Eyes hazel, Hair black, Complexion dark
Gershun Harbert’s early life
Story text (with some minor edits and additions) is reproduced with permission from the copyright holders, the Australian Jewish Historical Society on behalf of Peter M. Allen.
Gershun Harbert was born Gerszon Chobis in Kolo, Poland/Russia on 11 December 1889, fifteen minutes after his twin brother, Szlama, as detailed in their birth records to Jeremiah Chobis, (c. 1854-91) and Tauba (née Zlotnicka) (1850-97). Jeremiah was a baker and resident of the city of Turek, temporarily residing in the city of Kolo. Gerszon was the youngest of three brothers and had two older sisters.
Jeremiah died in 1891 and, when Tauba died in 1897 leaving the children orphaned, the twin boys were only seven years old and the girls were eight and twelve. Their eldest brother, Gilel, was twenty, so possibly he helped to care for them. Likely due to the dire economic circumstances, but also perhaps in fear of conscription into the Tsar’s army and pogroms, the five Chobis siblings emigrated from Poland to England over the period 1905 to 1912. Presumably speaking only Yiddish, if not also being illiterate, they adopted a variety of anglicized surnames: Harbert, Harbet, Habert and Herbert.
Now known as Gershun Harbert, he sailed for Australia in 1910, while his siblings and their descendants mostly remained living in, or close to, London. Gershun arrived in Adelaide and spent five months there before moving to Paddington, Sydney, working as a tailor. There in 1912, he struggled to sign his naturalisation papers “G. Harbet,” and inaccurately stated his birth date as 12 February 1888. In fact, his AIF enlistment papers - completed by the recruiting officer - show that he used an ‘X’ to mark his signature, again stating he was 27, rather than 25, and he gave his sister as next of kin, Mrs Zelda Posner of Sydney Street, Mile End, London.
It is an extraordinary testimonial to Gershun, that he thought so much of his “new country” that he signed up, and ultimately paid the supreme sacrifice, in the fields of Fromelles.
Enlistment – Gallipoli
Aged 25, Gershun enlisted at Liverpool, New South Wales in the 6th Reinforcement of the 4th Battalion on 29 April 1915 as No. 2173 Private Gershun Harbert and on 16 June embarked on HMAT A63 Karoola bound for Egypt.
He joined the main body of his unit at Gallipoli on 4 August, but the next day - just prior to the battalion’s attack on Lone Pine - Gershun was sent back to Egypt suffering colic and admitted to No. 3 Auxiliary Hospital on 10 August.
After spending three weeks at the Convalescent Camp, Zeitoun, he was re-admitted to No. 3 Auxiliary Hospital with ear trouble, discharged to light duty on 23 September 1915, then was posted to the Overseas Base, Ghezireh, on 4 January 1916.
Egypt then France
Gershun re-joined the 4th Battalion at Tel el Kebir on 21 January and, with the doubling of the AIF, on 16 February was transferred to 56th Battalion. He was one of many of the 5th Division who, in preparing to defend the Suez Canal, made the infamous three-day march across 57 kilometers of desert in full kit. As a result, Gershun was admitted (with many others) to the 1st New Zealand Stationary Hospital on 30 March, suffering heat stroke.
Gershun was discharged to duty on 4 April and transferred to the 59th Battalion on 18 May. They embarked Alexandria on 18 June and disembarked Marseilles, France, 29 June to then entrain to the north of France to join the 15th Brigade at Fleurbaix, 20 kilometers west of Lille.
On 19-20 July 1916 - less than a month after arriving in France - the 59th became embroiled in the AIF’s first major battle on the Western Front, the Battle of Fromelles, which was a disaster for them and the whole 5th Division. Attacking in the first wave, the 59th Battalion's advance faltered far short of its objective, suffering the 5th Division’s heaviest casualties, especially from German machine-gunners on the Sugarloaf.
Gershun’s record does not give any details of the circumstances of his death. He was posted ‘missing in action’, like many of the Division’s 5,533 casualties, which included 35 of the 59th Battalion’s 39 officers participating. Today, looking back after more than a century, it is not within one’s comprehension to acknowledge how brave the boys of the 15th Brigade were, for they were “mown down, like wheat in a field”. Suffice to say, that there are few records of individual deaths, for there were simply so few who survived to write of what they had seen. Subsequently, “Presumed Buried in No Man's Land at approx. 5J90 43 to 5K02.5.1 Sheet Hazebrouck 5A” was handwritten in his record, the same note as Privates Bezelle Rabinovitch and Edward Samuel, another two Jewish soldiers of 59th Battalion – from some 100 believed to be in the Division.
At under 5 foot 3 inches, Gershun, was a small man, and one who displayed courage beyond description.
It was not until more than a year later that a Court of Enquiry on 29 August 1917 pronounced him ‘Killed in Action, 19 July 1916’. With both parents deceased, his fate was then advised to his sister, Zelda, in London. Her husband, Morris Posner, completed the Roll of Honour circular, inaccurately stating that “Gershon Herbert” was “24 years of age at death.”
As he has no known grave, 26-year-old Private Gershun Harbert’s name is engraved on Panel 16 of VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles, Lille Nord Pas de Calais, France.
DNA donors have been located for Gershun but we are still in need of a second MT and a second Y donor.
Soldier Gershun HARBERT b. 1889 Kolo Poland / Russia d. 1916
Parents Jeremiah CHOBIS b. c1854 d. 1891 Poland and Tauba ZLOTNICKA b. 1850 d. 1897, Kolo Poland
Siblings used surname HABERT / HARBERT / HARBET / HERBERT – all were born in Poland but died in London
- Gilel aka Harris (1876-1944) married in 1902 in Poland to Rose Novitsky
- Golda (c1885-1955) married in 1905 in London to Morris Summers
- Zelda (1888-1963) married in 1914 in London to Morris Posner
- Szlama aka Solomon (1889-1945) married in 1912 in London to Annie Posner
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