Herbert James GRAHAM
Eyes brown, Hair dark brown, Complexion Unknown
Herbert James Graham – “A dauntless lad”
Herbert “James” Graham was born in Dubbo in 1892 to Thomas Albert George Graham and Alice Maria Dulling, the fifth of their six children, three boys and three girls.
Unfortunately, James’ mother passed away when he was just five years old. Thomas remarried in 1906 to Rose Hessler and they had four children. Rose also had four children from her first marriage before her husband died, which brought the total for the combined household to fourteen children! One of her sons from her first marriage, also a Herbert (May), was the same age as James. Thomas was a farmer and ran cattle. The family lived in the town of Geurie, 28 km from Dubbo. Thomas was highly esteemed in the community and was a preeminent member of the Masonic Lodge and the Manchester Unity Oddfellows’ Lodge. James attended school in Geurie and then worked as a labourer, likely on his father’s or a neighbouring farmer’s land.
Off to War
By the middle of 1915 the Call to War was running strong and the small town of Geurie did its part. On 21 September 1915, 23 year old James enlisted at Dubbo. He was assigned to the 20th Battalion, 8th Reinforcements and was sent for his military training at the Liverpool Camp, west of Sydney.
A month later the “Cooee March”, which went over 400 km from Gilgandra to Sydney, came through Geurie and it helped to aid the enlistment of over 300 soldiers. James’ step-brother Herbert May (1698) enlisted on 13 December 1915 and was assigned to the 14th Machine Gun Company, the same Brigade as James.
James departed Sydney for Egypt on 27 December 1915 on HMAT A35 Berrima. As he arrived, 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 at Tel-el-Kebir. On 21 March James was assigned to the new battalion, in D Company. Training of the old and new hands continued.
By the end of March, much of the basic training in musketry and bayonet use had been completed for all of the new soldiers and they were sent to Ferry Post, on foot, a trip of about 60 km that took three days. It was a significant challenge, walking over the soft sand in the 38°C heat with each man carrying their own possessions and 120 rounds of ammunition. After arriving at the Ferry Post camp they were rewarded with being able to have a swim in the Canal.
The troops spent all of May at the front line trenches in Katoomba Heights, 8 miles from the Suez Canal. Herbert May arrived in Egypt in mid-May, so the boys were united before heading to France.
The call to the Western Front to join with the British Expeditionary Force came and on 20 June and the 982 soldiers of the 54th Battalion left Egypt. They sailed on the H.T. Caledonian for the 10 day trip to Marseilles via Malta. After disembarking in France there was a three day train trip to Hazebrouck, 30 km west of Fleurbaix. By 2nd July the Battalion was billeted in barns, stables and private houses in Thiennes 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 moved to Sailly sur la Lys and on the 11th they were into the trenches in Fleurbaix. The health and spirit of the troops was reported as good.
After a few days getting exposed to the trenches, they moved back to billets in Bac-St-Maur.
Major Roy Harrison wrote home on July 15th. With his Gallipoli experience, the tone in this letter was certainly circumspect for the upcoming battle:
“The men don’t know yet what is before them, but some suspect that there is something in the wind. It is a most pitiful thing to see them all, going about, happy and ignorant of the fact, that a matter of hours will see many of them dead; but as the French say ‘C’est la guerre’.”
An attack was planned on the 17th, but it was delayed due to the weather. The weather soon improved and by 2.00 PM on 19th July they were in back in the trenches, ready for 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 each of C & James’ D Company in the third and fourth. Herbert May’s Machine Gun unit followed into battle after the infantry waves. The first waves of soldiers 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. The 14th Brigade War Diary notes that the artillery had been successful and “very few living Germans were found in the first and second line trenches”.
Some of the advanced trenches were just water filled ditches which needed to be fortified to be able to hold their advanced position against future attacks. There was heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, but they 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. They held their lines through the night.
However, 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. By 7.30 AM on the 20th July, the 54th were pulled all the way back to Bac-St-Maur, 5 km from the front.
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. James was among the missing.
To get some perspective of the battle, when Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, attended the battlefield two and half years later, he observed a large amount of bones, torn uniforms and Australian kit still on the battlefield. Ultimately, 172 soldiers from the 54th were killed in action or died from their wounds. Of this, 101 were missing, but 26 of these soldiers have since been identified through DNA testing and have been formally reburied in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
After the Battle
There are no known records of what happened to James during the battle, other than that he was missing. His family were notified of his death shortly after the battle. As was cited in the local paper, his death “cast quite a gloom over the town”.
James was clearly missed by his family. On the anniversary of his death, they placed a notice in the local paper:
Lost to sight, to memory dear,
It’s just twelve months ago,
Since the voice of the cable told,
The dauntless lad in a khaki suit,
Was killed in France.
Curiously, amongst all the chaos from these battles, there is a handwritten comment in his records that said James WAS buried, at the St Riquier British Cemetery. However, this cemetery is 100 km from Fromelles. The soldier (also from the 54th Battalion) that is buried here is Harold Graham (1606) who died exactly two years later than Herbert James Graham (3543).
James was awarded the Victory and British War Medals, a Memorial Plaque and a Memorial Scroll.
He is commemorated at:
James was not the only war casualty from the family. Herbert May (1698) had fought with James and did survive at Fromellles, but he was killed in action on 15 May 1917 during the Battle of Bullencourt. He also has no known grave. He is commemorated at Villers Bretonneux and at the Wellington NSW Cenotaph.
The small town of Geurie had 31 of its men who had signed up to serve by December 1917.
Another Geurie local, Clarence Timbrell Collier, 53rd Battalion, was killed in action at Fromelles and has no known grave.
Might James still be found?
There is still a chance James could be found. The mass grave at Pheasant Wood dug by the Germans still has 77 unidentified soldiers. Twenty-six soldiers from the 54th Battalion have been found in the grave through DNA testing from family donors.
James could be one of the yet unidentified soldiers. James’ family donors have come forward. It is hoped that James can be found and finally be given proper recognition for his sacrifice.
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