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The Macumber Brothers


frev

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blog-0130080001402038929.jpg[Photo of Bill Macumber]

 

Inglewood in central Victoria sprung into existence during the gold rush in 1859 as the surrounding district provided rich pickings for many a determined prospector. The Macumber brothers, Bill and Sam were born in the area long after the gold had petered out, but that didn’t deter them from trying their luck. They also worked as timber-cutters, which probably supplemented their meager earnings from prospecting. Four years separated them in age, Bill being the eldest born in 1890, but at the outbreak of war it was Sam who tried to enlist first.

 

Far from being a tall bronzed Aussie, the fair skinned Sam only stood 5 foot 4inches tall, and the army didn’t want him unless he was at least 2 inches taller. Not to be beaten, he tried a second time, and on the 28th of November 1914, a week after his 20th birthday, Samuel Phillip Macumber enlisted in the AIF. The decision to accept him was strange in more ways than one; first because the height requirement wasn’t reduced to 5’ 2” until June 1915 and second because Sam actually had two fingers missing from his right hand. Having lost his index & middle finger at the age of 11 months, Sam had still learnt to use a gun, and convinced the army that he’d “lived by the use of the gun, shooting game – ducks, hares etc”. His 3 years serving in the Citizen Forces probably also stood him in good stead.

 

With 5 months of training under his belt, Sam embarked on the A56 Palermo on the 7th May 1915, as Trooper 949 with the 5th reinforcements of the 4th Light Horse Regiment. Sailing via Egypt he joined his unit (minus horses) on the 5th of August at Ryrie’s Post, Anzac. A month later, suffering with dysentery and rheumatism he boarded the hospital ship Neuralia which deposited him in Malta. Having ‘inadvertently’ added a couple of weeks to his stay on Gallipoli, he wrote the following letter home during his confinement in hospital. Dated the 15/9/1915:

 

“I had about six weeks in the firing line, and saw some good fighting by the Australians. We got one trench off the Turks at a place called Lone Pine. It was one of the worst places I have ever been in, as when we were not fighting the Turks the stench from their dead was enough to give us fever. We hung to it, and filled up the trench we captured, while the Turks filled it up eight yards further along. When we moved about the ground used to spring up and down with the dead bodies. I have had a few narrow escapes, but we see marvellous escapes every day. One night I got a bayonet through my tunic, and next morning while I was observing got one [a bullet] through the turned-up side of my hat. I think I was very lucky, as the badge in the hat got broken but turned the bullet. This is nothing to the luck some fellows have in escaping with their lives. One night we were having a bomb fight, and a six pounder fell between a chap’s shoulders and burst, but only blew the back out of his coat without injuring him. I will be glad when I am back having another go. We have just finished dinner, and it is great not to have to duck and dodge about from shells when we are eating. I will describe a little thing that happened one night in Gallipoli. We had half a Turks’ trench in our possession, the Turks still holding the other half. The space between us was anything from four to seven yards. About 11pm they got a machine gun in their trench and started cutting out our end – which we had done up with sand bags to prevent them rushing over if they charged us – with bullets. I was relieved at 11, and allowed to have a lie down, but at about 11.30 our sergeant came around and, waking my mate and me, told us to go on observing as the observers and bomb throwers had been shot. We scrambled up to go, but when we came to the turn a corporal told us that the machine gun had cut the end out of our trench and was sweeping it clean. At first we didn’t know whether to go forward or not, but then said we would chance it, as we were told to do so by our head. We laid down on our stomachs and dragged ourselves along to the end that had been destroyed, a lance-corporal coming with us. Meanwhile the bullets were whistling down the trench over our heads at the rate of about 600 a minute, and we also had to contend with the bombs they threw. We got there and built a new end, but when it came daylight I could not understand how we had done it, as the bullets must have been everywhere round us, the trench being only about 2ft wide.”

