The moving story of a young soldier who survived the Great War was told for the first time almost a century after he fought on the front line. The great-grandson of James Henry Bane – who was connected to my family – revealed the horrors he faced in a heart-rending article published in Australia. Here, with the help of that post, I look back at James’ war service, and how he lost his younger brother in the Battle of Passchendaele.
‘Almost 100 years ago my heartbroken great-grandfather was surviving unimaginable horrors in the muddy wasteland of World War I. It’s only this week I fully learned his story.’
These are the words of Nathaniel Bane, digital editor of The Herald Sun, one of Australia’s leading newspapers – used in introducing an attention-grabbing, beautifully written article in 2015.
His great-grandfather, James Henry Bane, joined the Australian Imperial Force in June 1916. A private in the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Mechanical Transport Company, he sailed to England on December 22 that year.
James, a motor driver, went to France on June 17, 1917. Just 80 days later, he was fighting for his life in hospital after being gassed on the Western Front.
‘After his long hospital recovery my great-grandfather returned to active service to be struck down with trench foot, an insidious condition from spending extended periods in wet, unsanitary and cold conditions,’ said Nathaniel.
‘He was in and out of medical care before being released from war and returning to his wife in England in 1919. My dad remembers my great-grandfather always on oxygen as the gas worked its way through his body in a slow and terrible fashion.’
Nathaniel discovered his great-grandfather’s war service when he stood among the subterranean columns below the Shrine of Remembrance – a ‘remarkable museum detailing Australia’s sacrifice to wars the world over’.
He said: ‘We were staring at photographs of tired men and frightened horses neck deep in mud, of twisted corpses and bandaged soldiers with that thousand-yard stare.
‘They were suffering at alien places like Ypres and Villers-Bretonneux.
‘My dad pointed out one photo, the Battle of Polygon Wood, and started to tell me what he’d pieced together in recent years about our family tree.’
James, one of 12 children, was born in Nailsea, near Clevedon in Somerset. He emigrated to Australia before the war with his future wife, Ethel Maud. They married in Claremont, Perth in 1913,
‘The gods were cruel to this young couple,’ said Nathaniel. ‘Their first-born son died just a few months after he was born. We don’t know why. His grieving wife, as you’d imagine, returned to the comfort of her family in England.
‘My great-grandfather instead enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force in the Great War. As a new father myself I suspect he did so with a heart full of sorrow. He was 28 and signed up in June 1916.’
Nathaniel said he could only imagine what James endured in his two years in France. ‘But this we now know. Just four months after arriving, he was gassed and suffered such severe burns he was in hospital for three months.
‘Only weeks later his 5th Australian Division were involved in the Battle of Polygon Wood at Ypres, one of the bloodiest of the war. In three days, September 26-28, the 5th sustained 5,741 dead and wounded.’
James was in hospital in France when his teenage brother, Hubert (or Henry), a private in the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, died of wounds sustained in action in the Battle of Passchendaele on October 8, 1917.
Hubert enlisted on May 13, 1916 and served in the British Expeditionary Force from August 21 that year. He was buried at Mendinghem Military Cemetery near Ypres in Belgium where his grave includes the inscription: ‘Gone but not forgotten.’
‘We don’t know when (James) learned of his brother’s fate,’ said Nathaniel.
‘Not long after my war-weary great grandfather made it back to England and his wife, my grandfather was conceived. James and Ethel left England for a second attempt at life in Australia and my grandfather was born, in Perth.
‘My great-grandfather never talked about the war and was a “drinker”, my dad recalled. The returned soldiers of the day were never counselled and often instructed not to discuss their service. The drink got many of them.’
James died in 1963. ‘Seventy-five was a decent age for a man who suffered a great deal,’ said Nathaniel.
‘He lost decades off his life because of the physical effects of war. I’m sure the memories took a heavier, yet hidden, toll.
When standing at the Shrine of Remembrance, peering into the eyes of the men in black and white photographs, Nathaniel said he wondered if any showed his great-grandfather.
‘I felt great personal sorrow for those men and can only imagine the pain they must have endured. It was a life much more removed from mine today.
‘Then it struck me. My great-grandfather must have dodged bullets, shells and came close to death many times during his service. Had he been one of the 60,000 Australians killed during that hell of a war I would not be here today.’
James and Hubert were connected to my family through marriage. They were the brothers of Beatrice Bane (1884-1966) who married George Crook (1902-1983) on February 6, 1932 in Withleigh. George was the son of John Norrish Crook (1873-1961) and Annie Kingdom (1876-1957). Annie was the daughter of Abraham Kingdom (1838- 1917) and Mary Ann Roberts (1841-1923). Mary was a sister of John Roberts (1829-1919), who was my great-grandfather.
James, born on March 13, 1888 in Nailsea, was the son of Henry James Bane (1861-1954) and Rosina Rebecca Nichols (1863-1944), who for many years lived at Belmont Lodge, Tyntesfield, Flax Bourton, Somerset. James married Ethel Maud Dury (1888-1926) on October 16, 1913 in Claremont, Western Australia. He married Amelia Bridson (1882-1967) during the Second World War in Perth, Western Australia. He died on October 14, 1963 in Perth, aged 75. Ethel, born in 1888 in Bishops Sutton, Somerset, was the daughter of James and Elizabeth Dury. She died in Western Australia on May 13, 1926, aged 38.
Hubert, born on July 21, 1898 in Backwell Common, Somerset, attended Wraxall Boys School. In 1911, aged 13, he lived with his parents and worked as a market gardening assistant.
READ NATHANIEL BANE’S ARTICLE ABOUT HIS GREAT-GRANDFATHER ON:
Pte James Henry Bane and his wife, Ethel Maud. Picture supplied by Nathaniel Bane.