Clifford Nicholls Oates (1893-1916)
Australia's Fighting Sons of the Empire : Portraits and Biographies of Australians in the Great War, NAA

Clifford Nicholls OATES

Regimental Number
Lance Corporal
Known As
War Service
Egypt, Western Front
Prior Military Service
Served for 1 year in the 11th Infantry, Citizen Military Force, resigned
23 Jul 1915 at Perth, WA
18 Nov 1915 from Adelaide, SA, on the HMAT A2 Geelong
Next of Kin
Mother, Mrs Mary Oates, 29 Leonard Street, Victoria Park, Western Australia
Date & Place of Birth
30 Oct 1893, Farrell Flat near Clare, SA
Phillip and Mary Oates, 99 Woolwich Street, West Leederville, Western Australia. Native of Clare, South Australia
Marital Status
Leslie, Lewis, Leonard, Hedley, Gladys
Physical Description
5 feet 11 inches, 163 pounds (180.3cm, 73.9kg)
Eyes blue, Hair light brown, Complexion fair
Church of England
Killed in Action, 20 Jul 1916, Fromelles, France – Aged 20
Place of Burial
No known grave
V.C. Corner (Panel No 4), Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles, France
Positively Identified

Clifford Oates – A South Australian off to War

Clifford “Cliff” Nicholls Oates was born in Clare, South Australia in 1893 to parents Philip and Mary Oates (nee Nicholls), the fifth of their six surviving children:

  • Leslie Philip 1886–1965
  • Lewis Brewer 1888–1956
  • Leonard Hanson 1890–1956
  • Hedley Gilbert (Herbert) 1892–
  • Clifford Nicholls 1893–1916
  • Gladys Clare 1895–1985

Philip and Mary had been married in Iron Side, South Australia, near Burra in July 1885. At some time after Gladys was born, the family moved to Western Australia and by 1899 were living in Victoria Park, Perth. Philip was working as a driver transporting goods. Later, the family moved to West Leederville, just north of Perth.

When Cliff was ten years old, his father died from fever. Cliff attended Perth Boys Central School and was then employed by Messrs Dalgety & Co in Fremantle as an auctioneer. He also served in the 11th Infantry, Citizen Military Forces for 12 months.

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image1png
Dalgety and Co. Building Freemantle Circa 1900 -1910

Cliff’s older brothers were in the car industry and had moved to South Africa to run businesses.

Off to War

Cliff showed up for his Army medical in Perth in July 1915 and was declared fit for service. He was living at his mother’s house at Leonard Street in Victoria Park at the time. He was assigned to the newly formed 32nd Battalion, which was being made up of two companies from Western Australia and two from South Australia. Cliff was assigned to C Company. His initial training was at Blackboy Hill, Perth.

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image2png
Camp of the 32nd Battalion at Blackboy Hill, Western Australia
1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image3png
Group portrait of seven members of C Company, 32nd Battalion. Back row, left to right - Clarence James "Jock" Martin (991), William Edward Junner (973), Ernest John Mellows (1015), Ernest John Mainstone (989).
Front row, from left: Forrest Raymont Turton (1064), Clifford Nicholls Oates (1025), and Allan Wallace Copley (913)

Of the seven soldier shown above, all met various fates:

991 Clarence James Martin was injured during the war and died of war injuries in 1942.

973 William Edward Junner was wounded in action at Fromelles with a gun shot wound to the chest

1015 Ernest John Mellows was transferred to 8th Machine Gun Company and was initially reported as killed in action however he had sustained a gun shot wound to the head and survived.

989 Ernest “Ernie” John Mainstone was wounded in action at Fromelles with Gun shot wound to his foot, he would later serve in WW2 as well.

1064 Forrest Turton was a prisoner of war in Germany after the battle until Dec 1918

913 Allen Copley, a stockman from Cottesloe, Western Australia, prior to enlistment, was transferred to the 8th Machine Gun Company on 9 March 1916 with 1015 Ernest Mellows. Pte Copley was initially reported killed in action on 20 July 1916 during the Battle of Fromelles. He was subsequently reported as wounded in action and the British Red Cross Society (Berlin Branch) records that he died of these wounds at Valenciennes, France, on 25 July 1916 while a prisoner of war in German hands. He was aged 22 years. The other five photographed returned to Australia for discharge at dates between December 1918 and June 1919.