 

The above incident, which took place on the night of the 22nd of August in the Lone Pine trenches, was also noted in the 4th LH Unit History. However, the only men referred to are L/Cpl Tom Roberston (481) and Cpl Len Gooding (720), both of whom received mentions in dispatches for their part in volunteering to rebuild the sandbag wall.

Sam never returned to Gallipoli, he was one of the 70 Australian invalids picked up at Valetta on the 5th of October by the Kanowna, on her first voyage home from England in her new role as a hospital ship. Travelling via Egypt where some last minute refits were carried out and more patients embarked, they finally set sail again on the 20th. Landing in Melbourne on the 22/11/1915, Sam was then discharged on the 16/2/1916. He had been invalided home medically unfit, not only because of rheumatism & dysentery, but also because it was considered that due to the ‘crippled state of his right hand he is not fit for active service.’

 

Three days after Sam had left Australia’s shores in May 1915 his brother Bill had also enlisted. Bill too was a small man, the same height as Sam, but he was dark with black curly hair. Less than a week after Sam landed at Gallipoli, Pte 2414 George William Macumber (Bill) embarked with the 7th reinforcements for the 14th Battalion on the RMS Persia. Bill & Sam would have been in Egypt at the same time for nearly 2 weeks, but whether Bill had the chance to visit his brother on the hospital ship while it lay in port at Alexandria is probably unlikely.

 

After joining his unit on the 23rd of October on the Isle of Lemnos where they were recuperating, Bill finally landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula at the beginning of November as the 14th Bn returned to their old trenches at Durrant’s Post.

Far from having been at ‘the Landing’, as his (future) eldest son believed when he applied for his father’s Gallipoli medallion in 1967, Bill was soon to be taking part in the Evacuation. Surviving the following 7 weeks as the miserable winter set in, he returned to Lemnos with his battalion on the 18th of December and to Egypt after Christmas.

While waiting to embark on the next leg of his war service, Bill was a casualty of the re-arrangement of the battalions, and found himself transferred into the newly formed 46th Bn (sister battalion to the 14th). He also spent a week in hospital with a fever – a reaction to an inoculation, and another 2 weeks with the mumps. Eventually, on the 3/6/1916 the 46th Bn set sail for France. Meanwhile back in Australia, Sam had managed to re-enlist on the 18th of March, but was again discharged medically unfit 6 months later.

 

Having survived Pozieres, the 46th Battalion’s next major battle was to be their attack against the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt on the 11th April 1917. Bill was also very lucky to survive this disaster, and later that year while in England, wrote a little about it to his parents:

“Things over in France are still going strong, and the Australians, as usual, are up to their necks in it. We have been in some battles in France, and I do not like the idea of going back and facing it again. I know well that I can never stand another winter in the trenches. The Bullecourt stunt, when we broke Hindenburg's line, fixed me up. I was lying out in Fritz's barbed wire for twelve hours, and could not move a single muscle. It snowed all the time, and we had about six inches of snow on us. I was only about 20 yards off his trench all the time. That was where we got to when he counter attacked and drove us back. I can tell you I thought it was all over with me, and my thoughts went back to the old homestead and faces I love. Fritz took [censored] of the Australians prisoners that day, and the ground was strewn with the dead. How I escaped from being taken prisoner or shot I do not know. I have seen some awful sights, things that no man could look on, but one thing I can honestly say and that is I always kept my post. I was recommended in the Messines stunt for bravery whilst under shell fire, but so far I have not heard much more about it. But that does not worry me.”

 

After his ordeal on the wire, when ‘387 of his mates were either killed, wounded or [taken] prisoner’, Bill spent 2 weeks in hospital with influenza. And then came the successful Messines stunt. While the 46th was mainly held in reserve, Bill was one of 50 other ranks detached to the 45th Bn as carrying parties during their advance. He was recommended for the Military Medal for gallantry during the 7-9 June, and the reason he heard no more of it, was because the award was not forthcoming.

