Who would ever live in Seaforth?

Extract from an email sent by me [Bev Pieremont] to Craig Tibbitts at the Australian War Memorial on 8.7.2010, he required information on soldiers from the 56th Battalion A.I.F. for a book he was compiling on that Battalion.

PERCY WILLIAM WINTLE 3133 – b. 18.12.1892 Bristol UK. He enlisted on 7th July, 1915 in Liverpool NSW and sailed on the Warilda 8.10.1915, trained at Tel-el-Kebir, sent to France. Discharged 1.5.1919, sailed home on the Leicestershire.

Unfortunately he died in 1963 when I was only 22, so there are many questions I didn’t think at that time to ask. He was only 71 when he died, he thought he was 68, but he was an old man on a TPI Pension. Ironically, although his service was barely acknowledged after he returned to Australia in 1919, he was given a job helping the WWII soldiers gain skills after they returned from war, he was employed by the Commonwealth Government in Post War Reconstruction, teaching returned servicemen how to paint houses.

Taking into account his war records, medical records and pay book I collated each entry chronologically to see if I could trace where he was on any given date but unfortunately the pay book only records location as “in the field”, for security I guess.

As a widower, my father raised me from the age of 8. I remember us being glued to the radio on Anzac Day, and the dwindling numbers of men marching in the 56th distressed him.

He didn’t speak much about the war, he mentioned places like Menin Wood, Polygon Wood Passchendael Bullecourt, Somme Ypres and Villers-Bretonneux but I don’t know if he was actually at all these places or not as I haven’t found too much written about the 56th, and he did spend time in England when ill or wounded.

I do know he was wounded on the 23.4.1918, gunshot wound to the left shoulder and he spoke of mustard gas. The date is interesting as that was when the 56th were engaged in liberating Villers-Bretonneux. He was a Corporal and someone of a higher rank saw that he was wounded and threw his coat over my father to protect him and in doing so, saved him from mustard gas. My father believed that whoever did this, received a lethal dose of mustard gas himself. He spent the rest of the war in military hospitals in England.

My father said that many young men didn’t go to war to save Australia or were starry eyed at the prospect of being gallant and brave, they went because times were tough and money scarce and in the Army they would get regular pay, 5 shillings a day I believe it was. Some lads came over from the UK to join the AIF as the English pay was only 1 shilling a day.

He told me some stories about what a dare devil group they were and the tricks they got up to.

The Australians, whilst training, relished teaching young Egyptian boys to swear in English and then sending them to some higher ranked officer to try out the new words.

When my father was training he volunteered to take a message to another base, just to get out of drill, and found he had to ride an Arab stallion, he had never ridden a horse before in his life – and hasn’t since!!

He spoke of the time, during training when his group were expected to march for 20 miles in the desert with a full pack, he and a few of the group broke away discretely and hid in the back of a truck going in the same direction as the marchers. They reached their destination hours before those on the march and waited for them to arrive. Unfortunately the group got lost and when they finally staggered into camp they were in a terrible condition. Everyone was given a medical examination and my father was deemed to have survived extremely well!

He told me of a little dog who befriended him, my father made room for this little dog in his pack and they travelled together all through the training in Egypt. He was heartbroken at having to leave the little dog behind when the sailed for France.

He told me of the cease-fires when both sides would come out of their trenches, collect their dead, exchange cigarettes, have a chat and then go back to killing each other.

He said that one trench was next to an area where slain soldiers had been hastily buried, and one skeletal hand was sticking out of the trench. The men just shook the hand as they moved past, saying “G’day mate!”, some made paper rings for the fingers or put cigarettes between its fingers, he said they had to make light of the situation as they didn’t want some of the more impressionable young soldiers to get ‘the screaming mimi’s’. Shell shock as it was called in those days was frowned upon and humour was a way of counteracting it.

He told me about going from France to England ‘on leave’. The soldiers were alive with lice, the lice were in their clothing and blankets. The soldiers would go into a French town and find a place to have a hot bath, the French girls would clean up their clothes and run hot irons over the seams to kill the lice. They would go to England nice and clean but upon their return to France the first night using their blanket reinfested them.

When my father was in the mud filled trenches he said the soldiers were told under no circumstances were they to take off their boots or putties as that was what was keeping their lower legs and feet in shape. If the boots were removed the feet would swell immediately with fluid. Sometimes the boots were not removed for two weeks!

He did shoot or bayonet one German, he didn’t want to but he came upon this man who had his gun drawn and he said “it was him or me”. He found a postcard of this man’s family in the German’s pocket, he kept that card for years and felt really bad about it. I did see it once, the man was in full uniform. My father felt no anger or hatred towards the enemy, he used to say “they are just doing as they are told, just as we are”. Everyone was angry though at stupid decisions that were made which unnecessarily risked Australian lives.

My father was granted some sort of allotment, a loan to pay off a house and land in Seaforth NSW. My father didn’t visit the house for quite some time and found someone living in the house, so he gave the occupant the house on the condition he made the repayments, as my father said “Who would ever live in Seaforth, you need to get a punt across from The Spit to get there!” Easy come, easy go!!

I assume you have a copy of the book Digger Dialects by J.M. Arthur and W.S.Ramson, published in association with the Australian War Memorial? Many of the expressions my father used are in this book and much of the slang comes from WWI.

added by bern

Bev Pieremont, 2010