This is our story of the life of William Arthur FRASER.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

After the War

In May 1919 as William travelled north, his anxiety grew as he neared his destination of the Smith family home in Bundaberg, Queensland where his wife Florrie and their son Johnnie were eagerly awaiting his return after three years. He had set in motion the chance to settle on land in the Glasshouse Mountains north of Brisbane, and was hoping they would share his excitement and enthusiasm.

William Arthur FRASER, his son John and wife Florrie
on his return from the Great War.

As a part of the Australian Government’s reward to returning soldiers areas of land were subdivided into small blocks for their use.  One of these was the Beerburrum Soldier Settlement in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. William had been allocated 34 acres 2 roods and 31 perches on lot 588, to grow pineapples on assignment to the government and was lured with money borrowed from the government.

So full of high expectations of the  noble promises made, the little family set out with a few meagre belongings, to start their life together. William needed all his resourcefulness to cope with many of the arduous tasks that needed attending to. Heavily timbered land needed clearing and fencing before any ploughing or planting of pineapple suckers could begin. As well as preparing the farm he needed to construct some form of dwelling, for his now expectant wife and young son.  This originally consisted of rough hewn timber walls an iron roof and a dirt floor. Whilst some money was allocated and instruction provided, funds saved for living on were soon exhausted . The relentless toil of working in solitude in the searing northerly sun, or torrential rain, was beginning to take its toll on a man who had suffered the deprivations of war.  With little or no income, credit was extended for fertilizer and farm implements causing an increase in loan repayments. Work on road building gave some financial relief but restricted the time then spent farming.

When finally there were pineapples to sell, market factors brought little returns.  Poignant letters to the authorities at this time show the start of William’s concern of the situation he found himself in.

Map of landed leased to William Fraser at Beerburrum

In the Queensland Governments wisdom, the soldiers were not able to own the land with a freehold title, given only a perpetual leasehold with the condition that they were required to reside on the block. Due to his financial position he sought work in the cane fields at Bundaberg where Florrie could safely give birth to their next child Cuthbert surrounded by her supportive family.  Consequently he was required to relinquish the block in May 1922 with the Government investigating its worth so they would suffer no loss. William lost not only the optimism he had brought back from the war,   but a loss of his self esteem.

His leadership skills were once more acknowledged and the family set off in March 1923 on the challenge to live on Ocean Island in the Pacific (Kiribati) where William was to supervise workers in the  British Phosphate Company.  On his return in June 1924 he could only find work labouring on the wharves, in Sydney, which after his illustrious war career he found demeaning. The dark shadows were starting to develop when on 13th November 1924   in his despair William made the decision the world was better off without him and he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. After a fortnight in Royal Prince Alfred he entered a very dark world completing cutting off all light to any personal connections. He was admitted to Callan Park  Psychiatric Hospital Sydney in a very depressed state on 30th November 1924.

This was to be his sanctuary from the realities of the world for the next three years. His clinical notes state that he suffered from periods of agitation, when he was anxious to work, but then sunk into a condition of “cataleptic stupor – refusing to eat, or to see his wife”.

Medical Superintendent  Callan Park states “The patient is suffering from acute suicidal melancholy, this being an emotional reaction -after his distinguished war service and then only being able to find unskilled employment,- in a man of such an impulsive nature. A state of his mind is evident in this letter which he wrote when he decided he was unworthy of the medals bestowed on him.

Letters written by William Arthur FRASER when returning his medals
and certificates to the Army

Through Florrie’s endeavours to gain financial support for herself and the children we are left with a mountain of paper work in files. For the next ten years the effort from many caring personnel, on her behalf, finally attributed his health to be a result of his war service and he became officially a military pensioner.

This allowed her a full pension for William of 4 pounds 4 shillings , herself 2 pound, and 2 pound 15 shillings together for the three children.

Florrie, a descendent of a primitive Methodist Minister, probably sustained herself with her faith throughout this time as most of Sunday would be spent at the Toxteth Methodist Church at Glebe, in company with many caring friends.

Cuthbert, Dorothy and John FRASER
On the steps of the house at Glebe.

