585-private-william-christopher-brumby-image1png
William Christopher Brumby (1885-1916)
Nepean Historical Society

William Christopher BRUMBY

Regimental Number
585
Rank
Private
Known As
Bill
War Service
Egypt, Western Front
Prior Military Service
Nil
Enlistment
12 Jul 1915 at Melbourne, VIC
Embarkation
09 Nov 1915 from Melbourne, VIC, on the HMAT A62 Wandilla
Next of Kin
Mother, Mrs Eliza Rowle, South Somercoats, Lancashire, England
Date & Place of Birth
April 1887, Conisholme, England
Parents
William and Eliza (nee Marshall) Brumby
Marital Status
Single
Siblings
Eliza
Occupation
Labourer
Physical Description
5 feet 6 1/2 inches, 154 pounds (168.9cm, 69.8kg)
Eyes blue, Hair brown, Complexion fresh
Religion
Church of England
Fate
Killed in Action, 20 Jul 1916, Fromelles, France – Aged 29
Place of Burial
No known grave
Commemorated
V.C. Corner (Supplemental Panel), Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles, France
Positively Identified
No

‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill Brumby and Bert Hibbert

We are grateful to Peter Munro for his example of dedication, Clive Smith and the Nepean Historical Society and to the Mornington Peninsula News.

Can you help us identify Bill?

Bill Brumby was killed at Fromelles and his body has never been identified.

His name was also not originally included in the VC Corner Memorial commemorative panels that list the soldiers who died in the battle nor was he commemorated at the Villers-Bretonneux memorial.

Persistent efforts by Peter Munro, now have him ‘found’ at VC Corner and we hope that further efforts might still also enable his body to be found via DNA matching.

As part of the 31st Battalion he was positioned near where the Germans collected soldiers who were later buried at Pheasant Wood. There is a chance he might be identified, but we need to find suitable family DNA donors.

In 2008 a mass grave was found at Fromelles, a grave the Germans dug for 250 (Australian) bodies they recovered after the battle.

If you know anything of Bill’s contacts here in Australia or his relatives from Louth or Conisholme, England, please contact the Fromelles Association.

See the DNA box at the end of the story for what we do know about Bill’s family.

Early Life

William (Bill) Christopher Brumby was born in April 1887 at Conisholme, Lincolnshire, England to William and Eliza (nee Marshall) Brumby. He had an older sister, Eliza, who was born in 1884. William and Eliza had married on 28th January 1884 at St Mary, Binbrook, Lincolnshire. William was a farm worker and worked as a farmer and an Agricultural Foreman. Young Bill attended the Church of England school in Kelstern, Linconshire and followed his father’s footsteps and became a farmer as well.

Bill’s father died in 1908, after which he went to work and live with his sister and her husband at ‘Hedge Ends Farm’ Grimoldby, Lincolnshire. It is also likely he began to support his mother at this time.

Bill’s mother did remarry, to Alfred Rowle in 1915. This relationship this may have relieved Bill from supporting his mother and given him the chance to travel. Bill left for opportunities in Australia on 8 May 1914 on the Orient Line’s Osterly. He settled in Sorrento, Victoria and, while having only been there a short while, was described in the ‘Peninsula Post’ as

“Of a quiet and retiring disposition, his genial manner made him a host of friends in Sorrento.”

Peninsula Post via Clive Smith

Off to War

When recruiting for the War began in Australia in earnest, Bill enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force on 12 July 1915. He was assigned to the newly formed 31st Battalion, C Company along with his Sorrento friends Bert Hibbert (706) and Ernie White (753). The battalion was to have two companies from Queensland and two companies from Victoria. The Victorians trained at the Broadmeadows camp and the Queenslanders joined them in early October to complete the battalion.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image1png
31st Battalion, C Company, November 1915
source Australian War Memorial Collections DAX0913A

Before sailing to Egypt from Melbourne on 9 November aboard the troopship Wandilla, the 991 soldiers of the 31st had been on parade in Melbourne in front of a good crowd. The Minister for Defence, H.F. Pearce, said, “I do not think I have ever seen a finer body of men.”

Source INFANTRY MARCH PAST (1915, November 6). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 - 1954), p. 32. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article132708935

The Wandilla docked at Port Suez exactly four weeks after leaving Melbourne. They were first sent to Serapeum to continue their training and to guard the Suez Canal. Near the end of February they moved to the large camp at Tel el Kebir. The 60 km trip must have been unpleasant, as it was reported that they were moved in ‘dirty horse trucks’.

Source AWM4 23/48/7, 31st Battalion War Diaries, Feb 1916, page 5

The next move was at the end of March, back to the Suez Canal at the Ferry Post and Duntroon Camps and then finally to Moascar at the end of May. The months passed in training and sightseeing, but by the time the 31st Battalion was transferred to France, the men were all heartily sick of Egypt. Private Les Smith’s (934) letter home pretty well sums it up.

