Eyes blue, Hair fair, Complexion fair
Arnold Needham – Lost in France
Can you help us identify Arnold?
Arnold was killed in Action at Fromelles. As part of the 54th Battalion he was positioned near where the Germans collected soldiers that were later buried at Pheasant Wood. There is a chance he might be identified, but we need help. We are still searching for suitable family DNA donors.
In 2008 a mass grave was found at Fromelles, a grave that the Germans dug for 250 (Australian) bodies they recovered after the battle.
If you know anything of contacts here in Australia or his relatives from England, please contact the Fromelles Association.
See the DNA box at the end of the story for what we do know about his family.
Arnold Needham, the youngest son of Walter and Elizabeth (Lizzie) (nee Wharfe) Needham, was born on 10 August 1897 in Oldham, Lancashire, England. He had an older brother, Leonard.
Arnold’s father Walter had been a bookkeeper, working for a period of time for the British Embassy in Bulgaria. When the family returned in 1901, Walter set up a grocery and fruiter business in Charlson, Manchester. Arnold attended the Moss Side Board School.
Arnold’s father died from a heart condition in 1907, when Arnold was just 10. By then, his brother Leo had become a professional cricket coach at Shrewsbury College, which left just Lizzie and Arnold at home. In 1911, Lizzie decided to follow relatives who had migrated to Australia. It is likely that she used the proceeds of the sale of the business to pay for her and 14 year old Arnold’s passage. They came as unassisted passengers on the Barbarossa in February 1911. Leo followed them to Australia in November. Lizzie and Arnold settled in first in Sydney and then in Bathurst.
After his schooling, Arnold went to work as a station hand at the Walladah Station, Hermindale, NSW, some 400 km from Bathurst. His brother, Leo, had become a railroad Station Master in Clergate, NSW.
Joining Up / Off to Egypt
Arnold felt the call to war and applied to enlist on 23 November 1915, at just 18 years 3 months old. His mother was supportive, but she added a mother’s concern that she “hoped he will receive proper treatment”.
It was quoted in the Leader (Orange) newspaper as:
“Although only a youth of 18 he was anxious to do his bit for the Empire.”
Arnold was scheduled to arrive to begin his service on 6 December, but he was suffering from diphtheria and was in hospital on 9 December. By 13 January 1916 he was medically cleared to join up and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 15th Reinforcements.
Following some brief training in Australia, Arnold embarked for Egypt from Sydney on 8 March 1916 aboard the HMAT Star of England. Shortly after his arrival in Egypt in April, he was transferred to the 54th Battalion, who were at Ferry Post, Egypt. The 54th continued to be staffed up with new recruits such as Arnold and his basic training continued. Several weeks were spent in Katoomba, 8 miles west of the Suez Canal learning trench skills. At the end of May they moved to Ferry Post and were then beginning to be moved towards Alexandria to head to the Western Front.
The Western Front – Fromelles
On 20 June the 982 soldiers of the 54th sailed to Marseilles via Malta on the H.T. Caledonian to join with the British Expeditionary Force. They disembarked in France 10 days later and then took trains to Thiennes, 35 km from Fromelles.
By 2 July the Battalion was billeted in barns, stables and private houses for a week of training. This included use of gas masks, in case that was used by the Germans, and shells. It was hoped that these tests would “inspire the men with great confidence.”
Source AWM4 23/71/6 54th Battalion War Diaries July 1916 page 2
On 11 July, just six months since Arnold enlisted, he was into the trenches in Fleurbaix. The health and spirit of the troops was reported as good.
On the 14th, they were moved from the trenches to 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’.”
They returned to the trenches on the 17th in preparation for an attack, but it was delayed due to the weather. They were relieved by the 53rd Battalion, for a short time, but then were back to the front trenches by 2.00 PM on 19th July. 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. While there was heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, the 54th were able to occupy the German trenches by 6.00 PM.
Some of the advanced trenches were just water filled ditches. There was heavy artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, but they were able to advance and link up with the 53th 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. They had pulled back to Bac-St-Maur by 7.30 AM on the 20th July.
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. Ultimately, 172 soldiers from the 54th were killed in action or died from their wounds. Of this, 101 were missing and declared killed in action, but 26 of these soldiers have since been identified and been buried in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery. 75 soldiers remain unidentified.
There are no reports of Arnold’s specific role in the battle, but he was among the missing. A letter from the German Army dated 2 August 1916 had identified Arnold as one of the soldiers who they recovered from the battlefield. Arnold was declared as killed in action on 13 September 1916. Arnold’s death was a particular blow for his brother, Leo, as he found out about his loss of his brother when he arrived in Sydney on his honeymoon in August.
Arnold’s identity disc was received by the Red Cross in 1917. The location of his remains were unknown, however.
Arnold received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal a Memorial Scroll and a Memorial Plaque.
He is commemorated at:
- VC Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles, France (panel 11)
- Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial (panel 159).
Still a Chance for Closure?
In the letters to the AIF from his mother, Lizzie, she said she would dearly like a photo of his grave, “for some day I shall go to France”.
However, the Officer in Charge of Base Records wrote to Elizabeth noting that:
“I regret to state no burial particulars have yet been received in regard to your son ...”
In 2008, a mass grave dug that had been dug by the Germans outside of Fromelles was discovered. It contained the remains of some 250 soldiers. With this discovery, there was an Australian Defence Force project to try to match up DNA of the soldiers in the grave with living relatives to be able to honour the soldiers properly. 173 of these soldiers have been identified to date (2023), of which 26 were from the 54th. As yet, Arnold remains unidentified.
Several family members have donated DNA, but we still are seeking other DNA donors to be able to positively identify Arnold. We thank this young soldier for paying the ultimate price.
DNA samples are being sought for family connections to
|Soldier||Arnold Needham (1897 – 1916) Woollahra and Orange, NSW|
|Parents||Walter Needham (1864-1907) Manchester and Elizabeth Anne Wharfe (1867-1944) Marrickville, Sydney|
|Siblings||Leo (1890-1965) Burwood, Sydney Married Mary Maygar ( - 1979) Canberra|
|Paternal||Jonathan Needham (1839 - ) and Sarah|
|Maternal||William Wharfe (1821 - ) Kirkburton, Yorkshire and Jane Heywood (1825 - ) Cargrave, Yorkshire|
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