Source: AWM https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1657456

In September, the Western Australians sailed from Fremantle to Adelaide to form the full battalion and continue their training. The 32nd sailed from Adelaide on 18 November 1915 aboard HMAT Geelong A2, headed for Egypt.

As reported in The Adelaide Register:

“The 32nd Battalion went away with the determination to uphold the newborn prestige of Australian troops, and they were accorded a farewell which reflected the assurance of South Australians that that resolve would be realized.”

THE 32ND BATTALION. (1915, December 16). The Register p. 6. <a href="http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59988928">http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59988928

They arrived in December 1915 and went to the large camp at Tel-el-Kebir. A month later they marched to Ismalia, then back to Tel-el- Kebir for February and most of March. The next stop was at Duntroon Plateau and Ferry Post until the end of May, training and guarding the Suez Canal. Their last posting in Egypt was a few weeks at Moascar.

During their time in Egypt the 32nd had the honour of being inspected by H.R.H. Prince of Wales. In May 1916 Cliff was promoted to Lance Corporal. The call to join the British Expeditionary Force at the Western Front came in June 1916 and they sailed from Alexandria for France on the Transylvania. After their arrival at Marseilles, they took a train to Morbecque, near Hazebrouck in northern France.

Theodor Pflaum (No. 327) wrote about the trip in his diary – ‘The people flocked out all along the line and cheered us as though we had the Kaiser as prisoner on board!!’

Source AWM C2081791 Diary of Theodor Milton PFLAUM, 1916, page 8


1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image4png
Map of the scene of the Battle of Fromelles showing troop placements
source Michael Senior, Fromelles 1916, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley England. Reproduced with permission

The Australian 8th Brigade, which 32nd Battalion was a part of, were to assault the German trenches on the left flank, crossing 100 metres of no man’s land to get the trenches. Being on the extreme left flank made their job much more difficult, as not only did they have to protect themselves as they advanced on the German lines, but they had to block off the Germans on their left to stop them from coming around behind them whilst advancing.

All were in position by 5.45 PM on the 19th. Cliff was in C Company and, along with A Company, formed the first and second waves of the attack. The charge over the parapet began at 5.53 PM. The 32nd and 31st Battalions suffered heavy casualties as they commenced their assault, but the men were able to capture the German frontline trenches opposite them.

By 6.30 PM they were in control of the German’s 1st line system (map Trench B), which was described as “practically a ditch with from 1 to 2 feet of mud and slush at the bottom”.

Source AWM4 23/49/12, 32nd Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 11

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image5png
Rough sketch of the trenches occupied by the 32nd Battalion
source AWM4 23/49/12, 32nd Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 14

Unfortunately, with the success of their attack, ‘friendly’ artillery fire caused a large number of casualties. They were able to take out a German machine gun in their early advances, but they were being ‘seriously enfiladed’ from their left flank. There were continued German counter attacks during the night and the Australians maintained their positions until about 3.45am before the Germans were able to penetrate gaps and get access behind the Australian lines.

It was at this time the Australians decided to withdraw from the trenches to have to fight their way back to their lines.

“The enemy swarmed in and the retirement across No Mans’ Land resembled shambles, the enemy artillery and machine guns doing deadly damage.”

AWM4 23/48/12, 31st Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 29

What was left of the 32nd had finally withdrawn by 7.30 AM on the 20th. The initial head count was devastating – 71 killed, 375 wounded and 219 missing. To get some perspective of the battle, when Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, attended the battlefield two and half years later, he observed a large amount of bones, torn uniforms and Australian kit still on the battlefield.

The final impact was that 227 soldiers of the 32nd Battalion were killed or died from wounds sustained at the battle and of this 176 were unidentified.

Cliff’s Fate

Cliff’s fate during the battle is unknown as there are no witness statements or reports on him available. Initially it was reported that he had been wounded and this information was passed to his mother in mid-August 1916. However, the telegram was not able to be delivered to her since she had moved.

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image6png
Report of Cliff having been wounded
source NAA: B2455, Oates, Clifford Nicolls – First AIF Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, page 22

He was not reported as a POW nor was he noted as being on a German ‘death list’ of soldiers recovered from the battlefield. A few weeks later his fate was revised to having been killed in action. His mother was contacted on 31 August. His body, however, remains undiscovered.

Remembering Cliff

“The flag at Dalgety's office was flying half-mast yesterday on news being received of the death of Private Oates, he having succumbed to wounds in France on July 23. Mr. Oates was in the stock department of the company, with a very promising future before him, and his death is a source of the deepest regret to the management and staff.”

