Our ANZAC heroes: a family study

Forces War Records is proud to present a guest blog, submitted by Barbara Vincent-Britton of Queensland, Australia, describing the World War One deeds at Gallipoli and on the Western Front of her ancestors from the Coverdale and Britton families:

On the 28th of June, 1914, Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated and the ANZAC involvement began when Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August 1914.

Young Australian men signed up in their thousands. Adventurous and brave, they were proud to serve king and country. They came from the mountains, the plains and cities, and vacated offices, farms, foundries, mines, factories and outback sheep and cattle stations.

The young Australian stockmen who enlisted were marvellous riders and they brought their tough Australian horses with them. These horses were known as whalers, a breed of horse standing between 16 1/2 and 17 1/2 hands high at the shoulder. They were as tall as a thorough bred but bigger framed and powerful. Used to the harsh, dry outback conditions of Australia, they would endure when other horses were spent and had foundered. 

My paternal great uncle Claude Britton was one of these riders. He came from the Tasmanian mountains and had been a member of the Australian Light Horse until his enlistment finished 2 1/2 years earlier, at the time war was declared. Tall for a man of his times, at 5'11", he was quite handsome: lean, tanned, blue eyed and black haired, reflecting his Irish ancestry. He was also a very courageous man and was 24 years and eight months old when he re-enlisted on 9th of August 1915.

After initial training at Broadmeadows army camp in Victoria, Australia, he embarked for Egypt on the HMAT RMS Orontes with thousands of other young men on the 24th of November 1915.

The first ANZAC troops, including members of the Australian Light Horse, had landed in Egypt the previous year and had spent 4 1/2 months training there near Cairo, before leaving their horses behind to be cared for at the camp and embarking for Gallipoli, where they landed on the 25th of April 1915. My maternal great uncle, Robert Coverdale, didn't survive Gallipoli. Robert Coverdale, 9th Light Horse Trooper 893, was killed during a bayonet charge on Hill 60 at Gallipoli. He and the men he was with, and their three officers, received a direct hit from a shell into their trench, causing a raging fire, so there were no bodies to recover. Now all that remains of him is his name on the memorial at Lone Pine.

Although Gallipoli was to be officially recorded as a military defeat, it was there that the great ANZAC tradition of bravery, mateship and self-sacrifice was forged.

Near the middle of December 1915, with winter coming on, it was decided that there would be no hope of keeping the troops supplied with supplies and ammunition. The retreat was begun and on the 20th of December at 2 p.m. the evacuation was completed. After the retreat from Gallipoli, some returned to Egypt to take part in the Desert Campaign. However, Claude arrived in Egypt the following year and joined his unit the 47th Battalion at Tel El Kibir on the 9th of February 1916. After a severe attack of dysentery, for which he was hospitalised, he sailed for France, where he landed at Marseilles on the 9th of March 1916.

Most of the ‘diggers’, as they had come to be termed, who lived to return home would never be the same. The scars, both mental and physical, would never be erased. Claude came home minus half his leg from a shotgun wound, and also lost a lung due to mustard gas. However, before that, he earned the Military Medal and Bar for bravery. On 12th October 1917, under heavy shell fire, Claude took personal charge of conducting stretcher bearer parties in front of the lines and dressed wounded men with great energy, setting a wonderful example to his men.

Many of my mother's family also joined up, all volunteers because Australia had no conscription. My grandfather Leslie Coverdale and his two brothers enlisted at the outbreak of war. My grandfather probably went to escape working in the coal mines, where he had been since leaving school at ten years old. The first time he tried to enlist, when he was almost 16, the recruitment officer told him to, 'go home to your mother son, you're still wet behind the ears!' The second time he tried, he managed to fool the recruitment officer and got in. Three Coverdale brothers went, and only one returned. The stone for my Great Uncle James, who died from a shrapnel wound at Villers Bretteneux, reads: "We will meet in Heaven. A mothers' son."  

The second Military Medal earned in the family went to their cousin, John A V L Coverdale, who was a married man when he joined up. On 28th/29th July 1918, at Morlancourt, he managed to take out and capture a machine gun that was slowing his unit’s advance, then establish a commanding position on that spot. It is believed that many lives were saved thanks to his calm and skilful shooting.

My grandfather Leslie Coverdale, who was in military intelligence, survived Gallipoli, only to be wounded three times and also gassed in France, before finally returning home to Australia in 1919 after a long stint in a military hospital near Harefield in England.  

The Great War, as it came to be known, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; sadly it wasn't, and many of the old families in Australia and our New Zealand brothers and sisters lost at least one member in that war and the several we have participated in since.

The name ANZAC has come to be recognised as representing courage and mateship in both Australia and New Zealand. Soldiers in the Australian Army still call each other 'Dig', short for digger, recalling the trenches in Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

Now, in this year of 2015, 100 years since the landing at Gallipoli on the 25th of April 1915, we remember them with pride and gratitude for their sacrifices. Though they would not have thought of themselves as such, these young men who gave their lives or their health for king and country, so we will always remember them as: our family heroes, the ANZACS.


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