Percy George Archibald BARR
Eyes blue, Hair black, Complexion dark
Who is our soldier, buried in Plot 1, Fow F, Grave 43, Rue-Du-Bois Cemetery?
Percy Barr was killed in the Battle of Fromelles at only 19 years of age and his military and CWGC files indicate that he is buried in the Rue du Bois Military Cemetery. His original and subsequent headstones read, “He fought, he died, not for his own, but England’s unsullied name”.
The headstones also carry (and carried) the inscription “Believed to be” Percy Barr, thus confirming that there was (and remains) uncertainty that this is Percy’s grave.
The uncertainty about exactly who is in the grave, is due to two important pieces of information – the ‘believed to be’ inscription as well as the fact that Percy was also identified as being recovered by the Germans and is nominated on the German Death list.
Percival George Archibald Barr was born on 27 December 1896 in Oxford, England to Thomas and Beatrice Maud (nee Archer) Barr. Two years later, they had another son, Stanley.
In 1901, Percy’s family were living at 155 High Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, where his father, Thomas, was the manager of a book shop. When Percy was 6 in mid-1902, the family decided to emigrate to Sydney, Australia.
After their arrival, they settled in at 146 Wardell Road, Dulwich Hill, a Sydney suburb. While Percy was at school, he served for four years in the Senior Cadets, as did many other young men at the time. He became a Sergeant in their 34th Infantry Battalion.
After finishing his schooling, Percy became a “commercial traveler” - a travelling salesman. He also continued an army association as a member of the Citizen Military Forces.
Into the Army with his mate, William Bentley
With the direct family ties to England and ‘War Fever’ in Australia, Percy enlisted on 10 July 1915 at Liverpool NSW. He was only 18, but he had the full support of his parents.
He signed up with William Bentley, presumably a good friend as the two young men
- joined on the same day,
- were assigned Service Numbers 3006 and 3007,
- lived not far from each other in Dulwich Hill,
- were close in age, and
- had migrated to Sydney from England.
Percy and William were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 10th reinforcements and were sent for training at the Liverpool Camp west of Sydney.
By 8 October, the two were on their way to Egypt, departing Sydney on HMAT A69 Warilda. The new recruits were to join with the existing 2nd Battalion troops who had moved from Gallipoli to Egypt at the end of December. Percy and William met with them at the Tel el Kebir camp, halfway between Cairo and the Suez Canal.
At the time Percy and William were arriving in Egypt, major reorganizations in the troops were underway following the heavy losses at Gallipoli and the thousands of new recruits streaming in from Australia. In mid-February 1916 the 54th Battalion was formed and Percy and William were reassigned to this new battalion.
By the end of March, much of the basic training in musketry and bayonet use had been completed for all of the new soldiers. They then marched 45 kilometres in the heat across the sand to begin their duties along the Suez Canal. After arriving at the Ferry Post camp they were rewarded with being able to have a swim in the Canal.
Training continued here and at other sites, but now it also included learning to operate in trenches. At the end of May, Percy was promoted to Corporal.
To the Western Front
The call to join with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front came on 20 June and the 982 soldiers of the 54th left Egypt sailing to Marseilles via Malta on the H.T. Caledonian. After a 10-day trip, the troops disembarked in France and on to trains for the three-day journey to Thiennes, 30 kilometres west of Fleurbaix.
According to the AIF Intelligence reports, by 2 July 1916 the Battalion was billeted in barns, stables and private houses for a week of training. This now included use of gas masks and exposure to the effects of the artillery shelling. It was hoped that these tests would “inspire the men with great confidence”. (AWM War Diaries).
On 10 July they were moved to Sailly sur la Lys and on the 11th, just twelve months since Percy and William had enlisted, they were into the trenches in Fleurbaix. According to official records, the health and spirit of the troops was reported as good.
After a few days’ exposure to the trenches, they moved back to billets in Bac-St-Maur.
An attack was planned on the 17th, so they went back into the trenches. However, the attack was delayed due to the weather and they were relieved at the front by the 53rd Battalion. The weather soon improved and Percy and William returned to the front trenches by 2.00 pm on 19 July in readiness for the attack on the Germans.
The attack began at 5.50 pm. They were under fire from heavy artillery, machine guns and rifles, but were still able to advance rapidly and they occupied the German trenches by 6.00 pm. Some of the advance trenches were just water filled ditches.
