Remembering Australian soldiers in World War One

Vernon Ware AIF on the right
I first wrote this blog early in 2014 when people began to look back 100 years to the stories of ordinary soldiers who fought, were injured or died in World War One.  Four years later I have added new pictures to the account.

The only member of my family, whom I know died during the first world war, was my great uncle, Sergeant Vernon Ware, who having fought in the Boer War, then went to live in Australia. As soon as war was declared in 1914 he joined the First Australian Light Horse as a Sergeant and his army number was 2.  He landed at Gallipoli and was later given the task of taking a prisoner to Egypt.  Once in Egypt he contracted Enteric fever and died in the military hospital age 36 on 3rd April 1916. He is commemorated at Cairo War Memorial cemetery.  His medals were sent to my grandfather in England as he was next of kin. Below you can see the Princess Mary tin he was sent for Christmas 1914 and the medals sent posthumously to his brother, my grandfather.

For this reason I am particularly interested in the Australian soldiers who travelled all the way to Europe to fight alongside British and Canadian soldiers.  While researching for the St Luke's Hospital Heritage Project in Guildford I discovered a little more about 3 Australian soldiers who were treated at Guildford War Hospital in 1916 and 1917.

Private William Windress of the Australian Imperial Force was admitted to Guildford War Hospital on December 29th 1916, suffering from trench fever.  He had been evacuated from service in the Somme via the hospital ship HMS Warilda.  While recovering in Guildford he met Hannah Sepple, whose husband, Private Albert Henry Sepple of the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, had died of wounds in October 1915.  Private Sepple had spent the first months of 1915 in the trenches south of Armentieres. It is not known when Albert was wounded, but he died in Norfolk War Hospital.  He is remembered on the Charlotteville War Memorial in Addison Road, Guildford.  

William Windress had been born in Guisbrough, Yorkshire in 1876, the eldest son of Daniel Windross or Winders, a miner.  In 1879, Daniel and his wife Elizabeth took their sons William aged 4 and John 1, to live in Queensland, Australia, where their other 8 children were born. 
On 13th September 1915, William enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces. According to military records, he was 39 years 9 months, 5 foot 3 and a half inches high and weighed 135 pounds. He was of dark complexion with blue eyes and dark brown hair. His right leg was slightly short and there was a scar on it.  He was attached to the 9th Battalion AIF (Queensland) [3rd Infantry Brigade]. William was a member of the 13th Reinforcements which departed from Brisbane, Queensland on the "Kyarra" on 3 January 1916 and disembarked in Alexandria, Egypt transferring to another vessel before disembarking in Marseilles, France.
Hannah Sepple had been born Hannah Louisa Roden at Mersham Hall, Mold in Wales in 1875, where her father was a coachman.  She became a maidservant and by 1911 Hannah was working as a parlour maid to a family living in Semaphore House on Pewley Hill, Guildford, while her 2 year old son lived as a nurse child in Bedford Road, Guildford with Annie Jones, the wife of George Jones, a driver of a scavenger van for the borough council.

William Windress & Hannah

On his recovery, William Windress was detached to the Australian Army Medical Corps at the Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, Kent.  But he returned to Guildford to marry Hannah at Holy Trinity Church on 28th May 1917.  Their son Daniel William Windress was born at their home, Sexton Villas, 8 Suffolk Road, Dartford on August 28th 1918.  Finally, on July 12th 1919, William and Hannah embarked on the, “Indarra,” accompanied by both of Hannah’s sons, arriving in Australia on September 9th. 

The family settled in Queensland and lived happily there until Hannah passed away at the age of 71 on the 12th November 1946, being buried at North Rockhampton Cemetery, Queensland. William Windress survived Hannah by a little over 3 years, dying on the 8th January 1950, aged 74 at 'Eventide' Nursing Home, Sandgate North,Queensland and he was buried at Lutwyche Cemetery, Chemside, Queensland.

Private Francis Arthur Boyle of Queensland Australia was not so lucky.  He enlisted with the 17th Battalion on the 18th January 1916 and embarked from Sydney on HMAT Ceramic on April 13th.  He fought in Belgium and France in the same year but sadly on November 9th he was severely wounded by a bullet to the left hand side of his forehead.  By the time he reached Guildford War Hospital on December 4th he was dangerously ill. Sadly, he died of his injuries on Sunday 31st December 1916 and was buried at Stoughton Cemetery four days later. The sister in charge of the ward where Boyle lay was Linda Bell, and this is what she said of his last days:

He was unconscious for days before his death and died quite peacefully, his sister-in-law present. He was buried with full military honours in the Stoughton Cemetery, his sister-in-law attended. As I hope to leave for Australia and come from the same town as the late Pte Boyle, I intend to call and see his people…”

Her letter shows the compassion shown by the nursing staff at the hospital.

