One of so many young men who didn’t come home

Charles Brooke BURGESS was born in Werribee Victoria Australia around August 1893. His parents were Brooke BURGESS and Elizabeth HEATH and Brooke was the brother of my great grandfather, Joseph BURGESS. So Charles was my first cousin twice removed.

In 1914 Charles was working as a signwriter at Buckle Bros in Melbourne, having served a three-year apprenticeship. When war broke out in August 1914, the Naval and Expeditionary Forces were formed to assist the country in seizing or neutralising German territories in the Pacific and Charles joined this volunteer group on 14 August .

Charles in his naval uniform

On 1 July 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces 30th Battalion. At that time he was 5ft 5in tall (166cm) tall and weighed 10st 5lbs (54kg) so he was quite a small man. He had a fair complexion, fair hair, blue eyes and tattoos on both arms. His regimental number was 1047. He listed his religion as church of England. The 30th Battalion was formed in Liverpool NSW and was made up almost entirely of men from Newcastle and country NSW but one whole unit was almost entirely made up of former RAN ratings from Victoria.

On 9 November 2015 Charles was on the HMAT Beltana leaving Sydney and heading for Suez where he disembarked on 11 December 1915. On 18 March he was promoted to Lance Corporal. Whilst in Egypt the Battalion underwent training – it seems there was insufficient accommodation for them in France at this time. He left Alexandria on the HMAT Honorata on 16 June and disembarked in Marseille France on 23 June, having been promoted to Corporal on the 18.

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to be able to tour the Somme with Myriam of Walkabout Digger Tours and she took us to all the relevant places and told us the story of his war. I’d like to share it with you.

The battalion was moved to the front and its first major battle took place at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. Initially, they were involved in providing carrying parties for supplies and ammunition but were soon involved in the heavy fighting. This was the worst 24 hours in Australia’s military history with 5533 casualties on one night. Brigadier General, H.E. “Pompey” Elliot stated that it was a “tactical abortion”. The 30th lost 54 men, Killed in Action (KIA), 224 wounded and 68 missing in action. What must have that been like for Charles and all the others? I can’t imagine!

During the rest of 1916 the battalion was rotated in and out of the front but took no part in any major action. Charles suffered from trench feet which must have been horrible. He was hospitalised and on 7 December 1916 he was on the hospital ship Newhaven at Calais being transferred to the 3rd London General Hospital. He stayed there until 30 March when he was transferred to the 3rd Auxiliary Hospital. Trench foot is a medical condition caused by long exposure of the feet to damp, cold and unsanitary conditions. It wasn’t until 4 May that he was released from hospital and given a furlough. On 21 May he was required to report to Perham Downs which was a command depot for men who had been wounded or were ill and had been discharged from hospital. He remained in England and on 17 January 1918 he marched into the overseas training brigade of the 30th Battalion at Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire.

He left Longbridge on 7 February for Southampton and then onto Le Havre in the Normandy region of France and then to rejoin the 30th Battalion on 15 February. During this month the battalion was mainly engaged in improving the trenches in the area near Messines in West Flanders in Belgium.

In March, they were involved in raiding parties & training at Wulvergham Camp and were moved to Neuve Eglise then to Hazebrouck and then to Douleens by train and then by bus to Bus les Artois, Authie and Vauchelle in Northern France.

At the beginning of April 1918 the battalion was in Vauchelle and were training. They then moved to Bois de Gentelles (Genteel Wood) via Daours on 5 April where they were reinforcing the lines at Bois de Gentelles.

Bois de Gentelles in the distance where Charles was killed

On 7 April, Charles was behind the lines having a shave and a man called Medhurst was having a wash when an enemy plane flew overhead and dropped a bomb which killed them both and another man.

On the afternoon of the 7th they was buried in the local community cemetery at Boves by the Church of England Chaplain. Padre Hicks.

Charles’ headstone in the cemetery at Boves

The Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry bureau Files, 1914-18 War for 1047 Corporal Charles Brooke Burgess contain these eye witness accounts of his death.:

Burgess and Medhurst were out on a pack guard some time in April, they were killed outright by a bomb from an aeroplane sometime in April. There was every opportunity for burial. It happened in a wood between Blancy-Trombelle and Boves (near Villers-Bretonneux). Cpl Burgess shaving at the time and Medhurst was having a wash. (Informant was Dvr. H.L.Kay 2372, 30th AIF Transport, University Hospital, Southampton on 18 July 1918.)

Burgess and Methurst were together in the transport lines at Gentile Wood between Villers-Bretonneux and Boves when I saw them killed by an aerial torpedo about 11am on April 7th. They were buried that afternoon in two graves side by side. The service was taken by the Padre of the Battalion. A small cross was put over each grave but as far as I know not a battalion cross. I was quite close at the time and attended the funeral. Description: Corporal A Coy 1 Platoon. Came from Melbourne and been in Naval Reserve out there. Always called “Charlie”. (Informant was Pte Charles Edward Ellis, 2nd Platoon A Coy 30 AIF, Tapsbury St Albans. July 22nd 1918.)

In his will, Charles left his worldly goods to his mother. His effects were sent home to her,

Details of his effects from his war service record.

Wouldn’t I love to see those diaries! I wonder if Elizabeth kept them. Could they still exist in someone’s collection? I have so many questions. Who were the photos of? Did he have a girlfriend somewhere? Did he meet someone in the 14 months he was in England being treated for his trench feet and recuperating? I wonder did he use his signwriting skills to do directional signs for troop movements in France?

Searching on Trove, I found the following entries in the family notices of the Argus under the heading: DIED ON SERVICE

Family Notices (1918, April 18). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 1. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1653387

BURGESS.- Killed in action April 7, 1918, Corpl. Charles Brooke, dearly beloved eldest son of Brooke and Elizabeth Burgess, and brother of Clara, Mary, Harry, Jack, Jim, Maggie, and Annie, aged 24 years, after 3 years and 7 months active service. (Inserted by his loving father, mother, brothers, and sisters, 164 Melbourne road,North Williamstown.)

BURGESS.– In memory of our dearly loved nephew and cousin, Corporal Charles Burgess, killed in action, April 7, 1918.There is a link death cannot sever;Love and remembrance live forever.–(Inserted by Mr. and Mrs. J. Burgess, Tib, and May.)

BURGESS.- In loving remembrance of Cpl. Charles Brook Burgess, killed in action 7th April, 1918.”Underneath are the everlasting arms.”–(Inserted by George S., Lydia, and Amy S. Wilkinson, 36 Alma terrace, Newport.)

Thus, he was mourned by his family who received the following medals on his behalf after the war: 1914/1915 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Star.

A poor substitution for a loved son, brother and cousin!

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