Saturday, April 25, 2015

Anzac Day Commemoration: Bert and Eric Wenban

In December 1915 two brothers from Millthorpe in New South Wales walked into the recruiting office the nearby town of Orange and enlisted to fight in the war.  The eldest of them, Bertram Aubrey Wenban (known as Bert) had been down to Sydney the previous month to see off some mates from his local area who had already gone to serve their country.  Bert was 25 and 10 months old, 5 foot 3⅞ inches tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. His occupation on his attestation papers was "Engineer and Mechanic", but this vague description referred to the fact that he was the local motor mechanic and ran a motor garage back in Millthorpe.  Bert was made a Private, and assigned the number 5105.

The younger son, Alpheus Eric Wenban (known, not surprisingly, as Eric - or Dick by his friends and family) was just 19 years and 9 months old. He was taller than his brother at 5 feet 7¼ inches tall and also had blue eyes but his hair was described as dark brown, not just brown.  Eric had spent 4 years in Cadets while at school.   Since then he had been working as a postal assistant and received high honours in the Postal and Telegraphic examination.  He was initially stationed in Millthorpe Post Office, but in Jun 1914 was transferred to Delungra in the Inverell district where he worked as a telegraph operator. As he was under 21 the consent of his parents was needed for him to enlist, and he was assigned the number 5106 – the one following that assigned to Bert.

Eric (left) and Bert (right) Wenban

The brothers were assigned to the 17th Battalion, 13th Reinforcements and sent to Lithgow (along with some other local boys) for training from 30 December 1915 until 18 January the following year. They were then transferred to Bathurst until 9 March 1916. Eric was made Acting Corporal (probably owing to his Cadet experience) while at Bathurst and Acting Lance Corporal the day after they left Bathurst. They were given final leave to visit their families in April 1916 and were each presented a "wristlet watch" (wrist watches were a new phenomenon at this time) by the local patriotic committee, (along with 3 other privates from the area).  Bert and Eric embarked on the HMAT Kyarra in Sydney on 3 June 1916 and set off two days later to do their bit.

Once in England they were sent to Salisbury Plain for further training, arriving there on 4 August.  The only incident where either of the brothers seemed to get into trouble took place during this period. Eric was Absent Without Leave from 2400 on the 11 September 1916 til 2400 of the following day and had to forfeit eight days pay.

On 30 September the brothers were transferred to the 33rd Battalion and less than two months later, on 21 November, they found themselves boarding a ship in Southampton for the voyage across the channel to France. This was in the middle of the winter that was notoriously the coldest one in a hundred years, when the pools of water froze, as did the men's wet boots, and the icicles hung from the roofs of buildings and dugouts alike.

For months the Germans had occupied a ridge south of Ypres which afforded them a good vantage point to pick off the Allied soldiers.  On 7 June 1917 the battle that became to be known as the Battle of Messines commenced with the detonation of 19 mines underneath Hill 60.

Bert was attached to a Lewis Machine Gun crew (he had been a noted marksman before the war and a crack shot in the Millthorpe Rifle Club) and he and three others were sent out that day to take up a position. The Germans located that position and dropped shells round them, the last one landing on top of them. Two of them were buried, and when dug out found to be unharmed, but Bert had had all bar two fingers blown off his left hand, an injury to his right arm, and a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head, just below the scalp. The right arm later had to be amputated, leaving only a stump two inches long.  The shrapnel was successfully removed.

After some time being treated and convalescing in England, Bert was sent home. He sailed on 15 February 1918 onboard the HT Llanstephen Castle. In the meantime, Eric had been formally made a Lance Corporal on 7 Aug 1917. He was granted two weeks leave in England in January 1918, during which time he visited his brother.
 
Sadly, while Bert was on his way home to Australia, his family received a cable saying that Eric had been killed. So the town, which otherwise would have put on a celebration for Bert's arrival back in Millthorpe on 19 April, was rather subdued in their welcome for him.

Leader (Orange, NSW), 22 Apr 1918

On 27 March 1918 the Germans attacked the ruined village of H├ębuterne, where Australian Forces had relieved the British the day before.  Fighting continued until 5 April in what became known as the Battle of H├ębuterne.

In the late afternoon of 30 March, during a counter-attack, Eric was near a Bosche trench in Hangard Wood when he was shot by a machine gun bullet. Some reports say the bullet hit him in the head, and others in the heart, but all say that he died instantly.  Pte M McLeod of the same division reported to the Red Cross that he was buried at the foot of hill between Villers-Bretonneux and Cachy, but if that is so then either his body has not been recovered or not identified, for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission state that he has no known grave.  He is commemorated at the National Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Eric was just 22 years old.

Amongst his possessions supposed to be returned to Australia were a testament and a prayer book and a pipe.  They were on board the cargo ship Barunga on their way to Australian when she was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean.

After the war Bert ran a garage in Millthorpe, and later drove a taxi (despite the missing arm and fingers).  On Anzac Day 1925 Bert married Frances Emily Woodlawn Oldham at St Matthew's Church, Grahamstown. They had three children: Eric Henry Wenban (b1926), Dorothy Elizabeth Wenban (b1937) and Bertram Keith Wenban (b1940). By 1954 he was retired and living in Guildford, NSW, and by 1963 had moved to a home in Eastwood, where he died on 30 September 1967. His funeral service was held back in Millthorpe where he had grown up and spent so much of his life.


These two young men who gave so much were my second cousins, three times removed.


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