 

Yet he was rewarded in a sense, being sent to England on the 12/7/1917 where he was attached for duty with various Training Brigades and Schools of Instruction. During this period he met Eleanor Mangin (known as Nellie) and they were married in the December of that year. Nellie had an infant son, who as noted earlier, grew up believing his ‘father’ had been in the original Landing at Gallipoli. Taking time out from instructing others, Bill attended a course at the Tidworth School of Musketry between the 17/1 & the 16/2/1918, and qualified 2nd Class with full working knowledge of the Lewis Gun. His inevitable return to France came on the 8th of May and he rejoined his battalion in the line North East of Villers-Bretonneux a few days later.

 

Sam was definitely keen to share in the action with his brother, as in April he attempted to enlist for overseas service yet again, and was rejected once more. A week later on the last day of April 1918 he finally admitted defeat and enlisted for Home Service with the 3rd District Guard.

 

The 46th Bn were in and out of the line participating in the practice of peaceful penetration, when 2 months after rejoining them Bill was slightly wounded, but remained at duty. This was followed by the ‘big push’ which began on the 8th of August and after gaining their objectives the 46th were relieved on the 10th, but found themselves back in the line near Lihons on the 15th. The enemy continually harassed them, their artillery perfectly ranged to what had previously been their own trenches, and it was on the 19th of August during a particularly heavy bombardment that Bill coped a ‘blighty’ that possibly saved his life.

 

Nursing his leg wound, he traveled through the hospital system and was admitted to the 1st Birmingham War Hospital at Rednal on the 24th. Three days later, Sam was discharged from Home Service, but this time at his own request, and this was effectively the end of the war for the Macumber brothers. Bill was discharged to furlo (from hospital) a couple of days after the armistice, and then waited out his time in the camps, until eventually on the 3rd July 1919 together with Nellie and young Jack, he boarded the family ship Zealandic for home. Bill and Nellie had another 3 sons, and along with Jack, all 4 served during the 2nd World War. Sam married Maria Hobbs in 1927, but by 1931 they were living separately and Sam later remarried (to Miriam).

 

The Macumber brothers continued prospecting around Kingower (in the Inglewood district) for a few years after the war, searching for wolfram (tungsten), feldspar and other rare minerals. Failing to strike it rich, they eventually downed tools and moved to Melbourne, Sam finding employment as a wire worker and then a brewery worker, and Bill doing labouring work until he took on the position as gate-keeper with the railways, on the Brunswick line.

 

In the early 1950’s Bill and Sam read with great interest that uranium had been discovered in northern Australia, and they were reminded of some unusual granite outcrops they’d come across around Kingower. Following a hunch, they returned to their old diggings with Geiger counters. Finding high radioactivity, they formed a syndicate with a few mates and took up a mineral lease over an area of 8,000 acres. Having sunk various shafts with very high readings in a couple of them, they were convinced they had a rich find. They called in the State Government, and in April 1954 the chief Government geologist began a detailed survey of the area. As the news broke that uranium had been discovered in Victoria; almost a hundred years after it had come into prominence during the gold rush, the area around Inglewood once again hummed with enthusiastic prospectors. Unfortunately, although of high quality, the uranium wasn’t in large enough quantities to make it commercially viable to mine, and the brothers once again returned to life in the city.

 

The final resting place for the Macumber brothers is the Springvale Botanical Cemetery, but they are also remembered on the Inglewood & District Soldiers Memorial. Bill died in early April 1961 and is buried in the Simmons Lawn, where Nellie joined him in 1967. Sam also died in 1967 and his cremated remains were interred in the Dodonaea Wall.

 

Endnote: Bill and Sam were the sons of George Ellerton MACUMBER and Elizabeth PRYSE. Their cousin Alexander Leslie Pryse (481) DOW 15/7/1916, after receiving a shell fragment in his back whilst the 57th Bn were preparing for their part in the Battle of Fromelles.

 

Heather (Frev) Ford, 2011

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