Courtesy of Sharon Kelly

Private Victor Beitzel (aka John Conway) +

Pakenham State School Roll of Honour

Born: 1894 - Fitzroy South, Victoria

Enlisted: 6 January 1915 aged 20

Unit: 6th Battalion, 4th Reinforcement (SERN: 1727)

Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front

Killed in action: 7 July 1918 - near Ribemont, France

 

Victor was the son of Frank Beitzel and Ada Annie Collard. Frank worked for the Victorian Railways (1) and it was Frank’s job which likely brought the family to Pakenham around 1895. Three of Victor’s siblings, Herbert, Arnold (father of famous football umpire Harry Beitzel) and Gwendoline were subsequently born in Pakenham (2). In 1899, a valuable horse owned by Victor’s father was killed at the Main Street railway crossing, which was described as having a “notorious name throughout the colony” because of the “loss of human life, cattle and horses” (3). Victor attended Pakenham State School for a time, but by 1901, the family had moved to Warragul (4). There, Victor attended the Warragul State School. Victor’s mother Ada died in 1909 with his father later remarrying. 

 

Victor enlisted for the AIF in Melbourne on 6 January 1915. He enlisted as “John Conway” and said he was a 22 years old sawyer (5). His family believed the reason for this was probably that Victor had previously tried to enlist, but failed the medical (6). Victor embarked for Egypt in April 1915 with the 6th Battalion 4th Reinforcement. On 27 May 1915, he joined his unit at Gallipoli and served there until the Anzacs were evacuated (7). In August 1915, Victor wrote to his brother Herbert from Gallipoli telling him he was “still all right and getting on well”. Being in the “firing line”, Victor’s thoughts inevitably turned to those back home and he wondered why he had not received any letters, though there were often problems in getting mail from Australia through to the soldiers and vice versa. Victor was also thinking of better times in Egypt: “I never told you about the time I had in Egypt. I had an extraordanery [sic] good time there. I would like to tell you more about it but I am not aloud {sic} to. I remain your affectionate brother Victor. Kisses xxxxxx” (8). After returning to Egypt at the end of the Gallipoli campaign, Victor was transferred to the 58th Battalion and sent to the Western Front. Less than a month after arriving in France, the 58th Battalion was deployed at the Battle of Fromelles, providing carrying (stretcher) parties and a reserve force. Roughly half the Battalion was involved in an attack late in the battle and was “virtually annihilated by machine-gun fire. As a whole, the 58th suffered casualties equal to almost a third of its strength” (9). While Victor survived 1916 and 1917 on the Western Front, conditions there did not leave him unscathed as a photograph of Victor taken with his mates in Amiens shows. He seems to have been was hospitalised for ten weeks in late 1917 (10) and again in 1918 when he came down with trench fever (11). 

Presumably while on leave in England, Victor met a girl called Mabel and the two of them became sweethearts. In January 1918, Mabel replied to one of Victor’s letters  saying she was glad he had a “jolly Christmas and New Year” despite the cold weather and conditions in the trenches. Mabel was looking forward to being reunited with Victor when he had leave: “I am longing to see you again ... let me know if you have any idier [sic} of when you are comming [sic} so that I shall be able to come to meet you dear, then we can go to my Aunties & have a nice time together ... see you soon except my ever fondest love and kisses. From your ever loving sweetheart Mabel xxx” (12).

 

Tragically, Victor was killed in action on 7 July 1918. At the time, the 58th Battalion was in the trenches near Ville sur Ancre on the Somme. A German shell exploded close by him in the trench. One account said Victor was killed instantly, another that he died on the way to the field ambulance dressing station (13). Victor’s body was subsequently buried by a Catholic army padre in the Australian cemetery near Ribemont. A cross was erected over his grave. Lieutenant Flintoff of the 58th Battalion wrote to Victor’s father to express his and the Battalion’s sympathy, telling him that: “Victor’s work at all times has been heroism of the highest order. Such men of his type can ill be spared but he showed his nobility in making that greatest of all sacrifices, the laying down of his life for his King, his country and friends, truly he hasn’t died in vain” (14). It is not known when or how Mabel was told of her sweetheart’s death. In August 1918, Warragul Shire presented the Beitzel family with a certificate commemorating their son’s service in the war for “freedom and justice” (15). In addition to the Pakenham State School Honour Roll, Victor was also commemorated on the Warragul State School Honour Roll (16).

 

The assistance of Victor’s great-niece Sharon Kelly is gratefully acknowledged

 

Sources:

(1) Argus, 5/1/1939 p. 8

(2) www.bdm.vic.gov.au 

(3) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 20/9/1899 p. 2

(4) www.bdm.vic.gov.au - Clarence Fritz Beitzel was born to Frank and Ada at Warragul in 1901.

(5) (7) (10) & (11) NAA B2455 CONWAY J 

(6) Information provided by Sharon Kelly

(8) Letter from Victor Beitzel to Herbert Beitzel dated 15/8/1915 “Firing Line”

(9) “58th Australian Infantry Battalion” https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51498 

(10) & (12) Letter from Victor’s sweetheart Mabel dated 12/1/1918

(13) & (14) Letters from Lt Flintoff and Chaplain J.P. Gilbert to Beitzel family

(15) West Gippsland Gazette, 30/7/1918, p.2

(16) West Gippsland Gazette, 7/12/1920, p.3

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