Eyes blue, Hair fair, Complexion fair
The Family Story Back Then
Matthew Hepple who now lies in the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles, was born and lived in a small coal mining village called Kearsley, which is located, some five kilometres from Cessnock, New South Wales
The picture below shows Kearsley (circa 1956) with the coal mine in the background. Matt worked in that mine, as did his two sibling brothers, his father and many other family members. Matt lived in the home highlighted with the blue arrow (still in original condition).
Matthew followed the same path as so many others, joined the AIF in 1915 because of a (damn) white feather, served in Egypt, and then spent three weeks in France before being placed into a battle where so many were lost.
He was an avid correspondent writing by every mail with the family treasuring the 30 letters he sent home over a period of just less than nine months. In a letter from France published in the local newspaper (extract below), Matt describes leaving Egypt and his first experiences of France:
"We had about a week's voyage over here from Egypt, and it was just the thing after the sun and sand of that country. The only thing wrong was the tucker. There was not enough of it, though it was good. I suppose the sea voyage gave us good appetites. We had a three days' ride in the train, and the scenery was beautiful it looked like one lovely wheatfield………… Yesterday I had a game of skipping with two little girls near where we are billeted. We are among the farms, and 35 of us are camped in a barn……………. I had a run to the town, and went inside the Cathedral, and the sights there are lovely."
An extract from Matt’s last letter dated 3 July 1916 proved sadly prophetic:
An extract from Matt’s last letter dated 3 July 1916 proved sadly prophetic:
"I suppose I may as well get in & write as many as I can, after our next move they may come to a sudden stop."
As history now shows, the Battle of Fromelles commenced on the evening of 19 July 1916 and the exact details of how Matt met his fate remain unknown.
Captain Jim A. CHAPMAN, 30th Battalion, gave evidence on 28 January 1917:
"While leading my platoon up the sap Pte Hepple was wounded in the hand. I sent him to the Dressing Station and he re-joined me further up the sap. I saw him forward with ammunition and he went over to the German lines. He was the only man I could not account for on the morning after the battle. Reports I collected then stated that he was wounded badly in the right shoulder and last seen in the German trenches..….He was a game kid, as game as they make them. I always liked Hepple he was such a bright and gentlemanly lad and every bit a soldier….."
A second report by 936 Pte James W. McCLENAUGHAN, D Company, 30th Battalion, on 15 January 1917 stated:
"Informant states that on July 20th 1916 at Fromelles Pte Hepple was wounded in the shoulder and made prisoner by the enemy. Note on file. Eyewitness. No, the Adjutant of the Battalion said that he had received information that he was a prisoner."
The Impact on the Hepple Family
There are many gaps in Matt’s story that will never be known but some are filled in part by letters and notes on Matt’s AIF and Red Cross files. The earliest was written by a mate, Private 2927 Oliver EDMONDS, just two days after the Battle of Fromelles.
Oliver EDMONDS served with Matt in the 30th Battalion and was from Neath (about five kilometres from Kearsley) and a friend of the family - perhaps a friend of Harry, Matt’s older brother, as they were of a similar age. Oliver wrote to Matt’s parents beginning with the well intentioned raising of “hope” – but it was eventually devastating to the Hepple family as they lived with that hope and dreadful uncertainty.
Initially, following the attack of 19 July 1916, Matthew was listed as missing in action. As his remains were never found – and his ‘ID tags’ were not handed to the Red Cross, the Australian Army were unable to provide any certainty to his family as to whether he had died in action.
His parents contacted many officials to gain some knowledge of what had happened to their son, and to read their letters on his AIF file is heartbreaking. Late in 1917 it was finally accepted that he had died in action on 19/20 July 1916.
Originally Matthew was listed as having no known grave and was commemorated at V.C. Corner (Panel No 2), Australian Cemetery, Fromelles. He is also commemorated at:
- The Australian War Memorial in Canberra
- The Kearsley Remembrance Garden ant
- The Cessnock War Memorial.
