A Family at War

Part 1: Joining the Colours

(last updated: 27 January 2015)

Samuel John ('Sam') Free and his younger brother Albert Ernest ('Bert') Free were born at Corack in the Wimmera District of Victoria in 1893 and 1894 respectively. Their paternal grandfather, William Free, had emigrated from Cambridgeshire fifty years earlier. Following the death of his first wife in Melbourne in September 1853, William went to work as a shepherd at the Mount Hesse station near Winchelsea where, in 1856, he married the boys' grandmother, Eliza Flavell. In around 1861 the lease to the Mount Hesse station was cancelled and William was forced to seek employment elsewhere. He eventually settled on land at Corack East, located roughly midway between the townships of Donald and Birchip, and remained there until his death by suicide in 1890. Click here to read more about the life and times of William and Eliza Free and their family. The boys' maternal grandfather, John Shepherd, had also emigrated to Australia in 1853. With his parents and siblings, he disembarked at Geelong and travelled overland to the Sutherland (later Rich Avon) Station located on the Richardson River near Cope Cope. John worked as a shepherd at Rich Avon and later the nearby Banyenong station where he married, in 1862, Johanna Mulchay who hailed from County Galway in Ireland.

Sam and Bert's parents were Samuel Free and Fanny Johanna Shepherd who were married at St Arnaud in Victoria in 1891. Click here to read of their life and times. Together with his father and three brothers, Samuel had initially farmed land at Corack East. Following William's unfortunate death there in 1890, the families moved onto land located to the east of the township of Lalbert. By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Samuel and Fanny had ten children, the eldest of whom, Frances Alice Free, had married and moved away. Sam and Bert (pictured below with their parents and siblings) were working as farm hands on their father's farm and were probably just beginning to enjoy life.

samuels family

Samuel and Fanny Free and their family at Lalbert in 1911.
Rear Row (L/R): Albert Ernest, Samuel John, Fanny, Edward Charles and Leslie
Front Row: Frances Alice, Hilda Flavell, Samuel (holding Donald), Mary Jean,
Ann Grace and Clifford

Sam and Bert did not immediately seek to join the First AIF but continued to work on their father's farm at Lalbert. There they would have taken an interest in the experiences of their friends and relatives who had signed on - such as their cousins Roland Shepherd from Coonooer Bridge and Don McCallum from Corack East - and followed closely newspaper accounts of the exploits of the 70,000 Australians who had enlisted in the period between the beginning of the war and the landing on Gallipoli. As Christmas 1915 approached local newspapers also gave coverage to Billy Hughes' 'call to arms' which had been mailed to the 60,000 Australian males who were eligible for active service but had not yet attempted to enlist. In it the then Prime Minister suggested that although the nation's soldiers at Gallipoli had 'carved a niche in the Temple of the Immortals' in their battles against Prussian despotism, more could have been done. '[H]ad the number of our forces been doubled', Hughes insisted, 'many brave lives would have been spared, the Australian armies would long ago have been camping in Constantinople, and the war would have been practically over'. 'If you love your country', Hughes concluded, 'then take your place alongside your fellow Australians at the front and help them achieve a speedy and glorious victory' (cited in the Donald Times, 17 December 1915). The Prime Minister's 'call to arms' was supported by newspaper editors and other 'war whoopers' across the country and was accompanied by a 'Christmas card' from the country's various recruiting committees asking all young men of military age to indicate whether and when they were prepared to enlist for the war. Those who were not prepared to join the fight were to submit their reasons for not doing so and the cards were to be filled in, signed and returned 'at once' to a local recruiting centre.

