Painful wait for news of loved ones in WWI worsened by distance and uncertainty
Troops from the 1st Australian Division near Ypres in Belgium, one day after Australians were killed at Broodseinde Ridge. (Supplied: Australian War Memorial)
“Have you heard any more about Pte Tollis F.L. no 7063 … the Fred Tollis from Boomi?”
The question was asked in a letter sent by Matilda Tollis to Australian Army headquarters in Sydney on January 30, 1918.
“We heard that it was in the paper about him being wounded in the hospital in France,” the ink-penned letter continued.
Private Tollis’ sister-in-law wrote from the small town of Boomi in north-western New South Wales that the family had not “heard from him for months now” and “his father was anxious”.
But when Ms Tollis wrote her letter, Fred Tollis had been dead for nearly four months.
It would be several more months before his records would be stamped “killed in action” and his family finally told.
It would be four years before they would know where he was killed and if he had “a decent burial”.
Some 60,000 Australian soldiers died on the battlegrounds of Europe and the Middle East during World War I.
The grief felt back home in Australia affected hundreds of thousands of people and was felt for generations.
Agonising wait for news
“His father is very anxious about him,” Fred Tollis’ sister-in-law wrote in a 1918 letter. (ABC News:Ross Nerdal)
About one in four families lost a husband or a son in WWI.
Many more lost a cousin, uncle or friend.
Even if none of your own family served, people were aware of a neighbour’s son, or someone from the football team or local school who was killed.
Tragically, the lack of details prolonged the grief and gave false hope.
One week after Ms Tollis’ letter, the Army’s Base Records replied: “I … regret to state that no 7063 Private F.L. Tollis, 1st Battalion, previously reported wounded, is now reported wounded and missing”.
Two months later, another letter from Base Records confirmed Private Fred Tollis was “killed in action”.
An inquiry in London, in March 1918, heard that Pte. S. Short had been told by Pte. Harper of 1st Battn. that “he had seen him [Tollis] blown to pieces by a shell”.
Pte Tollis died on October 4, 1917.
He was 22.
He was killed at Broodseinde Ridge, Passchendaele, near Ypres in Belgium.
The Battle of Broodseinde was one of three “bite and hold” operations around Ypres.
According to The Australian War Memorial website, Australian infantry advanced behind a creeping barrage of shells towards the German machine guns.
“The Australians gained all their objectives on the ridge, thereby giving the British forces their first glimpse of the lowlands beyond the top of the ridge since May 1915,” the website said.
Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean wrote: “The day’s success was a very great one — indeed the most complete yet won by the British Army in France in that war”.
But it was no “great success” for Fred Tollis’ family or the families of the 6,432 Australian casualties.
Families left in limbo
Australian War Memorial historian Meleah Hampton said bereavement for families back in Australia was made worse by distance and uncertainty.
Dr Hampton said the deaths of so many young men on battlefields on the other side of the world, made traditional patterns of mourning impossible.
Families could not stand beside a grave and grieve.
“A lot revolves around a grave site. You miss that you can go and tidy up or go there when you feel sad.”
In many cases, families would not know what happened, where bodies were or how their loved ones died.
Just where Fred Tollis lay remained a mystery for more than three years.
On June 8, 1921, Major J.M. Lean, Officer in Charge at Base records in Sydney wrote to Pte Tollis’ father, Samuel Tollis, but he did not have any answers for the family.
“I regret very much, notwithstanding the efforts of our Grave Services Unit, we have been unable to obtain any trace of the last resting place of your son.”
Major Lean asked if Mr Tollis had any idea where his son’s body may be.
“I shall be much obliged if you will let me have on loan any letters or communications that contain any reference to the circumstances surrounding his death, particularly the exact locality at which it occurred, or where he was last seen alive.”
He wrote that all steps were being taken to avoid interring bodies that are being recovered, under the heading “An Unknown Australian Soldier”.
Samuel Tollis replied that he had never been told where his son was killed, or if “he had a decent burial”.
Several Australian soldiers were buried at this cemetery at Vlamertinghe, near Ypres. (Supplied: Australian War Memorial)
Finding and burying the dead
It was not unusual for the Army to be unaware of what had happened to soldiers in major battles, like those on the Western Front.
“They could lose 600 men in one day and the command structure would be fractured and fragmented. The Army knew a man’s mate might write to the family,” Dr Hampton said.
After the war ended, the War Graves Commission began the huge task of finding and burying the dead.
In some cases, the bodies had been buried in small plots next to a battlefield, but sometimes they were left where they fell.
On the day of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Charles Bean walked over the site of the Battle of Fromelles, fought two years earlier.
“The old No-Man’s-Land full of our dead … the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying everywhere,” he wrote.
The War Graves Commission collected the remains, and exhumed bodies from makeshift burial sites, and reburied them in military-style straight rows, in elaborate war cemeteries.
A century later in Belgium and northern France, remains continue to be found when a heavy deluge of rain or the tip of a plough brings bones to the surface.
Just last week, on November 6, the remains of two Australian soldiers were interred at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Tyne Cot in Belgium.
Their bodies were found, along with a British soldier, near Passchendaele.
Efforts to identify them by DNA tests have so far failed.
Unidentified soldiers at Broodseinde Ridge one day after Fred Tollis was killed. (Supplied: Australian War Memorial)
Dearly loved son
Fred Tollis was found by the Graves unit four years after he was killed in action.
His records don’t reveal precisely where he was found, but his name is included on a list of exhumations by the Graves Registrations Unit.
He received the “decent burial” his father wanted, at Tyne Cot British Cemetery at Passchendaele.
Three photos of Fred Tollis’ grave were sent to his father on the other side of the world, with the location marker “Plt 41, Row B, Grave 4”.
It is not hard to imagine Samuel Tollis looking up an atlas to try to find a tiny spot on a map of Flanders.
Pte Tollis’ mother, Elizabeth Tollis, was spared the grief.
She died in Boomi in 1917, two weeks before her son died in Belgium.
It is unlikely the news of his mother’s death ever reached him.
Fred Tollis’ gravestone is inscribed with the words provided by his father, according to Army parameters, “66 letters including the spaces between the words”.
“In memory of the dearly loved son of Mr & Mrs S. Tollis of Boomi.”
He lies alongside 12,000 British soldiers, including 1,368 young Australian men who never came home.
8,336 of the graves are marked “Unknown Soldier”.
Fred Tollis is buried at Tyne Cot near Ypres in the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world. (ABC News: Supplied)