Courtesy of Wayne Cornwall
Lance Sergeant James Arthur Cornwall
Pakenham & District War Memorial and Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour
Born: 22 June 1884 - Nar Nar Goon, Victoria
Enlisted: 31 December 1915 aged 31
Unit: 42nd Battalion, B Company (SERN: 297)
Served: Western Front
Died: 1 October 1965 - Heidelberg, Victoria
James was the son of William Cornwall and Mary Grace Warren. The Cornwalls settled along what is now Carne Road in the Toomuc Valley back in the 1870s. Indeed, James’ father remembered the difficulties of driving sheep from Melbourne to the family property in those pioneering days (1). When James was born, his parents were living at Nar Nar Goon, but later moved to Goon Nure near Bairnsdale. James was working as a farm labourer in that district in the early 1900s (2). Around 1910 he headed north to Queensland and worked as a shearer in the Darling Downs. There may have been something of a rift in the family, as James apparently did not write home to his family until he enlisted in the AIF at Warwick in December 1915 (4). He was 31 years old when he signed up (5). James was assigned to B Company, 42nd Battalion and departed from Sydney on the HMAT Borda in June 1916.
After further training in England, James proceeded to France in late November 1916. He was promoted to temporary Corporal in January 1917, but was wounded in action on 22 February. At the time, the 42nd battalion was in the trenches in the Houplines / Bois Grenier area. Earlier that month, members of the 42nd Battalion had attempted a daring raid of the German trenches. Because of the snow, they wore white outfits to avoid detection while crossing no man’s land, but soon encountered heavy machine gun fire and had to withdraw. The 42nd’s own trenches were equally subject to an attempted German raid, as well as severe artillery bombardments (5a). In early July 1917, James was promoted to the rank of temporary Sergeant, but at the end of the month was wounded in action again, this time suffering a serious wound to the abdomen. He had to be invalided to hospital in Oxford England. James reverted to the rank of Corporal when he was evacuated from his unit. He rejoined his unit in France in November 1917. He was appointed to the rank of Lance Sergeant in January 1918 (6). In March 1918, James was sent back to England and attached to a training battalion in England where he undertook a “rapid wiring” course. While in England, James married Emily Dorothea Harry of Kensington, London on 24 August 1918. The honeymoon (if there was one) did not last long, as James returned to his unit in France the following month. Fortunately, the War was coming to an end, and Australian forces saw little further action. James was appointed as a temporary sergeant in October 1918 and transferred to the 41st Battalion (7).
After the War ended, James was given leave to return to England, where he was permitted to engage in non-military employment. At one stage, he was working for a sheep shearing company in Birmingham. On another occasion, he attended the British School of Motoring in Piccadilly, London. In preparation for his repatriation to Australia, James applied for a passage for his wife Emily and their daughter Dorothea who had been born in England. In December 1919 (8), James departed from the UK on the HMAT Borda, the very same ship which he had left Australia on in June 1916 (9). Meanwhile, James’ parents had moved back to “Pakenham North” (Toomuc Valley) from where they wrote to the Defence Department seeking railway passes to be at the wharf when James and his family arrived in Melbourne (10). They arrived back in Melbourne on 27 January 1920 after which James was discharged from the Army. James’ service had already been commemorated on the Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour, which was unveiled in September 1917 (10a). His name was later inscribed on the Pakenham & District War Memorial at Pakenham East.
When James claimed some of his war medals in 1923, he was farming at Caldermeade, near Koo Wee Rup (11). He had acquired a 43 acre soldiers‘ settler block there in 1921, assisted with an advance from the CSB for a three roomed house, stock and implements. James went in for dairying and mixed farming (12). This soon proved to be a struggle because of factors including the small size of the block; losing the 1924 crop due to flooding; and what James perceived to be the opposition of the local CSB inspector. At James’ request, the CSB reviewed his case and concluded: “we cannot see how we could possibly place this man in a position where he would have the remotest chance of success and we would recommend that the advances be recalled and his permit cancelled”. His block was to be redistributed to neighbouring settlers to make their holdings more sustainable (13). James though, did not want to leave his property and was determined to carry on. He also felt strongly that the promises made to the soldiers during the War had not been honoured in his case: “The Board has placed me on a block that is overvalued and also not a large enough area to make a living. I gave up my freedom in 1915. And on discharge was entitled to something where I could make a living, and again be a useful citizen. I trusted the Board and the Govt, which has only made Returned Soldiers (at least in this district) Govt. Slaves” (14). In the end, James was evicted from the property on 4 May 1929. James described his plight to the then Premier, Sir William McPherson: “I find myself put on the road by a board representative and the police, with no place or shelter of any kind for my wife and 6 children, ranging in ages from 10 years down to 3 months. Tonight I find myself in a rented house with the sum of 2 1/2d [two and a half pence] no work or any prospects of work, and over £200 owing to tradespeople ...” (15).
By the 1930s, James, Emily and their family (which eventually grew to ten children) were living at Tooradin, where James was actively involved with the local Mechanics’ Institute and other local community and sporting activities (16). In 1939, the family moved to Nyora in Gippsland (17). James served in Australia during WWII as a corporal (V15933) with the 3rd Garrison Brigade (18). He died at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in 1965 aged 81.
The assistance of James’ relatives Alf Cornwall, Narelle Bell, Leonie Wuillemin, Jen Vlug & Wayne Cornwall; and Polly Freeman of the Cranbourne Shire Historical Society is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Pakenham Gazette 3/5/1946 p. 1
(2) Weekly Times 22/10/1904 p. 19
(3) Ancestry.com.au - Electoral Roll - Gippsland - Bairnsdale 1908 p. 8
(4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (10) & (11) NAA B2455 CORNWALL J A
(5a) AWM 4 23/59/4 42nd Infantry Btn. War Diary Feb 1917 pp. 1-3
(9) Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2016) p. 32
(10a) Pakenham Gazette 28/9/1917 p. 2
(12) PROV VPS 5714/PO unit 918 File 1186/12
(13) (14) & (15) PROV VPRS 10381/P0 Unit 177 Item 189
(16) & (17) Dandenong Journal 20/9/1939, p.20 & Weekly Times 10/12/1932 p. 6
(18) WWII Nominal Roll: www.ww2roll.gov.au