Courtesy of Peter Abrehart

Private William Alexander Abrehart

Pakenham & District War Memorial & Pakenham State School Roll of Honour

Born: 1893 - Carlton, Victoria       

Enlisted: 10 March 1915 aged 22

Unit:  23rd Battalion D Company (SERN: 1211)

Served: Egypt & Gallipoli

Died: Not known

 

Also known as “Bill” or “Will”, William Abrehart was one of eleven children born to Charles Abrehart and his wife Bessie Robertson. The Abreharts settled on a property along the Princes Highway at Pakenham in 1894. In addition to farming, the family was also involved in the local eucalyptus oil industry (1). Abrehart Road is named in their honour. As a boy, Bill attended Pakenham State School,   and later worked at George Paternoster’s store in Main Street. In 1907, he was thrown from his horse while working for Mr Paternoster (2). Bill played football for Pakenham, including in the 1914 team, which won the district premiership (3). Bill was a 22 year old labourer when he enlisted in March 1915. He listed his trade as carpenter (4). Once enlisted, he was assigned to D Company, 23rd Battalion. He married his sweetheart Mary Cleary before embarking for Egypt in May 1915. Years later, Bill’s younger brother Tom Abrehart could still remember Mary’s beautiful green eyes (5). Bill and Mary’s only son, Alexander Patrick Abrehart, was subsequently born while Bill was overseas. In August 1915, Bill proceeded with his unit to Gallipoli. On 10 September, Bill wrote home to his parents describing the conditions there: “Just a few lines, hoping to find all well at home, as this leaves me A1. We arrived here and have had a good time in the firing line. It makes you feel very funny when you first go in, but it gradually works off. There are any amount of shells bursting around us, and you are not safe anywhere on the Peninsula, but you just have to take your chance. We live in ‘dug outs’, they are big holes dug in the hills, and we feel a bit safer in them than out in the open”. Bill also described having shot an enemy soldier: “He was shovelling dirt out of his trench. I saw his shovel come up and fired at it. He waved me a ‘miss’ so I loaded up again and waited. Up came his head and chest. I fired again, and down he went. I felt proud as I was the first of our crowd to get one” (6). Perhaps to alleviate any anxiety his parents may have been feeling about his wellbeing, Bill’s letter also contained some more reassuring details, such as the weather not being too hot; that he was being well fed despite the fact "everything is upside down” and that another Pakenham Digger,  Ern Cameron, was with him. 

 

A few weeks after writing this letter, Bill suffered a hernia after carrying heavy timber. After being initially treated at Anzac Cove, Bill was evacuated to hospital in Malta. When returning to Gallipoli in late October, Bill took ill and was hospitalised at Mudros (Lemnos) with influenza. He then contracted “enteric fever” (paratyphoid) and was transferred to hospital in Alexandria, then to a convalescence camp at Port Said. According to his medical reports, Bill was left “somewhat weak” and lost a stone in weight (6). He was listed in the published casualty lists as being seriously ill (7). In early 1916, Bill was repatriated to Australia for “3 months change”. Back in Australia, he refused to have an operation for his hernia and was declared permanently unfit for further service and discharged.

After his discharge, Bill initially settled with Mary and Alexander in the St Kilda / Balaclava area. As a returned soldier, Bill had been given a temporary position at the Melbourne General Post Office (GPO) and some financial assistance to re-establish himself back into civilian life. In June 1918, Bill was presented with a gold medallion at a special “welcome home” in Pakenham for soldiers who had already returned from the War (8). Unfortunately, Bill lost his job at the GPO in 1919 as permanent employees of the Postmaster General’s Department (PMG) returned from the War. When he applied as a returned soldier for further sustenance, Bill was deemed ineligible. Frustrated that he had been refused assistance when single men he knew had been helped, Bill wrote to Prime Minister, W. M. “Billy” Hughes seeking his assistance: “All I want is a fair deal, and I hope you can rectify this now it has been brought under notice”. Mr Hughes had further enquiries made, but the original decision stood (9). 

 

Tragically, Mary Cleary Abrehart died in 1921 of tuberculosis. Bill sent his son Alexander back to the family farm in Pakenham to be raised by his family. Unfortunately, in an era still characterised by often bitter sectarian bigotry, there was tension between the two families due to their religious differences: the Abreharts being Presbyterian while the Cleary family was Catholic. The Cleary family took young Alexander away from the Abrehart family and placed him in the Catholic St Vincent de Paul Orphanage in South Melbourne (10). What subsequently happened to Bill remains a mystery. Some of Bill’s brothers though, thought he initially went overseas, selling remounts (army horses) to India (11). He may or may not have been the William Abrehart listed on the electoral roll in 1935 as a labourer living at Port Melbourne (12). 

The assistance of Bill’s grandson Peter Abrehart is gratefully acknowledged. 

 

Sources:

(1) Pakenham Gazette 6/3/1959, p. 8 & 25/6/1937 p. 3      

(2) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, 24/7/1907, p.2

(3) Argus, 24/8/1914, p. 5

(4) & (7) NAA B2455 ABREHART W A (Barcode 3018678)

(5) (10) & (11) Information provided by Peter Abrehart 

(6) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, 4/11/1915, p.3.

(7) See for example, Colac Herald, 17/12/1915, p. 3

(8) Pakenham Gazette 7/6/1918, p. 3

(9) NAA A2487 1919/10868 (barcode 158076). 

(12) Ancestry.com.au - Electoral Roll - Melbourne Ports - Clarendon 1935, p. 1

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