With war comes death – the ultimate understatement! Yet saturated by the carnage of man killing man, and of course the inevitable illness and disease that runs rife under such deplorable conditions – there is another form of death that can somehow appear fascinating – the accidental death.
What initially sparked this strange fascination in myself, many, many years ago, was while researching my Grandad’s war-mates, I came across the death notice of Alwyn Blake in 1922 – ‘result of an accident’. Alwyn [Gunner 4295 Alwyn Rex Blake] had lied about his age and enlisted in July 1915, just two weeks after his 17th birthday. He’d served on the Western Front with the 5th Division Ammunition Column, and the Trench Mortar Brigade – survived sickness and gas and returned home safe and sound mid-1919. He’d married that same year, and had his whole life in front of him, yet here he was mere weeks before his 24th birthday – dead as the result of an accident! I remember thinking to myself, ‘how unfair!’ – a strange thought really, for someone immersed in the endless unfairness of war in general.
Later, while trawling through reel after reel of microfilm, reading the ‘Inglewood Advertiser’ (Grandad’s local paper – which is now on-line!!) and transcribing every snippet of the war years – the fate of Frederick Fergus caught my attention. Sergeant Frederick Fergus (344) wasn’t from the local area, in fact he was actually from NSW, but having lost an eye at Gallipoli, had been invalided home, and while in Melbourne on the 23rd November 1915 had been crushed by a goods lift. Next I found during my research on Jim Sloan, (from a well-known and highly respected local family); that he’d died when his car had collided with a goods train at Inglewood on the 30th August 1960. Sergeant James Seaman Sloan (61691) had been a late enlistee in the war, landing in England 3 days after armistice.
The realisation soon hit me; that obviously I had the beginnings of a new database…
The Accidental Deaths Database consists of members of the Australian Forces, as well as Australians serving in Allied Forces and other capacities, who died as the result of accidents, both during and after WW1. It presently holds 1200 men and 8 women [April 2019]. With further research, some of these ‘accidents’ may eventually migrate into the Suicides Database which currently sits at 309 [April 2019], as in certain cases it is quite difficult to differentiate between the two.
Interspersed amongst the many plane crashes; drownings; bomb and shooting accidents and various types of run-ins with horses, trains & other vehicles – there were a host of other strange and unlucky accidents that befell our soldiers.
For instance there were the 2 men who were struck by lightning in 1916, Private John Wilkinson and Pte Alfred Brooke (1786). Pte Wilkinson, a Methodist Minister, was hit at the West Maitland Camp in NSW on the 3rd February, before he even had a chance to leave Australia; whereas Pte Brooke, a Gallipoli veteran, was struck on the 23rd June, 2 weeks after his arrival in France with the 16th Battalion.
Amongst those who were victims of the more common form of electrocution was another Brooke (no relation to Alfred), Pte Harold Clifford Brooke (1826). A skilled electrical mechanic with the 3rd Pioneers, he still managed to electrocute himself while cleaning a switchboard at No. 1 Power Station, Rue de Messines on the 9th January 1917. Electricity was also the catalyst in the demise of Sergeant Alfred William Askew (11199); also a mechanic. He actually died from a skull fracture after falling from a ladder following an electric shock, which he received whilst hanging Christmas lights in the December after armistice at the Transport Section’s Belgian camp.
Deaths due to skull fractures and brain haemorrhages were the result of many different types of accidents, quite often occurring whilst ‘under the influence', but not so in the following selection. Although the Scottish born Pte William Orr (3178) was quite sober when he fell from the rigging of his troopship Itonus on the 30th December 1915, it was noted that he had only himself to blame, as the men had been warned not to climb the rigging. Whereas the 19 year old Pte Joseph Haines (2253) had been a part of an organised popular sport, which resulted in his death in Egypt on the 5th March 1916, after being knocked unconscious in a boxing match the day before. L/Sgt Gerald Ryan (769), an original 14th Bn man was enjoying a day’s outing with other patients from an English hospital. Only moments after joining in the fun of sliding on ice, he fell hitting his head and died the following day, 6th February 1917. A late enlistee Pte Joseph Vincent Cicalese (5002), was unfortunate enough to have a spar fall on his head whilst sleeping on the deck of the troopship Ulysses, en route to England; he died 4 days later on the 7th January 1918.
