Eyes blue, Hair light brown, Complexion fair
“There were 25 sets of brothers and four fathers and sons who died at Fromelles,” said Governor General Quentin Bryce at the official opening of the Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
This is the story of one of those sets of brothers, 21 and 23 year old, Alfred and Sydney Mitchell from Stratford, Victoria. Alf and Syd were the youngest of the seven children of James and Lucy Mitchell – four sons (Fred, Willie, Syd, Alf) and three daughters (Emily, Annie, Alice).
James Mitchell was active in the Stratford region and was described variously as contractor, labourer and grazier. He was also active with the local war effort as a member of the Stratford Recruiting Committee. His three younger sons enlisted – one was killed at Gallipoli and two were killed at Fromelles. Unimaginable loss!
Before we tell the story of Alf and Syd at Fromelles, we must first briefly tell the story of their older brother, William, killed at Gallipoli.
William - known variously as Bill, Billy or Willie - was a 27-year-old unmarried labourer when he enlisted with four mates from Stratford in the 8th Light Horse Regiment in September 1914. He had a quiet and likeable disposition and was actively involved in the local rifle and football clubs and the Grand United Order of Oddfellows (G.U.O.O.F).
[Source: DISTRICT NEWS. (1915, September 3). Gippsland Mercury (Sale, Vic. : 1914 - 1918), p. 3 (morning). Retrieved August 6, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article89273791]
Bill left Australia in February 1915 and spent some weeks in Egypt before embarking for Turkey on 16 May, just weeks after the Gallipoli landing.
Bill’s main offensive action was at the Nek on 7 August. For this battle, the 8th were dismounted and in the trenches. The attack was planned to draw the Turks to the Nek while other major offensives were in progress, but it didn’t go to plan.
The covering bombardment ended early, which had not been communicated to their unit. Just a few minutes break gave the Turks a short, but enough, time to set up their machine guns. The first two Australian lines in the attack were immediately shot down.
Then, in the heat of the battle, the officer in charge had been advised that some Aussies had reached the Turkish trenches and sent the third wave across. The fourth wave also went over, without having been given a signal to attack.
Of the 600 Australian troops involved, 234 were killed and 138 were wounded.
Bill has no known grave.
Sydney and Alfred Mitchell
Born two years apart, the youngest Mitchell sons were both working as saw millers in July 1915 when they followed their brother to enlist. Alf, still underage, needed the written consent of his parents, which was duly given.
Alf and Syd began their training at the Broadmeadows camp and while there, news came to their father that their older brother, Bill, had been killed in action at Gallipoli. Bill’s death was the first loss for the Stratford district so it would have been a difficult shock for both the family and the broader community. It certainly would have brought the cruel reality of war home to the new recruits.
Nevertheless, Alf and Syd continued with their training and in late September the two young locals were given a well-attended community send off at Stratford’s Mechanics’ Institute. In deference to local families – including the Mitchell family – who had received news of the loss of their soldier lads at Gallipoli in recent weeks, the usual dance accompanying these events was omitted. Gifts to Alf and Syd included a prayer card, a bible and also gold medallion emblems from the local branch of the G.U.O.O.F. Their father also attended and expressed his ongoing commitment to his sons’ enlistment, despite the cost:
“Mr J. T. Mitchell, who was greeted with prolonged applause, said that he thanked them all for coming that evening. Those that honoured his boys honoured him. He had lived 57 years and he felt that he had not lived in vain when he looked round him and saw them gathered there to say good-bye to his boys. He felt proud that they were going.
He wished to thank them also for the sympathy he had received when news came of his son’s death at the front. He had received letters of sympathy from pretty well all over Australia. He had been told his boy died a hero and he felt that he had not lived in vain or raised his boys in vain. He felt, and he said it with all reverence, that if he never saw them again he would not stop his boys from going. He was pleased to let them go, and it would be far better for them to die over there than to stay over here and be pointed out as a shirker, while others were out there dying. If they never came home again, he felt, that when he came to die, he would be a happy man in the knowledge that they had died doing their duty. (Cheers.)”
Enlisted together, Alf and Syd charted almost identical courses in the Army. A month after their send-off, they embarked together with the 22nd Battalion on board HMAT A38 Ulysses and arrived in Egypt on 25 November 1915. There they continued training and defensive operational duties and presumably using any leave to see the exotic sights available to young men on an overseas adventure. In fact, young Alf suffered a minor disciplinary punishment at one stage for attending a gambling establishment!
