Tuesday, 23 May 2017

World War I soldier, William James Barrett

This is my final essay for the Diploma in Family History, through the University of Tasmania.
After three years of readings, quizzes, research and assessments it is a bit of a relief to have finished.
I'm looking forward to UTAS coming up with an Advanced Diploma, and a bit of a break before it starts is very welcome.

This essay is a biography of a First World War soldier, sailor, or nurse. We were to write about their experience in the war and contextualise it within the broader history of the war. I've left off the Bibliography. Now to wait for the marks to be released..........

William James Barrett was my great-grandfather’s half-brother. Born in Sydney in September 1883, at only nine months of age he was severely assaulted by his father, and at age two he was admitted into New South Wales’ rudimentary foster care system, living with nine different families by the time he was returned to the care of his mother at age 16. This harsh early life may have prepared William for the stresses of serving in World War I.

Despite the 1917 voluntary enlistment rates falling well below the expected rate[1] William Barrett enlisted on 13 March 1917[2]. The heavy losses suffered by the AIF in a war that had been raging for almost 1,000 days meant that many more men were needed to bolster the numbers, and provide more manpower on all fronts. At the time, voluntary enlistment rather than conscription was the method used to recruit men to serve in World War I, particularly after a negative result towards conscription in the referendum held by Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes. The referendum did not specifically ask for an agreement towards conscription, rather seeking public approval to send men overseas to fight[3].

On the home front, William would have been subject to pressure to enlist from his fiancée, Emma Hill, whose own father, Richard, was away fighting with the 25th Battalion. In June 1915, at age 44½ Hill had enlisted in Brisbane into the Battalion’s 3rd Reinforcements, having previously served with the NSW Bushmen in the Boer War[4]. While Emma’s brothers, David, Robert, and Jack were too young to enlist, their enthusiasm and desire for the perceived adventure that war could provide could have been factors that swayed William towards enlisting, bolstering his image in the eyes of his future brothers-in-law.

HMAT A20 Hororata http://alh-research.tripod.com/ships_lh.htm
Leaving Sydney on the HMAT A20 Hororata on 14th June 1917, the 9th Battalion 25th Reinforcements were a group of 152 men, consisting of 11 New South Welshmen and 141 Queenslanders[5].

On enlistment 33-year-old William was soon to be married to Emma, mother of his son, 9-month-old Frederick. Both of his parents had died in his birthplace of Sydney four years prior, and he noted his 13-year-old sister, Rita Lillian Barrett, as his next of kin. These next of kin details were amended shortly after William’s marriage to Emma, one month after enlistment. His War Service Record lists his age at enlistment as 37 years 5 months, four years older than was true[6]. The average age for men enlisting was 26 in 1916, falling to 24 by 1918[7], making William one of the war’s older recruits.

Janelle Collins, William James, Frederick, and Emma Barrett, 1917, digital image, personal collection.

During the first year of the war a third [of men trying to enlist] were rejected due to ill health or poor physical condition[8]. At only 5’4” and weighing 126 lbs William was recorded as having scars on both shins, a scar from a hernia operation, and scars on his chest and right arm. Complications from this hernia operation necessitated his early discharge from the Battalion after only four months of active service These debilitating and embarrassing symptoms afflicted him for the rest of his life. Fearing rejection from the Army, he may not have mentioned these symptoms to the Examining Medical Officer, or the stress of service and the conditions in Belgium may have exacerbated them.

After three months of infantry training at Durrington in England, William’s 25th Battalion was joined to the 3rd Infantry Battalion at Lark Hill, Salisbury, England, where they were sent straight to Chateau Segard near Ypres in Belgium. From here they were marched to Anzac Ridge, a distance of almost 20 kilometres.

While no personal letters from William to his family survive, Lieutenant Colonel Moore, Commander of the 3rd Infantry Battalion AIF kept detailed diaries of the events and action that took place during William’s service with the Battalion[9].
During the four brutal months that William was serving with the 3rd Infantry Battalion (October 1917 to January 1918) the men spent a month at Broodseinde Ridge and Passchendale, followed by two months over winter in nearby Messines. Most days were bitterly cold and wet, with much mud and snow, particularly on Christmas Eve.  Battalion order No.45 for 16th December 1917 had the men woken by reveille at 0230, with breakfast at 0300. Their training syllabus stated that “All officers are to bear in mind that the guiding principle is to train and harden the unfit”[10].
These diaries show troop movements, battles and the number of casualties. Only officers are mentioned by name. When the Company Commanders reported by wire that their men were all in position Lieutenant and Adjutant, Cecil J Clifton, would announce these words: “Rum has been issued”[11]. I’m sure that in the circumstances, many or even all the men at all levels of command were wishing that these words were a reality and not just code.

