Eyes hair fair, Hair eyes blue, Complexion fair
James Lee – his early life
Dedicated to the late Neal McCormack, James Lee’s great-nephew, on whose research this story is based.
James was born in 1895 in the family cottage at 1 Blackleg Row, Charlestown near Newcastle and attended the local Charlestown Public School.
James was the youngest of seven siblings:
- Ben 1878-1943
- Harriet Hannah 1880-1950 (later known as Nan Hetherington)
- George 1882-1883
- Clara 1884-1968
- May Emma 1887- c1957
- Maude Martha 1891-1945 (Neal’s grandmother)
- James (Jim) 1895-1916
Following the death of their father in 1905 and the death of their mother in 1906, James came to live with his eldest sister, Nan Hetherington (born Harriet Hannah Lee), at 45 Victoria Street, Carrington. He was then eleven years of age and attended Carrington Public School.
Physically, James was of slight build with fair hair, blue eyes and a fair to sallow complexion – characteristics similar to many in the Lee family.
James wanted to be a mine surveyor but owing to his family circumstances, he did not achieve his objective. He worked instead as a stable hand at the Newcastle and Suburban Co-operative Society (The Store) in the grocery delivery section. James also served as a member of the 16th Infantry Battalion of the Citizens Military Forces at Newcastle.
Off to War – first stop, Egypt
On 5 August 1915, James enlisted in Newcastle adding a year to his age claiming to be 21 years and 4 months. He was allocated to the 2nd Battalion and underwent some months of training before leaving Sydney in March 1916. On arrival in Egypt, Private James Lee was taken on strength with the 54th Battalion on 20 April 1916.
Family members have treasured four old and fading letters, some only partially intact, written in pencil on tattered YMCA and other notepaper from the war zones. Two of the letters were written from Egypt most likely to Jim’s sister, Maude McCormack (1891-1945), who was by then married with one son, the little Harry (born 1914) mentioned in the first of the letters transcribed below. Original spelling and expression are retained where possible but minor grammar changes have been made to improve readability. He was Jim to the family.
Pte James Lee’s letter from Egypt dated 30 April 1916 to his sister, Maude and her husband, Jim:
Dear Sister & Bro
Just a few lines hoping you are both well as it leaves me at present. I hope little Harry is well too. I am still in the same place out in the desert. I have never saw a town at all since I came here only a couple of old tumbled down native places. I would like to have a look at some of the cities. I might get a chance but I don’t think so. I expect we will be moving to [Censored] now and I will be glad to get my feet on solid ground once more. The sand here is rotten, it is so hot too.
You ought to all have your photos taken and send them to me. I would like them. Anything you send over register it. You can easily make up a little parcel. I will get it. My tent mates were always receiving parcels from home and you don’t know how glad they are to receive them.
I have not got any news from home yet but by the time you get this I hope to have heard from you all. Tell Jim to stay where he is and look after you. I was wondering how you all spent your Easter Holidays. I hope you enjoyed yourself well.
There is a lot of little lice here what we call chats and if you don’t be careful you will get lousie.
I have seen all the boys out of the 30th Batallion. They are here in this same camp and all them rumours that you heard about them was not true. They have never fired a shot yet and not likely to before me. They are no further advanced than me although they may have been here a lot longer.
Well Dear Sister remember me to all at Carrington. I have not much news to tell you so kiss little Harry for me. Ask Harry (this refers to his sister Harriet Hannah Hetherington) if she is getting my money. I write to her every week. I think I have told you all the news so I will close with fondest love to all.
Your loving Bro,
Jim (included 36 x’s)”
The following is page 2 of an undated partial letter that Jim wrote from Egypt to his sister (note the Jim who is asked to write and the PS to Alex refer to his brothers-in-law, Jim McCormack and Alex Hetherington):
“…..will know the old Island when I get back. I suppose things are going ahead just the same.
I met Dick Jordan over here and he was glad to see me. He told me to tell you all he is well. He looks like the side of a house.
