First World War Heroes from South Australia

Three Backlers from Robe and Kingston joined the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, otherwise known as The Great War, and all served in France.

First to join was Albert Henry Backler whose service number was 261 and who became a member of ‘A’ Company of the 32nd Battalion.  He was 22 and 10 months old when he joined on 12th July 1915, so he was born in 1892.  Albert was resident in Kingston and his next of kin was given as his father Henry Thomas Backler, a Produce Merchant, News Agent etc, with his letter heading also showing that he was an agent for the Sun Fire Office.  His mother’s name was Elizabeth (nee Anderson).  Albert’s occupation was a saddler and he was still serving in the 22nd Light Horse Volunteers in Kingston, when he signed his attestation papers.  Perhaps because of this service, he was given the rank of Lance Corporal when he later arrived in France.  He was deemed fit for service by Corbin, the Examining Medical Officer and Lieutenant Colonel D M R Coghill approved his appointment to his company.  He was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 164 pounds, with a chest measurement of 35 inches, expanding to 37 1/2.  He had a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

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On 15th July 1915, Albert took his oath at Keswick, South Australia and he embarked on the Geelong and reached Suez on 18th December 1915.  He left Egypt from Alexandria on 17th June 1916 on board the Transylvania arriving on 23rd June in Marseilles, France.  On 20th July 1916, he was reported missing in action after the action at Fromelles in Northern France.  The attack that commenced on 19th July caused over 5000 casualties in the Australian ranks.  On 12th August 1916, Albert Henry was pronounced Killed In Action, by a Court of Inquiry.  There was a witness statement by Private I J Isaac, service number 117, who saw him wounded in the charge at Fromelles on 19th July and which noted that Sergeant Robinson helped to carry him away the next morning.  Albert is one of five names recorded on the War Memorial in Kingston.

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Albert’s parents were made aware in a cable dated 30th August 1916 that he was Missing in Action.  His father wrote on 19th September 1916 asking “please can you give any further information to his anxious parents.”   This elicited a response on 29th September, saying that they only knew he was missing in action.  A blunt telegram dated 6th September 1917 confirmed that he was killed in action on 20th July 1916, a long gap for the family to endure.  Henry again wrote on 29th September 1917, asking for further information on the death of his son and a response dated 5th October, confirmed that no further information was available.   On 18th May 1918, Henry wrote asking for a death certificate, which was sent on 24th May 1918 by Major J M Lean, officer in charge of base records in Melbourne.  Henry tried again to get further information on 17th September 1921 and was told there was none, including no idea where his son’s remains were located.  I have included this information, because it illustrates the agony inflicted on the family by the mass casualties, the intensity of the fighting in France and the huge distance that information had to travel, which resulted in the lack of any real details as to what had happened to their son.

Albert Henry Backler was posthumously awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  His parents were sent a pamphlet “Where The Australians Rest” on 7th October 1921.  A Memorial Scroll was sent to his father on 19th October 1921 and a Memorial Plaque was also sent on 8th September 1922, to close off his military record.

In a postscript, remains were discovered in recent years that had been buried by the Germans, which were mostly Australian soldiers and some British, in the vicinity of Fromelles.  Some have been identified from DNA and this work continues.  On 19th July 2010, these remains were interred in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles.  Peter and Margaret Backler, from Kingston, were able to arrange part of their European holiday to attend this ceremony, which they found very moving.

Next to join were two brothers, sons of James Francis Backler and Ellen Moonlight (nee Kerr) from Robe, South Australia.  Alexander Henry Backler signed his attestation paper aged 25 years and 5 months on 10th October 1916, which means he was born in 1891.  He was a labourer, 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighing 152 pounds,  with a medium complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His chest measured 34 1/2 inches, expanding to 36.  His younger brother, James Godfrey Backler was just 18 years and 3 months old when he signed his attestation paper on 9th January 1917, being born in 1898.  He was a motor engine driver, 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighing 127 pounds, with the same complexion and hair colour as his brother, but with grey eyes.  His chest measured 32 inches, expanding to 34.

Alexander’s service number was 6729 and he joined the 22nd Reinforcements for the 10th Battalion Infantry as a private.  He embarked on the Afrie on 7th November 1916 and arrived in Plymouth, UK on 9th January 1917.  He was in and out of hospital on arrival, but was eventually sent to France from Folkestone to Le Havre, where he arrived on 15th May 1917.  Alexander joined his Battalion in the field on 28th May 1917.  He was wounded in action in Belgium on 21st September 1917 and after time in Boulogne and Le Havre, he re-joined his unit on 16th October.  The following year, he was listed as Missing in Action, believed prisoner of war, which was confirmed on the Frankfurt list number 1351.  This was not for long and on 6th December 1918, he arrived in England.  Alexander was sent back to Australia on board the Nevasa from Portland on 5th March 1919.  He was formally discharged from the Army on 20th July 1919 and received the same three medals as his cousin above.

James’s service number was 3662 and he joined the 5th Pioneer Battalion as a private on 9th January 1917 and was transferred to the  27th Battalion Infantry on 12th July 1917.  He embarked on the Seeang Bee on 10th February 1917 and arrived in Devonport, UK on 2nd May 1917.  He was sent to France from Southampton to Le Havre on 5th October 1917.  James was wounded in action in France on 30th August 1918 with a severe gun shot wound in the thigh.  He arrived in a military hospital in Woking, UK on 2nd September, from where he was reported as a convalescent on 12th December.  He was sent back to Australia on board the Ceramic on 25th January 1919, arriving in Australia on 14th March.  James was formally discharged from the Army on 13th April 1919 and received the same three medals as his brother and his cousin above.

These records illustrate the desperate nature of the fighting in France.  All three heroes were wounded, one fatally and one severely within a short period of arriving.  Much has been written, photographed and filmed about conditions in The Great War, but it is only when reading the service records of those involved that it brings home the true nature as to how it affected the brave individuals involved and how little time they had to prepare for their ordeal.

 

 

 

 

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