Once in a lifetime – The Descendants Project

Invited by a prize-winning artist to sit for a portrait. How often does that happen?

A portrait to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign and honour the memory of my great-grandfather, Sergeant Andrew Stewart Duncan. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have the privilege of participating in The Descendants Project, an exhibition of twenty portraits by Mertim Gökalp of Australian and Turkish war descendants, exploring the understanding of peace between the two nations.

Each subject shared an object that had once belonged to their ancestor, along with a hand-written letter explaining their feelings about the project.

Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
In my letter I wrote:

For the portrait sitting I was very fortunate to be able to borrow Andy’s fob watch. I only learned of its existence in 2013, when I made contact with a distant relative. To be able to hold Andy’s watch, to run my fingers over the engraved initials, “A.S.D.”, was very special. Andy had bought the watch in England in 1917, then posted it back to his wife Jane in Australia – probably after he learned he would soon rejoin his battalion on the Somme. For me holding the watch in 2014, I felt it still contained Andy’s hopes and fears from 1917.

The exhibition launched on 10 April. Of course I had to fly to Sydney along with my son to be part of it. Meeting other descendants that night made me realise how well Mertim had captured their essence in his art. Learning the Australian and Turkish stories gave a human face and an intimacy to the countless acts of sacrifice and heroism on both sides.

More sobering still is the realisation that the lives commemorated by The Descendants Project are a mere twenty out of the hundreds of thousands who fought at Gallipoli.

The Descendants Project exhibition is at The Rocks Discovery Museum (3rd floor) Sydney, 10 April – 3 May 2015

Fire-fighting skills desirable

February 1926 was the height of bushfire season. It was a hot, dry month without any rainfall to speak of. A number of bush and grass fires had already been reported in the Amherst district. Far away in the south-east of the state bushfires raged through the Yarra Valley and Gippsland, reaching their climax on “Black Sunday” 14 February, when 31 people were killed.

Andy Duncan commenced duty as sexton the week before Black Sunday. Amherst was surrounded by tinder-dry bushland. The cemetery itself was overgrown, with dry eucalyptus leaves and pine needles crackling underfoot.

A fire broke out. With no-one to call for assistance, Andy contained the fire and put it out before any great damage was done. The Talbot Leader reported that Mr Duncan “really saved the place”.

Did Jane fight the fire alongside Andy? Or did she keep 3 year old Rene at a safe distance?


1925–26 Victorian bushfire season – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. [Accessed 05 April 2015].

Australian Geographic. 2011. The worst bushfires in Australia’s history. [Accessed 05 April 15].

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 20 February 1926. State Library of Victoria.

Featured image: Amherst cemetery 2015. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Pronounced “AM-erst”

After a brief return to Beaufort Andy, Jane and Rene moved to Amherst (pronounced “AM-erst”) in 1926. Jane knew this part of Victoria well from her travels during the war.

Andy became the sexton of Amherst Cemetery in February 1926. Andy was in need of work and the Cemetery Trustees were desperate to find a sexton and grave-digger.

The cemetery had been without a permanent sexton since early in 1925, when Mr T Matthews had resigned. Matthews had sought a guarantee of more regular work along with higher remuneration, neither of which the Cemetery Trustees could provide. Matthews’ replacement lasted only a few months before having his employment terminated.

Without a sexton the cemetery had become overgrown and overrun with rabbits. There was no-one to dig or tend the graves.

For a considerable period the trustees of the Amherst Cemetery have been without a permanent sexton, and at times have experienced some difficulty in obtaining the services of any person to do the grave digging. Last week a dead end was reached, inasmuch as the trustees were unable to secure anyone to open up a grave. Finally, two of the trustees volunteered to carry out the work, which they did in a satisfactory manner, but they were not anxious to take on the vacant position.

Talbot Leader newspaper, 30 January 1926

The cemetery was not far from the Amherst Hospital and Sanatorium – a 30 minute walk. The “fully equipped and up to date” Sanatorium was regarded by many as Victoria’s foremost institution for the treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles and influenza.