Tell Jim to write and get my mates to write. There is a letter coming for them. I hope you got my letter from Columbo. I will expect one from home by the time you get this one.
Well Dear Sister I think I have told you all the news this time. I will close with love to all.
Your loving Bro
Jim (included 43 x’s)
PS. Remember me to Alex.”
Bound for France
Jim’s guess that they were about to be moved on was right and the 54th Battalion left for France in June from where he wrote again shortly after arrival. At the time of writing this letter, the Battalion’s war diaries show that Jim and his comrades were being billeted in barns, stables and private houses around the Fleurbaix area for a week of training including use of gas masks and exposure to the effects of the artillery shelling.
This is another partial letter from Jim, this time from France and dated 4 July 1916:
Dear Sisters & Bros,
Just a few lines hoping you are all in the best of health as it leaves me at present. I suppose you thought I had forgot to write but I could not. We have had no Post Office for a while & have never got a mail from Australia yet. If I could only get a letter to say you were all well I would care for nothing. We are not quite settled down here yet. I suppose as soon as the mail gets sorted out I will have a dozen.
Well Maude I hope Jim is doing well. Tell him to remember me to my mates and tell them to write. You can just imagine what a treat it was to land in a country like this after seeing nothing but sand. It was like going into a mansion from a pigsty. The people here are very religious but all the same they are nice. They think the world of the Australians…….
It was about two weeks after this letter that the 54th Battalion began its first major battle at Fromelles at 5.50pm on 19 July. The general consensus was that their initiation on the Western Front was disastrous suffering casualties well over half its fighting strength. After the battle, the 54th was pulled back to Bac-St-Maur by 7.30am on 20 July 1916 and Private Jim Lee was soon added to the long list of those missing whose fate was unknown.
Two men named James Lee in the 54th
Details of exactly how and where 21-year-old Jim Lee was killed were never clarified. There are a number of conflicting reports in the Red Cross files but it is clear that there was confusion due to there being two men in the 54th Battalion by the name of James Lee, both about 20 to 21 years of age, both from the Hunter Valley and both killed that same night at Fromelles. Our James Lee (service number 4822) was given the nickname of “Snowy” because of his blonde hair and to differentiate him from the other James Lee from Merriwa (service number 4533) to whom they gave the nickname of “Jesse” after the famous American outlaw, Jesse James – possibly also a play on his initials (J. J.) as his middle name was Joseph. The story of James Joseph Lee and his cousin William Henry Turner are also on our website.
Research conducted by Jim’s great-nephew, Neal McCormack, led him to conclude that “Snowy” Lee was killed in an artillery bombardment at the ‘take’-off’ point for the attack but further research shows three possible sightings of him in the German trenches. These sightings may however relate to Pte “Jesse” James rather than “Snowy”.
There is also a letter from a fellow soldier, Private John Dean 4766, who had been with Jim “Snowy” Lee from enlistment throughout their time in training in Australia and in Egypt and France. Jack, as he signed his letter, was responding to questions from Jim’s sister Maude McCormack about the fate of her youngest brother. Jack himself had been severely wounded at Fromelles (he described it in understated terms as “I had a knocking about”) and was writing from a London hospital whilst undergoing medical treatment before his eventual return to Australia in 1917. Extracts from the letter dated 6 February 1917 are included below with spelling and grammar transcribed largely as written:
“Dear Mrs McCormick,
I received your letter and was very pleased to have from you. But was very sorry to here of your recent sad bereavement.
Jim was a particular friend of mine as you no and we were always together along with Matty and Elerington we all joined up the 54th Batallion at a place called “Ferry Post” along the “Lacey Bend”. We weren’t there many days when we went out into the desert in the first line of defense. We weren’t there barely two months when we were called away to France.
