Eyes blue, Hair fair, Complexion fair
Two (Too Young) Brothers Keen to Serve
John Gordon was born on 18 September, 1900 in Collingwood, Victoria, the second son of William and Ellen Eliza (nee Lewis) Gordon. William and Ellen had married in Port Adelaide where their first son, William, had been born in April 1899 before the family moved to Victoria. William was a printer and Ellen a shopkeeper. A third son, James Byron, died in 1905 as an infant and their only daughter, Ethel, was born in in 1906.
John spent seven years at school in the Collingwood Crèche under the tutelage of Mrs. Kippenberger, matron. The creche was set up to assist working mothers and was one of the first of its kind in Australia. From newspaper reports, it seems that William and Ellen had some volatility in their marriage and there were periods of separation. To support the family, Ellen was running a shop and would have needed assistance caring for their three children.
When war broke out, John and his brother William were very keen to serve. But…… both were well underage being just 14 and 15 respectively! It must be remembered though, that children matured much earlier in this era. Paul Byrnes, author of ‘The Lost Boys’ (2019) commented that:
“There is ‘a stark difference’ in attitudes to age then and now. If a boy left school at 12, as many boys did then, and worked for four years, he thought of himself at the age of 16 as a man. If he then enlisted, that was his independent and mature decision.”
William was the first to try to enlist in March 1915 claiming to be 18, but he was soon returned home after they discovered he was just 15.
In July 1915, the two young brothers both tried their luck with the recruitment teams. William succeeded first enlisting on 7 July using John’s name and again claiming to be 18. Later that month, John also claimed to be 18 and – presumably avoiding his own name as his brother had already borrowed it! - was successful using his deceased brother James’ name. What a tangled web!
It seems that their parents may have been accepting of their sons’ enlistment ambitions as they were listed as next of kin and John also provided a letter of consent from his father, who wrote, “I hope that you will do the best you can for him.” And, what does that mean! John was assigned to D Company in the newly formed 29th Battalion while William was assigned to the 2nd Divisional Signal Company.
Teenaged John Off to War
After a short period of training in Victoria, John (aka James) – now turned 15 - left Australia with the 29th Battalion on 10 November, 1915. They sailed on the HMAT A11 Ascanius, arriving in Suez, Egypt on 7 December. Training continued until mid-June in Ismailia, Tel el Kebir, Ferry Post and Moascar.
The call to the Western front came in mid-June. On 16 June, the 29th boarded the troop ship Tunisian in Alexandria, heading to Marseilles and arriving there on the 23rd. They took the train to Hazebrouck, on to Steenbeque and by the 26th were encamped in Morbeque, about 30 km from Fleurbaix.
The Aussies were well received by the French. In a letter home from one of the soldiers in the 29th, James Lang of Glengarry, Victoria, wrote: “The French people lined the streets to see us, and gave us a great welcome. Lots of poor women and young girls started crying. No doubt the poor things were thinking of their own dear ones who had gone to the front.”
“The French people lined the streets to see us, and gave us a great welcome. Lots of poor women and young girls started crying. No doubt the poor things were thinking of their own dear ones who had gone to the front.”
On July 29th moved back to Hazebrouck. Gas masks were included in their training for the possible use of “lachrymatory shells” – tear gas. Training was tough and rugged. One day included a march of 16 miles carrying a 75 pound kit, which only the youngest and fittest could complete.
On July 9th they then moved to Erquingham, just outside of Fleurbaix and on the 10th they got their first experience in the front-line trenches. They were back at their billets in Fleurbaix on the 14th. A gas alarm was sounded on the 15th, but there was no effect on the troops in Fleurbaix.
On 19 July, John was with the 29th in the trenches, ready for the attack. The 8th Brigade’s position was on the left side of the 5th Division, in the Cellar Farm area.
