The tragedy, triumph of 1917 remembered

Lisa Martin
(Australian Associated Press)

 

One day, one family, three sons, all dead.

That’s how Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson summed up the agony of William and Fanny Seabrook from Petersham in Sydney’s innerwest after events in the Battle of Passchendaele or Third Ypres in Belgium.

One hundred years ago they had given to war three sons – George, Theo and William.

William, a lieutenant, was hit by a phosphorous shell that killed or wounded the full section of the platoon he was leading.

As William was being stretchered from the battlefield, George and Theo were killed instantly when hit by a single artillery shell.

A short time later, William died.

In the breast pocket of his tunic was a photograph of his mother.

“The fragment that killed him had gone through the photo,” Dr Nelson told the National Press Club on Wednesday during an address focused on the tragedy and triumph of 1917.

George and Theo’s bodies were never found, and their parents never recovered from the heartbreak.

“My husband is a complete wreck … raving about our three boys and has delusions … please pardon me for telling you all these things, but I have no one to confide in,” Mrs Seabrook wrote in a letter to her member of parliament.

The Battle of Passchendaele opened on July 31, 1917 and ended on November 10. By that time, the five Australian divisions had withdrawn from the line, with 38,000 casualties, including 12,000 dead.

For Australia, 1917 was by far the worst year of WWI. The more than 21,000 dead were one-third of all Australians killed in the four-year conflict.

Dr Nelson drew on the poetic battlefield reporting of Charles Bean.

“Many a youngster when he was hit out there at Passchendaele … in his last few minutes of life, when he knew that the end had come .. thought … ‘well .. at least they’ll remember me in Australia’,” he wrote.

Dr Nelson choked back tears while reflecting that from this worst year, we emerged with a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

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