You might think that Andy would have had plenty of grave-digging work come his way from the hospital, but that was not the case. The Sanatorium was proud of its cure rate – 225 cures from 331 patients in the 12 months to March 1928.

Not much work for a sexton. The town of Clunes, 22 kilometres from Amherst Talbot Leader, 28 March 1931. State Library of Victoria
Not much work for a sexton. The part-time role and low pay made it difficult to fill the position. The town of Clunes, 22 kilometres from Amherst, had a similar situation. Talbot Leader, 28 March 1931. State Library of Victoria
Andy was employed part-time, and sought other work to support his family. Jane took in laundry from the hospital, and probably had more regular work than her husband. Perhaps it was Jane who got Andy odd jobs at the hospital:

Talbot Leader newspaper, 7 May 1927
Talbot Leader, 7 May 1927. State Library of Victoria

Brewster, B. 2003. Amherst District Hospital 1859 to 1933: The Story of a Gold Rush Hospital. Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.

Hockley, A. 1996. ‘History of the Amherst Hospital’. Avoca and District Historical Society Newsletter No. 139 July 1996.

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 21 Mar 1925. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 11 Jul 1925. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 24 Dec 1925. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 30 Jan 1926. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 20 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 7 May 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 28 Mar 1931. State Library of Victoria

Featured image: Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 13 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria

Mount Hutton Trouble

Extract from a damaged copy of the Western Star and Roma Advertiser, 11 November 1922

The soldier settlers (at) Mount Hutton have had a very (difficult) time … 10 months’ drought … Very little dairying … done for some time, and some … settlers never knew where they (were) going to get the next crust … a lot of settlers ran them(selves) short to feed their horses … Cows … died everywhere.

I forgot to mention that … few of the settlers have been in (a) position to pay rates, let alone the (interest) on the loan of £625.

Everyone is suffer(ing) … alike. When cream was a good (price) everyone was just starting, and (then) cream was plentiful and the price (came) down to 6d. per lb., – on top of (that) came the drought.

Soldier Settler

If you want to get away from your in-laws, then moving over 1,700 kilometres from one end of the country to the other is definitely one way to do it. By mid 1920 Andy and Jane Duncan were just north of Roma, Queensland, where Andy took up a perpetual lease on the Mt. Hutton returned soldier settlement.

Soldier settlement schemes were established by Australia’s state governments to open up land for returning servicemen. In Queensland perpetual lease provisions were that no deposit of rent or survey fee were required up-front, and during the first three years only a peppercorn rent was charged. After the first three years the survey fee and rent increased.

Map of Queensland Soldiers' Settlements October 1920. Held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
Map of Queensland Soldiers’ Settlements October 1920. Held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Mount Hutton settlment is at reference 10 in the bottom right-hand corner

Why did Andy apply for the Queensland soldier scheme rather than the Victorian one? Did Mt. Hutton feel closer to his pre-war Broken Hill life than Beaufort? Did he have army mates who  encouraged him to join them in Queensland? Did he really want to put some distance between himself and his in-laws?

Or did a family connection influence him? Andy’s great-aunt, Jean Murray (nee Stewart), had emigrated to Queensland in 1862, living in Rockhampton and later Ravenswood. Another great-aunt, Mary Taylor (nee Stewart), and great-uncle, John Stewart, followed  in 1884. Mary Taylor settled in Georgetown. John Stewart re-established his stonemasonry business and became a city alderman in Brisbane. Andy would have grown up hearing stories of his Stewart relations’ successes in relocating to Queensland.

One thing is clear, though: when the Queensland newspaper announced Andy’s successful lease application on 11 February 1920 the Beaufort soldier settlement scheme was still just an idea under discussion. Andy had taken the first chance he got to apply for a land lease.

'MOUNT HUTTON STATION.', The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), 15 February, p. 35 Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
‘MOUNT HUTTON STATION.’, The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), 15 February 1919, p. 35. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

By August 1920 Andy and Jane had moved from Beaufort to Gunnewin. Andy had secured 638 acres, which he named Bonnie Brae Farm.  The land was poor, but Andy threw himself into making a go of the lease, establishing a dairy farm. The soldier settlers had a hard time of it.

