It's A Long Way From Fighting In France 

When I was growing up I heard stories of my mother’s uncle, Reg Ellis, who had been killed on the Somme during the First World War. As I recall it was the younger generation that spoke of him. My grandmother never mentioned him and my grandfather was a silver haired man with a bristling moustache with little time for little kids. He died when I was six or seven and I only have fleeting memories of him. Reg was my grandfather’s older brother.A few years ago I found myself with a day off in London and decided to visit the Imperial War Museum (an amazing experience in itself) and while poking around the exhibits and gazing in wonder at the canvas and wire contraptions that people used to fly around in and shoot at each other I suddenly remembered the stories of Reg. I decided to look him up.
I casually wondered up to the computer screen, typed in his name and there he was, “Private Reginald Ellis, 27th Infantry Battalion AIF, killed in action, Flers, France, November 1916, no known grave”. I felt a huge surge of emotion rush through me and tears started running down my face. There was this boy, just turned 18, lost somewhere in the mud on the Somme and so far from home he may as well have been on the moon.
I started researching Reg when I got home and progressively learnt more about Reg’s story. A story repeated may thousands of times during that horrific war.
I have a friend who once told me he became so obsessed with researching dead relatives that his wife accused him of paying more attention to his dead relatives than those that lived with him. I know what he means. I would hurry home from work, jump on line eager to uncover the next mystery lurking in the archives of the Australian War Memorial Records.
I learnt of another uncle, never mentioned, who had fought at Gallipoli, been wounded, repatriated in England, married an English nurse and returned to Australia to settle in Belmont, Geelong, the same town I grew up in, and I’d never heard of him. What was the story there?
In amongst all this sleuth work I discovered that Reg had joined up underage and had changed his name and lied about his age. His mother appears to have played a part in the deception. He started his service in the Bicycle Corp in Egypt, was transferred to France and joined the 27th Battalion as a soldier mid 1916.
He was killed in the ill fated attack on German lines near the town of Flers on November 5th, 1916. There were two attacks that day, Reg’s battalion was in the first wave. They managed to capture German front line trenches but the conditions were so bad their rifles were clogged with mud  and they were easy targets for German snipers. In the first attack that day there were 208 Australian casualties, 819 in the second. There was another attack the next day and Reg’s body was identified by a soldier from the 26th Battalion, George Osbourne during that offensive. He retrieved Reg’s pay book and a few personal effects but had to leave the body as they were forced to retreat. George reported the finding in the following extract from the Australian War Memorial records.
“I found his pay book (produced) on the 6th Nov. 1916 on his body. He had been killed by a sniper in the trenches we captured opposite Flers. His body was left there as we had to evacuate the trench the same day. I only identified the body from the paybook and some letters. Ellis’s mother address is :- Mrs Rachael Ellis, Horsham, Victoria”
George’s unit was from Bundaberg and he was about 26 when he found Reg’s body. I imagine a tough warrior, hardened by years working in the sugarcane fields. I feel a sense of gratitude towards him for taking the time to look after poor young Reg and to see news got to his family. George survived the war and the last entry in his file is a letter politely requesting the medals he feels entitled to for his war service. The letter was dated 1967.
Perhaps the most moving document I found  was the enlistment papers for my grandfather, Harold Ellis, who joined up in 1918. We had understood that he had been too young to join up or that he’d had a bad heart or something but he did join up. His enlistment papers include signed permission from his father who noted that he had two sons already in the services, one killed in action and the other wounded and recuperating in England. My father told me that, as a result of so many families losing sons, legislation had been introduced requiring parental permission for a third son to enlist. And my great grandfather gave the nod!
As things turned out Harold had just completed his training when the war ended. Things may have been so different had he gone to the Western Front…..

This song is my attempt at telling the story of Reg and George. I hope it does justice to both of them and I hope you like it.
Reg Ellis

2 comments

  • Billy Dettmer

    Billy Dettmer Frankston

    Great story champ.. We'll done.

    Great story champ.. We'll done.

  • Rich

    Rich Ocean grove

    Loved hearing this song with the Heartstrings at Queenscliff. It is that steering between the real pain of a life story, and 'Digger' schmaltz -- I think you really do it here.

    Loved hearing this song with the Heartstrings at Queenscliff. It is that steering between the real pain of a life story, and 'Digger' schmaltz -- I think you really do it here.

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