I get the impression that John Stewart was a hard man. He lived a frontier life, born in Van Diemen’s Land in 1845, growing up in pre-gold rush Geelong and then on the central Victorian goldfields. He raised his own family at Eurambeen and the Fiery Creek goldfields. John learned the stonemason’s trade from his father. His work can still be seen in some of the old buildings not far from Ballarat.
John Stewart was 31 when he married 19-year-old Elizabeth Ann Ball in the Beaufort Primitive Methodist Church on 18 May 1877. As a young man he would have cut a rugged figure; not tall but solidly built with a jet-black bushranger beard.
My father was only two years old when John Stewart died in 1944. But he has a strong image of John sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch at Beaufort, his face hidden under the brim of his hat, puffing away on his “big, old, stinky pipe”.
When my grandmother Rene gave birth to my father, John Stewart declared, “the girl’s too young to have a baby. Take it away from her”. Rene was one month away from her 20th birthday. Apparently it had been acceptable for 31-year-old John to marry 19-year-old Elizabeth, but for Rene 19 was too young. (Elizabeth had had her first child when she was 21.)
Rene remembered Elizabeth Ann Ball as a “lovely lady”. It was Elizabeth who kept a welcoming home and maintained strong relationships with her children and grandchildren.
Andy’s battalion sailed for France on the RMS Saxonia, the men disembarking in Marseilles on 3 April 1916. They quickly entrained for Strazeele, not far from Dunkirk. The three-day train journey across the lush French countryside must have been a welcome change from the scrubby gorse of Gallipoli and the sands of Egypt.
The next six weeks were spent training for the conditions of the Western Front, including drills for gas attacks. On 6 June the battalion went into the line for the first time at Fleurbaix, an hour’s march from Fromelles.
Soon they marched to join the ‘Big Push’ and the attack on Pozieres on 22 July. The 3rd Brigade was heavily shelled with poison gas and high explosive shells, but took Pozieres before dawn the next morning.
Andy was wounded in action. It was 24 July, the start of a fierce and relentless German artillery bombardment that continued for days. Suffering from shell shock and a leg injury from an exploding shell he was sent to the 10th General Hospital in Rouen, then to England. He was admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth on 2 August 1916, then moved to the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Southall.
Despite having a long recovery ahead of him, Andy was fortunate to have been hospitalized before the intense fighting to hold Pozieres and take Mouquet Farm. By the time the AIF was relieved at Pozieres in early September they had suffered more than 23,000 casualties; almost 7,000 dead or missing, 17,000 wounded.
On 23 August Andy wrote from Wandsworth to a friend in Broken Hill
I would have written before, but our outward mail was stopped for some weeks owing to us proceeding from Flanders to the Somme to take part in the big push.
Our first job was the taking of Pozieres, which we took on Sunday morning, July 23. The same brigade was allotted that task as was in the original landing at Anzac. We took the village with only few casualties, but as soon as it came daylight on Sunday morning the Huns started counter-attacks, and when we beat them back they started shelling.
They kept on with counter-attacks and shelling up till Monday night, when I had an argument with one of their shells, and the shell won, as I remember no more until I was well away from the firing line on my way to a clearing station.
No doubt you have seen the big casualty lists, and it was mostly through the shells that we had so many killed and wounded. Of course, our own guns were going as well. We got so badly knocked about on the Sunday that we had to have the remainder of the division sent up to help us. On Monday morning they had to send the second division in to give us a hand. But we hung on to the village, or what was left of it, as it was a most important position, especially to the Huns.
No doubt the Huns are good fighters when they are in a good trench, but when it comes to close quarters then up go their hands, and they shout for mercy. I might say that they did not get much mercy at Pozieres, as all the prisoners taken there could be counted on your fingers and toes, and all wounded at that. But there were heaps of dead. Well, I have seen quite enough, and this is my second time wounded, and the only time I have been away from my battalion since I first joined it at Morphettville over two years ago.
I am hoping this may be a trip back to Australia for me. I arrived here from France on August 2. I am still in bed. but I am hoping to be out very soon.
NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.
Limb, A. 1919. History of the 10th Battalion A.I.F. 1st ed. London; Melbourne: Cassell and Co.
1916 AWM4, 23/27/6 – April 1916. First World War Diaries – AWM4, Sub-class 23/27, 10th Infantry Battalion.
‘Pozières, First Australian Division Memorial – Bombardment 24-26 July 1916’. Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918: The Australian remembrance trail in France and Belgium.
‘Pozieres, The Windmill’. Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918: The Australian remembrance trail in France and Belgium.
Featured image: Postcard – Private Albert Edward Kemp to Annie Kemp, ‘Australians Parading for the Trenches’, circa 1916. The postcard depicts the ‘men who shortly after midnight of Sunday, July 23, 1916, took Pozieres by a splendidly dashing advance through shrapnel, shell, and machine-gun fire.’ Museum Victoria collection MM 90948
Stories handed down from generation to generation can be both important family histories and frustratingly light on detail.