Gunnewin solder settlement, Mount Hutton soldier settlement, Andrew Stewart Duncan
Portion 70 of the Mount Hutton soldier settlement was the location of Andy Duncan’s Bonnie Brae Farm. Image courtesy of the Roma & District Family History Society.

In May 1922 Queensland newspapers reported on conditions at the settlement

Signs of drought were noticeable on the blocks, but the ex-soldiers were found to be battling well against great odds to make a success of their farms.

There is hardly a living at dairying at the present time on account of the dry weather and the low price of cream.

The Queensland government seemed unaware of the actual situation. The Minister for Lands claimed there had been “very few failures” on the settlement, and rather uncharitably explained that they were “due to the inadaptability of the settlers concerned”.

For Andy the struggle with the land was made harder by the shrapnel he carried in his back. It prevented him from horse riding and when the shrapnel moved he had to take to bed. But he was determined to make a success of his farm.

Andy’s civic-mindedness was still strong, as was Jane’s. Andy was appointed Secretary of the Gunnewin Bush Nursing Centre and in May 1922 he became a founding member of the Mt. Hutton sub-branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League. He was appointed secretary and treasurer. Part of his role was to lobby for an increase in the returned soldier loan from an insufficient £625 to a hoped-for £1,000. The League sub-branch also sought State Government assistance to build new facilities at Gunnewin including a School of Arts, library and soldiers’ meeting room.

On 8 May 1922 the Governor of Queensland, Sir Matthew Nathan, visited the soldier settlement. Jane Duncan assisted with serving a luncheon to the official party. Perhaps she baked her famous scones. The Governor was welcomed to the district by the settlers’ representative James Thorne, who pressed for government support. Thorne spoke of

the very serious time through which the settlers were passing, and expressed the hope that eventually the markets would be stabilised so as to give them a fair and reasonable return for their labor, and enable them to win through.

The Governor’s response suggested that fortitude and perseverance were the keys to improving the settlers’s situation

His Excellency, in thanking the settlers for their address of welcome, said he believed that the great majority of the returned soldiers would win through. After all, those that went, those that volunteered to undergo the great risks, the exhausting sufferings and the extreme discomforts of war were the best of the land. Some, no doubt were weakened in body and will by what they went through. But he did not believe that this applied to the great majority, and he was sure there were some who were stronger and not weaker for their experiences. It was a new proposition that they had come to here, but that he was sure did not frighten them. Soldiering was a new proposition to most of them, but they made none the worse soldiers for that. They were having a difficult time at the start, but they had a difficult time at the start at Gallipoli and in France, and that did not prevent them winning in the end. He felt sure they would win in the end here.

One can only imagine Andy’s feelings as he watched the Governor’s party disappear down the dusty road.

The settlers battled on. The School of Arts, library and meeting room were built, along with a recreation hall. The men were prepared to put their own savings towards developing Gunnewin, but there was little money to spare. Fund-raising activities and social events were planned, for community morale and to encourage Roma residents to visit. Jane organised a coin evening and dance at the new Gunnewin hall in October. But fund-raising in an increasingly impoverished community was not easy, and the hall still had not been paid for a year later. The ex-soldiers felt somewhat marginalised and did not want to be perceived as a burden on the Roma community. Andy would have felt this keenly.

Andy and Jane had put their all into Bonnie Brae Farm yet there was no improvement in sight. There was no money to pay the increased survey fees and rent that were about to come due. They made the difficult decision to leave. At the start of 1923 they returned to Victoria with their new daughter, Mavis Irene “Rene” Duncan, born 20 June 1922.


NAA:J34, C40547 DUNCAN, Elizabeth Jane beneficiary of DUNCAN, Andrew Steward – Service Number – 157. National Archives of Australia

Riponshire Advocate January – March 1920. State Library of Victoria

Roma & District Family History Society

1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 1925. 2015. [ONLINE] [Accessed 13 March 2015].

