James Arthur WILSON
Eyes blue, Hair brown, Complexion fair
A staggering blow
On 9 September 1916, local news reports chronicled the “staggering blow” for George and Isabella Wilson when they received news over a matter of days that their three youngest sons were all listed as casualties – the youngest wounded, the eldest killed and the third missing in action. All three sons were serving in the 53rd Battalion at the Battle of Fromelles.
The reported response from the grieving parents and grandmother was stoic and painted in heroic and patriotic terms as was the norm of the day.
A news report a century later paints a different picture:
“The grief was too much for the Wilson boys’ mother and she died, the family believes, of a broken heart before she knew her youngest son would return home.”
In whatever way the story is told, the blow to the family was terrible.
The Wilson family
In July 1915, three Wilson brothers - Samuel 30 years, Eric 19 years and James 17 years - all joined up together; Samuel and James had ‘adjusted’ their ages claiming to be 29 years and 18 years respectively. James also required parental consent which was given by his father.
These young men were sons of George Wilson and Isabella Cameron Wilson, nee Way, of Hibbard, Port Macquarie. George was an engine driver at the local Hamilton sawmill and Isabella the matriarch for their family of twelve children – seven sons (two of whom died young) and five daughters.
George and Isabella had begun their married life in Majors Creek on the Braidwood Gold Fields, New South Wales. After the birth of their seventh child, Samuel, in 1885 they moved to Hibbard near Port Macquarie where a further five children were born, including the two youngest sons, Eric in 1895 and James in 1898. The Wilson children went to school at Blackman’s Point near Hibbard and Samuel’s sisters often came home with stories of his academic achievements.
By 1915, Samuel had been working away from home at Bangalora as a dairyman while Eric and James were still living at home working as labourers.
Enlisted together and reunited in Egypt
Despite joining up together, only Samuel and James left Australia on 2 November 1915 on the troopship HMAT A14 Euripides. Sam and Jim had consecutive service numbers and were both allocated to the 3rd Battalion sailing for Egypt where they underwent further training. During this time, both brothers were also treated for mumps, one of the leading causes for hospitalization during the war. In February 1916, the two brothers were transferred to the 53rd Battalion as part of the major re-organisation of the AIF post-Gallipoli.
Eric remained at the Liverpool training camp until he sailed with the 1st Battalion on HMAT A15 Star of England on 8 March 1916. Shortly after arrival in Egypt, he too was allocated to the 53rd Battalion re-uniting the three brothers again.
Whilst in Egypt, it appears that the boys from the Hastings River region of Port Macquarie and Wauchope organized a group photo to send home to family and friends. The somewhat grainy copy below is dated February 1916 in Cairo but if the naming of Eric Wilson in the third row is correct it must have been after March as he did not arrive until then. This group includes the three Wilson brothers as well as their maternal cousin Norm Way (1897-1918) who has one arm around Sam’s shoulders and the other resting on Eric’s shoulder – perhaps indicating a warm relationship between the cousins. Norm was a similar age to Jim and, sadly, he was killed in action in France in August 1918.
From Egypt to France
The newly formed 53rd Battalion – including the three Wilson brothers - left Egypt on the Royal George. They arrived at Marseille 26 June 1916 and then entrained to Thiennes, a journey of 62 hours. The Battalion then marched to Estaires and on to Fleurbaix.
From Samuel’s last letter home, it seems that these travels in foreign lands were all still marvelous adventures for the Wilson brothers – though there may have been an element of forced cheerfulness to allay the fears of family at home. The letter below was published in the local paper after Samuel’s death.
The following letter is particularly interesting as being the last received by Mrs. G. Wilson of Hamilton from her son, the late Private S.C. Wilson. It was written in France on July 13th, six days before the gallant soldier was killed:-
Dear Old Mother,
Since last I wrote to you great things have happened. First, we left the land of the Pharaohs, and, after a beautiful trip arrived in France. I could not adequately describe the country in which we are; it is more lovely than I ever dreamed of. As you pass along the railway, there is nothing for miles but vineyards and orchards laden with fruit, and divided from each other by the most beautiful hedges. The houses look so nice with their red tiled roofs, and little flower gardens in front. Further on we came to open fields, and for miles as far as the eye could see were wheat and oat crops, and mingled with them were red poppies, blue and white corn flowers and white marguerites. At other places there were immense hills and lovely woods. One place in particular took my eye. It was a little chateau built close to the river. Behind it there was a beautiful wood, and along the river bank the most lovely garden I ever saw.
After a good train journey we were quartered for a week in a little village not far from the firing line. We had a good time there undergoing final preparations and enjoying a good spell.
We are now right in the thick of it, and I can tell you frankly it is not one quarter as bad as I expected. Our boys are a splendid lot, and a credit to Australia. We were under fire the other night, and they were cool as cucumbers - each man at his allotted task like an old soldier.
All the boys are well, and as happy as song birds.
The Battle of Fromelles
Samuel, Eric, and James were all in Fromelles and fought in the battle with the 53rd on the night of 19 – 20 July.
