Lieutenant John Learmonth of the 2/3 Australian Field Regiment

John Learmonth and Diary Extract

At the end on Crete he took to the hills, and said he’d fight it out with only a revolver.
He was a great soldier …

“I wonder,” mused my brother a few years ago now, “whether things would have been different if we had had uncles.”
I stopped short. I treasured my two aunts. Mostly for their abundance of attitude. Would my brothers, likewise have respected and revered their uncles had they had them?

Last year I reflected a little on the life of Uncle Charlie.

Uncle John’s diaries are his very personal story. But can I put his story in the broad context of the war? What were the conditions like in Germany at the time? How were the prisoners treated? Did this differ from camp to camp – Uncle John spent time in four officer camps:

Oflag XC Lübeck
Oflag VIB Warburg
Oflag VIIB Eichstätt
Oflag IX A/Z Rotenburg

In June or July this year I hope to follow John Learmonth’s restricted World War II journey through the German country side. This post is my starting point.

I would love to hear suggestions as to what might add value to what Uncle John wrote in the diaries that have survived him.

We know that John Learmonth wrote eleven diaries before he died in May 1944. We don’t have them all. Nor do the ones we have cover all of Uncle John’s experiences.

At the beginning of Diary 3 and on 3 November 1939 John Learmonth wrote about his previous diary (Diary 2):

I cannot remember when I wrote the last entry in my previous diary, or even what I wrote about. That diary will probably be found amongst my other possessions at Carramar, Tyrendarra, Vic.

John confirms in later diaries that he sealed his first two diaries and sent them home with the rest of his possessions at the time he transferred from the Militia to the AIF. We assume they were later destroyed.

Uncle John’s Diary 3 covers the period from when he attended training at Seymour until he sailed from the Clyde on the Empress of Canada for Egypt. At the beginning of his Diary 4 he wrote:

My third diary, covering the twelve months (approx) ending 19/11/40, is with me now and will probably remain with my possessions wherever I go until the end of the war.

This was not to be the case. Written when he was a prisoner of war in Germany entries at the beginning of Diaries 8 and 9 indicate that Diary 3 was in his uniform trunk which was stored in the AIF kit store in Alexandria. However, this diary must have become separated from his kit for John wrote

Mum says my diary has been removed from my trunk returned from Alexandria.

The original of Diary 4 is held in Russian Archives. A copy was given to the family in 1998. It covers John’s Greek and Crete campaign but not, alas, the final two months leading up to his capture in Crete on 30 May 1941. Perhaps mindful that his diaries were being read by the German censors Uncle John recorded in Diary 9 that he had destroyed Diary 4

on being captured in Crete in May 1941.

Diaries 4 & 5 were probably destroyed in the Parcels Office fire. Just be careful here:

The fourth I destroyed on being captured in Crete in May 1941 and subsequently rewrote as the 4th and 5th while in Salonika.

Uncle John was in the Salonika Transit Camp in northern Greece 11 June to 22 July 1941. This was a large transit camp where the conditions were appalling. The prisoners were starving and covered with lice and other bugs. They received no letters, no food parcels from home nor any Red Cross parcels.

The rewritten Diaries 4 and 5 together with Diaries 6 and 7 were confiscated on Uncle John’s arrival at Oflag XC Lübeck. This camp was located near Hamburg and Uncle John was there for 6 weeks – 29 July – 8 October 1942. The conditions were better than Salonika but rations were minimal and still there were no food parcels nor any Red Cross parcels. On the nights of 7 and 8 September 1942 the Parcels Office in the Lübeck camp caught fire and it seemed that John’s diaries had disappeared forever. On 4 December 1942 he wrote

I regret very much losing the diaries preceding this one (No 8). They throw an interesting light on my state of mind when first taken prisoner. Although I am now well on the way to re-writing them I cannot entirely recapture the atmosphere of that period.

Despite the loss of his previous diaries John handed a completed one in for censoring at his new camp Oflag VIB Warburg – near Dossel in Westphalia. John’s trust was rewarded as it was eventually returned to him. Uncle John arrived at Warburg on 9 October 1941 and stayed for 11 months. Here Red Cross Parcels started to arrive – together with the first of many letters and parcels from home.

Uncle John moved yet again – to Oflag VIIB Eichstätt for ten months until July 1943 and finally to Oflag 9 A/Z Rotenburg for the ten months until his death there in May 1944. During this period he wrote his last three diaries – Nos 9, 10 and 11.