1920 Queensland Brands Directory 1920 – 21, p.562, 670. [ONLINE] Available at http://findmypast.com.au [Accessed 12 May 2013].

1922 ‘Mt. Hutton Settlement’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 15 March, p. 4. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98071548 [Accessed 24 December 2013].

1922 ‘Advertising’.Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 1 April, p. 3. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98071796 [Accessed 24 December 2013].

1922 ‘Mt. Hutton Settlement’. The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 3 May, p. 8. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20524035 [Accessed 10 August 2013].

1922 ‘Gunnewin’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 3 May, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98186766 [Accessed 24 December 2013].

1922 ‘Visit of the Governor’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 10 May, p. 2 [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98186836 [Accessed 10 August 2013].

1922 ‘The Political Situation’.Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 7 October, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98188945 [Accessed 11 August 2013].

1922 ‘Alleged Unlawfully Killing a Calf’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 15 November, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98189472 [Accessed 10 August 2013].

1923 ‘Advertising’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 13 October, p. 3. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98194153 [Accessed 24 December 2013].

1924 ‘Soldier Settlers’. Queensland Times (Ipswich) (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 8 August, p. 6 Edition: DAILY. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article118577479 [Accessed 25 December 2013].

Featured image: ‘Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement at Mount Hutton, near Roma, Maranoa District, South-Western Queensland’. From The Pocket Queensland 1924, published by Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau. State Library of Queensland collection. [ONLINE] Available at https://archive.org/details/ThePocketQueensland

Back to civilian life

On 14 July 1919, the day before his 37th birthday, Andy was discharged from the Australian Army.

Andy and Jane had been married for 5 years but had spent barely 4 months as husband and wife. They must have been excited to restart their lives together. I imagine Jane was determined not to be separated from Andy again.

Jane brought Andy home to Beaufort, Victoria where he met her family probably for the first time.

No doubt Jane’s mother Elizabeth welcomed Andy into the family, but what did patriarch John Stewart think of his new son-in-law? Did John’s blunt manner cause tension?

The Stewart home was a small miner’s cottage – two bedrooms at the front, a kitchen-eating room behind and a verandah. There wasn’t much space to retreat from a tense situation. The kitchen was Elizabeth and Jane’s domain, the verandah was where John would sit and smoke his pipe. Where did Andy fit?

Andy was going through a difficult period, assimilating back into civilian life. He may have had bad dreams or flashbacks. He may have felt that there was no-one he could talk to about his experiences. But not only did he have to psychologically adjust, he had to find his place in the Stewart family.

Perhaps this is when Andy took on the chore of chopping wood for the fire and the stove. Next to the house was a substantial woodpile. Going out to the woodpile would have been a good way for Andy to get some time to himself and let off some steam, while also being a productive member of the family.


NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

Featured image: Andrew Stewart Duncan with niece Nellie Bruce Stewart and Clarence Leslie Stewart, Beaufort c.1919. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

The way home

Boxing Day 1918. Leith dockyard. A pipe band played as the returning POWs walked down the gangplank and onto the dock, where they were greeted by local dignitaries and army officers. Some of the men noted with disappointment that the dock gates were locked and the locals kept away. The enthusiastic public parades that had welcomed arrivals a month earlier were missing.

A letter from King George V was read out

The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries & hardships, which you have endured with so much patience and courage.

During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant Officers & Men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.

We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived, & that back in the old Country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home & to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return.

On Scottish soil once more, Andy was tantalisingly close to Ayr and his childhood home. But after a hot breakfast in a dockside warehouse he entrained for Ripon in Yorkshire. As the train left the waterfront, Andy probably saw people waving and cheering from a distance. Despite having been locked out of the docks, locals lined the railway tracks to welcome the prisoners home.

