Private Robert Harold Wilson
Pakenham & District War Memorial & Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour
Born: 1896 - Allansford, near Warrnambool Victoria
Enlisted: 3 February 1917 aged 20
Unit: 21st Battalion, 19th Reinforcement (SERN: 6909)
Served: Western Front
Died: 31 March 1925 - Berwick, Victoria
Robert was one of Thomas and Alice Wilson’s nine children. The Wilsons lived around Warrnambool in Western Victoria before moving to Gembrook West (Mount Burnett). Their property, “Strathallan”, had an orchard where the family grew mixed fruits, predominately apples, cherries and plums. In its time, “Strathallan” was regarded by some as one of the best orchards in Victoria (1). Glimpses of Robert’s childhood are contained in letters his sister Ruby had published in the Melbourne newspapers in the early 1900s. In these, she speaks of things Robert would have known well: the gullies and streams; the wildflowers in spring; the store at Gembrook West; church services held in a private residence; Empire Day celebrations and the three mile walk to school (2). Ruby also wrote of a major bushfire in 1906. The children were sent home from school, but fires began springing up along the roadside as they made their way home. The smoke turned the sun blood red and at one point the children had to put wet handkerchiefs over their faces in order to breathe. It must have been terrifying: “The fire got on the road before us, and we could hardly see for smoke. The fire kept dashing out in our faces, then we would hear some massive gumtree crashing down behind us ... my eyes were sore and red. I could hardly breathe. We were all choking and coughing. I thought I would faint for my head seemed to be bursting ... we made a rush. How we got out I don’t know ... (3).
In addition to orcharding, members of the Wilson family were involved in the local saw milling industry, including operating saw mills which produced apple cases for local orchardists (4). Robert himself was a 20 year old saw miller when he enlisted in February 1917. He was assigned as a private to the 21st Battalion, 19th Reinforcement at Royal Park, and embarked for England in May 1917. A few days after arriving there, Robert was admitted to hospital at Parkhouse suffering from mumps. After recovering and receiving further training, he was taken on strength with the 21st Battalion in France in November 1917. Robert was severely wounded in action on 4 July 1918 near Villers-Bretonneux. He sustained “several laceration wounds right forehead” which also affected his right eye (5). Robert was invalided to hospital back in England. His family back at Mt Burnett was advised that Robert had been severely wounded. The subsequent news that he was convalescing must have been a great relief to them. His wound left Robert with frequent headaches and he had to spend most of the day lying down. He was assessed as being temporarily unfit for both general service or home service for the next six months. This effectively ended Robert’s war. He was invalided back to Australia, arriving in late December 1918, then discharged from the AIF. Robert returned to “Strathallan” and later worked at the Pakenham Upper saw mill operated by his brothers Leslie and Horace. Robert’s brother in law, Les Wade (married to Ruby Wilson) also worked there (6).
On 31 March 1925, Robert was riding his bicycle to work with Les Wade when he was involved in a tragic accident on the Pakenham - Gembrook Road. As they were riding down hill, Les and Robert saw a car coming. The two bicycles may have been travelling 8 to 10 miles (13 - 16 km) per hour or more because they also had the wind behind them. Les successfully moved over to the left of the road to avoid the car, which was travelling at around 15 miles (24 km) per hour. However, when Robert tried to do the same thing, he skidded on the road and collided with the oncoming car. He was unconscious, badly injured and pinned under the car with his head and shoulders protruding (7). Robert was driven immediately into Pakenham, where Dr Douglas White examined him. He was still unconscious and suffering from “shock and collapse and had some severe wounds on the scalp down to the skull” and with only a feint pulse (8). Robert subsequently died of a brain haemorrhage while he was being driven to Berwick Hospital (9). There was a large funeral for Robert in Pakenham Cemetery, which the Pakenham Gazette described as “impressive” and a testimony “to the respect in which he was held throughout the district” (10). He was survived by his mother and siblings, including Ruby Wade. On the first anniversary of Robert’s death, his family placed In-memoriam notices in The Age newspaper. That inserted by Ruby and Les Wade paid tribute to their “dear brother and pal” (8).
The assistance of Wally Nye of Mount Burnett and Jan Shaw is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) The Leader 8/1/1910, p. 11
(2) WT 25/3/1905, p. 34 & 24/6/1905, p. 35.
(3) WT 7/4/1906, p.34
(4) SBMJ 25/12/1919 p 3 & Argus 6/10/1920 p. 8
(5) NAA B2455 WILSON R H
(6) & (10) PG 3/4/1925 p. 3
(7) & (8) PROV VPRS24/PO Unit 1069 Item 1925/345
(9) The Age 31/3/1926, p.1