Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Remembering great-uncle Tom (Thomas Colin Watson 1897-1916)

As ANZAC Day looms on April 25, I’m commemorating my great uncle Tom Watson (Thomas Colin Watson) who served in the 20th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces in World War 1.

I’m by no means the first Tom Watson in my family line. My great-grandfather came by that name. He had a son Thomas Colin and my grandfather had a son named Thomas Guthrie. We aren’t very original about names in the male line (and my sister has a son named Tom).

Long ago I promised myself a visit to the Somme battlefields of northern France. With family guidance, I looked up Australian Army records online about Thomas Colin Watson.

After working as a clerk, he enlisted in October 1915 and was shipped from Sydney to England on the ‘Ceramic’ for training as an infantryman. He had quite a disciplinary record: Once for “using indecent language in a public place in the hearing of the public”, he was severely reprimanded. More than once, he was promoted to corporal then dropped back to private. Generally, he seems to have been a ‘larrikin’, as Australians call noisy, scrappy young people.

Tom joined 20th Battalion in the Western Front on October 2nd and was ‘Killed in Action’ on November 7th, 1916 at Caterpillar Valley near the village of Longueval, 6 miles from Bapaume. His family was told he was killed by concussion from a German artillery explosion. He was 19 years old.

Tom was later buried in the Commonwealth War Grave at Caterpillar Valley. His family was sent his effects that comprised a few letters only. Later they were sent his medals, the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. By 1922, all that remained were their memories and a gravestone in a carefully maintained graveyard on the Somme.

He wasn’t the only relative of mine to die on the Somme. Guthrie “Goo” Reilly, my grandmother’s brother, died in August 1918 at Villers-Brettoneux on the first day of the great offensive that forced the German army back and led to the end of World War 1. A 33-year-old farmer-turned-sergeant, he was killed by a German prisoner.

Those are the facts. Going to Caterpillar Valley and finding great-uncle Tom’s grave was an unexpectedly emotional journey. After a morning touring the Somme, we came to the graveyard and found the gravestone by the front wall. Cue an enormous lump in my throat. It was quite surprising to feel so strongly about an unknown relative but he was my personal connection to the carnage of the Somme. It was a very humbling moment.

As for the next Tom Watson (Thomas Guthrie), he was killed by a Japanese sniper in New Guinea in July 1945. So I am the first Tom Watson in this family line to live so long in three generations, only because others had laid down their lives.

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