Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
In all, some 9,721,937 soldiers from a range of nations died on the same battlefields.
In the lead-up to the Dawn Service on ANZAC Day, at which crowds gather at the war memorials to remember those who have gone before, I decided I was going to go on a bit of a mission. I've spent a lot of time in the last few years writing about the war experiences of my characters, and in doing so remembering Thomas Lockyer and other family members, but I know there are many of young men who died in the First World War who have been forgotten by time.
My two best friends and I attended the Dawn Service and watched the sun rise, then went hunting for someone to remember.
Before I get started on what I found, I've got to let you know a few things. First, just because I chose the people I did doesn't mean I expect they are *not* well remembered by their families. I hope they are, but the purpose of this exercise was to bring them into an even wider light of remembrance, in appreciation of the sacrifice they made for this country.
Second, I don't pretend to have all the facts. Lots and lots of them, for sure, but this post is by a fiction writer rather than an historian, so don't crack my knuckles too hard if there's anything I get wrong. I've refrained from *too* much speculation.
And lastly, speaking of lots and lots of facts- this turned into an odyssey I couldn't have imagined when I got started. It's lo-o-ong.
Finding a single someone to remember was not quite as easy a task as I imagined. Every name on every plaque sang out with a story- one plaque dedicated by a soldier's employer rather than his family; another with two men from the same battalion, one young and one older; some with soldiers killed in the first days of war and some in the last.
But the two that caught our attention and held it above all others were these ones:
These two plaques beneath adjacent towering gum trees commemorate two brothers, William and Harold Bleakley, who were in the same battalion, and were killed on the same day, at the same place, in the same battle.
We saw one plaque first, then the next, and couldn't believe it at first. I immediately wanted to know the story behind these two soldiers and what happened to them, and so for this year- the first of many, I expect- I choose to remember not only William and Harold Bleakley, but their mother, father, two sisters, three brothers, and many others who came in and out of their lives over the years.
It's a reminder that when a man dies at war, there's a much bigger story that has unfolded during his life, and continues to do so long after his death.
BEFORE THE WAR
A quick search of the online war records at Australia's National Archives revealed that not two, but three Bleakley brothers signed up to fight in the Great War. Looking at their enrollment forms and their files as well as a range of online sources gives the story of their whole family.
William and Elizabeth Bleakley were married in Wigan, England in 1888. Their first son, named William after his father, was born the next year. Over the next twenty-one years, the Bleakleys welcomed six more children- two daughters, Edith and Nell, and four more sons, James, Harold, Leonard and Ronald. The records show a hard-working family determined to provide the best for their kids. William Senior was a factory worker, but according to their war records, his older sons at least were high-school educated. Most of the Bleakleys are last listed as living in the United Kingdom in the 1911 Census.
William Norman Bleakley
Eldest son William was the first to arrive in Western Australia in 1910, aged 21, where he was to become a bicycle agent or importer. By 1913, he had married Australian girl Annie Firth and settled down in the Perth suburb of Maylands, and around the same time, the rest of the family moved out from England to join him. All lived in the same area, and the variety of shared addresses seen for the boys themselves and their next of kin on the military records show that the family remained close.
THE GREAT WAR ARRIVES
James Kilshaw Bleakley
James Bleakley was about 18 years of age when he came to Western Australia with his parents and five siblings, and he was soon working as a mechanic.
When war arrived in 1914, second son and third eldest child James was the first Bleakley to sign up. He enlisted at Helena Vale just a month after war was declared on August 4th, and shipped out from Melbourne four months later as part of the 16th Battalion on HMAT Ceramic.
James landed at Gallipoli, Turkey, on the afternoon of ANZAC Day, April 25th, and was straight into the thick of the fighting. Within a fortnight, he had succumbed to an illness that was tearing through the Australian troops- dysentery- and was taken out of the battle for a brief three days to recover. A fortnight after that in May 1915, James received a much more serious wound- a gunshot to the chest- and was evacuated first to the island of Lemnos, and then back to the Australian base at Egypt for what would be the beginning of a long period away from the frontlines.
He was transferred to the Transport Division, and remained in Egypt until the beginning of 1916 before heading over to England. He stayed in England until August of the same year, when he was sent across to France to join a unit there as a driver.
Harold was the youngest of the three brothers who signed up for war. Aged only 16 when the war began, it wasn't until the beginning of 1916 that he was old enough to follow older brother James into battle.
Before that, though, as was legally required of all young men aged between 14 and 18 after 1911, he joined Perth's 89C Infantry Brigade- the equivalent of today's Army Reserve- for Universal Military Training. Harold was a Senior Cadet by the time he turned 18 and was old enough to enlist properly.
All Bleakleys at war
Harold and William went into the city together on Friday 4th February 1916 and signed their enlistment papers one after the other. They were even given consecutive service numbers, showing that they signed up at exactly the same time.
