Norman Thomas LEE
Eyes grey, Hair dark, Complexion fair
Norman Thomas LEE (RAN), aka Sydney Harold ATWELL (AIF)
Can you help to identify Norman?
Norman’s body was recovered by the Germans after the battle, but there are no records of his burial. There is still a chance he might be identified, but we need help. He died in the German lines and his name is on the German Death List.
A mass grave was found in 2008 that the Germans dug for 250 bodies they had recovered after the battle. 166 of these soldiers have been identified and given proper burials and recognition through finding family DNA donors. 84 soldiers remain and some identifications are highly likely. We just need to find DNA donors.
If you know anything of Norman’s contacts here in Australia or his relatives in England, we would like to hear from you.
See the DNA box at the end of the story for what we do know about his family.
Norman Thomas Lee was born on 9th February 1894 in Inverell, a town on the northern tablelands in New South Wales, not far from the Queensland border. He was the fourth of six children of parents William Joseph Lee and Frances May Varty.
Norman’s parents married in Inverell, New South Wales in 1887 when William was 28-years-old and Frances was 19-years-old. William’s work as a carpenter and Clerk of Works saw the young family moving to towns such as Bourke, Bathurst, Ashfield and Inverell.
A family tragedy
In January 1897 Norman’s eldest sibling, 8-year-old sister Maud, fell from the balcony of the Crescent Coffee Palace in George Street, Sydney, and died of head injuries in the Sydney hospital. Norman was three years old at the time. This tragedy was followed by the death of Norman’s paternal grandfather (William Lee, senior) in June 1898 in Sydney.
The Lee family moved to Perth, Western Australia, perhaps to take solace with Alfred Lee, Norman’s great-uncle, who had settled there after emigrating from Quainton, Buckinghamshire, England in the 1850s. Norman’s sister, May Isabel was born in Perth in 1899, and his brother, Laurence, in 1902. There are records of Norman’s father having worked as a carpenter for the West Australian Railways between 1902 and 1903.
By 1904, the marriage was over as Frances married Lorenz Petersen in 1904, and from this marriage Norman’s half siblings Olga, Peter and Mary were born.
Joining the Navy – 3040 Norman Thomas LEE
On 26 April 1913, Norman, aged 19 years, enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy (service number 3040) for a five-year term. He began his naval career with three month’s training attached to HMAS Cerberus before transferring to HMAS Encounter in August 1913.
His enlistment papers named Norman’s father at his next of kin giving his address as 8 Brisbane Terrace, Perth (where his mother Fannie was living) so it appears that the family maintained contact over the years. In turn, Norman (c/- HMAS Encounter ) was named as next of kin on his father’s death certificate when William died of heart disease on 15 March 1914 at the People’s Palace in Pitt Street, Sydney.
HMAS Encounter went to sea on 6th August 1914, two days after war had been declared, assigned to the Pacific Station. She captured the German-controlled Zambezi on 12th August, and on 14th September supported the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force in the bombardment of Toma Ridge. The first RAN ship to “fire in anger”, HMAS Encounter provided cover for the landing at Madang on 24th September 1914. A month later, she was serving in the area of Fiji – Samoa, capturing the German sailing vessel Elfriede on 25th April 1915 whilst on her patrols. Accordingly, Seaman Norman Lee was amongst the first Australians to see action in WW1.
HMAS Encounter returned to Sydney for a refit and to prepare to sail for Fanning Island on 12 July 1915 to land a garrison for protection of the cable station – a vital communication asset to be protected from German sabotage.
On 1st July 1915, Norman Thomas Lee was reported as being a deserter from HMAS Encounter at Sydney. Just one day later, on 2nd July 1915, Norman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as Sydney Harold Atwell in Liverpool, New South Wales. It is probable that Norman was keen to join the war efforts in Europe rather than continue with mainly defensive activities in the Pacific.
Service in the Australian Imperial Force – 2779 Sydney Harold ATWELL
When he enlisted, Norman nominated his mother, Mrs. Fanny Lee, Brisbane Terrace, Perth as his next of kin.
Norman’s rank on enlistment was as a private in the 9th Reinforcements for the 4th Battalion, and his service record shows that his unit left Sydney on the HMAT A8 Argyllshire on 30 September 1915. He was officially taken on strength with the 4th Battalion at Tel el Kebir on 6 January 1916.
He was transferred to the 56th Battalion on 16 February 1916 as part of the post-Gallipoli reorganisation of the AIF. He was then detached to the school of instruction Zeitoun on 4 March 1916 for four weeks training and thereafter transferred to the 14th Australian Machine Gun Company (MGC) on 10 March 1916.
“Shot dead in the German second line of trenches”
Norman re-joined his unit from detachment on 25 March 1916 and embarked from Alexandria on 19 June 1916 to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was killed in action on 20 July 1916 in the Battle of Fromelles and his remains were never found. He is commemorated at VC Corner, Fromelles.
