The little house I own in Ballarat East is very old.
It is a miners’ cottage, and a miner and his family lived there for over 80 years. He died quite young of the miners’ disease phthisis – a chronic lung complaint from the microscopic needles of quartz dust lodged in the lungs. One of his sons was also a miner, whose leg was injured in an accident; he continued to live in the house until his death in the 1940s. And another of the sons went to the Great War.
That son’s name was Gus Martin, and he enlisted on the 16th of January 1915. He was living at Horsham at the time, and was a barman. He has tree number 370 in the Ballarat Avenue of Honour. He survived the War and came back to Australia. At the time of his death in 1943, aged only 49, he was living in Charlton.
I found out all of this by hunting up the various records as I explored the history of my house. I also found out that his mother’s name before marriage was Emily Schmidt, and she was born in Australia to parents of German origin. So many of the ANZACs have Germanic names (or have Germanic descent), and I wonder how they felt about the War, and even how they were treated by their fellow soldiers.
When I found that Gus was a WW1 veteran I immediately checked his war service records at the National Archives of Australia. These are all digitised and online now, but at that time I had to wait for Gus’s papers, as the project wasn’t complete.
What I found was something very eerie and strange. Gus went off to the War and was in France, and after some time he was ill and hospitalised in England. His mother Emily was informed of this, but only vaguely, so she wrote for further information. Her letter is on the file, and when I saw it I felt my hair stand up. That letter must have been written in my kitchen.
Emily wrote to the Army authorities: “I received your letter saying my son Gus was in the hospital with sore feet.” Oh, he had sore feet alright, he had Trench Foot – that horrible condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions. If left it can progress to gangrene. Fortunately, I can tell by his service records, he recovered and returned to fight again in France. Maybe he was one of those who caused the Army to investigate the causes of Trench Foot, and encourage a system where pairs of soldiers were made responsible for each other’s feet. It was too easy in the trenches not to remove one’s boots at night, or change socks, or even keep one’s feet properly dry.
If you are researching a WW1 soldier, the National Archives are an essential first stop. You can find a brief description of their appearance, their occupation before the war, their Next of Kin. All this may help in your family history. And then you will also be able to trace the soldier’s movements through the War.