Fighting and shelling continued throughout the night. With heavy losses and the German counterattacks, the Australians were eventually forced to retreat. The 54th were pulled all the way back to Bac-St-Maur by 7.30 am on the 20th.
In this very short period of time, about 250 of the 982 soldiers of the 54th that left Egypt were recorded as killed or missing, including both Percy Barr and William Bentley.
As documented by Private William J. Dewhirst (4476) and George A. L. Burgess (2259), Percy and William Bentley were well into the enemy lines. At approximately 6:15, only 25 minutes after having gone over the parapet, they were both killed by the same shell.
George Burgess was a mate of Percy’s and was wounded by the same shell. In George’s 1917 Red Cross interview for the wounded and missing soldiers he said, “I looked everywhere, but failed to find him” and that he had continued to make enquiries about Percy after the battle and had even written Percy’s parents.
Percy was reported as missing in action and his family was advised soon after the battle. The Red Cross sent a cable to the family in October 1916 with a report from Private William King (4248) stating that he had seen Percy lying dead.
However, by January 1917, no further information had been provided by the Army. Percy’s father wrote several letters, but the Army could only advise that Percy was still “missing”. In March 1917, Percy was finally declared officially as being killed in action.
An Uncertain Burial
Percy is recorded as being buried in the Rue de Bois Military Cemetery, Plot I, Row F, Grave No. 43, Fleurbaix, France. William Bentley is in the grave next to him (grave no. 42).
There is some uncertainty about this, however. Percy’s name and correct service number ALSO appear on a death list that the Germans provided as early as November 1916 and in later correspondence.
This suggests that the Germans, not the Australians, recovered Percy’s body. It is possible that Percy and his ID tag had been “separated” during the battle, either by the blast or that his tag was collected by another soldier whose body was later recovered by the Germans, but we’ll never know those details.
The Graves Registration Report of 26 June 1920 notes that Percy’s grave is “Believed to be 3006 Barr”. There were no such caveats about William Bentley’s identification and he was killed by the same shell.
In 1922 when the headstone inscriptions were sent to Percy’s father for approval by the Imperial War Graves Commission, he requested that the “Believed to Be” should not be part of the inscription on the headstone. He argued that the inscription should just read, “He fought, he died, not for his own, but England’s unsullied name”. The main inscription was honoured, but Percy’s headstone still has “Believed to Be” inscribed at the top.
Percy was clearly loved by his family, as noted in his obituaries.
Percy was awarded the 1914-15 Star Medal, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, a Memorial Scroll and a Memorial Plaque. He is commemorated on Panel 158 at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra
While having been born in England, he clearly “died an Australian hero”.
Is a Final Closure Possible?
A further proof of Percy’s identity may still be possible.
If Percy’s body was recovered by the Germans, his remains may be in the mass grave of about 250 soldiers that was discovered in 2008. DNA testing from soldiers’ relatives have been able to successfully identify many of the remains from this grave.
If Percy’s remains are proven to NOT be in the mass grave, then in all likelihood Percy is in his final resting place in the Rue de Bois cemetery and there can be full closure for the family.
Percy’s family has provided male DNA donors for Y chromosome matching, but female donors for the mitochondrial chromosome matching are needed. The Fromelles Association of Australia would like any potential family members who would be willing to provide a sample for DNA testing to get in contact with them.
DNA is still being sought for family connections.
Any information on the families of Beatrice Maud ARCHER or Caroline Pring RESTORICK, who have links to Upottery and Colyton, Devon will be welcomed.
|Soldier||Percy George Archibald BARR 1896-1916|
|Parents||Thomas Havelock BARR b. 26 Sept 1865, Lambeth, England d. 23 Aug 1936, Sydney, NSW|
|and Beatrice Maud ARCHER b. March 1870, Holborn, England d. 3 April 1959, Ashfield NSW|
|Sibling||Stanley Markham Havelock BARR b. 12 Dec 1898 Oxford England d. 5 Oct 1992, Strathfield, NSW|
|Paternal||George BARR b. 11 Dec 1835, Hertfordshire England, d. 8 May 1891, Croydon, England and Martha BELLERS March 1834, Staunton On Wye, England, d. 21 Mar 1868, Surrey, England|
|Maternal||Samuel Markham ARCHER– b. 1825, Devon, England, d. 1887 England and Caroline Pring RESTORICK b. 1829 Colyton, England, d. 28 February 1907, Middlesex, England.|
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