William John STEPHEN
Eyes grey, Hair fair, Complexion fair
William John Stephen - Lost and then found
STOP PRESS 24 APRIL 2023
The Fromelles Association genealogical research team found an mt DNA donor in 2017, and two Y DNA donors in 2020. Today, news was released that he has been identified as one of the soldiers buried at Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles, France. We will update his story to include his more news on his identification, shortly.
Rest in Peace, Corporal Billie Stephen.
William “Billie” John Stephen was born in Balmain on the 23rd September 1887, the oldest of three children to Daniel Stephen and Mary Marshall.
“Billie…went to school in Redfern and later to technical college. He became a grocer’s assistant at a grocery in Ryde and was also a member of the Ryde Choral Society.”
He was also an active member of the Dee Why Surf Club.
Billie’s father Daniel was a Senior Sergeant in the NSW Water Police and wrote a valuable book for police at the time Justices Manual and Police Guide (1905). He had arrived in Australia from Banff, Scotland in 1882 and married Mary Marshall in December 1886. Daniel and Mary resided in Burwood until they passed away in 1943 and 1946 respectively.
William’s sister Dorothy Mary was born in 1893, six years after her older brother. She married Leonard Jenkins Beavan, a railwayman, just prior to his leaving for war - service number 2763, 19th Battalion.
While her husband and two brothers were away at war, Dorothy became very involved in the war effort back home including paying one pound (a considerable some for the time) to embroider their names onto a flag in order to raise funds to provide comforts for the men at the Front
Source: Karen Pentland, They rallied to the flag - the people behind Bexley's patriotic flag (2021), page 44-46
The Bexley Flag as it became known was lost for many years but was re-discovered in 2020 with plans made to preserve it for future generations. It has now been beautifully restored and hangs in the Rockdale Town Hall lower foyer.
On Leonard’s return to Australia, Dorothy and Leonard lived in Croydon, New South Wales until he passed away in 1943. Dorothy died in 1973 in Burwood.
William’s brother, Cecil Murray Stephen (1895-1949), had been working as a draughtsman but signed up aged 20, two days after his 27-year-old brother. The brothers were assigned consecutive service numbers, and both were assigned to the 17th Battalion that left Australia during November 1915. Coincidently, their new brother-in-law, Leonard Beavan (19th Battalion) left the same day on the same ship, HMAT A14 Euripides.
Cecil was part of the 17th Battalion serving initially in Egypt and then he saw action in most of the major battles on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. He suffered malaria whilst in Egypt and was gassed whilst in the trenches on the Western Front. Cecil returned home in February 1919 and worked as a salesman, but he was suffering from Effort Syndrome - what we would likely call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. According to records, Cecil never married and resided at his parents’ home until his death in 1949.
William at War
Private 2772 William (Billie) John Stephen left his job as a grocer and enlisted in July 1915 at Liverpool, New South Wales. He embarked for Egypt on board HMAT A14 Euripides on 2 November 1915 with his younger brother, Cecil, and his brother-in-law, Leonard.
While Leonard remained with the 19th Battalion and Cecil with the 17th, Billie was transferred from the 17th to the 55th Battalion on 16 February 1916. This was a part of the general reorganization of Australian troops after Gallipoli and the integration of thousands of new recruits arriving in Egypt.
The 55th Battalion left Egypt for France arriving in Marseilles on 30 June 1916 to then travel by train to Thiennes marching the remainder of the route. They reached the trenches of the Western Front on 12 July. Two days earlier during the march on 10 July 1916, Billie was promoted to corporal - just ten days before his death during the Battle of Fromelles.
In the weeks and months that followed the battle, a number of Billie’s comrades in the 55th Battalion gave accounts of his death. The following first-hand account given on 4 August 1916 was from Pte 2745 James P. O'BRIEN who was with William when he was killed.
“Stephen was in one of the trenches taken on the night of July 19th at Fleurbaix when he was shot through the head as he stood by my side. I took his pay book from his pocket and have it with me (Book produced ...) I felt for his identification disc but could not find it. We retired next morning from this spot and his body had to be left. No doubt he will be listed as missing.”
Later, in November 1916, Sergeant Harrison (55th Battalion) gave a statement about William:
“Killed in a big raid of German trenches at Fleurbaix. He was a good man and acquitted himself very well. Don’t know where buried.”
His family left to grieve.
Having first made enquiries in September 1916, Daniel Stephen wrote a second time to authorities on 5 December 1916 seeking the official record of his son’s death and also the return of his son’s paybook that had been retrieved by his mate, Private O’Brien. It appears that official confirmation of William’s death had ‘crossed in the mail’ having been sent at the end of November. The paybook was sent on to the military paymaster and in May 1917, Daniel Stephen, received his son’s personal effects consisting of: tin of badges, 2 metal rings, razor, photo, holdall, 2 pairs scissors, key, cigarette lighter (damaged), chevron.
After the war, Daniel also received his son’s medals (1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal) as well as the memorial plaque and memorial scroll.
William remembered fondly
William is commemorated at V.C. Corner (Panel No II), Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles and at the Dee Why Life Saving and Surf Club Roll of Honour. His name will be removed from the VC Corner tablets, once his headstone in unveiled on the 19th of July, 2023.
Lost and Found - Search for DNA
When we first drafted this story we were seeking additional DNA donors to locate William’s final resting place. Research had shown family connections all the way to Canada where a descendant of Alexander Stephen (William’s great great grandfather) now lives.
Lorraine Stephen had already assisted by arranging DNA samples from her brother and uncle and, in September 2021, she said:
"Until contacted from Australia, we had had no idea of the connection of our family to Australia. The photo of William actually bears a striking resemblance to my uncle. My brother was happy to help as having been in the military himself he would like to see a fallen soldier get a proper burial.”
Closer to home, Mark Levenspiel from NSW was kind enough to provide a sample of DNA in the hopes of locating William Stephen. On 29 September 2021, he described his response:
“I have very mixed feelings, because it makes me proud, but very sad. I am proud we have a soldier in our family, but sad that it taken so long for him to be at rest, I hope this can help bring closure to his story. Not only for William, but for all the soldiers who gave their lives “
With the announcement today (24 April 2023) that William has been found, we no longer need to seek further DNA donations but wish to thank all involved so far in the research and those involved in the ongoing work to ensure his final resting place is re-dedicated in his honour.
Corporal William Stephen, may you rest in peace.
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