Courtesy of Robyn Tassoni (nee Ellett)

Corporal John Alfred Ellett

Pakenham & District War Memorial and Pakenham South War Memorial 

Born: 27 May 1894 - Springvale, Victoria

Enlisted: 19 December 1914 aged 20 

Unit: Australian Army Service Corps, 1st Reinforcement (SERN: 2773)

Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front

Died:  7 January 1965 -  Bendigo, Victoria

 

Known as “Jack”, John Alfred was the second of the Ellett brothers to serve with the AIF during WWI. A farmer like his father, Jack was only 20 years old when he enlisted in December 1914 with his parents‘ consent. He was regarded as a “popular townsman” (1) and had a reputation as a singer: “Handsome Jack” with his “silvery voice” was regarded as the “star singer” at social gatherings of young people in Pakenham South before the War (2). After enlisting, Jack was assigned to the 1st Reinforcement, Australian Army Service Corps as a driver working with horses. Within days he left Melbourne for Egypt with his brother Robert, who was also assigned to the same unit (3). After arriving in Egypt, Jack was transferred to the 3rd Army Service Corps, 1st Divisional Train. He was sent to Gallipoli, where he appears to have been injured and sent back to Egypt, though the nature of the injury is not recorded (4). News of his injury was reported back home as follows: “The news that Driver J. Ellett has been wounded in action, was received with profound sorrow, for Jack’s winning ways and kindly manners have endeared him to all who knew him, and the heartfelt prayer of all is that his wounds may not prove fatal, and that he may speedily recover” (5). In late 1915, Jack was attached to the Western Frontier Force at Mersa Matrah in Western Egypt. This was hastily formed out of British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand forces in Egypt to repel attacks on British rear positions by the Senussi religious sect from neighbouring Libya. The Senussi had declared a jihad on the British in Egypt in the hope of aiding the Ottoman Turks. On 13 December, Jack was shot and seriously wounded in the right thigh. He was evacuated to the 15th General Hospital in Alexandria where he was added to the dangerously ill list (he may have developed blood poisoning). Jack remained on that list for more than a month (6). In January 1916, he was transferred to the No 1 Australian General Hospital in Cairo. In February 1916, Jack was struck down with enteric fever (typhoid), and was later sent to the Red Cross Convalescence Depot at Montazah to recover. Family and friends back home thought Jack might be transferred to Australia (7) but this did not occur, as Jack recovered and returned  to duty in April 1916. 

Meanwhile, the British had been transferring Australian forces in Egypt to the Western Front. Jack was first sent to England, where he underwent further training. In June 1916, it was reported back home that Pakenham’s “singing soldier” was due to head to the Front soon. The newspaper stated that Jack was “deserving of the highest praise for his gallantry whilst under fire in the west of Egypt, and wounded and ill he endured the severe suffering with that quiet patience so characteristic of him. Our sincere wishes for his safety are with this soldier who so often charmed us with his God given gift of song, and now willingly risks his life at his country’s call” (8). Whilst in England, Jack was promoted to acting Corporal and then acting Sergeant, but reverted to the rank of Driver when he finally proceeded to the Western Front in October 1917. There, he joined the 1st Division, Australian Army Service Corps (AASC), and was later transferred to the 2nd Divisional Train. Jack wrote home in November that gifts from home such as socks were always gratefully received (9). In the wet, muddy conditions on the Western Front, clean fresh socks were particularly prized by the soldiers. In November 1917 Jack suffered concussion in a riding accident at the Front in Belgium. This was caused when a bridge he was crossing in a wagon collapsed (10). In 1918 Jack was appointed again as a temporary Corporal. In March that year, he was given a few days’ leave in Paris, which would have provided some relief from life on the front lines. Back at the Front, he contracted dysentery in July 1918 (11). By the time he was discharged from convalescence in October 1918, the War was almost over. 