Quite aside from the threat of torpedoes, troopships could be dangerous places as shown above. On board the Miltiades during a severe storm, Pte Arthur Gillies (4641) and Pte Joseph Lancelot Rowntree (2103) lost their lives when heavy seas broke across the ship, smashing one of the latrines and pinning them under the wreckage. Pte Gillies was killed on the spot on the 16th February 1916, while Pte Rowntree carried his injuries into the next day. James Sager, who enlisted as Sapper Daniel O’Brien (1768) was being invalided home to Victoria on the Runic in June 1917. En route while the ship was docked at Fremantle Harbour, he stuck his head through the port hole to talk with a lady on the wharf; and as the ship surged, one of the wire mooring ropes caught him under the chin, cutting his throat. While Corporal John Henry Ford (4398) of the 29th Bn sustained a broken spine during bathing parade on board the Afric on the10th December 1916, when he slipped head first into the canvas bath. Paralysed from the waist down, he finally lost consciousness before passing away in the early hours of the following morning.
Had he still been alive, Gunner Reginald Arthur Beard (2384) may have seen Pte Ford’s quick death as a mercy. But Gnr Beard had finally succumbed to his spinal injuries on the 11th July that year, exactly 19 months to the day after his own accident. Determined to be one of the first to climb the Cheops Pyramid, he had sealed his fate on the day of his arrival at Mena Camp on the 11th December 1914, falling from a height of 20 feet, and had languished incapacitated in hospital from there on.
Spinal injuries were also the cause of death in quite a few diving accidents, but one of note involved the selfless act of L/Cpl Ernest Poole (1018). A member of the Provost Corps, he died in England on the 14th June 1918; a few weeks after diving from a breakwater in France in an attempt to save a drowning, French child. Another act of gallantry that occurred in May 1918, involved Sgt David Emmett Coyne (3347), and a bomb. Having failed to clear the parapet with his Mills grenade, he threw himself on top of it in order to save the rest of his mates in the trench. Bombs that fell short like this, especially during training, where responsible for many deaths during the war, but this is believed to be the only case where the ‘bomb thrower’ was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal (in Gold) for his actions.
Of course bombs often had a habit of exploding prematurely, which also resulted in numerous deaths, but one of the less common situations where this occurred was during fishing expeditions. On this particular occasion the 13th Bn were out resting at Sailly Laurette on the 11th August 1918, and Sgt Thomas Baxter (3012) and Pte Arthur Bance (3147), together with their company cook Pte Edwin George (Ted) Headon (856), wandered down to the canal with their bomb in hand, no doubt with a good feed in mind. Tom Baxter and Ted Headon were killed outright, and Arthur Bance died of his injuries 2 days later.
There are cases of soldiers being blown up while disarming bombs, and setting camp fires atop buried shells; as well as picking up German ‘duds’, and dropping them again – only to find they were no longer ‘duds’. But probably one of the unluckiest deaths was when Pte Charles Lewis Pulford (265) was hit in the face by the base of a minenwerfer shell, which had apparently been sent flying while he was taking pot-shots at bottles 3 yards away with a salvaged German rifle.
The various other shooting accidents included men being shot by their own sentries, shooting themselves or others whilst cleaning guns or during firing practice – although Pte James Henry McGee (2753) managed to shoot himself on the 17th June 1916, without even pulling the trigger. Having placed his rifle on the fire step, it slipped & fired as he stretched to look over the parapet and the bullet entered his stomach & exited his neck. Pte Robert Henry Lamport (1739) was just one of the many poor victims of a careless mate. He was shot in the chest on the 14th August 1917 by Gordon Stanley Cannon (Pte 4402) who was attempting to clean an automatic pistol he’d souvenired from a dead German earlier that year.
It would seem that the first soldier of the AIF to be shot by one of their own sentries was the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Bn, Lieutenant Colonel George Frederick Braund. In the early hours of the 4th May 1915 Braund had set out for Company HQ, taking a short cut through the scrub rather than following the track. With Turks suspected of being behind every bush, the sentry had been quick to challenge and quick to shoot when there was no response. As Braund was known to be slightly deaf, it’s assumed that he probably didn’t hear the challenge, but the sentry was rightly excused of any blame.
One of the earlier deaths by drowning was that of Driver William Tanner (2719) of the Divisional Train, ASC. He was swimming his horse on the 17/4/1915 at Alexandria, when it appears that the horse must have floundered in deep water & rolled. Tanner was washed off its back and may have been struck by the struggling horse and stunned, as he didn’t resurface and his body couldn’t be found, though his mates dived and dragged with nets for some time. Another incident involving a soldier bathing his horse was actually that of a French soldier on the 15/6/1917 at Marakeb beach in Palestine. Losing his grip on the horse he was washed out to sea by the strong current. Many men, both French and Australian found themselves in difficulties during the hazardous rescue, and four bodies were eventually brought ashore, one of these being Trooper Walter George Smith (3131) of the 9th Light Horse.
