Looking for the digger with the long thumbs

Bernard & Mary Lou, 5 January 2013 · # ·

Noreen Powell with the 'Lost Diggers' photo of her uncle, Sid Carroll
Noreen Powell, Sid Carroll’s niece, with the Thuillier photograph. Sid is in the sidecar.

The exhibition of Louis and Antoinette Thuillier photographs – Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt – is on display at the Australian War Memorial until 31 July. Mary Lou wrote last year about the discovery of the Sid Carroll photograph that features in this exhibition, and more recently we interviewed Sid’s niece Noreen and great-niece Shane.

An edited version of the following piece appears in Issue 13 of the excellent Inside History magazine.

Unusually long thumbs were one of the distinguishing features noted by curators at the Australian War Memorial when looking to identify the soldier in the sidecar of this striking photograph.

Sid Carroll’s niece, Noreen Powell, laughs when she recalls the email. “Well, we all looked round and nobody had big thumbs, and I don’t think he had big thumbs either. I think it was the way the photograph was taken, the thumbs were prominent in it.”

The AWM had narrowed the sitting soldier to one of three men. His uniform showed that he had served at Gallipoli (the small A on the left arm indicated ANZAC service), was in the 13th Machine Gun Company that merged into the 4th Machine Gun Battalion (the circular unit patch on the left arm with the crossed machine guns underneath), had received the Military Cross (ribbon on chest) and was a Lieutenant (the two pips on his shoulder).

The physical description of Sid in his enlistment papers also matched, although Noreen says she was intrigued by one detail. “When he enlisted they said ‘hair – fair’ and his hair was a dark red! I suppose red heads are all fair.”

Sid had come to Australia from New Zealand in 1895 with his older brother Dalton “Jack” Carroll, who was 10, to live with their father’s sister, Ellen Leahy, and her husband Patrick “Paddy” Leahy, who had founded the real estate agency P. Leahy in 1890. When Sid enlisted in January 1915 he gave his brother as next of kin, care of P. Leahy, and thankfully the real estate agency is still there today and still in the Carroll family! The business has even retained the company letterhead collected in the service records.

Shane Carroll, Sid Carroll’s great niece, in the office of P.Leahy Real Estate
Shane Carroll in the office of P. Leahy Real Estate

Shane Carroll, Sid’s great niece, said her knowledge of Sid’s war service was a bit vague. “We knew he went to war. Did he die in the war? No, he was killed in a car accident [in 1942]. And that was the end of the story, that was all the grandchildren ever really knew.”

The search for Sid had the family digging through old scrapbooks and they found a number of photos of him, including one taken at Gallipoli. “With a bit of forensics,” says Shane, “the Australian War Memorial narrowed it down and lo and behold this extremely handsome man in the sidecar of the motorcycle was definitely Sid.”

“They were quite adamant it was him,” says Noreen, “and so was I.”

Doing our bit, Mosman 1914-1918

There is lots more to learn about Sid. Local newspapers of the time take pride in a man they describe as a ‘a well known Mosman boy’ and ‘a prominent member of the Mosman Swimming Club.’ Mosman Library’s community commemorative project Doing our bit, Mosman 1914-1918 aims to tell these stories for another generation.

The project is being lead by digital historian Dr Tim Sherratt, who is pioneering a new approach to connecting records across archives, museums and libraries. Linked open data will underpin the Mosman website from the start, allowing ‘big picture’ collections – like those of the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia – to connect to local stories, and for families like Sid’s to follow their Anzac’s journey on the big stage.

A Build-a-thon kicked off the project in August. This month Mosman Library holds an Open Day and Scan-a-thon to help people digitise their photos, postcards and diaries and share stories with volunteers and experts.

Noreen still has vivid memories of Sid, who she describes as larger than life. “Personality plus! Everybody loved him and he enjoyed life to the full. He married an actress, so that was the sort of person that he was. They were very happily married.”

Inside History

This piece was originally published in Issue 13 of Inside History magazine.