William Byrne, trooper

My mother’s maternal grandparents were Irish. George and Susie Byrne came from Killarney, though not at the same time. Susie came first, when she was 16, with her parents and siblings, in 1877. George, who had known Susie in Ireland before her family left for Australia, followed her out, at the end of 1882. They married a few years later in 1885 and started a family.

After three daughters, George and Susie finally produced a son, William Richard Byrne, born in 1894 or 1895 – the records vary. There was another son after William, named Eric, but he did not survive his first year. In the end, the Byrne family consisted of five girls and one boy – William. He was my mum’s Uncle Will but I don’t think she ever knew him well. As far as I know, he lived in Queensland when Mum was little and he died there, apparently in 1967 in Brisbane. I am not sure that he ever married, so he has no descendants that I know of. The little that I know of Will, apart from a few old photos, comes from his military records, but even they are sketchy and hard to interpret. Will’s life is something of a mystery to me, but what stands out is that for a few years in WW1 and then for three more in WW2 he served in the Australian Army. 

Will’s WW1 records indicate that he enlisted on 22 November 1915, joining the 15th Reinforcement of the 7th Regiment of the Australian Light Horse. Prior to enlistment he had worked as a farm labourer in the country, so he was no doubt experienced with horses. His training was in Liverpool, in Western Sydney, although his enlistment papers indicate he had previous military experience. Whether that is true, and what it means is unclear. His enlistment papers also indicate that he was 21 years old, but other records indicate he was born in 1895, which would mean he was only 20. It is well known that many young men were somewhat lax with details when it came to enlistment in the AIF.

Four months later on 11 March 1916 he embarked on the troopship HMAT Orsovaand sailed for Egypt, where he arrived at Tel el Kebir on the 14th of April. There he continued his training. The Light Horse regiments were cavalry units, but since they carried rifles rather than the traditional swords and lances they were really mounted infantry. The regiment consisted of squadrons, which were divided into troops, which were further divided into sections. Each section comprised four men, one of whom was designated a horse holder,and was therefore not armed. It is unclear exactly what position or rank William held. 

HMAT Orsova leaving Melbourne.

On 22 May the records show that he boarded the HMT Corsicanbound for England. This indicates that he had been transferred to another unit, since the 7th Regiment of the Light Horse remained in the Middle East for the whole of WW1. They had engaged at Gallipoli in 1915 and subsequently at the unsuccessful battles for Gaza in March and April 1916, and then famously at Beersheba in October 1916, and at the capture of Jerusalem in 1917, but our William never saw any of these actions. The 7th Regiment of the Light Horse never fought the Germans in Europe but spent the whole of the war fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The Regiment returned to Australia in 1919.

William Byrne, however, was in England by the end of May 1916, where his training presumably continued until finally on 16 July he left Southampton on an overnight sail across the English Channel and then to Rouen, where his unit joined the BEF – British Expeditionary Force. Two days after his arrival in France other divisions of The Australian Army were engaged in the now infamous attack on Fromelles to the north near the Belgian border, at the start of the horrific Somme campaign. Rumours were no doubt rife among Will’s battalion in the ensuing weeks about what had happened at Fromelles where over 5000 Australian lost their lives in the worst day of Australian military history. My great grandfather Charles Holdorf was there.

It is hard to decipher from the service records exactly where Will was, what he did, or which unit he was attached to during his service in France, but it appears that he was variously involved with the AASC – the Australian Army Service Corps. He was therefore involved in transporting supplies and ammunition to the soldiers fighting on the frontlines, but was himself not in the trenches. In contrast to so many other aspects of the First World War, there is little written about the Army Service Corps, though it was clearly an essential part of the whole military enterprise without which none of the battles could have been fought. Interestingly, Will’s younger sister, Gertie, my grandmother, would later marry an Englishman whose father, George Simmonds, was in the British Army Service Corps (RASC) and was serving at almost the same time in the Greek theatre of the war, the Salonika campaign. 

There is a fascinating account of the work of the Army Service Corps written by an Englishman, Herbert Stewart, who served in France and recorded his memoirs in a book that is now entitled Ally Sloper’s Cavalry, the unofficial name for the RASC (the book was originally published under another title). One passage stands out: a graphic description of one of the operations in which he was involved, where his own division was entrenched in a position where they could observe the German trenches 300 yards from the British infantry. Behind the British line was an open plain, and behind that again was the British artillery which bombarded the German lines continually. Across this open plain was a road, “in full view of friend and foe.” He writes:

On this road during daylight no living creature was ever to be seen, but during the hours of darkness it teemed with life. On the outward journey came full convoys of food and ammunition, picks and shovels, reinforcements of men and empty ambulance wagons, while on the homeward journey travelled empty convoys and full ambulances containing maimed and suffering humanity.

