20 July 2016 marks the 100th Anniversary of the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front.
The battle of Fromelles, was initially intended to draw the Germans from the British Somme offensive further south. It was a disaster.
The twelve battalions of the 5th Australian Division, the most inexperienced of the Australian Divisions, suffered 5,533 casualties in a 24 hour period. The 54th Battalion was part of the initial assault and reportedly lost 65% of its fighting strength.
One of those who was wounded in the battle was 20 year old James Birrell Dawson. James, who was born at Joadja Creek and working as a wheeler in the Oakey Park mine, signed up with ‘The Coo-ees’ on 2nd November 1915, joining the marchers on their way from Gilgandra to Sydney.
Appointed to the 13th Battalion, #4469 Private James Birrell Dawson was back in Lithgow in January 1916 where a farewell party was held for his family and friends prior to his departure for Egypt.
Embarking on the Ballarat on 16th February 1916, James was among the first batch of Coo-ees who left Australia for active service.
The 54th Battalion was formed in Egypt on 1st April. Half of its troops were Gallipoli veterans and the other half fresh reinforcements from Australia. The 54th arrived in France on 29th June and fought its first major battle less than three weeks later, as part of the initial assault on the evening of 19th July.
Private Dawson suffered a serious gunshot wound to his right forearm on 20th July and was evacuated from the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station to Calais by train. His right arm was amputated. Transferred to the hospital ship Newhaven on 3rd August, he was admitted to Huddersfield War Hospital in England the same day.
James Dawson and fellow soldiers evacuated from Fromelles were among the first Australians at the Huddersfield War Hospital , and many months later in a letter home to his parents, George and Elizabeth Dawson, he wrote that people ‘could not do enough for them’.
In September James was transferred to the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Southall, which specialised in fitting artificial limbs. James was discharged from hospital on 5th April 1917 to begin his journey home to Australia, disembarking in Sydney on 4th July 1917.
Private Dawson’s story is just one of 1307 whose story is told in the book ‘A Long march from Lithgow’ written and researched by Helen Taylor and published by the Lithgow & District Family History Society.
‘The book was written to honour the men and women of the Lithgow and District for their service and sacrifice during World War I and was based on information from service records, honour rolls, newspaper cuttings, personal diaries, letters and family stories’ Helen remarked when the book was launched.
Helen was delighted when Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial agreed to accept a copy of the book for the Memorial’s library collection where it will be accessible to members of the public through the Research Centre.
The presentation was made by Major Kerry Bartlett, Chaplain, Australia’s Federation Guard on behalf of Helen and the Lithgow & District Family History Society Inc. Major Bartlett is the brother of Lyn Doherty from Wallerawang.
Martin & Lyn Doherty wrote the music for the song ‘Marching Feet’, based on the poem by Cecily McCarten, which pays tribute to those for whom the long march had ended in some foreign land.
For others, like Private James Birrell Dawson, the Long March from Lithgow was a return journey, with perhaps a heroes’ welcome at the end, and the constant memories of those who marched with them.
This story was supplied by Lithgow & District Family History Society Inc. Pictured: Kerry Bartlett and Brendan Nelson