On 15 June, the 31st Battalion began to make their way to the Western Front, first by train from Moascar to Alexandria and then aboard the troopship Hororata, sailing to Marseilles. They disembarked on 23 June, boarded trains to Steenbeque, then marched to the camp at Morbecque, 35 km from Fleurbaix, arriving on 26 June. The battalion strength was 1019 soldiers. Training continued, now with how to handle poisonous gas included in their regiment.

They began their move towards Fleurbaix on 8 July and by 11 July they were into the trenches for the first time, in relief of the 15th Battalion.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image3png
Map of the Battle of Fromelles 1916
source Michael Senior, Fromelles 1916, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley England. Reproduced with permission

The original attack was planned for the 17th, but bad weather caused it to be postponed. On the 19th they were back into the trenches and in position at 4.00 PM. “Just prior to launching the attack, the enemy bombardment was hellish, and it seemed as if they knew accurately the time set.”

Source AWM4 23/48/12, 31st Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 23

The assault began at 5.58 PM and they went forward in four waves - Bill’s C Company and A Company were in the first two waves and B and D Companies in the 3rd and 4th waves. The pre battle bombardment did have a big impact and by 6.30 PM the Aussies were in control of the German’s 1st line system, which was described as “practically a ditch with from 1 to 2 feet of mud and slush at the bottom”.

Source AWM4 23/49/12, 32nd Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 11

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image4png
War Diary Note on the 31st’s Advances
source AWM4 23/48/12, 31st Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 24

Unfortunately, with the success of their attack, ‘friendly’ artillery fire caused a large number of casualties. By 8.30 PM the Australians’ left flank had come under heavy bombardment with high explosives and shrapnel. Return artillery support was provided and the 32nd, who also had the job of holding the flank to the left of the 31st, were told that “the trenches were to be held at all costs”.

Source AWM4 23/49/12, 32nd Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 12

Fighting continued through the night. The Australians made a further charge at the main German line, but they were low on grenades, there was machine gun fire from behind from the emplacement at Delangre Farm and they were so far advanced that they were getting shelled by both sides.

At 4.00 AM the Germans began an attack from the Australian’s left flank. Given the Australian advances that had been made earlier, portions of their rear trench had been left almost empty, which then enabled the Germans to be in a position to surround the soldiers. At 5.30 AM the Germans attacked from both flanks in force and with bombing parties. Having only a few grenades left themselves, the only resistance the 31st could offer was with rifles.

“The enemy swarmed in and the retirement across No Mans’ Land resembled a shambles, the enemy artillery and machine guns doing deadly damage.”

Source AWM4 23/48/12, 31st Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 29

The 31st were out of the trenches by the end of the day on the 20th. From the 1019 soldiers who left Egypt, the initial impact was assessed as 77 soldiers were killed or died from wounds, 414 were wounded and 85 were missing. The bravery of the soldiers of the 31st was well recognised by their own Battalion commanders.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image5png
War Diary Note Recognising the 31st’s Efforts
source AWM4 23/48/12, 31st Battalion War Diaries, July 1916, page 30

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. The ultimate total was that 166 soldiers were either killed or died from wounds and of this total 84 were missing/unidentified.

After the Battle

Bill and his friend from Sorrento Bert Hibbert were killed during the battle, but there are no records of what happened to them. They remain unidentified to this time.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image6png
Bill Brumby and Bert Hibbert
source Nepean Historical Society

Their friend Ernie White did survive, but he received a gunshot wound to his face during the battle. He rejoined the unit a month later. He was discharged for family reasons in February 1917 and returned to Australia. Bill’s sister was not advised of what happened to him (there are no records of his mother being notified either), so she wrote seeking information about him in November 1916. Bill had been writing his sister regularly, but those letters had stopped. Eliza’s letter came to the Army via the Victorian YMCA.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image7png
Letter from Bill’s Sister Eliza, 23 Nov 1916
(Note - the 29 Sept date cited in Eliza’s letter was likely when Bill’s last letter was posted – long after the battle).
source NAA: B2455, Brumby, William Christopher – First AIF Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, page 18, 20

The Army’s reply in January 1916 advised that they had no information on Bill and ‘it may be assumed he is with his unit.’ They also stated that any communications about his status would be via his mother, the designated next of kin. There are no further communications in Bill’s records.

There are no records of Bill’s body being recovered by the Australians or by the Germans. The report on his death states he was Killed in Action, BUT it mistakenly states he died on 21 July 1916…after the battle. While Bill’s body was not recovered, he does have a note in his on AIF file.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image8png
Buried at Fleurbaix (Fromelles) VR 13 (Sheet 1). Three other soldiers,
source NAA: B2455, Brumby, William Christopher – First AIF Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, page 6

There are similar notes in Bert Hibbert’s as well other missing soldiers’ from the 31st including 719 Reginald Alexander Bean, 589 Bertram Bloomfield, and 829 Leslie Charles Brown. Alongside William, all were commemorated at Villers-Bretonneux and had an original death date of 21st July 1916. All remain missing with no known grave.

‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento

In June 2014, amateur historian Peter Munro visited the Western Front with details of burial and commemorative locations of the 13 Sorrento lads who had been killed in action.

However, he and his French battlefield guide could not find the names of Hibbert and Brumby on the commemorative wall at Villers-Bretonneux, as stated in documents from the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Mr Munro and his guide initially thought the names must have been removed from the Villers-Bretonneux memorial wall and inscribed on the Australian Memorial wall at VC Corner, Fromelles, more than 100 kilometres away.

But, arriving there two hours later, they looked for the Brumby and Hibbert names in vain. So, not only were their bodies never recovered, their names are also not commemorated with their other unidentified mates from the battle at either site. It turns out that only those soldiers whose date of death was listed as 19 or 20 July were initially placed of the wall at VC Corner.

Brumby and Hibbert were mistakenly reported as “missing presumed dead” on 21 July and so were overlooked. The Australian War Memorial and Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the UK was notified and, after an email trail over four months – including letters to MPs and government ministers, the names of Hibbert and Brumby were belatedly included on the commemorative wall at Fromelles where both had died in battle. In mid-August 2014, Mr Munro received an email from the Office of Australian War Graves stating that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would add the boys’ names, along with three others who perished at Fromelles, to an extra wall panel and that war records would be updated. In April 1915, Mr Munro was told work had begun on inscriptions.

In September he revisited the cemetery at VC Corner to place a wreath of red poppies and an Australian flag from the Sorrento and Portsea RSL near the names. The two Sorrento ‘Cobbers in Arms’ are now properly commemorated due to having been ‘found’ thanks to Peter Munro’s dedication.

‘Cobbers-in-arms make their way ‘home’’, Stephen Taylor, The Mornington Peninsula News 12 July 2016 from https://www.mpnews.com.au/2016/07/11/cobbers-in-arms-make-their-way-home/

Bill is also commemorated at a memorial in the grounds of St Edith's Church, Grimoldby, Linconshire and Sorrento Victoria.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image9png
Memorials at Grimoldby, Lincolnshire and Sorrento, Victoria
source

'Aussie' Bill

Bill had clearly settled into Australia in his short time here. Clive Smith, of the Nepean Historical Society, said ‘I had surmised that William may have lived with the Whites at Sorrento, but have no firm evidence of this.’ He was missed by his Australian friends, with memorial notices posted immediately after his death and a year later.

The support from his friends went further than just memorial notices. After Bill had been killed, Ernie White’s mother pursued the Army to see if Bill’s personal effects that she had been looking after could be arranged to be sent to his family in the UK. The Army agreed, so Bill’s family were at least able to get some closure.

1070-‘Lost Boys’ from Sorrento – Bill-image11png
Return of Bill’s Personal Effects from Sorrento to his Family in the UK
source NAA: B2455, Brumby, William Christopher – First AIF Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920, page 35

Could Bill and Bert Still be Identified?

After the battle, German soldiers removed 250 Australian casualties from battlefield, burying them in large pits near Pheasant Wood. This mass grave was not discovered until 2008. As of 2023, 173 of the 250 soldiers in the grave have been able to be identified by DNA matching from family members. 22 of the 166 unidentified soldiers from the 31st have been found to be in the grave. Bill and Bert may be among the 77 remaining soldiers in the grave who are not yet identified. We need to find family members to contribute DNA samples to find out. There have been DNA contributions from Bert’s family. If you know anything of Bill’s or Bert’s contacts here in Australia or his relatives in England, please contact the Fromelles Association.

DNA samples are being sought for family connections to

SoldierWilliam Christopher Brumby (1887-1916) born Conisholme, Louth, Lincolnshire, mother Mrs Rowle lived in Lancashire when he enlisted
ParentsWilliam Brumby (1853-1908) Louth Lincs and Eliza Marshall (1857-1934) Louth Lincs. Eliza remarried in 1915 to Alfred Rowle
SiblingsEliza Brumby (1884-1955 ) died 1955 Oakham, Rutland. Married James Lowis
Grandparents
PaternalHenry Brumby (1828-1917) Lusby Lincs and Jane Goy (1828-1878) Sotby, Lincs
MaternalThomas Marshall (1814-1889) Wold Newton, Lincs and Susannah Jacklin (1821-1897) Hatcliffe Lincs

Note. Bill’s sister had one son, Frank (1907-1985). He married Sarah Ann Cox but as far as we know they did not have children.

Seeking DNA Donors

Fromelles Association of Australia

Contacts

The Fromelles Association welcomes all contact regarding this soldier.
(Contact: royce@fromelles.info or geoffrey@fromelles.info).
We also urge any family members to contact and register with the Australian Army
(Contact: army.uwc@defence.gov.au or phone 1800 019 090).

Donations

The Fromelles Association maintains this web site, purely by donations received.
If you are able, please contribute to the upkeep of this resource.
(Contact: bill@fromelles.info ).