On the home front women, including Emma, were expected to keep the country going and were encouraged to support the war effort by joining voluntary organisations to raise money for the war. In addition to this they were often involved with organisations such as the Australian Red Cross and the Cheer-up Society[12]. While working to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads women were also expected to write letters to their own soldier and others, and knit socks and balaclavas, all which would have been of great comfort to the men.

William’s unit, the 3rd Division, was under the ultimate command of Major General John Monash, and was assigned to the II ANZAC Corps. At the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge on 4th October 1917, the 3rd Division advanced 1,800 metres, but suffered a toll of 1,800 killed or wounded. After holding the line for three days they withdrew for rest and reorganisation. Three days later they advanced over 2,700 metres but lost almost 3,200 men. They were eventually removed from the front line on 22 October as the Canadians took over from them. The fighting around Passchendaele proved to be the division's last offensive actions for 1917 and they spent the winter months in the rear training, or undertaking defensive duties in reasonably quiet sectors of the line as they were reformed and brought back up to strength[13]. The impact of all the devastation and destruction witnessed by William and the remainder of the 3rd Division is unimaginable.

William returned to Australia on the RMS Osterley in April 1918. Being discharged at Brisbane due to debility could have caused William mixed emotions. He may have been relieved to be home from war, but also missing the men of his Division who would have become like brothers after facing such harrowing conditions.  The division was out of the line when news of the Armistice came on 11 November 1918. Following the end of hostilities, the demobilisation process began and as men were repatriated back to Australia, the division was eventually disbanded on 28 May 1919[14].

Once at home in Brisbane William’s service was discharged on 17th May 1918. Prior to his war service William was recorded as being previously employed as a farmer, carter, coal miner, and labourer. His Repatriation Record[15] shows his desire to find employment as a Railway Servant, an occupation he held until his death in 1938, taking him from Roma to Murgon. William’s medical conditions were apparent prior to enlistment, as noted on his War Service Record[16], although his symptoms were recorded as originated “since enlistment”[17].


William’s death in December 1938[18] was caused by cerebral thrombosis and arteriosclerosis, being age and lifestyle-related in nature rather than being caused by his war service. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Wondai Cemetery in south-east Queensland.

[1] Petrow, Stefan, HAA107 Families at War – Module 2 Chapter 2: Fighting for Australia? Volunteers vs   Conscripts, Accessed 10 May 2017.
[2] Service Record of William James Barrett, B2455, National Archives of Australia
[3] Petrow, Stefan, Fighting for Australia? Volunteers vs Conscripts
[4] Service Record of Richard Hill, B2455, National Archives of Australia
[5] UNSW Australia, ‘The AIF Project’, https://www.aif.adfa.edu.au/showUnit?unitCode=INF9REIN25 , Accessed 10 May 2017.
[6]  Service Record of William James Barrett, B2455, National Archives of Australia
[8] Tyquin, Michael, ‘Unjustly accused? Medical authorities and army recruitment in Australia 1914 – 1918’, Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2014), http://jmvh.org/article/unjustly-accused-medical-authorities-and-army-recruitment-in-australia-1914-1918/ . Accessed 15 May 2017.

[9] Australian War Memorial AWM4 Subclass 23/3 – 3rd Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1000570/ October 1917, November 1917, December 1917, January 1918. Accessed 10 May 2017.
[10] Australian War Memorial AWM4 Subclass 23/3 – 3rd Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1000570/ December 1917. Accessed 10 May 2017.
[11] Australian War Memorial AWM4 Subclass 23/3 – 3rd Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-18 War, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1000570/ October 1917. Accessed 10 May 2017.
[12] State Library of New South Wales, ‘World War I and Australia: Homefront’,

[13] Palazzo, Albert, Defenders of Australia: The 3rd Australian Division 1916–1991. Loftus, Australian Military Historical Publications, 2002, pages 37-40.
[14] Palazzo, Albert, Defenders of Australia: The 3rd Australian Division 1916–1991, page 54.
[15] Repatriation Record of William James Barrett, BP709/1, National Archives of Australia.
[16]  Service Record of William James Barrett, B2455, National Archives of Australia.
[17]  Repatriation Record of William James Barrett, BP709/1, National Archives of Australia.
[18] Death Certificate of William James Barrett, died 06 December 1938, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Queensland, 4818/1938.


  1. Hi Janelle

    I would be a distant relative. Interesting to read yr essay.
    Could you contact me please I live at Proston 35kms from Wondai and I am a Brazier Barrett Decendant

    Will lordbarrett@hotmail.com

    1. Lovely! Thanks for responding Will. I'll email you tonight.