We was in France about four weeks all told up to the time we went into action. We charged the Huns lines on the 18th July, Jim was in the same section of trench as myself, also was Matty. I didn’t see any more of him after we jumped over the top of our trenches. Matty came past me when I was wounded. There was that much excitement at the time to tell you the truth we didn’t no what we were doing for the time. One young chap out of our company told me after things had quietened down that Matty was the only one including myself that got back out of our Section, he got back untouched.
I got one of the Staff Sergeants that belongs to this Hospital to make enquiries for me concerning Jim. I gave him all particulars even to his Residential address and next of kin……….and they sent back word to say that the last information they got concerning Jim was that he was reported “Missing”.
The news that you received concerning Jim was a mistake. It was a different “die” altogether. They used to call Jim “Snowy” and the other chap “Jesse”. Both were in the same company. (It’s quite true the statement you got but it was the other chap). It didn’t concern Jim. And if anything should crop up I will be only to pleased to help you and let you no.
As regards the letter dated 20th of July I’ll just explain to you, we always used to date our letters a day or so ahead of time because it was always a day or two before we could get to post them. That’s about all I can tell you of “Poor Jim” at present….”
Noting Jack’s response to Maude’s query about a letter dated 20 July (possibly to Hannah), it seems the letter’s date was a source of hope for the family that Jim survived that dreadful night of the 19th to write on the 20th. Jack’s response put paid to that desperate hope.
He finished his letter with news of his brothers and promising to explain more plainly when he got home. He went on to ask about the family and commented that he supposed they were “broken up about Jim.”
Family left behind
As next of kin, Hannah Hetherington was advised in August 1916 that her youngest brother was missing. It was not until more than a year later in September 1917 that Hannah was formally advised the outcome of the court of enquiry that Jim had been killed in action on that fateful night in July 1916, aged just 21 years.
On Jim’s AIF file, there is a letter written by Hannah where she states that she had sole care of him since their parents died:
"until he enlisted for the war he was like my own child never being away before so I felt my sorrow very much."
Despite considering herself a foster mother, Hannah was denied a pension as she had a husband to support her and was also not eligible for any land grants arising from her brother’s war service.
Jim’s personal effects – his identity disc, two scarves and his soldier’s housewife (sewing kit) – were eventually returned to Hannah. She also received his military service medals (British War Medal and Victory Medal) and, in 1923, his memorial plaque and scroll – although these latter items were only issued “under bond”. This meant that Hannah’s older brother Ben had a prior claim to these under the regulations of the day that generally gave male relatives precedence over females; if Ben should later make a claim to the memorial plaque and scroll, Hannah could be required to surrender them. At the time of the correspondence, Hannah had no contact details for Ben.
The family today
For many years, Neal McCormack had researched his great-uncle’s war service and, in 2011, had provided information and photographs to the Hunter Region’s military historian, David Dial. As a result, a newspaper story appeared in the Newcastle Herald (23 April 2011) that included James’ photo and his story. After reading this article, Hannah’s granddaughter (daughter of Hannah’s adopted daughter, Zena) made contact with Neal (grandson of Maude). They arranged to meet and she was able to show Neal the original Victory medal (one of the military service medals awarded to James) as well as the certificate and scroll for the memorial plaque. Unfortunately, the location of the plaque itself (known as the Dead Man’s Penny) is unknown.
Neal McCormack was also proactive in tracing the descendants of the Lee family for DNA purposes and supplying information to the Fromelles Project Group in the Australian Army Unrecovered War Casualties unit. Despite willing DNA donors offering samples for both the male and female lines, no identification has been made.
Editorial note (Royce Atkinson)
It is appropriate that an editorial note be added to this story.
“I first met Neal in 2012 when he found that we were researching Fromelles soldiers. We compared notes on what information we had on James, and what research needed to be undertaken. Neal was a dynamo - a wonderful, passionate man, very focussed and resourceful, and I admired him greatly. His presentation and comments at our 2013 conference are legendary!
Sadly, Neal passed way too early, but his legacy lives on in our memories.”
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