Berrol Lazar MENDELSOHN
Eyes unknown, Hair unknown, Complexion unknown
The Mendelsohn Family
Story text reproduced (with minor edits) with permission from the copyright holders, the Australian Jewish Historical Society on behalf of Peter M. Allen.
Berrol Lazar Mendelsohn was born on 15 May 1891, in Esk (200 km north-west of Brisbane), Queensland, to Abigail (née Rosenzweig) – who had taught Hebrew in Melbourne - and Saul ‘Sali’ Mendelsohn, a storekeeper/businessman at Esk and Nanango, who also became a well-known sometime bush balladeer.
After Sali died in 1897, Abigail moved her six children to Sydney, where she managed to support them by selling insurance and moved to Raglan St, Mosman. Berrol attended Fort Street Boys’ High School, was attached to the Naval Brigade for five years and was 2nd Lieutenant in the 19th Infantry for two years, in charge of the machine-gun section. For nine years he worked as a clerk for Perdriau Rubber Co. (that later merged with Dunlop Rubber) and was an early member of the Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club. In fact, the newsletter for his former high school noted:
"Well-known to all Fortians … he (Berrol) was very well known as a swimmer, being the champion of the Bondi Club, and frequently competed in our Old Boys races at our annual carnival."
Gallipoli and Egypt
On 5 June 1915 he was commissioned as 2nd Lt. Berrol Mendelsohn in the AIF, age 24, and embarked Sydney with the 2nd Reinforcements of 17th Battalion aboard HMAT A23 Suffolk on 28 July.
From Egypt, they landed at Gallipoli on 18 September, six weeks after the rest of the battalion. It was responsible for the defence of Quinn's Post, one of the most contested places along the Anzac front. He was then attached to the 18th Battalion one month before they evacuated in December back to Egypt.
Whilst training there and the AIF effectively doubled in size, Berrol was allotted to 55th Battalion, part of the new 14th Brigade, then on 3 April 1916, promoted Lieutenant.
France and the Battle of Fromelles
Berrol sent a cable home from Egypt, just prior to the battalion sailing from Alexandria on 19 June to Marseilles and entrained to the north of France. With the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division, they entered the frontline trenches for the first time on 12 July and fought the AIF’s first major battle on the Western Front at Fleurbaix, just a week later 19-20 July 1916.
Although in reserve, the 55th was quickly committed to the attack and eventually played a critical role, forming the rear-guard for the 14th Brigade's withdrawal. In Berrol’s Red Cross Record, Sgt Armstrong later stated:
“On July 19 when I reached our trenches with my platoon, Lt. Mendelsohn, by some chance separated from his own platoon, was near us. He immediately took command of those men near him and blowing his whistle led the way over the parapet towards the German trenches. When I reached the first German line of trenches, I found that [he] was not with us, but on reaching the second German line I found that he was already there. This was about 7pm. As soon as I reached this position Lt. Mendelsohn gave the order to move along the trench and we occupied a portion of the trench previously unoccupied. At about 2am on July 20 the Germans counter-attacked heavily and we stood to, to withstand the attack, Lt. Mendelsohn in command. At about 2:30am he was shot through the head standing alongside me, whilst urging his men on to greater effort. Death was instantaneous, I was myself wounded shortly after but have ascertained that [his] body was not removed from the trench and was probably buried by the Germans.”
Now known as the Battle of Fromelles, it was a complete disaster, resulting in heavy allied casualties, including over 2,000 Australian dead, at least ten of whom were Jewish.
A mother’s loss – an ideal son
After receiving advice that Berrol, age 25, was Killed in Action on 20 July 1916, Abigail wrote to the Army seeking more information, whilst confiding:
"My boy was an ideal son and yet I know he preferred the death which has overtaken him than to have stayed behind."
Some months later, via the Red Cross, she received a trunk containing his possessions including a prayer book and his identity disc imprinted with the letter ‘J’ signifying his Jewish faith. She was so surprised that the Germans had also returned a purse containing money, that she wanted to contact whomever had paid “tribute from one brave man to another brave man.”
A second son in the AIF
Abigail’s youngest son, schoolmaster Oscar Adolph Mendelsohn, had also enlisted. He was a gunner (service number 25636) with the 4th Division Ammunition Column serving in England until discharged as medically unfit after almost 18 months service. He then took up employment as an analytical chemist with the UK Chief Postal Censors Department (munitions) before returning home to Australia. Oscar (1896-1978) also served with the RAAF in World War II.
Another son served with the Royal Australian Naval Reserve.
Abigail received several letters from Berrol’s fellow officers, including:
The Rev. D. I. Freedman, Jewish Chaplain with the Anzac Corps, wrote:
"Your son was a great favourite both with his brother officers and his men, and all are speaking in terms of admiration of his bravery in the fierce attack. The sacrifice he has made will make his memory be cherished ever."
General Sir William Birdwood, commander of I ANZAC Corps on the Western Front, wrote:
"I only wish there was any news of comfort that I could give you regarding your son. Colonel McConaghy has furnished me with what little information there is available. Your son did extremely valuable work in the action of July 19 and 20. The commanding officer received a report about midnight on the 19th, to the effect that this company had been hard pressed by a severe counter attack of the enemy, and in this attack, to our great regret, your son was killed.
He was an officer of the highest ideals, very efficient, and his loss has consequently been most severely felt by the battalion, and by his colonel, who regarded him as such a trustworthy friend.
He was buried where he fell, with other brave men, and if it can be possible for you to derive any consolation in such a heavy loss I think you may do so in the knowledge that he probably met the death he would have himself preferred — as a brave soldier, fighting for his King and country. But, after all, this can be of little comfort to a mother. Believe me, I do most deeply sympathise with you in your great loss, and I think it is the most difficult part of my duty, seeing brave men go, and being unable to do anything in the way of affording consolation to those who have been bereaved. But, after two years' fighting alongside the Australian soldiers, I think you probably realise my deep affection for them, and how anxious I am to do anything I possibly can to help them in the work of self-sacrifice, which is before everyone almost daily."
Like the next-of-kin of all the other 1300 lost soldiers whose bodies were not identified and names are inscribed on the memorial wall at VC Corner Cemetery, Abigail was tormented the rest of her life with not knowing where his body lay and corresponded with the Army for years, trying to make sense of his death.
But his story does not end there
From the 1990’s, amateur historian Lambis Englezos and others worked tirelessly to convince the Army authorities that at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles, there were forgotten, mass burial pits which had not been identified by grave recovery parties after the war.
In 2008 archaeologists confirmed that 250 Australian soldiers were buried there by the Germans. The project to recover, identify - with help of relatives’ DNA - and rebury the ‘Lost Diggers of Fromelles’ reached its climax in July 2010 with 94 identified, including Lt Berrol Lazar Mendelsohn. He is the only one of the nine lost Jewish diggers identified, to date.
On 19 July 2010, thousands of people from Australia, Britain and France attended the dedication of the new Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery and a British Chaplain, Rabbi Saunders, consecrated the grave of Lt Berrol Lazar Mendelsohn – 94 years after his death – with his grand-nephews/nieces, descendants, Jewish ex-servicemen and others present. His headstone is inscribed:
GREATLY LOVED SON OF SALI AND ABIGAIL
BELOVED BROTHER OF ZILLAH ARTHUR ESTELLE FELIX OSCAR
Links to Unofficial Records
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