Captain Benjamin Digby Gibson, the Medical Officer of the 9th LH also found himself a victim of the unpredictable seas. He went for his customary early morning swim on the 14th January 1917, and a short time later RoyAlbert Wheaton (Cpl 648) noticed his body floating 80 to 100 yards out. He immediately went to the rescue, and found that the waves & undertow were exceptionally strong that morning. The Captain was eventually brought ashore, but could not be resuscitated.
In a different theatre of war and nowhere near the coast, Military Medal winner Pte Vincent Thomas Stone (4246) was also a victim of drowning. In Belgium on the 15th January 1918 during the early morning hours of darkness, he was guiding a ration party up to the line; he himself carrying the rum issue. On the parties return to HQ it was noticed that Stone was missing, and upon searching for him he was found in a shell hole nowhere near the original track, having drowned in the water accumulated therein.
As shown by some of the examples listed so far, accidents are often the result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time; and similar to Privates Gillies & Rowntree who fell-foul of a latrine in a storm, Pte Robert Donaldson Yule (2339) was the victim of a storm-rampant tree limb. In the early hours of the 4th February 1916, the Fraser’s Hill Camp in Enoggera, Qld, was battered by a cyclonic storm, and as Yule and his tent mates battled to hold their tent from being blown away, he was the unfortunate soul standing right in the limb’s path. It could be said though that Driver Edwin George Chave (1957) caused his own fate when he was hit by the limb of a falling tree on the 14th March 1917. Part of a fatigue party felling trees for firewood, he ran to retrieve his coat from a stump in its path, and although dodging to avoid being hit, was a little off in his judgement. Unconscious, but still alive when carried away, the whole incident must have been very distressing for his brother, William Frederick Chave (Dvr 1961), who was a member of the same fatigue party. Edwin died 2 days later.
Trooper William Gray (1730) was another who tempted fate when he made his bid for freedom from the Citadel Detention Barracks in Cairo on the 7th June 1917. Little more than a week after he’d been sentenced to 120 days of hard labour for helping himself to a bottle of whisky from the officer’s mess, he broke his neck as he jumped from the barrack ramparts. Another Light Horseman who was extremely unlucky was Tpr Daniel James Campbell (282). Having procured a lift on a wagon, he was returning to his regiment from hospital on the 21st April 1917, when he noticed some horses being led nearby. Jumping from the wagon he ran towards them calling “That’s my pony”, when he suddenly disappeared down a well. He died from his injuries the following day. Hidden wells weren’t the only danger the men had to contend with in Palestine as Tpr John Haynes (1424) discovered on the 21st May 1918 when he was bitten by a snake. He too didn’t last through another day.
In regard to Light Horsemen, it’s only natural that there were various deaths involving horses – being kicked by them, falling from them – or even having their horse fall on them, as happened to Tpr Vivian Murry Barber (2249). Only moments after mounting, his horse reared up & then fell backwards, pinning Tpr Barber under him and rupturing his stomach. He died on the 1st of November 1916, two days after the accident. Bolting horses also caused various accidents; Tpr George Letts (1053) of the 4th LH was de-horsed by a tree branch after his horse bolted and he died from a fractured spine 13th November 1916.
But it wasn’t only Light Horsemen who lost their lives as a result of their connection to horses. Corporal Norman Edgar Matthews (157), though initially Light Horse, was serving with the Provost Corps and en route to Heliopolis 4th February 1917 with Cpl 892 William Henry Raines to quell a riot. When for no apparent reason, his horse suddenly swerved and collided with that of Cpl Raines. Cpl Matthews was thrown to the ground, and did not survive the head and chest injuries he received.
Sergeant Major Walter Middleton Bradwell (179) of the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade was also thrown when his spooked horse reared and then slipped on cobblestones. Unfortunately he fell head first on to the hook of a gun limber and died 7th April 1918 before reaching the nearest Casualty Clearing Station. Then there were the two Captains; Ernest Henry George Kemmis & Robert James Smith, killed when they came down in a crash during a sports-day horse race.
