The War Time Story of My Great Great Grandfather
On the night of Tuesday October 12, 1915, 23 year old farmer James Gerald Cameron sat down to write a short, one page letter to his sister. It was raining and he likely balanced the sheet of paper on his knee, as the pencilled lines and uneven words wander and dip across the page.
The tone is at once consoling, a little apologetic, but determined.
Just a short note hoping to find you quite contented. If I thought you were all contented about me, I would be the happiest man alive. The King himself could not be treated better…
Don’t forget to cheer mother up as well as you can, I am only doing my duty as a man is bound to do… I can’t write you a long letter and I am too tired, and we have just got orders to go to bed.
Say goodbye to poor old Jess for me when she comes home.
This last line referred to his love interest, Jessie May Fenton, whom he had suddenly left, to go to war.
The previous Friday, Jim, as he was known to friends and family, had found himself in a patriotic town meeting in Gilgandra, NSW, where a local plumber William T Hitchen, hatched an idea: a recruiting march of volunteers to Sydney. It would be a “snowball march”, collecting more volunteers from towns along the way. Jim was in town that night from his family property in Mendooran, and decided to join them. He then rode home forty miles to tell his family of his decision, and after riding 40 miles back, he was ready to take his place with his comrades on the Sunday morning.
On the day he wrote that letter, he was 50km into the march and had already signed up with the Australian Imperial Force. At Moriguy, that wet Tuesday, Jim took the oath “I James Gerald Cameron, swear that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force from October 12, 1915, until the end of the War, and a further period of four months thereafter, unless sooner lawfully discharged, dismissed or removed therefrom: and that I will resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained; and that I will in all matters appertaining to my service, faithfully discharge my duty according to law. So Help Me God.”
Jim was issued with the service number 4747 and joined the 15th Reinforcements of the 13th Battalion. He was assigned the rank of acting corporal.
But first, he and his growing band of new comrades had to complete their long walk – now dubbed the ‘Coo-ee March’, for the calls they let out at each new town. They would tramp nearly 515km, stopping at 28 towns. The march received great publicity, resulting in new recruits from other towns including Warwick in Qld, Maitland in the Hunter Valley and the NSW South Coast. Though only 1500 men marched in total, they were credited with inspiring up to three times that number of men to enlist.
After reaching Sydney to densely packed streets and wildly cheering crowds on November 12, the 263 men that comprised the band of ‘Coo-ees’ were entrained to Liverpool, and the first great stage of their journey to the battle-front ended.
Jim joined the reinforcements for the 13th Battalion, which had been formed in NSW. With the 14th, 15th and 16th battalions, it formed the 4th Brigade, commanded by Colonel John Monash, who was destined to become the most illustrious of Australia’s World War I commanders.
Jim had four months of hard slog at Liverpool, but managed to leave camp at least once, to return to Gilgandra, where he was one of a group of marchers given a public reception in the Australian Hall.
The men were presented with wrist watches by Mr A F Garling who said “That though not a Gilgandra man, Jim had been filled with ambition to join their march, riding 80 or 90 miles to do so. The next day he took his place in the ranks and marched to Balladoran. That was the stuff of which VCs were made, and he trusted he would win one.”
On March 8, 1916, Jim embarked from Sydney on the troopship Star of England which took five weeks to reach Egypt, arriving in Port Said on the morning of April 10. They were taken ashore to camp at Tel-el-Kebir, however Jim had fallen ill during the latter part of the voyage and ended up at the Australian Stationary Hospital with the mumps.
Jim wrote to his sister on April 18 “We are on the sandy deserts at last, it is not much of a place to be either, a man is nearly starved half the time.” But he added that he was “now getting splendid tucker because he was in hospital with the mumps.”
After this, Jim was transferred to the 4th Division Cyclists’ Training Corps. Many new divisions were created in the AIF’s expansion to accommodate 40,000 troops from Australia and NZ after Gallipoli. A week after this, Jim was promoted to acting lance corporal and on the 8th of June, he and the rest of the cyclists boarded a ship for France, and upon arrival he was transferred to the 1st Anzac Cyclists Battalion on the French-Belgian border. From there, the unit began a five day move to Vignacourt and then onto Contay, about 90km to the south near Amiens.
As a cyclist, Jim carried the same Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) .303 rifle as all did AIF soldiers. He would attach it to either the down tube of his bike or swing it across his back.
After a lot of riding, passing through some of the best country in France, away from the shells and gas, these duties did not agree with Jim, who had enlisted with determination to fight, as a letter to his sister on July 1 makes clear:
Just a line to tell you I am still doing alright, I have not got into the firing line yet, I feel like a cold foot after being in camp so long. I am further off than ever now. I have been promoted to the rank of sergeant and have charge of the cyclist company on my own, so I have a fairly responsible job and plenty to do too. I am getting in men that have been sent from Australia without any training and they take a lot of knocking into order too, some of them.