We don't know whether and how the brothers answered their 'Christmas cards' although the fact they did not enlist until the middle of the following year, may indicate that they, like many others in the district, were either in no hurry to go or had decided to delay their decision at least until after the harvest was completed. Unlike the previous year when wheat had had to be brought into the region to feed the farmers' starving stock, the 1915 harvest was a bountiful one. It was triggered by drought-breaking rains that had brought joyous crowds from their beds to watch the long awaited water again flowing down the Avoca river and over the weir at Charlton. These and follow-up rains made travelling along the outback roads in winter a slippery and dangerous pastime, but they also produced some of the biggest wheat yields yet seen in the district. By the time of the arrival of Hughes' missives, all the farmers in the Wimmera, and their sons, were toiling from dawn until after dusk each day stripping, bagging and carting wheat for the Empire. Their wives and daughters were similarly labouring over hot stoves preparing meals for their menfolk as well as running the household and seeing the younger members of their families off to school. Even then they would find some time in the evenings to sew or crochet items for the local Red Cross society or for one of the many functions held across the district to raise money for Australia's war effort.

ossie daveyFollowing a medical examination at Swan Hill, Sam and Bert enlisted together on 24 July 1916 in Melbourne where they swore to 'well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King', 'resist His Majesty's enemies', and 'cause His majesty's peace to be kept'. The attestation papers showed Albert to be 22 years and three months old, single and a farm hand by occupation. He was just over five foot six inches tall, had blue eyes and, like many others of British stock, a fair complexion. His photo, taken in his uniform a few months later, reveals a wide-eyed, innocent even vulnerable countenance, someone who was probably young for his age, had lived a secure and comparatively sheltered existence, and had yet to experience life or love beyond his immediate family circle. Sam was both taller and older than his brother, by some 15 months, also blue-eyed and single but was slighty heavier and had a darker complexion which he inherited from his mother's side of the family. We don't know why they eventually chose to go. Perhaps they were following the example of others who had gone before them, or were influenced by friends or government propaganda, or simply saw it as a chance to escape the hardships and monotony of outback farming. Perhaps, like 'Ossie' Davey from Donald, they went so their younger brothers would not have to go. An ironmonger by trade, Private Henry Austin Davey (pictured on the left) was, according to the Donald Times, a man who possessed 'no instincts of war'. Although he 'feared the lack of physique demanded by [the] military authorities', he decided to represent his family 'at the post of danger' because he of all of the sons was 'best fitted'. Davey enlisted in July 1915 and sailed from Australia on the HMAT Wandilla in November the same year. As a private in the 31st Infantry Battalion, the newspaper article continued, he subsequently

... stood hardships upon the desert with more seasoned troops ... [and] took part in the great Somme battle ... For two years past marvellous were the number of his escapes. Amidst thousands of killed and wounded he was without a scratch. Later on, however, wounds and suffering came from a shell that killed most of those around him. It is presumed that after recovering from shell shock that a summons came to return to the front. There he fell among the valiant dead [although] some peculiar circumstances surrounding recent correspondence cause some close friends to still entertain hopes for his safety (Donald Times, 12 June 1917).

james perrySamuel and Fanny would have been proud of their sons, although the mounting casualty lists and the return of the wounded and shell-shocked veterans of Gallipoli and the early campaigns in France would also have given them cause for concern. Their fears for their boys would have been brought home by the news of the death of James Perry (pictured on the right) who died of wounds in September 1916 while serving with the 60th Battalion in France (Donald Times, 5 September 1916). 'Wheeler' Perry as he was known, had been at primary school with Sam and his older sister Frances. He had left behind a young wife and two small boys. His younger brother, Herbert, had been killed in action at Bullecourt a few months earlier. But like most parents, they hid their fears for the sake of their children and the good of the nation. They also allowed themselves to be distracted by the patriotic speeches of their religious and other leaders and the other trials of day-to-day living. Fanny had the rest of her large family to look after. Samuel, along with his brothers James and William Free, still had plenty of land still to clear and, in the new year, bountiful crops to harvest.

Sam and Bert were both allocated to the 15th Machine Gun Company and did their initial training at the large Army camp at Seymour in central Victoria. As a consequence, they were able often to go home on leave where they proudly displayed their new uniforms and enjoyed the attention and adoration of the local community. Listening to her boys' accounts of their Army training and manoeuvres while serving them breakfast in the farm's comfortable kitchen, Fanny would have delighted in how robust and handsome her sons were looking especially in their soldiers' outfits. Her mother's pride would have been tinged though with the poignant sorrow of their impending departure, and an unspoken fear that one or other of them may never return. For the needs of the war were building and it soon came time for them to leave Seymour for Melbourne and then England where they would be reinforcements for Monash's 3rd Australian Division then undergoing training on the Salisbury Plain. Sam and Bert and another local lad, Herbert Adler, who had attended the same school as the Free brothers, would serve with them in the 4th Australian Machine Gun Company and be killed in action at Zonnebeke in France in 1917, were formally farewelled by the Lalbert and surrounding community on 28 August. As described in a subsequent report in the Quambatook Times:

