The Sliding Doors of John and Nathaniel Wright
War of any description is filled with stories of sliding doors. A soldier who was sick and missed being called up for a suicidal battle; a nurse who happened to be on duty when an injured man caught her eye; of general mis-judging weather conditions of the strength of their opposition. At the family level there are also those sliding doors; the brothers who fought together; the extended family members in the same trenches.
This is the story of two brothers from Burnt Yards. One survived the ravages of the Western Front, the other did not. It was the first week of 1916, and John Wright of Burnt Yards was looking for adventure. A labourer on the family farm, run by parents James and Sarah, John had just turned 18 the previous year. He asked his father, James, for permission to join Australia’s military forces just as news was coming through that they were retreating from the Gallipoli peninsula. James, in a decision that he must have come to regret, gave the necessary permission for his son to join the AIF.
John Wright stood just five foot three inches tall and would soon find himself part of the 36th Battalion. This battalion, raised in Newcastle largely from the efforts of then NSW Public Information Minister Ambrose Carmichael, the 36th (which contained many members from the State’s rifle clubs) would arrive in England in July of 1916.
Ahead of it, ahead of John, stood months of heavy training before the battalion was deployed to the Western Front during the terrible winter of 1916-17.
During its first few months in the front lines, the 36th focused largely on repelling German attacks. However by June, as summer came to the Western Front, British authorities were planning a major assault around the French town of Messines. The battle would be started by a huge explosion under Hill 60 – an explosion that shook windows in London and one planted, in part, by some of John’s cousins (from the Lewis Ponds district) who were part of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company.
On the evening of 6 June, 1917, the 36th was moved into position where the troops were to be employed directly as either carriers (of munitions, the dead, the injured) or as soldiers. The battle began in the early hours of the June 7 with the Hill 60 explosion. Over the next two days the 36th kept up its work until on the evening of June 9 the whole battalion was moved in as relief to the 34th. During this changeover John Wright suffered a gunshot wound to the left thigh. In a clearing station, under fire and surrounded by the sounds of war, John Wright would die.
Months later, John’s family had to re-live the events that had taken their loved one. A package containing his personal belongings was returned to Burnt Yards with John, in his will, requesting they all went on to his sister, Dot. It included his wallet, letters sent by his family and friends to John during his time with the Army, photographs, a fountain pen, a comb, a notebook and an autograph book.
John’s official death would be listed as 10 June 1917.
Six days earlier one of John’s brothers, Nathaniel, was formally enlisted with the Army. Nathaniel was 24 at the time, married to Mary, and working as a bread carter and quarryman around the Burnt Yards district. On signing up it was noted that his preference was to be either a driver or in the engineering corps. So, of course, he found himself assigned to the 2nd Tunnelling Company.
It would take months for Nathaniel to even leave the country, finally arriving in England in February of 1918. He was then quickly moved over to France for what would be possibly the worst baptism imaginable. Germany had realised that with the United States entering the war that it only had a limited timeframe in which to use the advantage it had gained from its deal with the Bolsheviks in Russia.
That meant a four pronged attack, centred on areas held by British and Australian forces, in the area around Ypres. “Operation Michael”, as it was codenamed, began on 21 March. Nathaniel took up his position with the 2nd Tunnelling Company on 23 March. He was on site at the company’s base in Ypres when Germany started long-range shelling of the area with artillery almost 40 kilometres away. Within hours, the company – along with all other Allied forces – were in retreat.
In the book Crumps and Camouflets, which is a history of Australia’s tunnelling companies, the retreat of the 2nd was vividly described:
The only easily recognisable objects standing above grass height were hastily erected crosses keeping their silent and forlorn vigil over the remains of fallen soldiers.
Fortunately, Nathaniel and most of the 2nd made it safely to an area near Querrieu where they were joined by the 3rd and 4th divisions of the Australian forces. He would survive the end of the war, finally returning to Australia in the second half of 1919 after carrying out remedial engineering works around France.
Two decades later, a letter arrived at the recently opened Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It was from a school boy who had found a badge with the number 174770 engraved upon it. The badge was quickly recognised as one of those issued to women whose sons had enlisted in World War One. It was sent to Nathaniel’s wife, Mary, who had taken possession of the badge some time after her mother-in-law’s death. It was Mary who had seen Nathaniel go to war back in 1917 wondering if he would return.
* This article was written by Shane Wright. It was first published in Eagle Eye: Cowra Family History Group Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, November 2014, pp. 19-20.