But he would soon get his wish. By late August he was at the 4th Divisional Base Depot and on August 26th he was marked for transfer to the 45th Infantry Battalion. By the end of the war, 3665 men would pass through the ranks of the 45th – 690 of them would die, 1701 would be wounded in action or gassed and 31 would become prisoners of war.
On 31st August Jim marched out to join the unit and was taken on strength on the 3rd of September. “Taken on strength” was the military term to indicate a unit’s obligation to pay, feed and clothe a soldier.
The 45th Battalion had arrived in France on June 8 and had initially been sent to a quiet sector near the Belgian border. But by August 1, it was on the Somme, enduring a hurricane of shell fire and beating off several counter-attacks in the trenches near Pozieres.
They were in and out of trenches for a few months, and at some stage, Jim was admitted to the 12th Australian Field Ambulance after twisting his right knee and displacing the cartilage. But he wasn’t out of action for long, re-joining the Battalion a week later in the trenches.
In November of 1916, the worst winter France had experienced in 35 years settled in, the men were in the front line near Gueudecourt. The troops suffered indescribable discomforts and hardships from the rain, mud, frost and snow. Strenuous efforts were made to alleviate their misery by sending up hot meals and dry socks every night. ‘Tommy cookers’ were issued, so that hot drinks could be made in the trenches and every morning at stand-down, there was an issue of rum.
By January 1917, the 45th remained on the front line and conditions were desperate. The trenches were in a bad state, the slush was up to their knees and sickness, especially ‘trench feet’ increased rapidly. The bitter winter turned the battlefield, churned by shell fire, into a wilderness of mud.
Jim had another stint in hospital after lacerating his fingers during training while they were at Shelter Wood Camp, near Brestle in March, he also suffered frostbite on his left toe, and he embarked on the hospital ship Princess Elizabeth for England. He spent a couple of weeks there before being discharged on two week’s leave. He was then classified fit for an overseas training camp for ‘hardening’ before returning to the front line.
On the 20th June 1917, he sent a letter to his love, Jessie May:
Just a postcard to tell you I am still living and waiting anxiously for a letter from you. The last word I got was a birthday card, and my birthday was 6 months ago, but never mind dear, they say that no news is good news, so I will live in hope, if I die in despair. I will be going to France in four or five days, will write you again before I go. My poor mates have been cut up terribly since I left France and there has been about a thousand people killed here this last week or two by air raids, it is terrible to see the poor women and children being killed. Goodbye dearest, love from yours, Jim xxx
By July, he was back with the 45th Battalion in Belgium. He had missed the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt, when the 12th and 14th Brigades had been flung against that fortified village on the Hindenburg Line, suffering more than 3,300 casualties, with 1170 taken prisoner. The 45th had been in reserve and escaped a terrible toll. But in four days at the Battle of Messines – despite it being a decisive victory heralded by the explosion of 19 mines under German lines – his mates had indeed been “cut up”, with eight officers and 146 men killed and 350 wounded.
The Allied troops (including the Australian 1st and 2nd Division) spent the next few months fighting in horrendous conditions, advancing the front, and then being pushed back, with over 35,000 casualties. 10,000 of them Australians. The main objective was the ridge, from which German officers had looked out over the British salient (or bulge in the front lines) for two years.
On the morning of October 4, 1917, the Allies began their attack and when the call came for the troops to advance, all the Australians who could move, did so. However, the Germans had chosen the same morning to launch their own assault. The ensuing fighting was bitter, but the Australians advanced, gaining their first objectives early in the morning and moved onto their final objective on Broodseinde Ridge. The Australians’ success was echoed elsewhere by other Allied divisions and thousands of prisoners were taken.
There are many more stories of significant battles on the Somme that ensued over the next 11 months and during this time, Jim spent another few times in hospital, one for a “GSW” gun-shot wound, which was the catch all expression for damage caused by bullets, shrapnel, shells and bombs. Any GSW was serious, not merely because the physical impact of shattered bones and soft tissue damage, but also because there was a high risk of serious infection.
Jim was discharged to a convalescent training depot a couple of months later and by September he was back with his Battalion. He had missed another major battle, one of the most important of the war, at Amiens, but Jim would take his fighting chance six weeks later, when the 45th would take another 300 prisoners and artillery pieces in the Battle of Epehy.
By mid September 1918, the Germans were in retreat towards the Hindenberg Line. General Henry Rawlinson was determined to push on and clear the outposts on high ground in front of the line.
