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Pte AJ Mather and Christmas at Prowse Point Cemetery


frev

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blog-0779963001401769699.jpgAmong my list of things to see and do on the 2010 FFFAIF Tour of the Western Front, was to make sure I sighted and photographed the name of Alan James MATHER on the Menin Gate. A little sad that we’d be so close, and yet so far, and wouldn’t be able to attend his reburial on the 22nd of July – I whispered ‘welcome in from the cold’ to the eventually to be erased inscription.

 

Private Mather’s remains had been discovered at St Yvon (St Ives) in August 2008, during one of the ‘Plugstreet Project’ digs by the ‘No Man’s Land’ historical group, who were researching the Australian 3rd Division’s role in the Battle of Messines in June 1917. A year before, Andrew Pittaway & I had been fortunate to visit one of their earlier digs in the area near Ultimo Crater. So, although we hadn’t been there when the ‘unknown’ soldier was found, it was only natural to take an interest in his story.

 

Fortunately for Mather, DNA testing finally gave him back his identity in June 2010. Unfortunately for us, our plans were already well set in concrete and as suggested earlier, by the 22nd we were to be far away on the Somme.

My disappointment however was greatly alleviated, when on the 17th July, after visiting the Toronto Ave Cemetery for one of Andrew’s special commemorations of a 33rd Bn soldier, the decision was made to stop at the nearby Prowse Point Cemetery for lunch. A worthwhile decision at any time, for among the many beautiful & tranquil cemeteries that dot the Western Front, this is one of the exceptional ones. It is also unique in the sense that it’s the only cemetery on the Salient that is named for a soldier, Brigadier-General Charles Prowse – who as a British Major, made an heroic stand here in October 1914.

 

Anyway, I now had the chance to visit what would very soon become Mather’s final resting place. I felt there was little more I could do to pay my respects until perhaps my next visit to Belgium.

However, standing there in Prowse Point, Andrew & I began to ponder – why this cemetery? Having been killed during the Battle of Messines with the 33rd Bn, it seemed more appropriate that Mather should have been buried in Toronto Ave Cemetery, were 44 other members of his unit who’d died in the same battle were laid to rest. We decided it was probably the most practical solution though, as Toronto Ave was such a tiny secluded cemetery, it may have been a little difficult to open up a new grave & support the amount of visitors that would be in attendance at the reburial ceremony. It was perhaps also appropriate that he had been found at St Yvon, and this cemetery was on Rue St Yvon. Still, a shame though, not being with his mates, but perhaps he’d be in good company.

It was then that I pursued my usual tendency to become side-tracked, and check on his future neighbours. Resting right beside him would be Benjamin Gordon FRANCIS of the 27th Battalion, killed on the 8/1/1918. And in the row directly behind him, were two more 27th Bn men also killed on the 8/1/1918, as well as another four of the 27th Bn, all of whom died on Christmas Day 1917.

The four men killed on Christmas day were Privates Vivian Neville MAIN, Frank CULLEN, John Joseph McGUIRE & Charles John ‘Bull’ JENNINGS.

 

After a 10 day stint, the 27th Battalion had been relieved from the lines on Christmas Eve & marched back to the Romarin Camp. The next morning they woke to a white Christmas, for it had snowed during the night. They were allowed to rest during the morning, but later that afternoon a large fatigue party was sent back to the forward area, and these four men had been allocated to one of the wiring parties to lay wire in front of the new support line. The work was almost complete around 9pm when the Germans, possibly noticing movement against the white background, shelled them with high explosives. One shell caught all four men, and three others were wounded in the shelling. They were all carried back behind the lines, where the four dead were buried together the following day.

 

It’s interesting to note that the cemetery actually came into existence the month after Prowse’s stand, in the November of 1914, and then the following month was witness to the 1914 Christmas Truce between British & German soldiers. Just a little way along Rue St Yvon, towards St Yvon itself, can be found a memorial cross to mark the occasion. This was placed here by the ‘Khaki Chums’ in 1999 on the 85th Anniversary of the Truce – at the end of their own Christmas spent here in the cold & mud & rain of Flanders, to raise money for ex-service charities. Eleven years later, the cross, which the ‘Chums’ had never meant to be permanent, is still in good condition owing to the care it has had from the locals.

 

Unfortunately there was no truce on the 25th December 1917, and it was to be Pte Main’s first and last Christmas away from home. Neville, as he preferred to be called, had enlisted in the March of 1916, but hadn’t sailed for England until the 24/1/1917, 4 months after the death of his brother 2nd Lieut Eric Main at Mouqet Farm. Perhaps trying to emulate his elder brother, Neville had been training, studying, & working his way up through the ranks, eventually sailing as a provisional Sergeant. However, after more training and a short stint in hospital, he finally joined his unit at the front in the middle of November having reverted to the rank of private. A month later and May & Mark Main lost a second son to the war.

