William Joseph CUCKSON
Eyes brown, Hair brown, Complexion fresh
3032 Private William Joseph CUCKSON 14th Brigade, 54th Battalion
Like many others on this site, this is a story of a soldier lost at Fromelles but it also touches on other Cuckson family members who served in the AIF - including a brother only found as an indirect result of the recent efforts to identify William. In addition, it documents a series of coincidental Fromelles connections over the years and across the generations. We acknowledge with thanks the work by William’s great nephew, Geoff Cuckson, - on whose articles much of this story is based - and by many others directly and indirectly connected with this soldier. Thank you.
Balmain-born William was eldest brother to three boys and four girls who were orphaned as youngsters following the premature deaths of their parents in 1899 and 1903. At the time of their mother’s death in January 1903 the eight Cuckson children were aged from four to fifteen years.
The parentless children were sent to different orphanages and care facilities around Sydney and lost to each other for many years. Some were reunited in the early 1900s but despite efforts by two of his older siblings in particular, the second youngest (John Ernest) was lost completely to his family when he was taken away in 1903, only six years of age.
William, a labourer, had enlisted in July 1915 and was killed in action at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, his 27th birthday. He had no known grave, but his name appeared on the German Death List and his identification disc was returned to his eldest sister, Kathleen, as his nominated next of kin.
Almost a century later, the mass burial site at Fromelles was discovered and finally, to the great joy of the extended Cuckson family, Private William Joseph Cuckson was one of the initial seventy-five soldiers identified in March 2010.
A second brother served - 2164 Private Victor CUCKSON, 8th Battalion
William’s younger brother, christened Thomas Victor Cuckson 1893-1962, enlisted in February 1915. Known as Victor, he was 21, single and working as a butcher. Like William, he nominated his eldest sister, Kathleen Burns (nee Cuckson) as next of kin.
Victor served in Gallipoli, Egypt and the Western Front principally with the 8th Battalion but with some short periods with the 65th Battalion. He was wounded in action and suffered several bouts of illness requiring hospitalisation during his four-years of service. Returning to Australia in 1919, he went back to his trade as a butcher, married and raised a family. He volunteered again in World War 2 as an auxiliary and died in Port Melbourne in 1962.
A third brother found – 1129 Private Ernie HAND
As part of the DNA identification process, Geoff Cuckson - a grandson of Patrick, the youngest of the eight orphaned children - had checked numerous certificates and provided a detailed family tree. While the identification of William at Fromelles was successful, Geoff felt that his grandfather’s family was still incomplete, and he wanted to find John Ernest.
And so began a period of intensive checking of Catholic Archives, Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, Family History Groups etc, and unexpected contact with members of a previously unknown family in New South Wales. This eventually led to the amazing discovery of the whereabouts of the long-lost John Ernest Cuckson – buried in an unmarked grave under a different name.
John Ernest had spent over five years at St Joseph’s Boys Home, Kincumber South, near Gosford in NSW, before being informally adopted. He then lived as a son of Mr & Mrs Henry Frederick Hand, well known wheelwrights and coach builders in the Macleay River area of northern New South Wales.
In 1916, he enlisted with the AIF as 19-year-old blacksmith under the name Ernie Hand with consent given by his adoptive mother, Agnes, and his next of kin listed as his father, Harry Hand. Ernie was sent to England with the 36th Battalion before transferring to the 55th as part of the September reinforcements following the Battle of Fromelles.
In a later battle, Ernie was gassed and spent several periods in overseas military hospitals. He returned to Australia in 1919 – coincidentally on the same troopship HMAT A72 Beltana that took him to England three years earlier - to live a generally lonely, unwell life as a military pensioner. Ernie remained single and eventually succumbed to the effects of the gassing and died in 1970, aged almost 74, at Kempsey, New South Wales.
It appears that Ernie knew he was adopted and made attempts in the 1950s to find family but was hamstrung by remembering so little of his early life, even being unsure of his birth name. It seems these efforts bore no fruit for Ernie at the time.
While this letter did not assist Ernie, it was a key piece of the puzzle for Geoff to determine that Ernie Hand, was the missing sibling, John Ernest Cuckson. He had been found.
To ensure that Ernie’s contribution to his country and society did not go unnoticed, the Office of Australian War Graves approved Geoff’s application to have a military headstone erected on his previously unmarked grave.
An official ceremony was conducted in July 2013 with approximately seventy people in attendance. Many of those were descendants of his biological Cuckson siblings who had travelled from Victoria. Details were given of those siblings, with a particular reference to William Joseph, killed at Fromelles.
Coincidences and Connections # 1 – Brothers in arms
In July 2010, members of the extended Cuckson family travelled to France to attend a very special ceremony at Fromelles. 249 of the 250 soldiers found at the mass grave had been re-interred at the new Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in February 2010. On the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, the body of the last remaining soldier was to be laid to rest as part of the commemorations as well as the dedication of the headstones for those soldiers who had been identified - including their family member, Private William Cuckson.