Jack returned to Australia early 1919 and was discharged from the Army. He returned home to Pakenham around the same time as a number of other local Diggers, including Paul Holdensen, Albert Nye, Artie Paternoster and Ted Appleton. Upon their return, the South Bourke and Mornington Journal congratulated them for their “safe return to their native shore” and wished them that “happiness and success will be theirs throughout the coming days” (12). Later that year, Jack married Ellen Sayers the “girl he left behind, who remained faithful through the years he was away” (13). Jack and Ellen raised six children on a soldiers‘ settler farm in Pakenham South, which was named  “Montazah” after the convalescent home in Egypt where Jack had recovered from his wounds. The property was located near “Wattle Vale”, his parent’s property on McDonald’s Drain Rd. Initially, Jack went in for growing vegetables such as peas and potatoes. According to a 1921 report, Jack’s farm was a credit to any soldier settler, being well worked. The inspector described Jack as a “first class person”, but noted he had received a serious setback through floods and storms (losing 5 acres of peas) and low potato prices. The following year, Jack’s potato crop failed. He was advised to try dairying and mixed farming, which he did (14). Eventually he built up a small milking herd while also growing crops such as field peas and maize. Jack’s health though, was not good. In 1932 he was hospitalised at Caulfield after suffering severe nerve trouble which affected his spine and limbs, which made it difficult for him to move. As time went on, he required more and more assistance on the farm, with Ellen and the children increasingly taking up the heavy work, assisted by Jack’s brothers. As Montazah was only a relatively small property, the family also took on the Pakenham South post-office to help make ends meet financially (15). The Pakenham Gazette described Jack as “an enthusiast for any work which he took in hand” (16), and aside from his family and farm, there were three great passions in his life: the RSL, music and cricket. In terms of the RSL, Jack was for many years the secretary of the local Pakenham sub-branch and a member of the District Board (17). Indeed, he became known throughout the district and beyond as a “great man for the Diggers” (18). Membership of Ern Gabbett’s orchestra gave Jack an outlet for his musical talent. In terms of cricket, Jack was such a “tragic” that he even laid a turf wicket in one of his paddocks. His nephew Barry Ellett tells the story of how one day, a cricket match Jack was playing in went on till the evening without a result. Instead of calling it stumps for the day, Jack and    his mates went back to their properties, got their Model T cars and trucks and used the headlights to continue playing into the night until one side eventually won!                

During WWII, Jack served as a Lieutenant (V367909) with the 11th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC). This was originally established by the RSL as a “Home Guard” style organisation. In the event of an enemy invasion, the VDC would undertake activities such as forward observation, scouting, creating road blocks, demolition of structures which could be used by the enemy and guarding of critical infrastructure. Jack was one of the officers in charge of the local Pakenham unit (19). In 1944, Jack stood for election to Berwick Shire Council, but was defeated in Iona Ward by another former WWI Digger, Tom Houlihan (20). In 1946, Jack and Ellen sold their Pakenham South farm and moved to a dairy property at Mountain View, Poowong East. When leaving the district, Jack was described as a “a fine citizen and a great man for the Diggers, he will be greatly missed” (21). Later Jack and Ellen lived in Foster and Bendigo. Jack died in January 1965 aged 70. Jack was buried back in Pakenham Cemetery. As the Pakenham Gazette noted,  an “amazing tribute was paid to his memory when the funeral took place ... Notwithstanding the fact that so many years had elapsed since he resided here, the funeral was one of the largest seen in the district for a considerable time” (22). Ellen passed away in 1994 aged 95 (23).

 

The assistance of Jack’s grandchildren Peter Ellett and Robyn Tassoni; and relatives Barry Ellett & Debbie Ellett Hajduk is gratefully acknowledged. 

Sources:

(1) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 27/4/1916, p. 3  

(2) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  9/9/1915, p. 2   

(3) & (23) Narre Warrren & District Family History Group (2016), p.36 

(4) E. Ellett (1980), p. 2   

​(5) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  10/6/1915 p. 3 

(6) (10) & (11) NAA  B2455 ELLETT, J A

(7) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  27/4/1916, p.3  

(8) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  8/6/1916 p. 2     

(9) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  11/11/1917

(12) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  20/2/1919, p. 2

(13) South Bourke & Mornington Journal  22/5/1919 p.2  & NWFG 2016 p. 36

(14) & (15) PROV VPRS 10381 P0000 Unit 342 Item 435

(16) & (22) Pakenham Gazette 15/1/1965 p. 11

(17) Dandenong Journal 18/6/1941, p. 3

(18) Dandenong Journal 21/8/1946, p. 16  

(19) Dandenong Journal 14/5/1941, p. 14

(20) Dandenong Journal 23/8/1944, p. 2

(21)  Dandenong Journal 21/8/1946, p. 16 

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