By 8pm the soldiers were ready with A company and John’s D company in the front trenches. In their initial charges, many of the men broke through the forward lines of German trenches, looking for what they had been told was a second line. Instead, all they found were a series of shallow drainage ditches.
At 10.00pm, the 30th Battalion was asking for support and D and C companies began carrying supplies over No Man’s Land. Unfortunately, they found that a number of the grenades in these supplies had no fuses.
At 2am the German counterattack began, but, as noted in the War Diaries [AWM], “After a struggle, Germans content to stop at their own trench.”
The attack resumed on their right, but they became exposed in a salient jutting into the German lines and were quickly enfolded by German machine guns. In the end, they basically had to fight their way back to their own lines, 'run for it', or be killed wounded or captured. [VWMA]
The nature of this battle was summed up by one soldier from the 29th: "The novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds, it was like a bloody butcher's shop." [AWM]
When bombardment ceased on the morning of the 20th, the 29th Battalion reorganized and were busy holding their front line, but John (aka James) Gordon was not among those survivors.
The Aftermath: John Gordon – Youngest Casualty of World War I
John was missing in action.
The first confirmation of his death appeared on a German death list dated 4 November 1916. There was also handwritten note on one of the forms that he was believed to be buried in the vicinity of Fromelles. His identification disc was received from Germany in March 1917, but with no information other than that he was deceased.
John was officially listed as killed in action in France on 19 July 1916.
Way too young! In their book Fromelles: The Final Chapters (2013), Tim Lycett and Sandra Playle observed that John "was only 15 years, ten months and one day old" (page 178). They discuss the youngest recorded Australian soldier to have been killed in action and note that John Gordon was one day younger than another lad who died at Gallipoli. In the more recent book The Lost Boys (2019), Paul Byrnes' research shows that John was the 4th youngest. In any case, all agree he was way too young!
His parents received on his behalf the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal. He is commemorated on panel 1 of VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles, France and on panel 115 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
His Brother’s War
John’s older brother William (aka John, per names used on enlistment) went to Europe at the age of 16. He served as a signaller in the 2nd Division Signalling Company in Egypt for more than three years suffering many of the illnesses that soldiers acquired in the tropics including boils, tuberculosis and malaria.
Sapper Gordon returned to Australia after three years’ war service in March 1919 – still a teenager, not turning 20 until the following month. William (1899-1950) did not marry – nor did their sister, Ethel (1906-1973). It seems that William continued to use the name John for various purposes throughout his life and probably did not recover full health after the war.
In 2008, a mass grave was discovered that had been dug by the Germans to bury soldiers from the battle. While there have been efforts by the Australian Defence Force and the Fromelles Association of Australia to identify missing solders by DNA testing, John is not yet among those identified.
In 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH, 7 May 2010, Bridie Smith) reported on the soldiers of Fromelles and noted that one of John’s relatives, Janine Skurray from Adelaide was still waiting to hear if there had been a match. "I'm really keeping my fingers crossed, as they said there were bones found that were from a 15 to 16 year old. I'm hoping that his youth might help identify him," she said. Ms Skurray visited France for the 94th anniversary of the battle. "Even if he is not identified, his name will be there and we will honour him by being there," she said.
Soldier identification work from the bodies in the mass grave is still ongoing.
John Gordon, ‘Little Snowy’
He fought a good fight.
He has finished his course.
He kept his vow.
A Y-DNA donor is still being sought for family connections to
|Soldier||John Gordon 1900-1916|
|Parents||William GORDON, b.1860, Aberdeen, Scotland d.1940, Fitzroy, Vic.|
|and Ellen Eliza LEWIS b.1867, South Australia d.1934, Fitzroy, Vic.|
|Paternal||William Gordon (Scotland) and Unknown|
|Maternal||William LEWIS b.1828, Norfolk, Eng. d.1908, Adelaide, S.A. and Rachel SYMONDS b.1835, London, Eng. d.1929, Adelaide, S.A.|
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