“News of the brave deeds and heroic work of our soldiers had rung throughout the world ... the story of the part they had taken in the Great War would never be forgotten. It was the duty of all to tell this story to their children, so that coming generations would know what our soldiers had done” - Frank Groves MLA’s speech at the Pakenham Upper Soldiers’ Welcome Home, October 1919 as reported in the Pakenham Gazette 10/10/1919 p.3.
“I never imagined war to be so awful until I got there, and even then you can’t realise it ...” - Private Bert Ellett of Pakenham South in a letter home printed in the Dandenong Advertiser 22/7/1915, p.10.
At 11am on 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front, bringing the First World War (WWI) to an end after four terrible years of fighting. WWI wrought slaughter and devastation on a scale then unprecedented in history. Approximately 420,000 Australians enlisted for service, representing nearly 40% of the eligible male population aged between 18 and 44. Approximately 337,000 served overseas while 60,000 died and 150,000 were wounded, including gassed or shell-shocked. This represented a casualty rate of nearly 65%, one of the highest of all belligerent nations (1). As a result, it was impossible to find a community which had not been affected in some way by what became known simply as the “Great War” and (wishfully, but mistakenly) “the war to end all wars”.
Given the magnitude of WWI’s impact, it was natural that communities and institutions across the country wanted to honour and remember those who had fought in the titanic struggle. And as people have done throughout the ages, monuments and other types of memorials were dedicated to honour their brave soldiers. In this regard, the Pakenham District was no exception, dedicating several war memorials and rolls of honour commemorating not just those who had made the “ultimate sacrifice”, but all those who had “done their bit” great or small. There is something very egalitarian in that. A total of 145 people (including one woman) are listed on our WWI memorials and rolls of honour, of which 36 (25%) are known to have died whilst in the service of their King and Country.
One hundred years ago, there was a strong personal connection between the local community and those honoured on these memorials. After-all, the Diggers were their children, brothers, husbands, friends, team mates, sweethearts, neighbours, employers and employees. And many of the Diggers who returned made significant contributions to the economic, social, sporting and political life of the community. With the passage of time though, those personal connections have inevitably faded and the living links with, and memory of, those honoured on our district’s memorials is being lost. As the Diggers pass into “history”, there is a genuine risk that they will become little more than names chiselled into stone or stencilled in gold leaf, unless their personal stories are documented and preserved for future generations.
Conscious of this process and to mark the Centenary of the Armistice, this project seeks to bring the Pakenham District’s WWI Diggers “back to life” by telling their stories, and (where possible), putting faces to their names. I for one feel privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know them (in a way) through the research. While they were ordinary people like you and I, they were called by their King and country to do extraordinary things. Many of their stories are deeply moving, such as Justin Fox’s noble gesture of replacing a family man in the “firing line”. Some are tragic, such as the suicide of Ernest Cameron whose deep, interior wounds eventually overwhelmed him after the War. Others are fascinating, even unexpected, such as that of Major George Raleigh who turned out to be a pioneer of Britain’s Royal Air Force. I hope all the stories are interesting (I certainly enjoyed researching and writing them!). Together, they not only build a record of Pakenham’s contribution to this critical chapter in Australia’s history; they paint a vivid picture of our community and its personalities from a century ago.
This website and the associated book is the culmination of nearly two years research, much of which was undertaken online while I commuted to and from Melbourne each day for work. With many of the archival records and newspapers now available online, I could even turn the frequent delays on the Pakenham line into productive time! Through social media and online resources such as Ancestry.com.au, I was also able to connect with descendants and relatives of Pakenham’s Diggers as far away as Coffs Harbour, Brisbane, Perth and even Luxembourg! Without their generous assistance (and that of kindred historical societies and other organisations including the Pakenham Gazette), this website and the book would not have be as rich as they are, either in terms of information or photographs. It is truly amazing that a century after the end of the War, we are able to put faces to the names of over one hundred of those honoured on our memorials. On a personal level, one of the nicest things about undertaking a project like this is the joy (and excitement) it brings to the descendants and relatives of the Diggers. When someone says “thank you for telling me about a grandpa I never knew” or “I am glad Victor is getting his story told. It is quite moving”, it makes the effort involved in researching and writing these stories so worthwhile.
Berwick - Pakenham Historical Society
(1) Enlistment Statistics, First World War https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/enlistment/ww10)
About the author
Patrick Ferry is a professional archivist who is passionate about local history. He is a member of the Berwick - Pakenham Historical Society and the Narre Warren & District Family History Group. He is the author of St Patrick’s Pakenham: From the Wilds of the Australian Bush to Outer Suburban Melbourne 1866-2016 and Together as One: The St Patrick’s Pakenham WWI Honour Board. Patrick has also authored or contributed to a number of other historical publications. He holds a first class honours degree in Arts from the University of Sydney and was awarded the prestigious University of Sydney Medal upon graduation. Patrick is married to Janet and is the father of five children: Teresa, Cristina, Joe, Jaime and Justin. Patrick and his family have lived in the Pakenham - Berwick area for nearly 10 years.
A resource like this cannot be produced without the generous assistance of a large number of individuals and organisations, including the descendants and relatives of the Diggers themselves. Click here to view a full list of acknowledgements.
Grant funding from the Department of Veterans' Affairs
Publication of the book associated with this website was made possible through grant funding from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs under the Commonwealth Government’s Saluting their Service Commemorations Program. The Commonwealth has not participated in the research, production or exercised control over the activity or its contents. The views expressed and conclusions reached herein do not necessarily represent those of the Commonwealth, which expressly disclaims any responsibility for the content or accuracy of the activity.
Images reproduced on this website
Unless otherwise indicated, the images used in this book are from the Berwick - Pakenham Historical Society’s collection. Images from private collections are used with permission from the providers. Images from the Australian War Memorial and State Library of Victoria collections are in the public domain. Images from the National Archives of Australia collection are used with permission. Images sourced from the National Archives of Scotland, Museums Victoria and Art UK have been reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0). See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Corrections and updates
Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information presented in this book. However, it is impossible to produce a resource of this type without some inadvertent errors and omissions. Neither the author nor the Berwick - Pakenham Historical Society can accept responsibility for any such errors and omissions. We welcome feedback and additional information and photographs about the Diggers. Please contact us at BPHS1961@gmail.com
Corrections and additional information will be made via this website and the online version of the associated book.