See ‘Death at the Races’ for their story
Another who fell from a horse was a 16th Bn man, Pte Robert John Batty (1673A). The batman of Lieutenant Malcolm John McGhie, he was returning McGhie’s horse to the stables when the animal took fright & Pte Batty lost control and his seat. However, his fatal injuries occurred due to his foot remaining lodged in the stirrup, as he was dragged through ‘brick heaps’ near the Cheppewa Camp, Belgium on the 11th October 1916.
Runaway horses also towed lethal weapons, such as the Cook’s cart which ran over the head and neck of Driver Alfred James Branford (1125) whilst he was encamped and sleeping on an embankment in France on the 7th July 1918. While Dvr Leonard Noweetsky (532) was crushed by a road making roller after it touched the heels of the horses towing it, and they bolted in fear, pulling him down in its path in January 1916. In Boulogne on the 2nd August 1917 Pte David Donald (6110) was en route to the UK on Leave, when he noticed a driverless horse & cart careering down the street towards him. On attempting to catch the horse he was crushed between the cart & wall and killed instantly.
There were of course, various types of Motor Vehicle accidents – involving cars, lorries and motor cycles – but one incident that I consider quite rare was between two vehicles without motors – it was a bicycle collision. Pte Robert Ernest Elliott (4767) and Cpl Ronald Menzies Saddington (7376) were cycling toward each other in the English town of Rickmansworth on the stormy evening of the 9th September 1918. Suddenly aware of their situation, they both wobbled to try and avoid the crash, but their reactions were too late. Pte Elliott hit the road hard, fracturing his skull & never regained consciousness.
Eleven days after Armistice, Sapper William Rawlings Bennetts Delbridge (20019) was also on a bicycle, and was riding in a convoy on the narrow Bohain to Mazinghien road in France. Congestion brought the traffic to a halt, and bunched up between the other cyclists he found it difficult to dismount. Overbalancing in his attempt, he fell between the wheels of a motor lorry going the other way.
2nd Lieutenant Robert John Stanley Finlayson of the 1st Tunnelling Company also had a run-in with a lorry in Belgium in June 1917. The lorry driver was passing a slow convoy going the same way as him, when Finlayson rounded a corner towards them on his motor cycle. The lorry managed to cut back in to his own side of the road, but by this time Finlayson had jumped from his bike to try and avoid the collision, yet still had hold of the handlebars. Out of control, both he and bike veered towards the lorry, which in turn came to a screeching halt, but the inevitable couldn’t be avoided.
One of the few Flying Corps men that died in an accident that didn’t involve a plane was Lieutenant Hector Nicol of the AFC. He was a passenger in a car that was travelling way too fast over a bridge near Salisbury on the 13th October 1918. When the wheel grazed a corner stone of the bridge it sent the car out of control and flipped it over. Lieut Nichol died two days later, but unfortunately his death date has been listed with the CWGC as the 16th.
Planes appear to have been one of the single biggest killers, with 153 deaths listed thus far – the majority of these of course were the result of crashes, and many of those occurring in the Great War were during training flights. Given the relative infancy of air flight and the unbelievable simplicity and flimsiness of aeroplanes, this was probably to be expected.
One accident that occurred on the ground however, was on the 20th September 1917 at Tern Hill Aerodrome in Shropshire. Cadet Edward Jabez Cooper Treadwell (959) of the 30th Training Squadron, AFC, had been standing on the wing of a plane which was preparing for take-off; talking to the pilot and observing the instruments. As he stepped off the wing, he stumbled backwards into the propeller and died soon afterwards of his injuries.
How a freak twist of fate can be fatal to even the most experienced of pilots was evident on the 2nd December 1917, when Captain Henry Haigh Storrer, a 1915 Point Cook graduate & his observer, Lieutenant William Norman Eric Scott, a Gallipoli veteran (originally with the Field Artillery) lost their lives. Storrer had just taken off and turned to avoid a line of trees, when a sudden squall turned the plane upside down & brought it down onto the stone wall of Bailleul Cemetery. The two airmen were buried side-by-side in the cemetery.
Luck also ran out on the 19th August 1918 for Lieutenant Ernest Cecil Stooke (DCM) & his observer, Lieut Louis Paul Kreig, when their plane’s engine cut out during take-off and they crashed into a moving railway engine. The petrol tanks burst into flames on impact and blew the plane to pieces.
Trains were almost as dangerous as planes, with a present total of 112 men involved in train accidents of some kind. As well as derailments and collisions, incidents also included soldiers run over by them, and falling from them – and of course, overcrowding didn’t help. Although contrary to orders, it was a popular practice to ride on the roof; travel between carriages via the footboards, and to sit in the open doorways with legs dangling.