John Learmonth is remembered in Hanover Cemetery looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

No story about Uncle John is complete without including John Manifold’s elegy. Yes, there is a story in the words written but the genius of the poem is in its form – based on the Classics? The form accentuates the emotions expressed. From the second verse look at the first and third lines. They rhyme with the second line of the preceding verse:

This is not sorrow, this is work: I build
A cairn of words over a silent man,
My friend John Learmonth whom the Germans killed.

There was no word of hero in his plan;
Verse should have been his love and peace his trade
But history turned him to a partisan.

Far from the battle as his bones are laid
Crete will remember him. Remember well,
Mountains of Crete, the Second Field Brigade!

Say Crete, and there is little more to tell
Of muddle tall as treachery, despair
And black defeat resounding like a bell;

But bring the magnifying focus near
And In contempt of muddle and defeat
The old heroic virtues still appear.

Australian blood where hot and icy meet
(James Hogg and Lermontov were of his kin)
Lie still and fertilise the fields of Crete.

Schoolboy, I watched his ballading begin:
Billy and bullocky and billabong,
Our properties of childhood, all were in.

I heard the air though not the undersong,
The fierceness and resolve; but all the same
They’re the tradition, and tradition’s strong.

Swagman and bushranger die hard, die game,
Die fighting, like that wild colonial boy –
Jack Dowling, says the ballad, was his name.

He also spun his pistol like a toy,
Turned to the hills like wolf or kangaroo
And faced destruction with a bitter joy.

His freedom gave him nothing else to do
But set his back against his family tree
And fight the better for the fact he knew

He was as good as dead. Because the sea
Was closed and the air dark and the land lost,
“They’ll never capture me alive,” said he

That’s courage chemically pure, uncrossed
With sacrifice or duty or career,
Which counts and pays in ready coin the cost

Of holding course. Armies are not its sphere
Where all’s contrived to achieve its counterfeit;
It swears with discipline, it’s volunteer.

I could as hardly make a moral fit
Around it as around a lightning flash.
There is no moral, that’s the point of it,

No moral. But I’m glad of this panache
That sparkles, as from flint, from us and steel,
True to no crown nor presidential sash

Nor flag nor fame. Let others mourn and feel
He died for nothing: nothings have their place.
While thus the kind and civilise conceal

This spring of unsuspected inward grace
And look on death as equals, I am filled
With queer affection for the human race.

The Tomb of Lieut. John Learmonth, AIF
by John Manifold

Gunner Holmes Part 1

 

On 15 August 1914 the 1st Division was initially formed as the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
In the August offensive a year later the 1st Division’s role was to hold the front line and conduct a diversion at Lone Pine.
A further year on in August 1916 Gunner Holmes, recovered from injuries incurred at Lone Pine, embarked for France.

In these two years Louis Aaron Holmes (1886-1960) saw less than two month’s active service. I remember my great uncle Lou as quiet and a man to be respected in the way great uncles should be. Comments by repatriation doctors paint a different picture. And when I look at the record of his military service I begin to understand why.

Louis Aaron Holmes enlisted on 1 October 1914 having emigrated to Victoria from Woolwich, Kent just a year beforehand. He was taken on with the 1st Division Ammunition Column Reinforcements and was to become a gunner in the 4th Battery of the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade.

There is a glimpse of his service and the possible effects in his military personnel records. What Uncle Lou did in the war and afterwards is better understood on reading his repatriation records as well as exploring relevant World War I unit diaries.

Uncle Lou sailed from Melbourne on 22 December 1914 and arrived in Egypt two months later. Here the Divisional Ammunition Column Reinforcements underwent further training in Egypt. Some were taken on strength for the Anzac campaign but Uncle Lou did not get to Gallipoli Peninsula until the middle of July 1915. And perhaps I would never have known just precisely where he was if it weren’t for mention of his first misadventure to the repatriation medical staff.

In establishing that his injuries were war related Uncle Lou mentioned to Repatriation that his hernias were due to placing the two three pounder Hotchkiss guns. These guns were taken over by his battery on 29 August 1915 and placed on Russell’s Top. It seemed from Uncle Lou’s recollection that a horse took fright or some part of the gun carriage snapped leaving Uncle Lou taking the full weight of a Hotchkiss gun.

A few days later 15 effective rounds were fired from one of the Hotchkiss guns before its sights were damaged and the gun pit badly damaged. The Lieutenant and seven other ranks were evacuated by the Medical Officer. I believe that Lou Holmes was one of those other ranks. While his most severe injuries were received in placing the guns he also received some shrapnel wounds when when the gun pit was damaged.