Samuel gave his life on 19 July 1916 when he held at bay a large German party attempting to come down a sap while a number of men were able to get away. He was then himself killed by a bomb.
There is no record of exactly what happened to Eric only that he died during the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. The army made this formal finding after a court of inquiry in the field in March 1917.
Both Samuel and Eric were listed on the German Death list dated 4 November 1916 and their identity discs were returned to military authorities. His father received both discs in February 1920.
Official files show there were significant delays in news confirming the fate of the three brothers. In one letter from the Red Cross dated February 1917, it seems that the family had not yet had official confirmation of Eric and Samuel’s deaths but also that they had no confirmation as to Jim’s whereabouts.
James was wounded in the neck during the battle and was missing in “No Man’s Land” for ten days. With no ceasefire, it was virtually impossible for either side to rescue their wounded or recover their dead for some time. James was eventually found and recovered from his injuries to return to his unit where he served till the end of the war.
James returned to Australia on HMAT A40 Ceramic arriving in Sydney on 14 March 1919. His mother had died suddenly on 5 February 1919 so did not get to welcome her only surviving soldier son home.
While James was in London (either on leave or convalescing), he met Catherine Stanton who he married in Sydney in 1921. They had a son who they named Eric in his brother’s honour. James became a successful businessman, originally at Double Bay, New South Wales and later at Coolangatta, Queensland where he died in 1959.
The memory of Sam and Eric’s sacrifice lived on into the twenty-first century through the brothers’ siblings, their children and later generations. Family lore records that just a month after Sam and Eric were killed their sister Ethel Munday, nee Wilson gave birth to her first child, a son, while living with their parents, George and Isabella. The emotional turmoil in the household at the time can only be imagined. There was the joy of a new child and grandchild but also the uncertainty, loss and grief of not knowing with certainty the fate of the three Wilson soldiers for many months.
In a 2010 newspaper interview, Ethel’s daughter, Esther Gray, said:
“Their family suffered so much grief not knowing” and went on to add that they “passed on (to later generations) the need to know where they were.”
Certainly, Samuel and Eric may have been lost but they were not forgotten.
Back in Australia, the family eventually received the service medals and memorial plaques for Samuel and Eric and, listed as having no known grave, Samuel’s and Eric’s names were originally commemorated at VC Corner Memorial and Cemetery at Fromelles. They are also honoured on the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and, together with Jim, on two war memorials in Port Macquarie – the Hibbard Public School Great War Honour Roll (now housed in Hamilton House) and the Port Macquarie War Memorial.
Finding Samuel and Eric
The work done by Lambis Englezos and others on the lost soldiers of Fromelles rekindled the flame for the extended Wilson family and they registered with the Australian Fromelles Relatives’ Database. Preliminary research indicated that Sam and Eric were probably buried at the Pheasant Wood site. Subsequent research and family DNA samples confirmed this theory and that, amazingly, Sam and Eric were buried by the Germans side by side. A coincidence or a compassionate act by the German forces?
The Army advised the family on 18th March 2010 that the brothers had been identified and had been buried side by side at the original burial site. They now shared adjoining graves at the new Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery at Fromelles.
The emotional roller coaster was described by Esther Gray, niece to Sam, Eric and Jim, and recorded in two news articles six years apart (written by the same reporter, Lucy Carne):
"I got the call from the Australian Army early in the morning and when they told me I stood there and I could not believe it."
“I kept thinking how sad it was that those two didn’t stand a chance and they lay there forgotten for so long,” “When they were finally identified, it was just so emotional. It’s to do with our mums, their sisters. Their family suffered so much grief in not knowing. They passed on the need to know where they were.”
Fourteen members of the extended family attended the dedication ceremony for Sam and Eric on 19 July 2010. Great nephew, Jim Munday, spoke on behalf of the Wilson family saying:
There were three Wilson brothers at Fromelles that night.
Sam and Eric remain here. Jim returned home too late to see his mother.
She had died from a broken heart, having never seen her sons again.
The family has some tangible memories including Sam’s and Eric’s medals.
However, the intangible memories will last forever in the Wilson Family.
Eric and Sam arrived here together.
They fought here together.
They died here together.
------ they lie here together.
On the family’s behalf, I thank everyone involved for this day.
Sam and Eric were lost but not forgotten. You have found them, and the family will always remember.
On returning home, Jim Munday pondered the responsibility he had been given as the guardian of Sam’s and Eric’s medals. He decided the medals ought to be with Sam and Eric in Fromelles. Consequently, Jim made contact with Martial Delabarre who had been awarded the OAM in 2005 for his work in preserving and promoting Australian military history in Fromelles and who Jim had met at Fromelles in 2010. Jim recalls:
“I returned to Fromelles to assure myself the medals would be on display, not filed and forgotten; Martial has kept his promise. I have now been to Fromelles five times - the people of Fromelles haven’t forgotten our troops on that fateful day.”
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