A lady worker of the Victorian League stands on the platform with two buckets, distributing fruit and cigarettes through an open window in the train carriage. The returned Australian prisoners of war entrained at Hull, for the receiving camp at Ripon, in England. Australian War Memorial collection D00175
A lady worker of the Victorian League stands on the platform with two buckets, distributing fruit and cigarettes through an open window in the train carriage. Australian War Memorial collection D00175

At Ripon Andy underwent further medical examination and was interviewed about his time as a prisoner of war. Once the debrief was completed, he was granted leave until 30 January. On 29 January Andy reported to Headquarters with an injury to his middle left finger. He was admitted to the 3rd Auxiliary Hospital, where he stayed until 10 February.

Red Cross postcard 1918
Notification of Andy’s repatriation to London. South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau records 1916-1919. Digitised by The State Library of South Australia SRG 76/1/7574

It wasn’t too long before news of Andy’s freedom reached Jane Duncan in Beaufort. On 16 January 1919 the Barrier Miner newspaper reported

Mrs. Duncan, of Ararat-road, Beaufort (Victoria), writes to “The Miner” stating that she has been informed by the military authorities that her husband, Warrant-Officer Andrew Stewart Duncan, who is well known in Broken Hill, and who was captured by the Germans on March 1, 1918, and has since been a prisoner of war, has been released, and arrived in London, quite well in health, on December 26. In a message to his wife W.O. Duncan wishes the members of his R.A.O.B Lodge and all other friends a happy, and prosperous new year.

Upon discharge from hospital Andy was granted 44 days paid leave in England. This was the ‘Anzac leave’ granted to 1914 enlistees. There is no record of how Andy spent his furlough in England. It would be nice to think he visited family in Ayr, seeing his parents again one last time (his father John would die in 1922; his mother Elizabeth in 1927).

Jane did not know where her husband was. On 11 March 1919 she wrote an anxious letter to the army –

I received your notification informing me that the above named soldier had been released from Germany and arrived in England (London) on the 26.12.1918 and was quite well, for this information I was very pleased to receive in January from you, but Dear Sir, I have had no news from himself since his arrival in England for which seems a very strange thing and I wish you to kindly give me some information of his whereabouts, as I have been waiting for news from him every day

On 12 May Andy finally embarked for home on board HMAT Soudan. It was very different from the 1914 voyage, with training drills and fatigues replaced by reading in the YMCA library on board and by regular concerts.

Troops on the promenade deck of the HMT Kildonan Castle returning to Australia. The decks presented this appearance practically all day long, for there were no drills or exercises and very few fatigues. Australian War Memorial collection J00172
Troops on the promenade deck of the HMT Kildonan Castle returning to Australia. The decks presented this appearance practically all day long.
Australian War Memorial collection J00172

The Barrier Miner newspaper reported Andy’s arrival in Australia

Warrant-Officer A. S. Duncan (1057) [sic], 10th Battalion, arrived in Melbourne on June 29th last, after four years and nine months’ service, having been a prisoner for the last twelve months.

Jane was at Port Melbourne to welcome him. She had written a flurry of letters to the Defence Department about Andy’s return, to secure a train pass to Melbourne and to ask for Andy’s battalion colours. It appears she was instrumental in arranging for him to disembark at Melbourne rather than returning to Adelaide.

It is easy to imagine Jane anxiously scanning the arriving ship and khaki uniforms for the violet and blue colour patch and for Andy’s face. It is not so easy to imagine the overwhelming mix of emotions that Jane and Andy felt as they embraced for the first time in so long.

Waiting to welcome home their loved ones.  Australian War Memorial collection H11576
Waiting for a glimpse of their loved ones.
Australian War Memorial collection H11576


NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

1918 157 Company Sergeant Major Andrew Steward Duncan 10th Battalion. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing, Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War 1DRL/0428.

1918 1st Australian Division 1 February to 7 March 1918. Statements made by prisoners of war [10th Battalion, No 157 CSM A S Duncan, No 2287 Private P M Berthelsen, No 2622 Private W B Crispe, No 5846 Private J Munday, No 5420 Private S T Noble, No 2958 Private J M Searle] AWM30 B5.37. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

1919 ‘In Broken Hill’. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 16 January, p. 4. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article45468786 [Accessed 27 April 2013].

