Eyes blue, Hair light brown, Complexion fair
Joy and heartache in the search for Alfred
The search for a needed DNA donor is a story in itself, as is the wider impact of the identification of Alfred which occurred in 2018.
During 2013, the Fromelles Association of Australia was contacted by Margaret, wife of the mt DNA donor and a genealogist who had been seeking an elusive Y strain DNA donor for a long time. A friendship quickly formed and several research options and strategies were discussed with her over a couple of years. Sadly, during that time, Margaret developed cancer and had to cease researching as she was also a carer for her husband and the chemotherapy treatment caused significant impacts to her everyday health. In mid-2015, Margaret requested that we take over the research, and so we spent many hours trying to find that elusive donor as quickly as was humanly possible.
We did locate a donor and phoned Margaret and her family immediately. To say she was ecstatic would be an understatement. The following is an extract from her e mail that was received a few days later:
“Also, my research of Alfred Thompson. I had replica medals made for him and your wonderful photo which I have presented in a lovely folder. The display Is to be at our Indoor Bowls Group on Tuesday.
Our grandson who belongs to Air Cadets at Loftus Sydney has been selected to carry a rifle and be part of the Guard of Honour at Woronora RSL where the cadets march in and the guard of honour (4 chosen) to guard the Memorial at the RSL. I am so proud. (Hope it doesn’t rain).”
Sadly, while we did find that donor and were able to put the donor families in contact with one another, Margaret passed before the positive identification results occurred. To this day, every single person who worked on this part of the case feels immense sadness that we just couldn’t deliver the positive outcome before Margaret’s death.
The difficulties of the search
The difficulties of the search were due to the fact that Alfred’s father, George, had married twice. George first married Carolyn Foley and they had three sons and two daughters. Shortly after Carolyn’s death in 1885, he married - as was common in those times, especially if one had small children - Emily Wilson with whom he had a further large family. Alfred was the eldest of their offspring to survive infancy.
Significant time was spent researching Alfred’s brother, Norman, but research could not confirm his paternal link to George and it was considered probable that he was Emily’s son by an earlier relationship and took the Thompson name. Thus, we believe that he didn’t carry the requisite Y DNA - and we were back to square one.
Alfred’s half-brother from George’s first marriage, a Frederick William Thompson, now became the focus of attention. The search commenced in New Zealand, and finally finished in seaside Victoria with the locating of a very willing Y DNA donor, named Brian Thompson.
In Brian’s own words, he describes the shock, and eventual jubilation that a phone call from Marg O’Leary from the Fromelles Association made to his life.
“Being asked for DNA changed my life, as the night before I had been talking about not knowing my family at all, excepting that they came from London. And the next morning Marg O’Leary rang me and asked if I was Brian Thompson – my life has not been the same since. The family tree that Marg sent me confirmed that my Great Grandfather came to Melbourne and had a family which I am descended from. He remarried again after his 1st wife developed and passed from peritonitis. Alfred is the son of that 2nd union, but still, we shared the Y DNA.
Throughout my life no one had ever spoken of Alfred, so you can imagine my deep feelings when asked to donate DNA to the Fromelles Project. Three years ago (2018), my family and I went to Fromelles and together with a wonderful young boy from Cobbers, had the great honour of unveiling the new headstone for Alfred.
I have nothing but admiration for the people of France who so love Australians, and who look after our boys so well. And I just cannot believe the work you guys (the FAA) do, year after year. It’s marvellous.”
Allocated to the 17th Battalion, 22-year-old Alfred completed his initial training before embarking for Egypt on board HMAT A14 Euripides in November 1915. A fellow soldier of the 17th Battalion, Private 2658 James Green kept a diary throughout the war and included the following brief description (transcribed with spelling and grammar as written) of their voyage to Egypt:
“2nd Nov 11.15 embarked on board HMAS Euripides as trained soldiers for the front. Had a splendid voyage, largest number of men ever left Sydney in one transport, branches from all parts of the service.
Time on board being spent in a little rifle & bayonet exercise, fire guards & also submarine guards consisting of machine guns which where placed on conspicuious parts of the deck. After supper had concerts & boxing contest. We arrived at Suez 2nd Dec being exactly one month from leaving Sydney.
We lay off Suez untill the 4th Dec in the early morning disembarked and left in trains for Helioplis the journey being uneventful except when the train stopped, there would be a large crowd of Natives selling fruit and calling for buckshees.”
Quite an adventure for a ship full of young soldiers, many of whom were experiencing their first trip outside Australian waters.
Once settled in Egypt, Alfred was then transferred to the 55th, a new battalion raised in February 1916. Arriving in France on 30 June 1916, the battalion entered the frontline trenches for the first time on 12 July and fought its first major battle at Fromelles a week later.
After the battle, Alfred was reported as missing but later listed as killed in action on 20 July 1916 after appearing on the German death list. Two of the records exchanged between German and British authorities record the death of Private Alfred Thompson at Fromelles on 20 July 1916.
As next of kin, Alfred’s mother, Emily, was notified in December 1916 of her son’s death and, in early 1917, she received his identity discs returned by the Germans. No details about his death appear to have been communicated by authorities but Emily gleaned some details from Alfred’s mates and probably the Red Cross as she wrote to authorities in September 1921 advising:
“Enclosed are 2 slips showing that my son's body was taken by the Germans. As when the stretcher bearer went back to look for him, after takeing (sic) his mate (George Orchard) to the station his body was nowhere about. I found out the name of the place where my son's Division was in action on the 19th July 1916 - (Fermelles) I don't know the correct way to spell it.”
Emily chose not to accept the pension she was entitled to after Alfred’s death, writing to Base Records in May 1917 expressing strong views about the sacrifice her son and others had made.
Emily and the family eventually received Alfred’s medals (1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal) and his memorial plaque and scroll. In addition, his personal effects (a letter and a notebook) were returned to Emily in 1920.
Identified at last
In March 2018, Alfred’s formal identification was confirmed after the mt and Y DNA samples had been analysed. Both the New South Wales and Victorian branches of the family were delighted – albeit with bittersweet thoughts of Margaret who had driven the early stages of the research but was no longer here to see the culmination of her hard work. Nevertheless, her goal was achieved and Alfred was reclaimed by his family. A rededication of his gravesite occurred at Fromelles in July 2018 with the new inscription reading:
Though in a foreign land you lie, our love for you will never die.
Thus ends a story of a soldier’s death, the genealogical search by a lovely lady, and ultimately the identification and erection of a headstone above his grave more than a century after his death.
Vale Alfred and Margaret.
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