Monday, November 10, 2008

An early armistice for Uncle Thomas

Thomas was my Dad's uncle, but he was about 60 years older than Dad and died long before Dad was born. This was because my Grandad was about 40 years older than my Grandmother and Uncle Thomas was Grandad's older brother.
Thomas was a Tasmanian miner who enlisted at the age of about 45. Many teenage boys lied about their age so that they would be accepted for enlistment. Thomas lied about his age too, but it appears that he knocked a few years off in order to be accepted. Still he passed the medical examination and in February 1916 he became an enlisted man. He was sent overseas in September of the same year.
He was initially in the Australian 5th Company Tunnellers, but in January 1917 he was in the 2nd Company Tunnellers. Perhaps so many of their comrades had been killed or injured by then that they were forced to amalgamate. I don't know and I haven't been able to find out. Tunnellers were soldiers who were mostly miners before joining up and they had the incredibly difficult and dangerous job of tunnelling under the German trenches. In one documented case involving Thomas's company, the German line was only about 70-80 yards away from the allies, but because of having to skirt the boggy coastal terrain (in Belgium) and the need for security, the tunnels were in fact 160 yards and 230 yards in length. They were 15-20 feet underground and only inches above the water table - more than a little claustrophobic.
In mid 1917, the tunnellers got their first sniff of a gas that smelt like new-mixed mustard in these tunnels when the Germans used gas shells to attack their positions. Because the British Air force were under instructions not to reveal their strength they could not go to the aid of the the allies under attack. The German planes took control of the area, the tunnels were broken into and the tunnellers attacked with flame throwers. Some brave soldiers who were strong swimmers crossed the Yser River and using a rope helped about 80 men to cross the river to relative safety. These were all that escaped death and capture of 2 battalions.
Thomas was one of the lucky ones that time. But his luck did not hold out and in February 1918 he suffered another gas attack and was sent to a field hospital and then evacuated out to hospital in England and then home to Tasmania. His records claim that his ailment was chronic rheumatism and that it was a pre-existing illness before he enlisted. He died only a few weeks after setting foot back in Tasmania on 7 November, 1918 - just 4 days before the armistice was signed. Maybe rheumatism can do that to you.

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Townsville, Queensland, Australia
I have worked as a Biology lab assistant, Pathology lab assistant, geochem lab assistant, land tenure researcher, hospital and prison chaplain, parish care coordinator and part owner of a small business. I have studied some science (no degrees) and have a theology and a chaplaincy certificate. I still love science of all types and enjoy studying theology. Science and theology belong together. At present I am a work-at-home Grannysaurus.

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