The attack began at 5.20am on September 18 with a concentrated creeping artillery of 1488 guns. The British on the Australian flanks soon ran into difficulties but the diggers had complete success. On a frontage of more than 5km, the four brigades (at less than half their nominal strength) advanced in three stages, the last of which would take them to the outpost line.
While the 48th cleared its objective, the 45th appeared on its summit, advancing in magnificent order. Its task was to seize the next and highest spur, along whose crest, three quarters of a mile ahead, lay the string of outpost trenches.
That spur was an ancient mound and German machine guns had been expected to open here, but the British company on the flank reached it ahead of the 45th, and it was from the trenches farther on, that fire came. The British were stopped but the 45th pushed on, still so disorganised that the line of posts on the hilltop and several hundred prisoners were taken with little resistance.
An expected barrage from guns on the Hindenberg Line had not descended, but on the right near the hilltop, the teams of a German battery of medium Howitzers tried to limber up and withdraw the guns, some machine-gunners firing to protect them. A platoon of the 45th at once pushed forward its Lewis guns, shot the teams and machine-gunners and captured guns and crews.
The leader of that platoon was Jim.
His courage and leadership would win him the Distinguished Conduct Medal which, second only to the Victoria Cross, was awarded to all other ranks for exceptional bravery.
The medal was created by Queen Victoria in 1854, for “distinguished conduct in action in the field’, and entitled its recipients to add the letters DCM to their name.
Jim would be recommended for the DCM on September 25. The recommendation read:
“For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during the attack west of Bellenglise on 18th September 1918. He was scout Non-Commissioned Officer. On the Battalion reaching the Objective he took forward an exploiting patrol with a Lewis gun. He came in touch with three 5.9 Howitzers and their crew. He rushed the crews, six of the enemy being killed and 14 captured. The horses were killed and owing to this, the guns were captured.”
The Battle of Epehy cost the 45th Battalion 74 casualties, including 10 killed, out of a total Australian loss of 1260 men (265 killed). A significant loss, given their already depleted numbers. The Australians were exhausted and also tired of having to relieve the British failing on their flanks.
Epehy was the Battalion’s last fight and the last time it would be in the front line. On October 12, Jim was promoted to temporary company sergeant major, the full promotion coming through on November 8. At that time, the Battalion were billeted at Pissy, near Amiens. It would be there, three days later, when the war ended.
It would be six months later, on the 8th of May, 1919 that Jim finally embarked on the troop ship Devanha, bound for home.
Jim eventually married his love interest – my Great Grandmother, Jessie May Fenton from the Gilgandra district. She had indeed waited for him. They settled in the Dunedoo area where they produced six children, one of them, my dear Nanna, Beatrice, who is my Dad, Dennis’ mum.
Jim was very handy with his fists and won 2nd position in the 45th Battalion Light Heavyweight championships during the long spells in the training camps. As if they didn’t do enough fighting!
The war years took their toll on Jim, and he found it difficult to settle back into domestic life, with hard drinking and fighting in the shearing camps putting pressure on his young family. Eventually they moved to Sydney, in an attempt to settle Jim and raise their family in a more stable environment.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Jim attempted to re-enlist, but was rejected due to his age and health.
Not to be deterred, Jim enlisted in the US Navy as a cook, serving in the Pacific on board small transport ships.
Jim’s two eldest sons, Max and Arnold enlisted for duty in the same conflict, with Arnold serving with a distinction in New Guinea and later as part of the Occupational Forces in Japan.
Following the end of WW II, Jim and Jess, along with their youngest children May and John, moved to Queenscliff to work with his daughter Beatrice and her husband Walter Richards as a short order cook in the family restaurant – Tenby Café.
Jim died in 1946, aged 54, from a heart attack and was interred in the Queenscliff Cemetery at Point Lonsdale in Victoria. He was later joined in the same grave site by his beloved Jessie May, who survived him by some 30 years without remarrying.
Special acknowledgement to Australian Associated Press and Mediality for allowing me to use some of the content created in the Australian War Stories book about Jim Cameron, published in 2016 and also acknowledgement of photos used from the The Coo-ee March book, by John Meredith.
A wonderful tribute to James Gerald Cameron. Beatrice would have been so thrilled to know her grandchildren continued the legacy of her beloved father who she was so proud of and I’m sure you inherited the “gift” of writing from the Cameron side of the family.💕 I sent it on to Justin as he is always interested in James Gerald Cameron.
A friend of Justin’s was at Dubbo RSL a couple of years ago and they had listed in a magazine the Coo-ees. James Cameron was not listed just like he was missing from the original plaque with a few others in Gilgandra.
Sent from my iPad