My father told me the family story: there were three brothers who enlisted to fight for King and Country in the First World War. The brothers had to lie about their ages to enlist. After the war one brother emigrated to Canada, another to South Africa, and the third to Australia. The brothers never met again, but kept in regular contact through letters.
The brother who settled in Australia was my great-grandfather, Andrew “Andy” Stewart Duncan. Any detail about his brothers was lost. I wanted to learn more about this story.
Birth and census records on the ScotlandsPeople website soon found the Duncan family of 12 Duke Street, Newton on Ayr, Scotland.
John Duncan and Elizabeth Stewart had ten children, one of whom died in infancy. Including my great-grandfather there were four brothers, not three: John, Andrew, Anthony and Hugh. They were born in 1879, 1882, 1884 and 1893 respectively.
Which three brothers enlisted?
Army records identified that John, Andrew and Anthony had enlisted.
John joined the British Army Reserve in January 1916, transferred to the 5th Army Reserve Scottish Rifles and later the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
Andrew had emigrated to Australia in 1912. He enlisted in the 10th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force in August 1914.
Anthony had emigrated to Canada in 1910. He attested for the 74th Battalion, Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in July 1915.
I found service records and Medal Rolls Index Cards for soldiers named Hugh Duncan and Hugh Stewart Duncan but could not connect any of them with my great-grand uncle. I was unable to determine whether Hugh had joined up or not.
Who lied about their age?
A common part of the narrative of the First World War is that underage lads added a few years to their age, so as not to miss out on going to war.
John, Andrew and Anthony were all in their 30s when they enlisted. And yet the family story was that the brothers had lied about their age to enlist. Where had that come from?
John had misrepresented his age, dropping it from 36 to 35 years
Andrew had lied about his age – but in 1899, at the age of 17, when he enlisted for the Boer War.
Who emigrated to South Africa?
Anthony had sailed for Canada. Andrew had made Australia home. John survived the war and was back in Scotland to register the death of his father in 1922, and his mother in 1927. The only one unaccounted for was Hugh Stewart Duncan. There was no trace of him emigrating, or returning home.
There was no Duncan emigration to South Africa after the First World War. Memories of Andrew’s Boer War travels had become mixed with later stories.
What happened to Hugh Stewart Duncan?
The launch of Scottish soldiers’ wills on the ScotlandsPeople website sent me looking again for confirmation of whether Hugh had enlisted. My query returned three possible wills. The first will I viewed had no connection to the Duncans in Newton on Ayr. The second will made me sit upright in my chair. It read,
In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my father Mr. John Duncan 12 Duke St. Ayr.
Pte. Hugh Duncan
Hugh had joined the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. On 7 June 1915 he landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula, where he was critically wounded.
Hugh died on 23 June 1915 of wounds received in action. He was buried at Lancashire Landing cemetery not far from Cape Helles.
In searching for the truth behind the story of three brothers in the First World War I uncovered a forgotten brother. Hugh, the baby brother, died and was buried far from home.
While Andy was overseas Jane Duncan was a dutiful wife. She took an interest in the newspaper reports of the Gallipoli campaign and later the Western Front. She clipped newspaper articles for Andy to read when he returned home.
Jane wrote regularly to the Department of Defence, advising frequent changes of address and seeking updates on Andy’s situation. She also wrote to the newspapers in Broken Hill, Adelaide and Melbourne to share any news from the front.
On 27 May 1915 Jane wrote
I suppose you know that Sergt. Duncan enlisted at Broken Hill and after his departure I sold our home & came to Beaufort to be with my mother till such times as Mr. Duncan returns
To be with my mother. Not her father? Family memories suggest that Jane and her father, John Stewart, only got along in small doses. Jane’s relationship was with her mother.
It wasn’t long until Jane’s free spirit saw her leave Beaufort again, though she returned regularly to her parents’ home. Jane’s letters to the Department of Defence record her travels.
• In August 1916 she was in Broken Hill “for a month or two”, staying with friends.
• On 24 October 1916 she changed her address to Beaufort, “as I have left Broken Hill & have returned to Victoria”.
• In April 1917 Jane wrote, “I am in Sydney for a few months” and gave her address as 146 Flinders Street, Moore Park, Darlinghurst.
• By 31 January 1918 Jane was lodging at the Dunolly Coffee Palace and planning to stay “for some considerable time”.
• On 5 April 1918 Jane was back in Beaufort, but by mid-May she was residing at 11 Victoria Road, Malvern with her aunt, Elizabeth Anne Downes White (nee Stewart). Jane stayed in Malvern until news came of Andy’s repatriation to England in January 1919, then she returned to Beaufort for a month or so.
• By 11 March 1918 she was in Bung Bong, near Maryborough. It is possible that Jane’s travels to Dunolly and Bung Bong were associated with family, as the Whites and the Stewarts were mining families with connections to the central Victorian goldfields.
• The Riponshire Advocate of 29 June 1918 reported that Jane was in Banyena.
• On 19 April 1919 Jane wrote to advise that she would be leaving Bung Bong for Beaufort and requested any further news of Andy be sent to the Stewart home.
NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, AS. National Archives of Australia.