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), p. 8. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26990211

His family was clearly distraught. In August 1919 his mother dedicated a memorial plaque and planted a tree in his honour on May Drive, Kings Park Botanical Gardens, Perth.

Even as late as 1950, Ernie Maidstone (989), one of his mates in the 1915 photo of the lads from C Company, placed a memorial notice in the newspaper.

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image11png
Kings Park Memorial - Perth
source Courtesy of Geoff Tilley

Cliff was awarded the 1914/15 Star, British War and Victory Medals and a Memorial Plaque and Scroll.

He is commemorated at:

  • VC Corner Australian Military Cemetery (Panel 4) Fromelles France,
  • Australian War Memorial,
  • Kings Park Memorial
  • Dalgety’s Honour Roll,
  • Victoria Park State School Honour Board,
  • Victoria Park War Memorial
  • and the West Leederville War Memorial.

Can Cliff still be found?

As of 2023, 41 of the 176 unidentified soldiers from the 32nd have been found to be in the German mass grave at Pheasant Wood that was discovered in 2008. Identification has been able to be done by DNA matching from family members.

Cliff may be one of the 77 remaining soldiers in the grave who are not yet identified. Family have kindly submitted DNA to help find Cliff.

Family who also served

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image12png
Hedley Gilbert Oates
source Australia's Fighting Sons of the Empire : Portraits and Biographies of Australians in the Great War, NAA

Cliff’s brother Hedley (Bert) had moved to South Africa prior to the War. He was unable to return to Australia, but he enlisted in South Africa. In World War 2, Hedley’s son / Cliff’s nephew Leonard John Oates was a member of the South African Air Force. Leonard was killed in action on 28 November 1934 while in the Sangro area, east of Castel Frentano, Italy. He is buried in the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in Italy. You can read more about his story here: “Eagles victorious: The operations of the South African forces over the Mediterranean and Europe, in Italy, the Balkans and the Aegean, and from Gibraltar and West Africa", by Henry James Martin and Neil D. Orpen. ISBN: 0868430080

1072-Clifford Oates – A South Austral-image13png
Leonard John Oates’ Headstone in Italy
source Http://www.southafricawargraves.org/search/details.php?id=19174

Cliff’s sister Gladys married Percival John Rillstone in 1918, from Ballarat, Victoria. He had joined the AIF in 1915, was attached to 48th Battalion and rose to the rank of Captain. He was wounded at Pozieres, France and returned to England acting as a Brigade-Major at Headquarters London.

Cliffords Family Tree

SoldierClifford Nicholls Oates (1893–1916)
ParentsPhillip Oates (1861-1903) b Honey Suckle Flat, SA d Perth WA and Mary Nicholls (1861-1942) b Booborowie, SA, d Johannesburg, South Africa
SiblingsLeslie Philip (1886-1965) b Leighton SA m Florence Annie Banfield (1889-1982) b Broken Hill NSW d Fremantle WA
Lewis Brewer (1888-1956) b Kooringa, SA, d Pretoria South Africa m Stella Mary Rawlings (1886-1919) b Richmond Victoria, d Perth WA
Leonard Hanson (1890-1956) b Burra, SA, m Bridget Butler (1890-1981) b Jamestown Australia, d Johannesburg South Africa
Hedley Gilbert (1892-) Farrell Flat, SA, m Pearl Cadden (1891-1981) b Glen Innis, NSW, d Cape Town South Africa
Gladys Clare (1895-1985) b Clare SA, d South Africa, m Percival Rillstone (1889-1970) b Ballarat Victoria, d South Africa
PaternalPhillip Merrick Oates (1836-1931) b Kenwyn, Cornwall, England d Prospect, SA and Adelaide Louise Brewer, (1840-1905) b Adelaide SA, d Parkside WA
MaternalWilliam Nicholls (1831–1878) b Tillingham, Essex, England, d Booborowie, SA Ann Meany (1836–1881) b Thomastown, Kilkenny, Ireland, d Booborowie, SA

The Fromelles Association would love to hear from you

Fromelles Association of Australia


The Fromelles Association welcomes all contact regarding this soldier.
(Contact: royce@fromelles.info or geoffrey@fromelles.info).
We also urge any family members to contact and register with the Australian Army
(Contact: army.uwc@defence.gov.au or phone 1800 019 090).


The Fromelles Association maintains this web site, purely by donations received.
If you are able, please contribute to the upkeep of this resource.
(Contact: bill@fromelles.info ).