Courtesy of Pakenham Upper Community Church Hall
Driver Alexander Henderson Priest
Pakenham & District War Memorial, Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour and Pakenham Upper State School Honour Book
Born: 28 June 1880 - Collingwood, Victoria
Enlisted: 6 October 1916 aged 36
Unit: Field Company Engineers, March 1917 Reinforcement (SERN: 17822)
Served: Western Front
Died: 13 Jan 1963 - Pakenham, Victoria
Also known as “Sandy”, Alexander was a son of Joseph and Jane Priest. The Priests settled in Pakenham Upper (then known as “Gembrook South”) before 1880, taking up land around what is now Gordon’s Road (1). Sandy attended Pakenham Upper School, but from around 12 or 14 years of age, drove his older brother’s bullock team. He then became an engine driver working in saw mills. Sandy also worked on orchards in the Toomuc Valley (2), and gained farming experience both on his father’s property and his own 98 acre block at Cora Lynn. He sold the latter when he enlisted for the Army (2a), which he did on 6 October 1916 aged 36. By this time, Sandy’s widowed mother was living in Essendon. Sandy was initially assigned as a sapper to the Field Company Engineers’ Reinforcements at Seymour Army Camp, but was later sent to the 7th Field Engineers’ Depot at Moore Park in Sydney. A special farewell was organised for several Pakenham Upper volunteers in November 1916, but Sandy was not able to be present (2b). He left Sydney for England in May 1917 and after further training there, proceeded to France on 31 October 1917. Sandy was taken on strength with the 7th Field Company Engineers in Belgium as a driver In December 1917 (3).
After enduring the gruelling conditions on the Western Front during the winter of 1917/18, Sandy was given some leave in Paris during February 1918 (3a). During the decisive battles of 1918, Sandy drove a team of six horse with a pontoon (presumably for fording waterways), from St Quentin to the Somme, Amiens, Villers-Bretonneux and Albert (4). Sandy received further leave in the UK in October 1918, but in early November was hospitalised with influenza, and only re-joined his unit a couple of days before the Armistice. In January 1919, he was detached from his unit for duty at Charleroi, where he attended the “Universite du Travail” (a leading technical institution) in March 1919, undoubtedly as part of the scheme to provide the returning soldiers with educational and employment opportunities. Sandy returned to Australia on the “Chemnitz”, arriving back in September 1919. He was still suffering from a weakness in the knee due to a kick from a horse, and sought a discharge from the Army if nothing could be done about it. The discharge was granted on 22 October 1919 (5). After discharge, Sandy initially returned to the sawmills (6). Saw milling was an important industry around Pakenham Upper: at one stage, there were four mills in the area (6a).Sandy was living at Lang Lang when he claimed one of his war medals in 1921 (7). That year, he took up a 47 acre soldier settler block at Caldermeade. Interestingly, when he applied for a block, he stated that he was single, but would marry when settled. The first few years on the block were tough, with Sandy seeking a revaluation in 1928 on the basis that the land had been flooded six out of every twelve months for the past seven years and that the drainage works he had invested in had done nothing to improve the situation, except on the neighbouring blocks! Sandy eventually turned things around though, and was able to claim the Crown free-hold grant on the property in July 1943 (8). He never did marry though! At some stage, he also acquired a property at Catani. Sandy continued farming well into old age and only had to give it up around 1962 due to ill-health. He then took up residence with his sister Margaret, then his brother James in Army Road Pakenham. Sandy died there in January 1963, aged 82 and was buried in Pakenham Cemetery. An RSL service was performed by the Lang Lang RSL of which Sandy was a member (9).
Aside from the Pakenham & District Soldiers’ Memorial, Alex’s service was also honoured on the Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour unveiled in 1917 (10). He also received a special certificate from the Pakenham Upper community in 1919 (11) and was commemorated in the Pakenham Upper State School Honour Book, dedicated in 1920.
The assistance of Alex’s relative June Grenville (nee Priest) and Wally Nye is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Pakenham Gazette 25/1/1963, p. 2
(2) Pakenham Gazette 25/1/1963, p. 2
(2a) & (8) PROV VPRS 5714/PO Unit 894 File 1005/12
(2b) Dandenong Advertiser 9/11/1916, p. 2
(3) (3a) & (5) & (7) NAA B2455 PRIEST, ALEXANDER HENDERSON
(4) & (6) Pakenham Upper State School Honour Book
(6a) Back to Pakenham Committee (1951) p. 13
(9) Pakenham Gazette 25/1/1963 p.2 and Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2016) p. 78
(10) Pakenham Gazette 28/9/1917, p. 2
(11) Pakenham Gazette 17/10/1919 p. 3