 

Pte Frank Cullen spent his first Christmas of the war on board the Afric, arriving at Plymouth on the 9th January 1917. A month later he was in hospital with acute bronchitis, and remained there for just over 3 months. In the July both he and Neville Main made their Wills, and when Neville became witness to his, neither man could have known just how entwined their fates would be. Frank proceeded overseas to France on the 25th September, 3 months to the day before that fatal Christmas, and joined the 27th Bn in Belgium on the 5th October. He was half way into his 22nd year on earth, when like Neville he passed on all his worldly goods to his mother.

 

Similar to Frank Cullen, Pte John McGuire was also at sea for Christmas 1916, but his ship the Berrima had only left Fremantle 2 days before – and he actually spent Christmas Day in the ship’s hospital. Having originally been rejected in October 1915 for not having any natural teeth, John had served his time as a Garrison Guard, until a loosening of requirements allowed him to enlist in the October of 1916. Arriving in England in the middle of February 1917, he managed to strike up a few minor offences before proceeding to France on the 14th June. Before he could join his battalion he experienced a couple of stints in hospital, eventually being taken on strength at the end of August 1917. John then served with the 27th for 4 months before Christmas took him. At the time of his death, his younger brother Patrick was fighting pneumonia in a Boulogne hospital, eventually being sent home 3 months later.

 

‘Bull’ Jennings was not only the longest serving and the oldest of the four, but he was also the only one married. A thick-set man, hence his nickname, he had enlisted in August 1915, but didn’t sail until the January of 1916. After a short time with his battalion in Egypt, they reached France towards the end of March. In October Bull came down with pleurisy and was sent to a hospital in England. He was released to the Weymouth Depot on the 5th December, and that’s where he spent his first overseas Christmas. His eventual return to France wasn’t until 2 months before the following Christmas, the one that was to be his last. Bull left behind a widow and two young sons.

 

Alan Mather’s next ‘door’ neighbour, Pte Benjamin Francis had survived that fatal Christmas day, only to meet a similar fate 2 weeks later. He had sailed on the Afric in November 1916 with Frank Cullen, but had proceeded to France in the April. After serving for 4 months he was returned to England in August with Trench Fever. Benjamin was still in England going through the re-training process when his four battalion mates were killed, but returned to France 2 days later. He rejoined the 27th Bn in the Romarin Camp in Belgium on the 1st of January, just as preparations where being made to return to the front line, which they did the following day. During the night of the 8th January, Benjamin together with Pte Victor Allen & Cpl Charles Melville Harry, formed a Liaison patrol, and were just returning from a visit with the battalion stationed to the right of the 27th Bn, when they were hit by a minenwerfer which killed all three men.

 

Cpl Charles Harry & Pte Victor Allen were not buried beside Benjamin but instead are buried in the row behind, alongside their Christmas Day mates. Pte Victor Allen had also sailed with the 17th Reinforcements on the Afric with Benjamin & Frank, and proceeded to France in April. A month later he was wounded in the leg during heavy enemy shelling on their front-line at Noreuil. Eventually returning through the hospital system to England, Victor was out of action until the start of November, when he once again rejoined the battalion in Belgium. His experience of the 1917 ‘white’ Christmas may not have been his first, as like so many members of the A.I.F., Victor had been born & raised in England.

 

Cpl Charles Harry was the only one of the soldiers mentioned here who was a 27th Bn original and a Gallipoli veteran. He experienced 3 war-time Christmases – the first on the isle of Lemnos after the Gallipoli evacuation before returning to Egypt. The second in camp in England where he was retraining after a stay in hospital, and the third at the Romarin Camp in Belgium – two weeks before his death. His parents William & Priscilla Harry would have found at least some consolation, when a few weeks after his death, his brother 2nd Lieut William Harry (MM) began his journey home to them, no longer fit to fight, but safe.

 

Friends are often telling me that everything happens for a reason, and so I’d like to believe that the real reason I was unable to attend Pte Mather’s funeral, was so that I’d be inspired to discover the stories of his new mates. And besides, from reports I’ve read and photos I’ve seen, it appears there were many well-wishers in attendance on the 22nd July, with the FFFAIF being represented and a wreath laid on behalf of members. Luck would also have it that some UK friend’s also visited in the following days, and sent me a photo showing the grave in all its floral glory. Pte Alan Mather will spend his first Christmas at Prowse Point Cemetery this December, surrounded by mates who he may not have known in life, but who shared similar experiences in those final days before death. No longer alone – he is in from the cold at last.

 

Heather (Frev) Ford, 2010

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