Efforts were made to find out what had happened to Norman. On 22 February 1917, 2nd Lieutenant G. Phillips, of the 14th MGC, wrote that he had a first-hand account from Private J. C. Peacock who told him Norman had been shot in the German lines. Following Red Cross enquiries, Private 2968 Joseph Charles Peacock wrote on 3 March 1917 from France saying:
“In answer to enquiries concerning S. Atwell he was shot dead in the German’s second line of trenches at 6.30 o’clock on the morning of 20.7.16 & we had to leave him there. I am sure that he was killed instantaneous for I was with him on the gun……. As far as I know he was under his own name. He had been on one of the battleships before he enlisted that was the reason he was under another name……….P.S It was in the stunt at Fromelles that he was killed”
A week later, the Red Cross sent Private Peacock a letter (Red Cross file, page 13) thanking him and advising that:
…the information you have sent will be of much assistance knowing as we do how much comfort his relatives will derive from the fact that his death was instantaneous…
Of family and friends and letters sent
Norman’s mother, Frances, as next of kin, received word of Norman’s death some time before mid-September 1916. At this time, the first of a number of notices about Norman’s death appeared in the West Australian newspapers, the first inserted by Norman’s older brother William Howe Lee.
William himself had enlisted on 7 February 1916 (service number 344) and was serving in France with the 44th Battalion; he returned home at the end of the war. Another brother, Laurence (Lorenz) Lee, was too young to serve in WW 1 but served in WW2 (WX 14027).
Sadly, Frances would go on to lose another son in July 1942. Her youngest son, Peter Petersen (WX 12348) - Norman’s half-brother – died of wounds at El Alamein in Egypt whilst serving in the AIF 2/32 Battalion.
Frances Varty Lee Petersen died on 6 April 1953, aged 85. She had outlived her two spouses and four of her nine children, two of whom died on active service fighting for Australia.
Friends were also impacted by Norman’s death. On 28 November 1917, the Red Cross received a letter enquiring about Norman from a Private 5198 P. J. O’Sullivan, written from his hospital bed in Clandon Park Hospital, Guildford, Surry, England. The Australian Red Cross replied on 20 December 1917 saying:
…. the action in which he lost his life was of a very indecisive and confused nature and we have never been successful in obtaining a definite and concise account of it…
Private Patrick John O’Sullivan would have known Norman well. Records show that he too had served on HMAS Encounter with Norman and, in June 1915, Patrick, Norman and at least seventeen others were listed in the NSW Government Gazette as having “deserted”. Research shows, however, that the deserters went on to enlist in the AIF within a few days. In Private O’Sullivan’s case he enlisted on 31st May 1915 (dropping the Patrick from his name) and was reported as a deserter on 3 June 1915.
We can only speculate as to how impatient the “deserters” from HMAS Encounter must have felt to return to active service. In previous months they had been involved in history making actions at sea, yet by June 1915 when their desertions appeared in the Police Gazette, they had been in port in Sydney for seven months awaiting the ship's refurbishments. Their actions may well have been inspired by reading the daily news reports from the Western Front. In the first half of 1915 feelings of enthusiasm, patriotism, and a sense of duty were running high in Sydney.
It is worth mentioning here that research regarding the fate of the other “deserters” is moving. A number died in France. Two were promoted to Lance Corporal. Another was promoted to Sergeant and one a Lieutenant. One of these received a Military Medal. A lot of the “deserters” – including Patrick O’Sullivan - went on to serve in WW2. So too, did Charles Lawson Wright (service no. 2923) whose name appeared on the same deserters’ list as Norman. Charles had served on HMAS Encounter with Norman and was also on board HMAT Argyllshire on 30 September 1915. When he returned home, he married and had a family – including a son he named Norman.
While family, friends and fellow soldiers remembered 22-year-old Norman Lee and his service, we would like, if we possibly can, to find and commemorate his final place of burial.
At present, Norman Thomas Lee is remembered at VC Corner in Fromelles (panel 23) and at the Australian War Memorial (panel 178) in Canberra, but we have yet to identify any other WW1 memorials bearing his name - either under the Lee or Atwell surnames.
If you can help identify likely DNA donors, please contact us.
Mt DNA samples (mother’s line) are still being sought for family connections to:
|Soldier||Norman Thomas LEE 1894-1916|
|Parents||William Joseph LEE of Maitland NSW 1859-1914, and Frances (Fannie) May VARTY of Tamworth NSW 1868-1953|
|Siblings||Full: Maud Lee, William Howe Lee, Edna Frances Lee, May Isabel Lee, Laurence Alexander Lee|
|Half siblings: Olga Augusta Petersen, Peter Petersen, Mary Petersen|
|Paternal||William Joseph LEE of Aylesbury, Bucks, UK and Jane WOOD, Kent UK.|
|Maternal||Thomas VARTY of Durham, UK, and Frances WILSON of Clackmannon, Scotland.|
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