The two brothers remained together during the re-organisation of the AIF post-Gallipoli and they were moved from the 22nd to the 57th and then in mid-March 1916 to the 59th Battalion. June saw the 59th leave Egypt for France and the Western Front.
On the evening of 19 July 1916, the 59th were part of the first wave of attack at Fromelles. The Battalion suffered heavy losses with wave after wave cut down by German machine gun fire. Given the disastrous losses, it is unsurprising that there were few survivors to report the fate of their fallen comrades. For Alf, there are no personal details as to his fate recorded on file, but for Syd, Pte 2717 John McCormack from the 58th Battalion (previously of the 22nd) gave the following evidence:
”I saw soldier lying dead in No Man's Land about half-way between our own and the German Front-line trenches at Fleurbaix on the morning of the 20th July, '16. I am sure of his identity as I came over from Victoria with him in the S.S. "Ulysses".
The files for both Alf and Syd eventually had a handwritten note
“'Presumed Buried In No Man's Land approx 5J90 43 to 5K02.5.1 Sheet Hazebrouck 5A”.
In essence, Alf and Syd Mitchell were lost and their final burial place unknown.
Eventually, on 29 August 1917, more than a year after their deaths, official enquiries were finalised and Pte Alf Mitchell and Pte Syd Mitchell were both found to have been killed in action on 19 July 1916.
Back Home in Stratford
The second half of 1916 would have been a trying time for the Mitchells, having already lost one son to the War at Gallipoli and now receiving “missing”, “wounded” reports but no details about Alf and Syd. If that were not enough, their eldest daughter, Emily, passed away in September.
Marie Bell, a great granddaughter of James and Lucy Mitchell, commented on their family’s losses during this time:
“How devastated our great-grandparents must have been to lose three sons in that War within about 12 months. As well, the Battle of Fromelles was such a disaster for the AIF, that they really weren't sure what had happened to many soldiers and unfortunately gave the families incorrect information for months after their sons had died. You only have to read Syd and Alf's service records to realise this! Lucy and James Mitchell also lost their eldest daughter, Emily Jane, age 33, in September 1916”
It was about this time that Lucy and James received word from the Army that Alf was missing and Sid had been wounded! Not until many months later did a Board of Inquiry find they were both missing, presumed dead.”
The newspaper extracts below, published a year apart, bookend a year of uncertainty and of not knowing what happened to the youngest Mitchell boys at Fromelles back in July 1916.
There was another cruel stroke of fate for the broader Mitchell family in September 1917. Two young cousins – sons of James’ sister Elizabeth, Thomas Mitchell Holt and Gilbert Holt aged two years apart – were killed together at Ypres on 20 September 1917. Their names are commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial. They too have no known graves.
The Mitchell family – with now only three offspring surviving – grieved the loss of their loved ones in their own ways.
Their youngest daughter, Alice (1891-1980), had joined the Australian Red Cross in 1914. She was renowned for knitting two pairs of socks and sewing one each of the following – flannel singlet, shirt and pair of pyjamas - each week for the duration of the war. Such was her commitment to the war effort after having cost her three brothers (Willie, Syd, Alf) and a sweetheart (Herb Peters). It is believed that she repeated a similar task in World War II.
She was recognized in 1974 as the longest serving members of the Australian Red Cross. Her 1909 Singer sewing machine that was inherited from her mother, Lucy, is held by the Stratford and District Historical Society.
With three sons buried in unknown graves overseas, their names are commemorated on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli (William) and on V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial at Fromelles (Sydney and Alfred).
In Australia, the three youngest of the four Mitchell brothers are also commemorated on the Australian War Memorial, the Stratford War Memorial and on memorials at the Stratford State Primary School and the Holy Trinity Church of England in Stratford, Victoria.
KNOWN UNTO GOD
DNA is still being sought for family connections to
|Soldier||Sydney/Sidney James MITCHELL 1893-1916, Stratford, Victoria and Alfred Charles MITCHELL 1895-1916, Stratford, Victoria|
|Parents||James Turner MITCHELL 1859-1937, Victoria|
|and Lucy ELSTON 1861-1939, Victoria|
|Paternal||Frederick William MITCHELL b 1829, Deptford, Kent, Eng. d 1890, Stratford, Vic and Jane EMILY b. 1824 Leith, Scotland. d 1909, Stratford, Vic.|
|Maternal||George ELSTON b abt 1833, Winscombe, Somerset, Eng. d. 1917, Sale Victoria and Sarah CHAPLAIN/CHAPLIN b 1831, Wick, St Lawrence, Somerset d. 1915, Sale, Victoria.|
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