Herbert Stewart, Ally Sloper’s Cavalry, p.72

The next notable event of William’s war service was when he went AWOL (absent without leave) overnight on 22 November 1916, though there is no record of where he went or what he did, only the fact that he forfeited 22 days of pay. He was a 21 year old Australian soldier in France, and had been in the army for a year. Every day he saw the casualties of this terrible war being carried back from the front, and he no doubt understood the fragility of life. He may have wondered if he would ever see home again. It was the first anniversary of his enlistment in the AIF, and despite his strict Brethren upbringing, it seems he decided to celebrate in one of the French villages nearby, even if that was strictly forbidden. Who knows how he spent those 20 hours, but I can’t help remembering something that my mother’s cousin Keith Walmsley once wrote to me when he was describing his Uncle Will – “an unwilling starter for church [who] felt outnumbered with so many sisters.” He may have been surrounded by women in his childhood, but there had been none to talk to since he had joined up, and like so many men on the Western Front he must have longed for some contact with the gentler sex. I would not be surprised if he and a few buddies went looking for some French girls, as well as some good French champagne, to celebrate his first year as a soldier. In his mind it was definitely worth 22 days pay.

Early in 1917 he was transferred to the K Amm Park, that is, the “K” Ammunition Park, 1st ANZAC Corps (First World War AIF Supplies and Transport AASC Unit). He was attached to the 4th AASB (Australian Army Service Battalion?), allotted to the 6th Army Australian Field Artillery Brigade Park Section. Then, after over a year in France, in September 1917, he became a driver in a Motor Transport Unit of the AASC. In October 1917 he was granted leave to the UK. Back in France, his records show that in December he was again admitted to hospital in the field due to sickness. He was sent back to England in January 1918 where he was admitted to Cladon Park Hospital near Guildford. His malady on this occasion was described and recorded in the official records – synovitis of the left knee, with internal derangement of the knee. His knee problems continued to dog him into February 1918, and he was in and out of hospital. Eventually, in April 1918 he was sent back to Australia, sailing on the HMAT Marathon, arriving back in Sydney on 13 June. He was discharged from the Army, medically unfit, a month later.

HMAT Marathon crossing the Great Australian Bight in rough seas.
Australian War Memorial. Public domain. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/H00329/

It is hard to imagine what sort of reception William received. He no doubt returned to the family home in suburban Sydney, to his parents and five sisters. But how long he remained there is uncertain. His war service must have affected him profoundly, though it is impossible to know in what way. For the next twenty three years Uncle Will’s life is unknown to me. He was another war veteran searching for work, living through the difficult years of the Depression, then watching through the thirties the alarming rise of the Nazi Party in the Germany that he had fought against decades before. Two of his sisters married, and began to raise their families. The older of the two married an English WW1 veteran, Thomas Walmsley, but the marriage did not work out and eventually Connie was left a single mother, struggling to raise her three children alone. The younger, Gertie, also married an Englishman, George Simmonds, but he had been too young to serve in the First World War. It was his father that had served in the RASC in Salonika. George and Gertie Simmonds were my grandparents.

There is very little to find online concerning Will’s army service in the Second World War, apart from one document which records that he served for three years from 1941 to 1944 in the School of Army Education. Exactly in what capacity William he served is uncertain, but I have assumed that he was a teacher, though what he taught eludes me. The School was set up in 1941 just a few weeks after Will enlisted, by  a Colonel Robert Madgewick, an educationalist who later became the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale. Perhaps as a response to memories from the First World War which had seen so many traumatised men return from the battlefields with no education or training in anything but warfare, this School provided adult education services to the Army’s 250,000 members during the Second World War to equip them for life after. After the war the School would evolve into the AAEC – the Australian Army Educational Corps – which was founded in 1949 and later became the RAAEC – the Royal AAEC.

Corporal William Byrne, WW2

Will was 46 years old when he enlisted, and 49 when he was discharged. What happened to him after the war remains a mystery to me. His father had died in 1929 and his mother died shortly after the end of WW2. His two married sisters were busy with their young families, Connie in Sydney and Gertie in Goulburn. The three other sisters never married and lived together until their respective deaths. Will somehow ended up in Queensland where he remained till his death at the age of 72 in 1967. I know nothing of the twenty three years he lived after his discharge from the army, as I really know nothing of the twenty three years between his discharge after WW1 and his re-enlistment in WW2. I would love to know his story, and to hear his reminiscences of France in the First World War, but those tales are forgotten and will never be told. 

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