Wednesday, 11 June 2014

When those left behind can’t cope


Occasionally I stumble over a family situation that adds another level of sadness to the World War One story.
In the past week I’ve been researching the seven soldiers from Coburg with the surname Davis. The first hurdle was to identify them all, because there are 999 men with the surname Davis listed on the embarkation rolls! I still cannot identify two of the men on my list, but I now have a clearer idea of who the others were. Three of them were cousins, one enlisted in Western Australia (although he was born in Coburg) and the other is the subject of this post.
2961 Private John William Davis, 9th Reinforcements, 5th Infantry Battalion, embarked on 10 September 1915. He was an old boy of Coburg State School and belonged to the congregation of the Coburg Methodist Church. Prior to enlistment he had been a Senior Cadet in the 49th Battalion for one and a half years and had served in the 60th Infantry Citizen Forces, North Melbourne for three years.

When he enlisted, he named his father Charles of 50 Munro Street, Coburg as his next of kin. However, by February 1916, his allotment was being paid to his step-mother Christina because his father was by then an inmate of the Kew Lunatic Asylum

Kew Lunatic Asylum, mid 1880s. Photographer Charles Nettleton. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria. Image H82.246/2.

The Kew Asylum Register (Available online from the Public Record Office of Victoria website) reveals that 65 year old Charles Davis was admitted to the Asylum as early as 3 October 1915, less than a month after his son left for the front. He was suffering from ‘mania’ and the cause given was ‘fretting about his sons going to war’. By that stage he had been unwell for two weeks already and I can imagine the distress in the household as John prepared to go to war knowing he was leaving his step-mother Christina behind to cope with his father’s fragile mental state. (Charles junior was living in Sydney.)
Things did not improve. Charles remained in the Kew Asylum and died there on 9 September 1916, almost a year to the day after John’s departure for the front. I wonder whether Charles knew that his son John received shrapnel wounds to his arms at Armentieres on 22 July 1916. There would scarcely have been time for the news to filter through, I think.
This family’s troubles did not end there, however. Although his wounds were not life threatening, John developed ‘wrist drop’ and was deemed medically unfit. He returned to Australia in February 1917 and lived for a short time with his step-mother at 34 Moreland Road, Coburg. I wonder, though, whether he was able to return to his trade as a mechanic or as a glass and china repairer, which was the other occupation stated on his war record. Unlikely, I think, given that he received a war pension on his return.

An example of the Memorial Plaque (often referred to as the Dead Man's Penny) found on Wikipedia.

At some stage after his return he married but the marriage was short lived as John died on 13 February 1921 aged only 26. His widow Kathleen remarried three years later. I have yet to discover a cause of death, but given that his widow received a Memorial Plaque and Scroll in his memory, his death must have been considered war related.

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