Arthur Sydney Wilson: A Mentone Boy

Wilson family taken at Spotswood c1915. Back: Alexander John Wilson, Mary Frances Wilson, Arthur Sydney Wilson. Centre: Grace Wilson, Sydney Alexander Wilson. Front Muriel Wilson, Isabel Wilson, James Reginald Wilson on father’s knee and Maxwell Alexander Wilson. Courtesy Tony Wilson, Kingston Collection.

Arthur Sydney Wilson was a Mentone boy born in Walwa, Victoria but resided with his family in Collins Street, in what was then then called Cheltenham. He was twenty years and three months old at the time of his enlistment when he gave his occupation as labourer. He was killed during the Passchendaele offensive, dying on 13 October 1917.

During the nine months between the time of his enlistment until his death Arthur Wilson wrote many letters to family and friends. In them he described things that happened to him and how he was surviving military life. Some of these letters, written to his twenty three year old sister, Mary, have survived and are the major source of information for this story. There were also two letters written to Arthur by his eighteen year old sister Muriel and thirteen year old brother Max, both written after his death. They were returned to the family as undelivered mail.

Arthur Sydney Wilson of Mentone (seated) and Henry Deam from Elsternwick in Egypt for training in July 1917. Courtesy Tony Wilson, Kingston Collection.

Fifteen days after enlistment he was writing from the Recruit Depot at Royal Park Melbourne to Mary. He said he was having a lovely time getting leave three nights a week and at weekends but with a transfer to the Light Horse he was going to Seymour where leave provisions were not so generous. However, Arthur didn’t expect to stay too long in Seymour as he believed Egypt was the ultimate destination with the possibility of being transferred in the Camel Corp.

On the 19 February 1917 he was bound for England on board HMAT Ballarat, a converted P&O, 11,120 gross ton steamer. The second letter to Mary was written on 4 March. In it he explained the voyage was a bit rough for a few days when the ship was sailing through the Australian Bight. Many men were sick but Arthur was pleased he was spared. He also recalled his send-off the Wednesday before the ship sailed. There was a party with dancing at Mrs Higgs where an excellent supper was provided at eleven o’clock. There were about twenty of his male friends present. They gave Arthur a silver cigarette case while Ida (girlfriend???) gave him a wallet inscribed with his initials.

The departure of the ship from Melbourne was a sad and emotional occasion for relatives and friends with the shedding of many tears, ‘nearly everyone on the pier started to cry’, wrote Arthur. With the delay of the departure for some hours he thought it was good that his step-mother, dad and young brother Jim got tired of waiting for the departure and had left prior to the sailing. He suggested ‘she would have broke up.’

Towards the conclusion of the letter to Mary, Arthur commented he had written about a dozen letter since leaving Melbourne, the most he had ever written, three to home, three to Doris, four to Ida and two or three to different boys.

Writing on March 10, and still on the ship he wanted to let Mary know he was ‘alive and kicking’. The voyage had become more settled since leaving Fremantle and the troops spent much of the time engaged in sporting activities. ‘There was boxing and wrestling once a week and free fights almost every day.’ Arthur himself became a combatant when one of the men threw a cat on his face while he was resting in a hammock. Beside the shock, the cat scratched both his lips. Annoyed, he punched the offending soldier causing him to bleed from the nose and mouth. Arthur also reported there were about half a dozen boys from Mordialloc on board the Ballarat and he knew nearly all of them.

On the first of April he wrote from the ship that the weather was very hot causing the men to go ‘about nearly naked half the time.’ Almost all had cut their trouser off at the knees which they wore with sandshoes, no shirt. As a result Arthur said he was as brown as a berry all over his legs, and shoulders. He was also putting on weight. ‘I getting as fat as a poddy calf since being on the water.’ In addition to sport on board there was a church parade each Sunday morning and a ‘sing song’ service at night. He had joined a bible class in which there were only five members but he expected the number to grow the following Sunday. They had services of Holy Communion conducted by Chaplain Buckley who he thought ‘was very nice.’

Arthur writes to Mary on 6 May 1917 from camp in England after being on a transport sunk by a German submarine. Courtesy Tony Wilson, Kingston Collection

The next letter sent in May, when they were in the English channel approaching the southern coast of England, the transport ship, the HMAT Ballarat was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Arthur wrote, ‘it was a bit of a shock to us I can tell you but no one was drowned. I saw the torpedo before it hit the boat. When it hit the side of the boat it exploded and made a row like one of the big guns on a battle ship. I had a bit of a swim but I soon got picked up by one of the destroyers. … I can tell you it is very cold over here. We lost all our kits and I lost the scarf you gave me. I saved the wallet and cigarette case but I was not allowed to go down and get my kit bag so I lost all my clothes.’ He also reported the receipt of several letters including one from Vera Prince.