Robert Gay, a miner from Boulder in Western Australia registered at Kalgoorlie before formally enlisting at Black Boy Hill Training Camp, Gooseberry Hill, on 21st February 1916, aged 18. He trained with the third reinforcement of the 51st Infantry Battalion but was transferred to the 44th Battalion with whom he was sent to France in November 1916.
After six months frontline service, on 9th June 1917 he suffered a, “gunshot wound and fracture to the right foot,” at the Battle of Messines.  Here, despite appalling conditions, the 44th and 48th Battalions successfully recaptured and held southern positions lost to the Germans on the battle’s first day.   The 44th Battalion casualties were severe; nearly half of the 700 engaged, including Bob, were killed or wounded. He was taken to Guildford War Hospital where he was promoted to Lance Corporal.

Pool of Peace at Messines
After a full recovery he rejoined his depleted Battalion in Belgium on 27th October 1917. In his absence the 44th had suffered more casualties in operations around Ypres. They fought in Belgium rotating in and out of the frontline until the last great German offensive in March 1918. His Battalion was rushed south to France to help stem the German drive towards the vital railway junction of Amiens.

Robert then participated in the Allied offensive that signalled the end of the War. This involved heavy fighting in the advance towards Peronne and the successful assault on the formidable Hindenburg Line starting on 29th September 1918. The exhausted and depleted Battalion, normally 1028 men, could only muster 220 for this assault. It was the Battalion’s last action of the War. Bob was killed on the first day in a desperate action trying to force their way into the Line near the village of Bony. When relieved on 2nd October 1918 only 80 men marched out. Sadly Bob wasn't one of them.  He is buried at Bellicourt British Cemetery in Picardie.


The Mysterious Drowning of Madam Edith Bockel and her children

On a sunny August day in 1895 a body of a young boy was discovered in the Willabroeck canal in Neder-Over-Heembeck near Brussels.  But why was this sad story reported in such great detail in, “The Bury and Norwich Post?”  Of what interest could it be to the average East Anglian reader?

At first the identity of the boy was unknown but when, on the following two days, a young girl and then a woman were also found drowned in the same location, they were linked to a family who had disappeared from a local hotel a few days earlier.  The manager of the Hotel de la Marine believed they matched the appearance of a lady who had checked into the hotel, with her children, as Marie Louise Weilers from Richmond in England.  But this person was untraceable so evidence from her clothing was investigated.  On the band of her bodice could be read, “Miss Jor...costumier..Lynn,” and her shoes were labelled, “H. R. Powell, 32, St James’s Street, Kings Lynn.”

Help was sought from the Kings Lynn police force.  Immediately Chief Constable George Ware, never one to delegate active police investigations, travelled to Belgium.  He discovered that although the drowned woman had checked in as Marie Weilers, she had left in her hotel room, a notebook and a hat bearing the name Maria Bockel.  This gave him her true identity.  Madame Bockel, age 36, was the widow of Frédéric Bockel, a Belgian national but she had been born Edith Helen Harrison in Downham, Cambridgeshire.  Her children were Marie Jeanne Bockel age 12 and Frédéric Bockel age 4.  After her marriage to Frédéric Bockel senior, Edith had moved with him to Brussels where he was manager of the public baths at 67 Boulevard Hanspeck.  Sadly, while Edith was pregnant with young Frédéric in 1890, her husband died.  At first she remained in Brussels but understandably, after three years, Edith returned to her family in Kings Lynn.  There her father John Harrison was a successful butcher, having previously been a London cattle salesman.

What was unclear was why Madame Bockel had returned to Brussels and why she wished to remain incognito.  George Ware needed to ascertain whether this was a case of suicide, accident or murder.  He discovered that in her pocket a new purse, purchased locally, had been found.  It bore the stamp of Magasin Lepoint.  Madame Lepoint believed that the deceased had been accompanied by a man and that she had made several purchases.  She remembered that they were either English or American.  This tied in with the discovery of a man’s waistcoat in the canal but no other body was found.