Three days before the July commemorations, the Cuckson family left Paris by train for the northern battlefield city of Lille as their “jumping off” place to visit Fromelles. On boarding the north-bound train, they found they were sharing a spacious carriage with another group of Aussies for the same celebration. The two groups were the only travellers in that carriage and excited introductions led to stories amongst the newly found friends. One of the new group, an exuberant Annette Darling Tebb, shared her story of seeking and finding details of a long lost member of her family, one of the “19th of July Boys” -3331 Lance Sergeant Ernest Jentsch, 53rd Battalion.
The Cuckson family knew that their William had been buried just two plots along from the vacant grave that was to receive the 250th soldier as part of the commemorations. Comparing notes, the two families discovered that Ernest Jentsch had been buried in the grave between William and the vacant plot. What a special place!
WOW!! Here, on a train in the middle of northern France, three days before a special event marking a battle that has changed Australian military history, two families, with no previous connection, met to find that their long-lost soldier relatives were buried side by side in the newly created cemetery.
Wherever possible, authorities conducting the exhumation and reburial of the 250 “19th of July boys” tried to ensure that the soldiers were buried with, or as close to, those who they were found with in the Pheasant Wood pits. To that end, it is believed that Jentsch and Cuckson may have lain together for almost 94 years in the original pits; now identified and, with dignity, they are buried side by side in the wonderful new cemetery.
Coincidences and Connections # 2 – Degrees of separation
After the ceremony and great emotion at the opening of the new cemetery in July 2010, Geoff Cuckson and other members of his extended family returned to the cemetery a couple of days later. They spent time quietly reflecting on what might have happened all those years ago where so many lads lost their lives. Geoff also took the time to take additional photos. Along with the obligatory pictures of William’s headstone, Geoff described how he took a few extra shots at random including:
“…headstones that took my interest at that time. The Wilson boys… Harry Willis from my home area of Gippsland… W Pheasant buried at Pheasant Wood…. and, for some unknown reason, Fred Dyson from the Macleay River. A stone from that river had been placed on his headstone – how very moving!”
On researching some of the names that piqued his interest, he noted that 3560 Private Frederick A. Dyson had served with William Cuckson in the 54th Battalion for some time and both had been killed in action at Fromelles. Fred was from the Macleay River area in northern New South Wales and had enlisted at Kempsey.
He also realised after solving the mystery of the missing John Ernest Cuckson - known after his adoption as Ernie Hand - that it was more than likely that Ernie and Fred Dyson would have known each other. Both were of a similar age enlisting within three months of each other, both aged 19. Both lived in Kempsey in the Macleay River area and both enlisted from there. The addresses given for their respective fathers as next of kin (Sherwood and Greenhill, Macleay River) are only a little more than 10 kilometres apart. So, it is quite possible that Fred unknowingly served and died with the biological brother of a fellow Macleay River resident.
And who was in attendance at the 2013 ceremony to properly mark the grave of Private Ernie Hand, brother to William Cuckson, none other than members of the family of Private Fred Dyson from Macleay River.
Coincidences and Connections # 3 – Mates together – across generations
In the mid-1970s, two young families, unknown to each other, and from separate parts of Victoria, moved to settle in the Western District town of Hawkesdale, a small rural community some 40km north of the coastal city of Warrnambool.
Having young children of their own, sheep farmers Doug and Rosalie Cozens, and Post Office operators Geoff and Sue Cuckson became good friends and involved themselves in the many activities within that close-knit community. With two young lads each at the time, the Scout Group beckoned for Doug and Geoff to take on leadership roles within the local movement. Many a cold sleepless night was spent overseeing troop camp outs and the men revelled in their involvement with, and leadership of, active teenage lads.
As it does, time marched on and the families went separate ways: Cuckson and his family relocating to Gippsland whilst Cozens remained local on his well-cared for sheep farm. Although they retained contact from afar, little did the men know that their close connection would resurface three decades later from the other side of the world.
Fast forward to 2009 and the work relating to the burial pits at Fromelles. Authorities released a carefully constructed list of possible identities for the men buried in the pits and there in the alphabetical list, just five spaces apart were:
210 Private James Alfred Cozens 5th Brigade, 29th Battalion from Horsham
3032 Private William Joseph Cuckson 14th Brigade, 54th Battalion from Sydney
These soldiers are earlier family members of both of those 1980s scout leaders - Doug Cozens and Geoff Cuckson. As we know, William Cuckson was identified in 2010 as part of the initial group of 75 soldiers but sadly, Private James Cozens, has not been identified and remains in an unknown grave.
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