crawled out to bring assistance. Further when assistance arrived he insisted on the wounded men being attended to first, although not as seriously wounded as himself.”
A few days after these words were written George sadly passed away from his extensive wounds (a severely fractured right leg that was amputated, along with a penetrating wound of the abdomen and multiple wounds to the hands and face. He then developed pneumonia and rapidly declined). He was never to see the medal he earned through his act of gallantry.
George is buried a couple of hours further West of Tom’s grave and is on the Pas de Calais coast in Etaples. This is a much larger Commonwealth war cemetery (10,771 Commonwealth burials, 662 Non Commonwealth burials – mainly German and 41 unidentified burials). Looking at so many headstones really hits home the sheer scale of the battles and losses suffered in the muddy horror that was the trench battlefields of the Western Front in World War One. During the war Etaples was a site for large Commonwealth reinforcement camps and hospitals. It was remote from attack (other than from aircraft) and easily accessible by rail. In 1917 there were 100,000 troops camped there.
Again I was able to find George’s grave easily and was pleased to see how well maintained the cemetery was (there was a modern-day army of gardeners there maintaining the grounds and graves). The lawns are so green and the headstones so clean it is an impressive and emotional sight. I paid my respects to George and spent quite a bit of time there thinking about him and the sacrifice he paid for not only my country but also my family. The epitaph on his headstone was the same as on Tom’s: “Australian Hero at Rest“. These words could not be more accurate for him, his brother and every other Australian that never made it home from this war.
Their brothers Edward (Ted) and Frank also enlisted in the A.I.F. but luckily were not lost in the fighting of World War One. Frank was actually discharged due to illness (Meningitis).
- If you are interested in finding and visiting lost relatives who fought for the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a wealth of information to locate them. I can thoroughly recommend it as an emotional yet proud experience that you will never forget.
R.I.P. Tom and George Pendlebury.
Thanks to my Aunty Marjie for the old photos and some of the valuable background information and thanks to Uncle Rob for the initial information on locating the cemeteries and gravesites.