The files show that from the time he was allowed leave from Callan Park, until the time The Deputy Master in Lunacy is no longer in charge of his affairs in 1942, there were investigator’s reports, watching his movements and taking statements from neighbours in regard to his movements and general demeanour. “
“17th January 1935. Has improved somewhat in his demeanour. Previously he would not leave the house nor talk to anyone. He is now a bit brighter and goes out with his wife or the children. Apart from the relationship with the eldest lad, he appears fond of his other children. His wife reports he is not so morose and now takes an interest in daily affairs. He is more affable but still quick to take offence and requires managing. She takes him to Callan Park every three months to report and obtain an extension of his leave.”
10th February 1936 “He is still unemployed and spends most of his time at home. Mr Martin of 217 Bridge Rd Glebe states he has known the member for some time. He is very simple in his ways and is generally quiet and gives no trouble.

Family life returned to a form of “normality” during his periods at home during the 1930’s but he often had times of irrational outbursts.  In her memoirs his daughter Dorothy writes “If we heard Dad ranting inside we would hide in the laundry until he banged his fist on the table and yelled at his photo, in uniform above the mantle,  “call yourself an officer and a gentleman” after which they knew it was safe to go inside.

The relationship with his eldest child, John, for a combination of reasons, was particularly traumatic resulting in John leaving home and consequently coming under the guardianship of John O’Brien at the Repatriation Commission. This was troubling for his mother and siblings especially when William would not allow John into the house for Christmas in 1937. Dorothy and Cuthbert met him in secret and reported his whereabouts and welfare to their Mother.

When things were in a relatively normal state the family would go out to different picnic spots around the harbour. William liked to take the children swimming to the beach, but particularly to many of the Harbour Pools. He would put them on the tram to Drummoyne or to Bondi Beach and then walk briskly there himself. For a man who had route marched through France and then walked out from Bahgdad through the mountain passes in Persia (Iran) these were mere strolls in the park.

Whilst the memories of his war impacted on the family another invaded into their lives but at this time he became more responsive to the family  and involved in  the lives of his grandchildren,  particularly caring for his eldest grandson on a daily basis on a prolonged admission to the Children’s Hospital.  He also had a reconciliation with his son John.

Admitted to Concord Repatriation Hospital with Bronchitis he died from Congestive Heart Failure on 5th August 1949 and was deeply mourned by his family.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Dunsterforce, 1918

Upon his return to France he is asked to volunteer for a secret mission and it is not long before he returns to England and with other officers from his 3rd Division, gathered at the Tower of London as a chosen member of a “hush –hush” expedition.

With the collapse of the Russian front in the Caucasus, as the Bolsheviks returned home to support the Revolution in October 1917, the area was left in turmoil and open to an advance by the Turkish and German forces. It was vital that they could not access, not only the ports for supply of oil, but also to open a supply route through Central Asia via Afghanistan to the rich natural resources of India.

In order to avoid this strategic catastrophe Major General Lionel Dunsterville formed a force specifically from the Dominion troops, whose characteristicss he admired. Commanders such as the Australian General Birdwood  were asked to supply “good officers, with strong characters, adventurous spirit, especially good stamina, capable of organising, training and eventually leading irregular troops.” Brigade commanders were asked to suggest names of NCOs who showed strong leadership attributes who had already proven themselves in the field. Consequently Lieutenant Fraser became a Temporary Captain in the British Imperial Army.

Arriving first in  Mesopotamia at Basra and then proceeding to Baghdad in March 1918, then on to Hamadan and Baku where he remained in the “Dunsterforce”, (basically carrying out the same type of training our special forces are involved in today,) until the end of the year. He was specially mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s despatch in April 1918.  When it was disbanded he became a member of the NORPER Force – Irregular Northern Persian Force. These soldiers were never certain whether they were dealing with friend of foe and were consequently were always on guard throughout their time in the area.

After returning to Cairo he left from Suez to return home per the “Lancashire”on 19th February 1919 to a family he hardly knew.

Enlistment in 41st battalion, AIF

One thing is certain he became a Sergeant on  22nd February 1916 whist still at Bell’s Paddock Training Camp in Brisbane, as a member of the 3rd Division 11th Brigade, 41st Battalion, “A” Company, a wholly Queensland Contingent.

Following his marriage on the 4th May 1916 at the Mission House Brisbane, with my Grandmother being pregnant, he sailed on HMS “Demosthenes” for Plymouth England on 18th May 1916 with the 41st Battalion.