That period from the middle of July 1915 to the beginning of September was the total of Uncle Lou’s active war service until he joined his unit a year later on the Western Front.

He was evacuated from Gallipoli Peninsula by the Hospital Ship Nile to Malta where he was recorded as having dysentery, piles and rupture. The more badly injured men were returned to Australia from Malta but Uncle Lou was transferred by the Hospital Ship Hunslet bound for England. Here started his journey to recover from his wounds, to get fit, train and join his unit preparing for the war on the Western Front. His journey included seven months in London hospitals and periods at the Monte Video Camp at Weymouth Dorset, Perham Downs near Salisbury, Wiltshire and finally Bulford Cam, also on the Salisbury Plains, before undergoing further training in France in August 1916.

Selected Bibliography:
National Archives of Australia, NAA B2455 Louis Aaron Holmes Service Number 3434
National Archives of Australia, NAA B73 H34661 and M34661 Repatriation personal hospital medical case files, World War I Louis Aaron Holmes Service Number 3434 4th Battery, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade
Australian War Memorial AWM4 Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War including Subclass 13/10 Headquarters 1st Australian Division Artillery, Subclass 13/30 Headquarters 2nd Australian Field Artillery Brigade and Subclass 13/66 4th Battery Australian Field Artillery diaries.

Image courtesy Australian War Memorial www.awm.gov.au/collection/C01635 A driver guides his pair of mules and AT (artillery transport) cart up a slope near Anzac Cove.

Canberra Congress – Emigration

The gate by the milking shed was left open. So just for a few days my horizons have changed from looking at land selection records in South Western Victoria – mostly within the triangle Portland, Hamilton and Warrnambool for that is where my ancestors settled.
The vista and the beckoning horizons were set there right in the opening address – by the story woven and told by Dr Mathew Trinca of the National Museum. From the keeper of Phar Lap’s heart no less. The tone and his example has been set for the rest of the Congress.
I have found a couple of themes to follow when possible.
It certainly is time to revisit the emigration stories of my ancestors who came to the colonies like Brown’s cows starting with Robert Ralston’s emigration scout, his niece and my first cousin four times removed, Agnes McClymont in 1823 and finishing with the emigration of my great grandfather Charles Salter fifty years later.
As I listened to Simon Fowler and Roger Kershaw and the voice at the back of the lecture room, I see that there is no avoiding it as I have been for the past decade or so. The circumstances of leaving is not common across them all. They are peculiar to each emigration journey and each deserves to have their story told.
That is, in the flavour of Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do Over, I should set aside what I have done so far and start again. This time considering the factors that caused them to emigrate. Was it just for the sense of adventure? Were they driven out, as was William Lord of Kilmuckridge in County Wexford, by difficulties with their landlords? And I am sure that William Newman’s journey from Westminster is still out there to be found.
Kerry Farmer’s two presentations on DNA were absolutely first class. I have been looking for ways to describe simply the results of an mtDNA search I requested. The presentation of Day 1 was spot on. But then I got completely confused on yesterday. I think, Thomas MacEntee, that these two sessions in particular require to be itemised separately in my further education!
And it is fortunate that we have a four generations chart of Charles Baulch’s descendants. I can see it will be much consulted as more Baulch cousins undertake DNA testing The chart finishes at the end of autosomal DNA searches so will be a good confirming link into further Baulch connections. Well at least I hope so.
But the land selection records never go away. My first discussion yesterday wasn’t about my genealogy software tool, Legacy Family Tree but about land selection around Tarrington (just south of Hamilton). Sure, some of the answers lie in government land records. But one of the best ways to begin is with the local paper, the Hamilton Spectator. Won’t it be great when the Spectator will be finally up there on Trove?

Canberra Congress – DNA

Wholly moley!

I have attended two lectures by Kerry Farmer with regards to DNA testing for genealogists. My, have I dipped my toes into a very deep pool. There seems to be far more we can do besides determining that Eliza Ann Porter’s maternal line is part of the J1c9 haplogroup (see my previous post of 24 March 2015). I am completely confused about X chromosomes from the nucleus and X shuffled chromosomes from the mitochondria but fortunately Kerry Farmer has written a book. So I have some homework to do.

A connection to a descendant of Charles Baulch (brother to Francis and Enoch Baulch) stopped by this afternoon to look at where they fit on our big family tree. Congress a success. I would have hated to go home without meeting at least one Baulch connection.

As for the rest about Congress that must come later.