The newspaper account gives considerable detail of Edith’s clothing.  “Her stockings were black and the garters were of silk elastic, pink in colour.  Her gloves were of black merino with four mother-of-pearl buttons.”  She had a handkerchief embroidered with the letter B and wore a plain gold wedding ring.  On her dress was a silver brooch of a dove and there were three small keys in her pocket.  Her daughter wore a bracelet with three hearts attached, her fair hair was tied with white ribbon and her dress was grey with a lace collar.

The local police believed that the family had sailed to Belgium on the steamer, “City of London,” but they were unable to trace the vessel.  Edith had told her parents that she was taking the children to meet relatives and that she needed to speak to her husband’s executors.  She seemed to be, “in excellent spirits,” and a letter she wrote to them, “showed no signs of despondency.”  Although in receipt of £200 per year she was known to have money concerns.  Despite this fact her family did not believe that she would have taken her own life.

Chief Constable Ware, my great grandfather, had a history of successfully solved crimes during his time in Kings Lynn; since his appointment, at the age of 26, as Superintendent of police and also previously as a Police Inspector in Leeds.

So George was determined to find out what had happened to the tragic family.  He was surprised to discover that Edith had not made contact with any of her many friends and relatives in Brussels. Madame Heder, who described herself as the “bosom friend” of Madame Bockel could not believe that the family would visit Brussels without staying with her.  George enlisted the help of the village schoolmistress to examine the badly decomposed bodies.  This brave woman was able to confirm that the clothing of Madame Bockel and her daughter had not been disarranged or interfered with.  Before leaving the hotel on the eventful day Edith had placed an empty purse, the leather wristlet she normally wore and her gold watch in a drawer but there was no sign of twenty five City of Antwerp Corporation Bonds or £10 in gold which she kept in a handbag.  Perhaps it lies still at the bottom of the canal.

Despite his conviction that Edith and her children were the victims of foul play, this could not be substantiated.  Although she had strayed from the respectable, scenic area of the town into an industrial canal side where tramps lurked, no screams had been heard and the victims were uninjured.  The Belgian police believed that, “down and outs,” might have obtained Edith’s bag after she and the children accidentally fell into the canal, so they continued their endeavours to find three tramps already wanted for attacking a carriage in the vicinity, a few days earlier.

The bulletin from the Belgian police, in which it was said that Madame Bockel had checked into the hotel as Marie Elise Weilers, disappeared and the hotel waiter who booked her in, “may have been labouring under a misapprehension.”  Miss Laura Harrison, Edith’s sister, who had also arrived in Brussels, said that Madame Bockel had gone to collect interest on railway and other stocks that she held but no trace of these was found.  Laura gave more useful evidence which was reported in “The North Eastern Gazette” on Wednesday August 7th.  Apparently five years earlier Frédéric Bockel senior, being unwell, had sold the Public Baths which he managed.  One night, the couple retired to bed but when Edith woke, she found her husband dead by her side.  The shock caused her paralysis from which she gradually recovered.  Had the paralysis returned when she went back to Brussels or did her son, who, according to Laura, was very “frolicsome”, slip into the canal so that his mother and sister had to attempt a rescue?

More was revealed in “The Rotherham Independent.”  We learn that Frédéric Bockel met Edith Harrison while he was a porter in a Belgian hotel.  At the time Edith was a travelling companion to an English family.  After his death Frédéric left her 13000 Francs and life interest on a further amount, Monsieur Bockel’s close friend M. Beckers, who was appointed guardian to Frédéric’s children, expressed the view that Madame Bockel had also gone to Belgian for a medical consultation since she believed that she was suffering from cancer.

On his return to England on 16th August, George Ware gave an interview to the press which was reported in “The Morning Post”.  Although he had traced Edith’s movements from her departure from Kings Lynn on July 26th to her arrival in Brussels the following day where she asked the cab driver to recommend a hotel, he was unable to reach a definite answer as to the cause of the three deaths.  They had left the Hotel de la Marine at 5.45 that evening and had not been seen again.  It would seem that Edith had a very small income and had gone to sell her Corporation Bonds.  In his words, “The incidents of that day remain an unsolved mystery.”

More about policeman George Ware
Times Digital Archive
“Glimpses of Fiddaman’s Lynn” by Rosemary & Stan Rodliffe