Eyes brown, Hair brown, Complexion dark
William Bentley - Son of a Preacher Man and Woman
William Bentley was the son of Edward and Emma Bentley (nee Brown). Devout Methodists, Edward worked as a preacher in his younger years and his wife was a preacher and evangelist by the age of 19. They raised five boys and two girls. In 1911, the family moved from Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire to Marrickville, NSW and were closely associated with the Dulwich Hill Methodist Church.
Edward was the founder of a twine mill in Yorkshire prior to moving to Australia. He then ran a business for a number of years importing twine. In 1911, at the age of 16, William listed his occupation as a twine spinner and most likely worked at his family’s factory.
Into the Army with his mates Percy Barr and George Henry Burgess
With the direct family ties to England and ‘War Fever’ in Australia, William enlisted on 10 July 1915 at Liverpool NSW. He was only 20, but he had the full support of his parents. He signed up with Percy Barr, presumably a good friend as the two young men had 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. On his enlistment papers, William stated his occupation as a mechanic and his father gave permission for him to enlist.
William and Percy and were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 10th reinforcements and were sent for training at the Liverpool Camp west of Sydney. Shortly after this, William’s friend George Burgess joined them, enlisting on 5th August 1915. George was also a native of England, lived in Dulwich Hill and was a member of William’s church. Their church held a farewell for William, George and the other enlistees from their church.
By 8 October, the three were on their way to Egypt, departing Sydney on HMAT A69 Warilda. The new recruits were merged with the existing 2nd Battalion troops who had returned from Gallipoli at the end of December. They were joined at the Tel el Kebir camp, halfway between Cairo and the Suez Canal.
At the time William, Percy and George 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 the three friends were reassigned to this new battalion. ON the 3rd February William was promoted to Lance Corporal. Just 12 days later he was transferred to the 54th 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 guarding 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 were 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”. Source AWM4 23/71/6 54th Bn War Diaries July 1916 page 2
On 10 July they were moved to Sailly sur la Lys and on the 11th, just twelve months since they 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 main objective for the 54th was to take the trenches to the left of a heavily armed, elevated German defensive position, the ‘Sugar Loaf’, which dominated the front lines. If the Sugar Loaf could not be taken, the 54th and the other battalions would be subjected to murderous enfiled fire from the machine guns and counterattacks from that direction.
As they advanced, they were to link up with the 31st and 53rd Battalions. The attack began at 5.50 PM. They moved forward in four waves– half of A & B Companies in each of the first two waves and half of C & D in the third and fourth.
The first waves did not immediately charge the German lines; they went out into No-Man’s-Land and laid down, waiting for the British bombardment to lift. At 6.00 PM, the German lines were rushed.
The 54th were under heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, but were able to advance rapidly, taking the German’s first and second line trenches. Some of the advance trenches were just water filled ditches.
As documented by Private William J. Dewhirst (4476) and their friend George Bentley, William, Percy and George were well into the enemy lines, but at approximately 6.15 PM, only 25 minutes after having gone over the parapet, William and Percy were both killed by the same shell and George was wounded.
George Burgess’s 1917 Red Cross interview for the wounded and missing soldier confirms what William Dewhirst reported, but he also said, “I looked everywhere, but failed to find him”.
The battle went on through the night. The 54th were able to advance and link up with the 53rd on their right and, with the 31st and 32nd, occupy a line from Rouges Bancs to near Delangre Farm.
However, the 60th on their far right had been unable to advance due to the devastation from the machine gun emplacement at the Sugar Loaf, leaving this flank exposed.
With heavy losses and the German counterattacks, the Australians were eventually forced to retreat. This was complicated by the fact that the exposed right flank of the 54th had allowed the Germans access to the first line trench BEHIND the 54th/53rd and the German advances in the trench had to repelled to get back to their own lines.
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, of the 982 soldiers of the 54th that left Egypt, initial roll call counts were: 73 killed, 288 wounded and 173 missing.
William, Percy and George were among this huge toll. Ultimately, 172 soldiers were killed in action or died from their wounds.
Of this, 101 were missing and declared killed in action. However, as of 2023, 26 of these missing soldiers have since been identified by DNA testing from a German burial pit of 250 soldiers that was discovered in 2008.
These soldiers are now properly buried in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
William was initially reported as missing in action, but by 28 July he was confirmed as killed in action. His family was advised soon after the battle. In September 1916, they posted this tribute to him. Throughout the years, family and friends posted remembrances for both William and Percy.
William’s body was recovered after the battle and he is buried in the Rue de Bois Military Cemetery, Plot I, Row F, Grave No. 42, Fleurbaix, France. While William and Percy died together, Percy Barr’s ID tags were recovered by the Germans, suggesting they would have also recovered his body.
However, he is reported as being buried in the grave next to William, but with the caveat “Believed to be 3006 Barr”.
George was wounded, but survived the War. After returning, he married William’s sister Annie Elizabeth Bentley in 1919.
When the headstone inscriptions were sent to William’s family for approval by the Imperial War Graves Commission In 1922, Emma requested that the words from his favourite poem be inscribed on his tombstone.
Below is William’s favourite poem and according to his mother, he carried it on him throughout the war.
THIS IS LIFE
'"I have planned much work for my life," she said,
A girlish creature with golden hair,
And bright and winsome as she was fair.
"The days are full till, he comes to wed;
The clothes to buy, and the home to make
A very Eden for his dear sake."
But cares soon some to the wedded wife;
She shares his duties and hopes and fears,
Which lessen not with the waning years.
For a very struggle at best is life;
If we knew the burdens along the line
We would shrink to receive this gift divine.
Sometimes, in the hush of the evening hour,
She thinks of the leisure she meant to gain,
And the work she would do with hand and brain.
I'm tired to-night; I am lacking power
To think," she says; "I must wait until
My brain is rested, and pulse is still."
O woman and man, there is never rest!
Dream not of leisure that will not come
Till age shall make, you. both blind, and 'dumb.
'You must live each day at your very best;
The work of the world is done by few;
God asks that a part be done by you.
Say oft, of the years as they pass from sight,
"This is life with its golden store;
I shall have it once, but it comes no more."
Have a purpose, and do with your utmost might;
You will finish your work on the other side,
When you wake in His likeness, satisfied.
Written by Sarah Knowles Bolton.
Source: "Tags of Verse." Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1919) 16 November 1895: 38. Web. 28 Jan 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71216124
William is remembered with honour.
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