By the time of his enlistment, William was a successful businessman who owned a bicycle shop in the centre of town, and he had a six-month-old son named Robert with wife Annie. Harold's occupation was listed as Shop Assistant, so it's very possible that he worked for his brother. And their sibling James was working with the Transport Unit in Egypt, still months away from his transfer to England, recovered from his injury but safely a long way from battle.
The 1916 Perth trade directory lists Bleakley's bicycle shop amongst the many other bicycle enterprises in the state, and by the following year, after William's departure, the shop had closed, and had been replaced by a spectacle-maker. With a young family and a business that couldn't function without him, William must have known that going to war would cost him a great deal. He'd been eligible to enrol from the very beginning, including at the time his younger brother James signed up, and he hadn't.
So why did he wait until Harold enlisted, and even then, why did he do it at all?
I have absolutely nothing in the publically available records to tell me, but I think it's interesting that the youngest of the three brothers, Harold, having been in the militia for a while, had only just turned the right age to sign up. At the earliest possible point that he could join the war, he did- and when he did, his eldest brother was right there by his side. I'm inclined to think that Harold signing up must have been a major, if not *the* major reason, for William to go to war- to look after his younger brother.
From that point in time, the two were barely ever separated again.
By April of 1916, both had set sail with the 28th Battalion 12th Reinforcements on the HMAT Aeneas, heading for England, and from there, to the Western Front.
The 28th Battalion had just fought through the bloodbath at Pozieres, and reinforcements were sorely needed. By the time William and Harold arrived in late September 1916, the battalion was having a month of rest and relative relaxation at Steenvoorde, in Belgium's Ypres Sector. The Bleakleys arrived just in time for the division and brigade sprint competition, in which the 28th Battalion proudly came second in points, and for some of the time war must have felt a long way away.
But the rest didn't last long, and by the 5th of October, the battalion was boarding a train on the way to the infamous Ypres salient.
William and Harold saw their first real action on the 12th of October 1916, just eight months after they enrolled back home in Perth. On that night, at Zillebeke, a raiding party from the 28th Battalion staged a daring attack on the enemy trenches that was a great success. Not only did the party capture two prisoners-of-war from the opposition, but they got away with only two injuries in their own ranks.
One of those, unfortunately, was Harold Bleakley, who was taken to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station that night with gunshot wounds to his head and back.
William remained in the front line while Harold was in hospital. It was the first time the two brothers had been separated since they signed up, and no doubt each was worried for the other.
Besides that one raid, though, William and the 28th did not see any major action for the next few weeks. They moved on to billets at Dernacourt, France, and then arrived in camp at Montauban, on the Somme, on the 2nd of November- the same day Harold returned to the front after 16 days recovering from his injuries.
The 28th Battalion moved immediately into the frontline of the Somme, relieving another battalion. The lieutenant-colonel in charge described the trenches they occupied as being "in a very bad way," muddy and disorderly after months of fierce fighting. The troops spent the next two days doing general work to improve the situation, preparing for their own impending big attack on the German lines.
As an outsider, it's hard to know what Harold and William Bleakley did on the night of the 4th of November 1916. From the possessions returned to their loved ones in 1917, Harold had with him a cork screw, some cards, a Bible and a candlestick, amongst other bits and pieces. William had with him a pair of glasses, five military books, and one small shoe, presumably belonging to his infant son, Robert.
So, perhaps they spent the evening playing cards by candlelight and talking of family at home, or perhaps not.
We'll never know, because the next day, November 5th, on only their second day of real fighting, William and Harold Bleakley were both killed in the charge on the German line known as Gird Trench.
5th November 1916- Owing to the inaccuracy of our artillery fire, through lack of observation, the enemy were not kept down in their trenches by our barrage, and the advancing troops were subject to very heavy rifle and machine gun fire, which prevented them reaching our objective.
The total losses were five officers killed and three wounded; of other ranks, 58 killed, 166 wounded, and 50 missing- including both Bleakleys, whose remains were never found.
At home, in a terrible double blow, the brothers' next of kin were informed that they were both missing in action in France. William's wife Annie, now caring for a toddler, and Harold's next of kin, their parents William and Elizabeth, were left unsure of their fate until March 1917, when an inquest determined that William had been killed at the time he was declared missing. In July 1917, a different inquest determined that Harold, too, had been dead for eight months.
The Red Cross continued to collect witness accounts after the inquests, which make for stark reading.
Two witnesses recalled seeing William Bleakley, who was well known as the keeper of a bicycle shop in Perth, shot through the head by a sniper during the charge. The witnesses had trouble distinguishing between the brothers, who despite eight years difference in age were physically similar- each short, at under 5'6", and with brown hair, blue eyes and fair complexions. Most witnesses reported seeing only one brother killed, but could not say with certainty which.