1919 ‘Personal’. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 18 July, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article45537445 [Accessed 27 April 2013].

Concert and Theatre Programs Collection – First World War 1914-1918, Series 1, Sub-series 1, File 4, Item 7: Ships concert. PUBS002/001/001/004/007. Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Duncan, John. 1922 (Statutory Deaths 578/01 0097). Statutory Deaths 1855-2012, National Records of Scotland [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk [Accessed 27 March 2012].

Duncan, Elizabeth. 1927 (Statutory Deaths 578/01 0437). Statutory Deaths 1855-2012, National Records of Scotland [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk [Accessed 24 May 2012].

Henry Thomas Fowler (1882-1947) – a Life. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thedanishscheme.co.uk  [Accessed 06 April 2014].

‘Hand written Letter of Recognition for World War 1 POW from King George V 1918 sent to Lance Corporal James Cordingley’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_written_Letter_of_Recognition_for_World_War_1_POW_from_King_George_V_1918_sent_to_Lance_Corporal_James_Cordingley.jpg [Accessed 06 April 2014].

Jones, M.A. 2009. The Danish Scheme: The repatriation of British Prisoners of War through Denmark at the end of the First World War.

South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau. 2016. Packet content | South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau. [ONLINE] Available at: https://sarcib.ww1.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/packet-content/54253#https://sarcib.ww1.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/sites/default/files/packet_images/7574/SRG76_1_7574_1.jpg. [Accessed 11 June 2016].

Featured image: ‘Scenes of returning troops from service overseas who landed at Port Melbourne from the ship City of Cairo and Lancashire’ January 1919. Australian War Memorial collection PB0306

Return to England

Andy Duncan finally left Springhirsch POW camp on 15 December 1918. It had been five long weeks since the Armistice was signed.

The men paraded at 8:30am ready to march to the train station, but there was no move out due some difficulty with the train. They were told to parade again in the afternoon, that there might be a train at 5pm.

Marching orders came at 4pm and the men set out eagerly. A large crowd of local women and children had gathered at the camp gates, hoping for a farewell hand-out of biscuits and food parcels. The men obliged as best they could.

Arriving at the station they met further delay: there was no train. How did Andy feel, confronted with another day of false starts? How did he manage the anxious and desperate men in his charge?

The train finally arrived. At 7pm the ex-POWs were loaded onto trucks for an uncomfortable overnight trip to the port of Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea.

From Warnemünde they sailed for Aarhus in Denmark. It was a good voyage on calm seas, with plenty of food to eat.

On 17 December the men arrived in Aarhus to cheering and songs of welcome from the locals. As the ships for transport to England had not yet arrived, the men entrained and travelled to Viborg and the Hald lazaret (hospital camp). Ironically, after being freed from Springhirsch they were confined initially to the hospital, quarantined due to the 1918 influenza epidemic.

On arrival we were shown to our billets; nice rooms with beds and nice white sheets which looked too good for us in our state. After we went to dinner and had some kind of porridge and stew after it, with beer, very sweet. In the afternoon we had a nice bath, then tea and got to bed very soon after as we got very little sleep since leaving our prison camp

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 17 December 1918

Viborg Lazarette at Hald, Denmark
Hald lazaret near Viborg, Denmark

Andy stayed at Hald for 6 days. At about 7am on 23 December he left Hald and entrained again for the trip back to Aarhus. A large number of locals turned out at Viborg station to farewell the men, giving them cigarettes.

At Aarhus Andy boarded the S.S. Primula. Mid-morning the ship set sail for England, cautiously navigating its way through the Baltic Sea minefields. This time the sea was rough, and a number of men spent the voyage with their heads in buckets.

As the Primula passed the coast of Norway the men were given a medical inspection and clothes. Late on Christmas night the ship arrived at the Firth of Forth and the following morning Andy disembarked at Leith.


NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

1918 157 Company Sergeant Major Andrew Steward Duncan 10th Battalion. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing, Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War 1DRL/0428.

‘Henry Thomas Fowler (1882-1947) – a Life’. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thedanishscheme.co.uk  [Accessed 06 April 2014].

Jones, M.A. 2009. The Danish Scheme: The repatriation of British Prisoners of War through Denmark at the end of the First World War. MA dissertation, University of Birmingham.

‘Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Raiders During World War I’. Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log [Accessed 09 June 2013].

Mead, A.E. Private Papers of A E Mead Imperial War Museum collection 17232.

‘POW’s and repatriation’. Great War Forum.  [Accessed 09 June 2013].

Featured image: Returned prisoners of war on the boat at Hull, just prior to disembarkation c1919. Australian War Memorial collection D00178

Armistice – but not freedom

In early November 1918 German revolutionary soldiers beneath a red flag visited Springhirsch POW camp. They threw the gates open and invited the prisoners to leave.

The Regimental Sergeant Majors in the camp visited the bunkhouses and reminded the men that the war was not yet finished and it was not safe outside the wire. In the event of the German guards leaving the camp, the men were to remain in the compound.

Jerry L. Cpl. told us the armistice was accepted and it’s great excitement here

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 7 November 1918

On 8 November confirmation came that the armistice had been signed. The Regimental Sergeant Majors’ prediction came to pass: the sentries disappeared and one of the German officers shot himself.

All prisoners in the punishment cells were released. There was no restriction on the men’s movements, and no lights-out. Soon the only parades were head-counts.

Exercise drills ceased but football games were played daily. Camp concerts, cancelled previously by the Commandant in a fit of pique, began again. The band played The King publicly for the first time. The men sang, no doubt boisterously and to the discomfort of the remaining German soldiers.

On 11 November the men had the terms of the armistice read to them. Rumours were soon circulating that the men would be marching out, two companies at a time, for Holland and a ship back to Blighty.

The concert held on 17 November was the last, as the men expected to move out within the week. There were rumours of ships waiting in Hamburg harbour to transport the POWs home.

Jerry meals very much better now than when we much needed it

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 10 November 1918

In anticipation of leaving the camp, food rations were dispersed more liberally. The commissary stores were being run down; men were less frugal with the contents of their Red Cross parcels.

Then word came that there would be no move out until the end of November. This caused unrest in the camp. Some NCOs absconded. Rumour had it that these men were arrested in Hamburg, attempting to stow away on ships bringing food into Germany.

[The POWs] in their wild desire to return to England had become quite unmanageable

Ferdinand Hansen An open letter to an English officer and incidentally to the English people

On 30 November British officers visited the camp and addressed the men at the request of the camp commandant. The men were told to be patient, that every effort was being made to return them to England as soon as possible.

Did Andy Duncan step outside the camp while waiting for orders to move out? Other POWs did, enjoying a kind of freedom by exploring the nearby towns and villages of Kaltenkirchen, Lentföhrden and Barmstedt.

A lot of the men go to Hamburg; they get the money by selling soap, cocoa, tea, etc.

Diary of Sergeant A.E. Mead. Extract of entry for 6 December 1918

On 8 December Andy would have learned of a planned move out in the next ten days. After all the rumours and false starts would this really be his last week in Springhirsch camp?


NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

1918 157 Company Sergeant Major Andrew Steward Duncan 10th Battalion. Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing, Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War 1DRL/0428.

1918 ‘Back from Germany: Prisoners’ Stories of Life in Captivity’. The Scotsman 27 December, p.2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://archive.scotsman.com

Hansen, F. 1921. An open letter to an English officer and incidentally to the English people. 4th ed. Hamburg, Germany: Overseas Publishing Co.

Mead, A.E. Private Papers of A E Mead Imperial War Museum collection 17232.

Milner, L. 1993. Leeds Pals. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military.

Featured image: END OF THE WAR. GERMANY SIGNS ARMISTICE. (1918, 12 November) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), p. 2. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.