The Lalbert East Hall was not nearly large enough for the crowd that assembled last Monday night to bid adieu to Privates A. E. and S. J. Free and Adler.The Hall was tastefully decorated by the ladies of the East. The early part of the evening was taken up with social items, songs being rendered by Messrs Davison, Kirk, Hawkins, Vanderfeen and Frewin whilst Bailey, Bennet and Miss Warburton entertained the company with recitals. The accompaniments were played by Mrs Davis. Mr Adler made a capable chairman, and in a few well chosen remarks presented each of the young soldiers with a wristlet watch, shaving companion and a fountain pen. Other speakers were Messrs Nalder, Bennett, Pola, Stephens, Bailey, H. Free and Vanderfeen. After the social, supper was handed round, dancing was commenced and kept moving merrily till early morn, and was brought to a conclusion with cheers for the volunteers and the singing of Auld Lang Syne and the National Anthem. Great credit is due to Mr C. Bennett.

15 machine gun company at seymour

15 Machine Gun Company at Seymour Camp. Sam and Bert are in the second back row,
seventh and fifth from the right respectively.

diggers at seymour camp albert ernest free

Pictures of Seymour Camp sent by the boys to their mother Fanny. The one on the left was sent by Sam from France
on 9 January 1917. He wrote on the back: 'this is all I could get in this line decent up here and I wanted to catch this mail.
This is only a photo of some of the boys in Seymour Camp, well two of them are in our section.' The other was sent from the
camp by Bert who told his mother 'we can't get home again as we are sailing next Friday. I don't care much as the camp
has a good lot of meningitis in it so be shure [sic] and write and let us know how Don is...'. He added that the building
shown in the photo was where 'we get examined when we go on leave and when you first go into the camp.'

samuel John free albert ernest free

Samuel John Free and Albert Ernest Free
after joining the colours in 1916

docksideIn due course Sam and Bert and their colleagues travelled by train from Seymour to Melbourne where they had their photos (shown below) taken at the Central Studios at Ripponlea. Together with hundreds of other young men, they lined up on the docks at Port Melbourne ready to board the the troop ships that would take them to England. The boys' ship was the SS Port Lincoln whose decks, on the morning of 20 October 1916, were lined with soldiers gripping hold of thousands of red, white and blue streamers thrown to them by loved ones and other well wishers gathered on the wharf below. The men were boisterously loud, their officers, watching from the side, quiet and self-restrained. Amidst ringing cheers, the vessel cast off at midday, making for the entrance to Port Phillip Bay through which the parents and grandparents of so many on board had earlier sailed to begin their lives anew in Australia. Some among the women watching wept as the troop ship swung about. Others stood very still, watching but not seeing, oblivious of the throng about them and its clamour.

A few days after the Port Lincoln sailed, Fanny received two post cards that her boys had posted two days earlier and on which they wrote:

Well mother we were paraded today and told that we are to embark at 8.45 on Friday morning at the new Port Melbourne pier on the Port Lincoln but can't say for sure when we will be clear of the heads, but I suppose I will be able to send a wire from Melbourne. Well Mother don't worry we will be back among you again before 15 months and don't forget to pray for us occasionally. We will still be on the water at Christmas they reckon, but we may be landed by new year.

Your loving son Sam

Just a few lines to let you know we embark on Friday, we are ready to go at a minutes notice but we will not get on the boat until Friday morning, they say [it] will be a week out side the bay before we sail. I will write before I sail so Good Bye and Good Luck until I come back. With love from

your Loving Son Bert

Click here to read about Sam and Bert's voyage to England via South Africa and Sierra Leone.

A17 Port Lincoln at Port Melbourne

A17 Port Lincoln about to cast off from Port Melbourne dock on 20 October 1916.

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