But one account is very specific about the fate of the Bleakleys. Witness Vincent W., of the 28th Battalion, stated on September 7th 1917 that:
These two brothers were killed during a charge we made in front of Fleurs, on Nov. 5th, '16. They went over together, and were in No Man's land, just near the German lines, when a shrapnel shell burst, killing them both instantly. I made sure they were dead, and went on, being wounded myself shortly afterwards. As I was taken away, I cannot say whether they were buried or not. At the time I was 2nd in command of the platoon, and knew the Bleakleys quite well by sight. They have a brother in the 1st Div. Army Service Corp.
Enlisted together, together through all their travels, together at the end.
After the news of William's and subsequently Harold's deaths arrived in 1917, their devastated father returned to England, seeking to return home with the rest of the family.
It was there, on 2nd of September 1917, just a couple of weeks after receiving final confirmation of Harold's death, that William Senior died suddenly at just 52 years of age, leaving Elizabeth and three children aged between 7 and 16 to fend for themselves back in Australia.
James, still a driver in France, applied immediately to be discharged from the army for family reasons, citing the fact that he was now the sole means of support for his mother and younger siblings, his father and two brothers now being deceased.
His request was immediately granted.
He was formally discharged from the Army on October 16th, and on October 31st boarded a ship to travel back to Perth.
James returned home to take care of his mother and siblings, and in 1920 he married and began a family of his own. Three years later, he and wife Beatrice welcomed a son, who was named Harold William after James's two fallen brothers. Harold eventually went away to war himself in 1942, enlisting in the 16th Battalion, just like his father, and likewise surviving the conflict to make it home in 1946.
James eventually moved away from Western Australia, and died in Victoria in 1964, aged 69.
Elizabeth, Annie and Robert
William's mother Elizabeth Bleakley and her daughter-in-law Annie, William's wife, both lived out the rest of their lives in Perth as widows, and remained close until Elizabeth's death at the age of 81 in 1947. In her obituaries, Elizabeth was described by friends as a "dear old lady".
When the Avenue of Honour was developed in Kings Park in the 1920s, it was Elizabeth who dedicated the tree to Harold, and Annie who dedicated the tree to William.
Annie travelled to England in 1923, and at the time wrote to the army asking for more information about her husband's resting place so that she could visit his grave. She stated her intent to visit the battlefields, and was no doubt disappointed by the reply, which explained that it was not possible to pinpoint the exact location, and that his remains may never have in fact been found. Annie received William's identity disc in 1918, so this must have been difficult to hear.
Annie passed away at exactly the same age as Elizabeth in 1974, having watched son Robert grow up to become a photographer, get married, and have two sons of his own. Robert enlisted in the army at the outbreak of World War II and saw service overseas, but like his uncle James and his cousin Harold, returned home safely.
Edith and Nellie
The two Bleakley sisters each married locals in Perth, with Edith naming her firstborn son William after her father and brother. Both also lived in Western Australia until the end of their lives. Edith's son William is one of the only Bleakleys of the next generation who is not listed on the WWII nominal roles, and he apparently did not follow the family tradition and join the army.
Leonard and Ronald
The two younger Bleakley brothers were aged seventeen and seven as war drew to a close in 1918. By the time war broke out again in 1939, they were both married fathers, and both enlisted in the volunteer defence corps, which did not see them serve overseas. Like their sisters and their mother, Ron lived in Western Australia to the end of his life. I'm yet to find a record of Len's death, so I hope he's still out there, living strong at 101 years of age.
So, the story of William and Harold turns out to be the story of a family of nine, who moved from the United Kingdom to Australia just before the Great War with hopes of a bright future. Two sons, tragically lost together in one awful year, on one awful day. A legacy, a memory, held between all of them, sons named after uncles, brothers enlisting in the Second World War, that has continued for many years.
When I set out on ANZAC Day this year to remember a soldier, I didn't anticipate hitting quite such a story. I probably shouldn't be surprised, because every soldier has a tale- I know, because it's one of the main reasons I'm writing my fiction novel.
It's taken five solid days of research to unravel the lives of the three Bleakley brothers and their family to understand who they were, where they came from, and what the impact of their death was. Several times my husband has suggested I might have become a bit obsessed with them.
I am, besides being an author of historical fiction, a professional historical researcher by day, so I know which buttons to push to open up Pandora's box, and getting this quantity of information hasn't been as hard as you'd think- it's all freely available through a range of online sources. [Side note: If you happen to be a Bleakley descendant, and you want the sources I've used, let me know and I'll gladly send them your way].
But I concede that he's partly right. I have been obsessed this week with hunting down everything there is to find about the Bleakleys, except that it's not so much about them.
It's about that bigger concept of the sacrifice of war. Multiply this amazing story out by the almost ten million people who died in the First World War, and you start to understand why the ripples of that conflict are still being felt today.
You understand why a crowd of 40,000 people still gets up well before dawn every year and stands in silence in the cold morning. To remember men their ancestors loved, and men they have no association with at all, except for being part of the same long line of human beings who've populated the world these past few million years or so.
On behalf of families everywhere who hope they never have to lose a son like this, let alone two, I say-
LEST WE FORGET
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.