Thus ends the “official” parts of Matt’s narrative but it was not the end of the impact on the family.
Down through the years
His father died on the 18th of July 1936. So close to the anniversary of his son’s death - a common element in many of the stories of Fromelles families.
His parents and siblings all passed without knowing of his final resting place - and it is fair to say that until Lambis Englezos researched and ‘started the campaign to exhume the bodies’ extraordinarily little information had ever been published in Australia regarding the Battle of Fromelles and the shocking death toll that came from a single night’s fighting.
Matthew’s nephew, Royce Atkinson, recalls:
“My childhood memories are somewhat constrained. Matthew was my mother’s brother, and she passed when I was three, thus I lived away from home for many years. That said, I have no memories that his name was ever mentioned, even though a picture was prominently displayed in the family home. It was only in the late 1960s that my father when asked, added to my knowledge.”
For decades, family members have treasured a number of items in memory of Matt.
This includes memorial items issued by the military and official channels:
- the ‘dead man’s penny’ and memorial scroll issued by the King to families of those killed in the war,
- the record of Matt’s commemoration on the VC Corner Register and the booklet “Where the Australians Rest” that describes cemeteries overseas where Australian soldiers were buried.
- In addition, they have held dear more personalised items including a Rising Sun Australian badge and a keepsake pendant featuring photos of Matt, his mother (Elizabeth) and sister (May).
- Another item is a personalised medallion presented by the Abermain colliery to Matt’s family as a tribute to the memory of employees’ service abroad.
At left is the keepsake pendant with the photo of May Hepple 1903-51 with her mother Elizabeth Hepple (nee Pratt) 1867-1947.
Centre is the other side of the pendant with the photo of Pte Matt Hepple 1897-1916.
At right is the presentation medallion from the Abermain No 2 Colliery employees as a tribute to the memory of Matthew Hepple.
The front (pictured) is personalized with the 30th Battalion colour insignia and engraved (at top) France where Matt was killed in action and (at bottom) MH, his initials. The reverse of the medallion is engraved Services abroad 1919.
And to the Current Day
By the time of the exhumation after Lambis’ extensive campaign, the family knew that Matthew was reported as being in the German trenches and had been killed in action. The wonderful news that DNA samples had been matched caused ten of the extended family to travel to Fromelles in 2011 to pay homage to their long-lost family member at the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery.
Whilst in France, the family were overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of those they now know as their “Fromelles family”. As Royce Atkinson recalls:
So, there were we, crying with the emotion, thinking of our past family members, and crying because we had a place of pilgrimage when we knew that so many other families could not hope for such.
A lifetime memory was that all ten family members were invited by Madame De Massiet to afternoon tea – 10 Aussies, about 10 of the Moreel and De Massiet family and only 1 who could translate! My goodness, what a treasured few hours, and a lifetime of memories!
In recent times, footage of a burial at the Pheasant Wood Cemetery in 2010 featured in a documentary named “The Lost Battalions”. Lambis Englezos started to query the identity of the soldier but close scrutiny of the vision could not comprehensively identify whether it was Matthew Hepple being re-buried, or a burial in a very close grave. Geoffrey Bouillet, who is based at the Musee de Bataille Fromelles was able to study the vision and to carefully compare it on-site against the "ground". After meticulous review, Geoffrey has concluded that the burial is that of Matthew, and after reading his report one can only agree with his findings. The family acknowledge and thank Geoffrey and Lambis, for without their many questions, commitment and research, the relationship of this film with Matthew would never have been known, or proven.
Thus, a most important historical artefact exists that further adds to the knowledge, memorabilia and written documentation of Matthew. See the following YouTube link (about the 38:57-minute mark). The footage is also available on other sites.
And Royce Atkinson, Matt’s nephew, concludes on behalf of his extended family:
"For a man I did not know, who died for reasons I do not understand, who evokes emotions that are deep within me – long may we remember Matt and his mates."
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