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An Australian Great War Tragedy

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

World War I caused family grief on a scale never seen before as millions of young men paid the ultimate sacrifice in a war that was utterly pointless. Few families suffered a greater tragedy than the Watherston’s of Boston Island, South Australia.

Men of the Australian Infantry Forces getting ready to embark for service overseas.

Men of the Australian Infantry Forces getting ready to embark for service overseas.

A Family of Tragedies

Late in the 19th century, James and Isabella Watherston raised a family of ten children as they developed Boston Island. They built a school on the island so they didn’t have to ferry their children to the mainland every day.

One of the children, named Cranston, died of diphtheria, a not uncommon heartbreak in those days, but there was worse to come.

In August 1896, James and Isabella were being rowed out to a cutter by Cyril Watherston. The sea was rough and the rowboat capsized. James and Isabella drowned as many of their children looked on helplessly from the beach. Cyril was able to swim ashore.

Australia’s Great War

When Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914, more than 400,000 men, out of a national population of five million, in faraway Australia volunteered to join the fight. Some 334,000 served overseas.

The Aussies, or Diggers as they were popularly known, suffered terrible casualties with more than 61,000 being killed. Their baptism of fire happened early in April 1915.

A force of British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers took part in the ill-conceived and ultimately useless attack on Gallipoli of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The plan was to knock Turkey, Germany’s ally, out of the war. It failed miserably.

The soldiers were pinned down on their landing beaches for months and were ravaged by dysentery and enemy fire. Frank Watherston was part of the action. He was wounded by machine gun fire and had to lie on a beach amidst horse and donkey dung waiting for evacuation.

By the time he got to a military hospital in Greece he had tetanus. He died on July 4, 1915 at the age of 31. He was just one of more than 8,000 Aussies who lost their lives at Gallipoli.

Cyril and Edward Watherston

These brothers were the first to enlist and they both were members of the 10th Infantry Battalion stationed in France.

In May 1916, Cyril was near the French village of Fleurbaix in what was called the Nursery Section, a relatively safe location that was used to familiarize troops with trench warfare.

Cyril, who was listed as a driver, was taking equipment and supplies up to the front line. A random German shell landed in his convoy of horses and Cyril, along with many of his animals died. He was 28 years old.

Two months later, Edward Watherston was taking part in the meat-grinder action known as the Battle of the Somme. One of the actions, within the larger fiasco, took place around the village of Pozières. On the first day of the attack, a high-explosive shell detonated right above Edward; he “disappeared completely and nothing was found, not even a button” (Lee Clayton, historian).

Taking Pozières was very costly to the Australian forces, with 23,000 casualties, including 5,000 dead. Charles Bean, the official historian of Australia in the Great War wrote that the Pozières ridge “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”

Australian soldiers silhouetted.

Australian soldiers silhouetted.

James Watherston

A month after Edward was killed the Australian forces were still trying to take Pozières. James Watherston knew that his three brothers were dead, but nonetheless, he joined his comrades in an attack on August 19. Along with others, James was mowed down by machine-gun fire.

It’s impossible to imagine the shock and grief the Watherston sisters must have felt when the first War Office telegram was delivered announcing Frank’s death, followed by three more telegrams in the space of six weeks.

One brother, Robert, remained alive. He was too old to enlist and spent his life working for a cattle company in the outback. He is described as being emotionally shattered.

Dead Man’s Pennies

Next-of-kin of all British Empire war dead were given a bronze medallion called The World War One Memorial Plaque; they quickly became known as “The Dead Man’s Penny.”

In 2002, Lee Clayton went to an auction of house contents in Port Lincoln, a 20-minute ferry ride from Boston Island. On a table, were two Memorial Plaques for Cyril and Edward Watherston.

He was intrigued and started digging into the background of the Watherston brothers; he uncovered the fact that two others had been killed in the war and located their plaques.

Twelve years later, Clayton was instrumental in having a memorial erected on Boston Island. He had replicas made of the plaques and donated the originals to the Canberra War Memorial. Then, he had the replicas embedded in a granite cairn that was placed next the school that the Watherston’s had built.

Without Lee Clayton’s determined research the story of the courage and tragedy of the Watherston brothers might have been lost forever.

Dead man’s pennies.

Dead man’s pennies.

Bonus Factoids

  • A fifth Watherston, Sydney Alfred, cousin to Frank, Cyril, Edward, and James, also died in World War I. He was listed as “killed in action” on August 13, 1918.
  • Widowed Amy Beechey of Lincolnshire, England lived to see five of her sons killed in World War I. You can read her story here.
  • The Australian military suffered a casualty rate (that is killed and wounded) of 65 percent; among the highest of all the British Empire belligerents.

The Ban Played Waltzing Matilda

Sources

  • “WATHERSTON, Frank Patten.” Virtual War Memorial Australia, undated.
  • “Pioneers Immortalised in Stone.” Port Lincoln Times, January 14, 2014.
  • “WATHERSTON, Cyril Anderson.” Virtual War Memorial Australia, undated.
  • “WATHERSTON, Edward Alexander.” Virtual War Memorial Australia, undated.
  • “One of Australia’s Most Tragic WWI Family Losses, with Four Brothers Killed on Battlefield.” Jodie Hamilton, ABC News, April 24, 2019.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 09, 2021:

So sad for one family to lose so many sons. Fortunately, Lee Clayton took it upon himself to immortalize the Watherston sons legacies. And you are aiding in keeping them alive with this article, Rupert!

Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on April 04, 2021:

That was a great loss indeed. Whenever I read histories it always leave me a saddened heart, but it's where the current doers learned. Hopefully they all rest in peace. Thanks for sharing it with us blessings

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 04, 2021:

Yes, Rupert, World War 1 and especially Gallipoli was tragic for Australia and New Zealand and the number of young lives were lost. It really decimated our male population, and in many instances more than one son in a fam Yes, Rupert, World War 1 and especially Gallipoli was tragic for Australia and New Zealand and the number of young lives were lost ily was killed.

The sad part is young men joined the fight so enthusiastically thinking it their patriotic duty to fight under Britain. Little did they know it was really just a suicide mission. Thank you for sharing the sad tale of the Watherstons.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 04, 2021:

Though the story is a good read, it is more of a pity. And such is war and life...you get killed or you 'shall return' alife. The odds against death is not known and made available. Much thanks.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 04, 2021:

What a tragic story of all of those killed in one family during WWI.

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