HMAT Ballarat sinking after being torpedoed by German submarine in English Channel. Destroyer in background 1917.

In the letter he wrote in June there were two themes; loneliness and gambling. Arthur had not received a letter from Australia for over four weeks and wrote that he was ‘getting down harted (sic). For want of news. You can’t immagine (sic) how a letter cheer us up over here. I expect some every day but I don’t seem to have the luck.’ He was sitting on the floor writing his letter on an up-turned bucket because all the boys were playing cards on the table. Arthur said it was a terrible place for gambling. He had been playing cards but as he had lost all his wages he pulled out of the game despite the fact he thought of himself as expert card shark.

In July Arthur reported that he had received a letter that ‘Molly old girl’ wrote in April. He hoped she had received his letters which he sent every fortnight. The weather was cold and raining for four days at a time when it was called Summer. ‘The ground was chalky in nature and sticks to the boots which was an irritation for going on parades you needed clean boots and a shaved face.’ Although he couldn’t previously use a razor he was now proficient. He had started to grow a moustache but shaved it off and intended to stay that way.

Letter written to Mary from Lark Hill Military Camp in England on 1 July 1917. Courtesy Tony Wilson, Kingston Collection.

Later in July from Lark Hill camp in Salisbury, Arthur was again bemoaning the absence of letters from Australia but said he heard that Herb Brown, from the Mentone Fire Station was in a camp three miles away. He hoped to catch-up with him. He confessed he wasn’t feeling ‘too good.’ The previous day was pay day when they had a good time. A route march the next morning ‘took all the flashiness out of us’ but he planned to go bed early to recover. In another letter written in July he wrote of his intention to get leave to go to London and visit a family he had stayed with on an earlier occasion. But he thought permission would be refused. On a previous leave he had gone AWL (absent without leave). ‘I was away for four days over & I was in the clink for six days but that is a mere trifle over here.’ In addition to his confinement his army records show he forfeited ten days pay.

Physically, Arthur was in good condition. He had been selected as one of eight to join a battalion team to engage in a bayonet competition on a sports day. ‘I am pretty good with the bayonet, I tell you pretty help the Germans that I meet over in France. … I believe the King is going to try to be present at the sports so if he is I will be able to say I have performed before the King.’

The August letter commenced with a complaint about the lack of mail and goes on to predict he would be in France in another week but back in a London hospital shortly after, wounded. One piece of good news was that Herb Brown from the Mentone Fire Brigade was back in England and he had visited Arthur. ‘We had a good talk about old Mentone and had a good time in the canteen too.’ This was the last found letter that Arthur wrote to his sister Mary.
On 10 September 1917, two hundred and three days after leaving Melbourne, Arthur Sydney Wilson proceeded to France. Thirty three days later he was dead. He was one of Australian casualties in the Battle of Passchendaele. The battle was described as a disaster, executed in haste amidst horrendous conditions brought on by torrential rain resulting in 62 per cent casualties for the 38th Battalion. At first Arthur was declared missing in action of 13 October 1917 with his death being confirmed on 28 April 1918. The place of his burial is unknown.
Unknown to Max when he was writing his letter to his older brother, Arthur only had twelve days to live and would never read the words he wrote. Max wrote of family horses getting new coats and being prepared for their participation in the Cheltenham Show. Max believed he would win on Tango although he did not expect similar success for his brother Bobby who was riding Mr Mason’s pony in the show. The other news Max conveyed was the fact that Mentone jockey Frank Dempsey had won the Caulfield Cup for the second time and was driving a motor car all over the place by himself.
When Muriel wrote her letter Arthur had been dead for twenty days. She wrote about a Sunday School Concert where prizes were given out for attendance and Max and Doris were going to play a duet. Jim was to commence school at Mentone after Christmas. Two of the family ducks were laying ‘plenty’ and their father was about to organize a setting of duck eggs. ‘ The drake was fond of chasing the ducks and catching them by the neck with his beak but when he sees mother coming he lets them go. … I still have the rising sun you gave me. I am keeping to wear till you come back.’

St Augustine’s Church of England, Mentone. Courtesy Shirley Joy, Kingston Collection.

While the place of Arthur’s burial is unknown his sacrifice is records on five memorials. One is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Belgium, a second on the memorial gate in the Keith Styles Garden at Mentone, a third on the Memorial Wall in the Mentone Parade Memorial Park, a fourth in a stained glass memorial window in St Augustine’s Anglican Church in Mentone and the fifth at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

6 April 2015
  • Letters provided by Tony Wilson AM.
  • Attestation Papers for Persons Enlisting, National Archives.
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