NCOs of A Company, 41st Battalion on board HMAT Demosthenes
The 3rd Division was under the command of General Monash who insisted the men be trained for many months at Salisbury Plains. This training was ridiculed by troops already in action but Monash’s attention to the finest detail was soon put to the test, and proven, when they went into battle. William had proceeded to France in November 1916. By March 1917 he is admitted to 51st General Hospital with Gonorrhoea for 82 days.

NCOs of A Company, 41st Battalion at Salisbury Plains before travelling to France.
He obviously uses this time well as on 26th June he is promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, in the field. The 41st Battalion takes part in the fighting at Messines in July and William attends Infantry School around this time.
The Third Battle of Ypres takes place in September and October 1917 with the objective of Passchendaele. The Australians placed along the railway cutting from Zonnabeke,(close to where Tyne Cot Cemetery now is) waited  in the continual rain for the battle to begin. The 41st Battalion were timed for 6am on 4th October for the assault on Broodseinde Ridge.  They encountered heavy German shelling followed by trench-mortar bombardments. The Australians sustained heavy losses with some platoons reduced to 10 men from 35. The German machine gunners resisted the Allied onslaught secure in their pillboxes. “Another pillbox was fired on with rifle grenades and then rushed by Lieutenant Fraser (41st) who thus set free the checked troops.”So records CEW Bean in Volume 4 of the Official History of Australia .

 The citation for this action and the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Lieutenant William Arthur Fraser reads “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when his platoon was checked by machine gun, he located it and accompanied only by his runner, attacked the dug-out from the rear, killed ten men and captured 20 others, together with the machine gun.”

It is tantalizing to think that when on leave in London from 5th to 22nd December1917, to receive from the King, the DSO, on 19th December at Buckingham Palace, that members of his family may have been present, but again correspondence shows no records were kept of visitors.

Early days

My paternal grandfather William Arthur Fraser is almost a mystery despite years of relentless research, especially by my cousin Paulette Parkes nee Kerr who began a swathe of correspondence from the 1980s until her untimely death in 2008 trying to uncover information on the flimiest of clues.

The first official record found is of his employment at the Sydney City Council on 25th September 1911, then made a leading hand as a linesman in March 1912 and leaving after an accident on 2nd December 1912. He is living in Bourke Rd Waverley.

The next written record is to join the AIF on 28th December 1915 in Brisbane Queensland. Information he provides on his enlistment paper has his birth date on 18th October 1883 and his place of birth Cliffe Kent England.  It also states he has had previous service in the Fourth West Kent Regiment and left due to expiration of service. All records of this time were destroyed in a fire. There is a discrepancy to the date of birth that the family celebrated his birthday on 19th May with the year of birth 1885.

The next of kin is listed as Nellie –Jane Florence Smith, my Grandma, who lived in Bundaberg, Queensland with her family- whom he appears to be familiar with, as shown in later correspondence. As he lists his occupation as a labourer, he was probably in the area cane cutting.

The marriage certificate, provides a little more information from him stating his parents as Mary Jane McCallum and Angus Cameron Fraser, a cement works manager. Further research, visits and correspondence by Paulette has revealed Blue Circle  still operate a cement works in Cliffe Kent but no records have been kept. Many of the men who worked here had come from appalling conditions labouring on railway construction. Employment here meant conditions were not much better with many reported deaths in local publications. All too frequently alchohol meant a miserable domestic life for the children.  The names given of his parents give a clue as to Scottish heritage

From here all we have is those “family stories”. Of interest is that he was known as Jack, so with the added record of 3 vaccination marks on one arm and two on the other there is a possibility of a connection to the navy. My aunt recalls sighting a boxing medal dated 1905 ,Hobart. Research has shown that vessels from the fleet were in Hobart in 1905 and the Mercury published results of a Boxing match  of various weight divisions held between sailors and townspeople. No Fraser.

Other tales I have discounted as being rather fanciful, and Paulette has followed through to their consequent demise, with her usual tenacity. Searching through birth, marriage and death records was a physical and manual task that provided no results, as did each census as they became available. With the advent of digital records I was sure I was going to have a Eureka moment.  I haven’t given up hope even though I feel I have tried every combination. His later writings show an educated man with neat handwriting and good grammar. So the possibility of being institutionalised on the death of his father, may just not have come to light yet. The fact he insisted on his first son being named John Murray has even led us to research those names in varying forms.