James Joseph LEE
Eyes hair brown, Hair eyes blue, Complexion dark
A story of cousins, local lads, family, and war - James Joseph Lee
James Joseph Lee was born in Merriwa, New South Wales in 1896, the fourth child of James Ernest Lee (also Merriwa born) and Mary A. (Annie*) O’Keeffe. James and Annie went on to have nine children – five girls and four boys - with eight surviving to adulthood. *Please note that Annie’s death certificate states her name was Hanorah. We are not able to confirm why this anomaly exists. Perhaps it was a nickname or she simply did not “like” that name.
Not a great deal is known about James (junior) prior to him enlisting in June 1915. The AIF personnel dossier shows two sets of enlistment papers for James– papers which show slight variations in details. One shows him listed as 18 years and 1 month and a labourer with his father as next of kin whilst the other lists him as a 19-year-old baker with his mother as next of kin.
Which is correct? We do not know but we note that one set of papers nominate that he was apprenticed as a baker to an S. Salon for three years. News articles of the era confirm that an S. Salon was a baker in the Merriwa district around the same time so it is likely this was correct. Perhaps young James moved on from baking once he finished his apprenticeship.
Off to war
James was assigned to the 13th Battalion and left Australia aged 19 on board HMAT A70 Ballarat on 16 February 1916 arriving in Egypt on 22 March. By April, James was at the Ferry Post camp and was transferred to the newly formed 54th Battalion.
In that Battalion, James Joseph Lee was reunited with his cousin, William Henry Turner, and also joined a namesake, Private 4822 James Lee who was a similar age and also from the Hunter Valley region. It seems his fellow soldiers bestowed nicknames on the two James Lees: 4533 James Joseph Lee was called “Jesse” probably after the famous American outlaw, Jesse James, and perhaps a play on his initials J. J. Lee; and the blonde-haired 4822 James Lee earned the name “Snowy”.
The 54th continued training in Egypt for a further six months. They had time for relaxation as well as drills, leave in Cairo, touring the historical sites, camel and donkey rides, shopping for souvenirs and, for some, earning a reputation as rowdy larrikins.
In June 1916, the Battalion was called to join the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, arriving in Marseille on 29 June.
Battle of Fromelles
On arriving in France, the battalion boarded trains for the three-day trip to Thiennes, 30 kilometres west of Fleurbaix. According to AIF intelligence reports, they were billeted in barns, stables and private houses for a week of training. This included use of gas masks and exposure to the effects of artillery shelling in the hope that these tests would “inspire the men with great confidence” Source AWM War Diaries.
Their first major battle was fought at Fromelles on 19 July, beginning at 5.50pm. They were under heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, but were able to advance rapidly and they occupied German trenches by 6.00pm. Some of the trenches were just water-filled ditches.
The outcome of the battle for the 54th Battalion was disastrous. Casualties were equivalent to 65 percent of the battalion’s fighting strength.
Amongst those casualties were James’ cousin, William Turner (aged 23), and both the Privates James Lee of the 54th – Jesse (aged 20) and Snowy (aged 21). All three young soldiers were initially reported as missing in action.
William was eventually found to be a prisoner of war. Both Privates Lee were eventually found to have been killed in action but exact details are not definitively known. It is not helped by the fact that there is no Red Cross record for 4533 James (Jesse) Joseph Lee from Merriwa. There is a file for 4822 James “Snowy” Lee and it is clear that some of the reports included there actually relate to Jesse rather than to Snowy. Three of those reports – one from a fellow Merriwa resident - are included below and all indications are that Jesse died from wounds after being shot in the hip.
Family in Merriwa
On 9 August 1916, less than three weeks after the battle, the Lee family received the dreaded cable to advise that their son, James Joseph, had been killed in action between 19 and 20 July but they received no other details.
Despite seeking details of his death and the return of any personal items, it seems that neither details nor personal effects were forthcoming from military sources. In addition, as James’ remains were not recovered, he has no known grave.
While the grief of the family can only be imagined, they were at least given certainty much more quickly than many other families as the official report on their son’s death was finalized in September 1916. In contrast, many other families did not receive official closure until mid to late 1917.
Annie Lee was granted a pension of one pound five shillings in October 1916 after the loss of her son and his financial support. Around this time, James’ older brother Richard was given exemption from military service so that he could support his mother and his invalid father. James senior had suffered serious and debilitating injuries – leg amputation – and was never able to work again.
James, aged 20, was killed in action in service of his country and he is remembered fondly by family, past and present, and is commemorated on:
- V.C. Corner, Australian Cemetery and Memorial, Fromelles, France – panel 10
- Australian War Memorial, Canberra, A.C.T. – panel 159
- Merriwa War Memorial, Merriwa, N.S.W.
- Memorial board, Merriwa Council Chambers, N.S.W.
The search for DNA
To aid the search for James’ final resting place, our researchers tracked the Lee family and eventually found a branch in the Hunter Valley who were very happy to provide a Y-DNA sample. By coincidence, the donor and the Fromelles Association Research Director both frequent the Kurri Kurri golf club.
The search for more DNA donors continues and if you can help, please contact us.
DNA is still being sought from family connections to
|Soldier||James Joseph LEE 1896-1916|
|Parents||James Ernest LEE b. 1862 Merriwa NSW d. 1933 Newcastle NSW|
|Annie (Hanorah) Elizabeth O’KEEFFE b.abt 1865 d.1928 Newcastle NSW|
|Paternal||Richard P. LEE b.1840 Tasmania d.1907 Merriwa NSW and Catherine BURKE b.1843 Maitland NSW d.1887 Merriwa NSW|
|Maternal||Michael O’KEEFFE and Hanorah – possibly Irish|
Please note The AWM file below is allocated to another Private James Lee 4822 also of the 54th Battalion killed at Fromelles but it seems clear that some of the reports actually relate to Private James Joseph Lee 4533 from Merriwa and known as Jesse.
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