Pte Frank Lyons (3980) wasn’t sitting up top; but instead was travelling from one carriage to another across the roof of a French train on the 23rd March 1916, when apparently he was struck by an overhead bridge or the roof of a tunnel. His body with fractured skull was discovered still on the roof when he failed to alight at his destination. While in the July of 1916 Pte Edgar Williams (5482) was swept off the footboard of a troop train by some unknown projection on a passing Goods' Train.
In no way to blame, Trooper Arthur Poyntz Hirst (1539) was unfortunate enough to have been standing near the jammed-open door of a railway truck, when a mule which had fallen was struggling to get up, and in doing so knocked Tpr Hirst through the doorway. His body was recovered the following day of the 22nd June 1916.
As there were no ‘conveniences’ on the trains and it was often many long hours between stops, the men had to make do as best they could. One result of this ‘inconvenience’ was when Pte William Edwin Gravell (2856) fell from a train whilst urinating out the window. The Irish born John Doheny, who enlisted as Pte John Sullivan (4586), had been ‘home’ on furlough after being discharged from hospital. He’d felt unwell on the boat trip back to Wales, and after catching the train at Holyhead, had travelled as far as Bodorgan, when he stuck his head out the window to vomit & hit the side of the Bodorgan tunnel. He died of his injuries 5 days later on the 14th December 1916.
Of the many accidents that happened after the war – some tug at the heart-strings even more than normal – the following two both involving trains. The first is the story of the Thomas brothers who both enlisted in 1914. Frederick George Thomas (Dvr 971) arrived back in Melbourne on the 17th November 1918, on submarine guard followed by special leave. His younger brother Charles Albert Thomas (Spr 49) followed a month later also on special 1914 leave, making it home 2 days before Christmas. Early on Boxing Day together with their 14 year old cousin, they were heading from Altona to the Victorian Market to purchase vegetables for their new greengrocer’s business. Their journey came to an abrupt halt at the O’Hara level crossing, Newport when their horse made it across the tracks, but their cart took the full force of the Ballarat goods train. A few hours later the Thomas boy’s father, unaware of the tragedy, was himself travelling by train to the city and recognised parts of the wreckage. Frantic, he broke his journey at Newport to inquire about the accident and discovered the fate of his newly returned soldier sons. The brothers were buried together in the Williamstown Cemetery.
The second incident is that of returning soldier Richard Warne (Pte 797, MM). Only moments from home in the early hours of the morning of the 25th May 1919, he jumped from the train that by pre-arrangement was slowing, but not stopping at his station. Unfortunately, the train was still moving too fast & he missed the platform altogether and was thrown under the wheels. He was found a couple of hours later still barely alive, and when help was called for, it was his own parents who were the closest at hand. Cradled in his mother’s arms, Richard gave up his fight for life as the ambulance neared the hospital. [Richard’s full story can be read in Daryl Kelly’s book ‘Just Soldiers’]
Equally sad, and no doubt with long term effects on the Kelley family was the fate of William Henry Kelley (Pte 6300). He had returned to his family on the 27th July 1919, and just under a week later was out rabbiting with his brother & sisters and a mate. William, “while watching his brother and Antonio engaged with a ferret at a burrow, was holding his gun in his right hand, the muzzle being close to his side, when his little sister, aged seven, who was behind [him], pressed down the trigger to see if the gun would go off. The unfortunate young man received the charge in his right side, and he died almost immediately.”
Franz Leslie Kaaden (Pte 1518) is one of quite a few soldiers who figure in more than one of my databases, and his story is doubly tragic. Married in England on the 6th February 1919, he and his new bride Mary had arrived back in Australia in the August. Later that same year, they were out enjoying the fine summer weather on a boating trip with friends when hit by a sudden squall which capsized the boat. A rescue attempt managed to save their three friends but by this time the couple had disappeared. Mary’s body was washed ashore the following day and she was buried on Christmas Eve.
Finally – just to show the long reaching effects of the war even here in Australia – on the 28th May 1936 Edward Arthur Hollinworth (1610) was killed in his home at Coogee, NSW, and his daughter and a friend seriously injured, when a bomb he had souvenired in the war, finally exploded. Following the inquest, the City Coroner appealed to all returned soldiers to surrender to the Defence Department any dangerous war trophies in their possession.
Heather (Frev) Ford, 2013
Links to the service records of the soldiers mentioned in this story can be found at the following link: