Looking for William Francis (1898-1917)
Contributed by Gillian Nicholl
William Francis (1898-1917) second son of Michael and Margaret Byrne nee Finneran of Elfin, Temora, New South Wales. It is only recently that I have found him. William had two sisters and two brothers, the youngest being my beloved grandfather and I did not know he existed!
The Byrnes were a pioneer family having arrived in Victoria in the 1800s. They moved to the Riverina in the 1860s having first settled in Bendigo during the gold rush days. The opening up of land when the John Robertson Land Act was passed in 1861 saw them among the first white people to settle the district.
William attended the Convent School in Temora along with his brothers and sisters and at the time of the outbreak of World War 1, he was working as a labourer in Cootamundra. He enlisted into the 1st Australian Infantry Battalion, 19th Reinforcements (A.I.F.) in March 1916 and went to Liverpool, Sydney for further training. In August of the same year he embarked on H.M.A.T. Wiltshire and arrived in Plymouth in October.
The 1st Battalion was formed at Randwick Sydney in August 1914 not long after the start of the War and proceeded to Egypt in December. It took part in the ANZAC landing on the 25th of April 1915 as part of the second and third waves of attack, and served there until the evacuation in December. The withdrawal from Gallipoli saw the Battalion return to Egypt for reorganisation and expansion and was progressively transferred to France beginning in March 1916. Over the course of the next two and a half years they would take part in the fighting against the Germans on the Western Front. However, by the time the other A.I.F. units arrived in France the war on the Western Front was in stalemate.
The Attestation Papers of Private W. F. Byrne, service number 5980, states that he was 18 years and three months old, a natural born British Subject, labourer, and his N O K was his mother, Mrs Margaret Byrne of Young Hill, Temora. He had not been convicted by a Civil Power and had not been rejected for Military Service. In fact, William was five foot seven and a half inches tall and weighed 147 Lbs. A fair, young fit lad of Irish descent and a Roman Catholic to boot! The service record does not give very much detail about where he was in England however it is recorded that on 13/12/1916 he proceeded overseas to France from Folkstone per SS Arundale. The next entry is noted from Etaples where Pte Byrne is charged: Out of Bounds and is awarded by the Officer Commanding the 1st Australian Divisional Base Depot – 14 days F.P. no 2 and is sent to Detention just after Christmas. By 04/02/1917 Pte Byrne is marched out to his unit.
In April and May 1917, Australian soldiers took part in some of the bloodiest chapters of the War when they fought in two great battles near the town of Bullecourt. During the disastrous first battle, Australian and British infantry were forced to attack without support after the tanks were lost or destroyed by German artillery. The Australians managed to break into the Hindenburg Line but were overwhelmed when the Germans counterattacked. The second battle was more successful; however, the cost was enormous with more than 7,000 Australians killed or wounded in two weeks. It was during this period that William died on or about 5-8th May 1917 at the Second Battle of Bullecourt, killed in action. He is buried in the Cemetery Villers-Bretonneux Memorial Department da La Somme, Picardie, France.
The next entries in the service records are from Margaret Byrne. Letters requesting information about his death, the whereabouts of his personal effects, including a gold wrist watch and of course his medals. As late as September 1929, Margaret writes asking clarification on the distribution to the next of kin, of Memorial Plaques and Scrolls and a letter from the King. There is also a copy of his will “leaving all of my property both personal and reality to my mother”, dated April 1917. At some stage, Margaret applies for a pension and in July 1917 is granted at 14/- per fortnight. About this time, there is a request to the Army Base Records for a Certificate of Death so that the transfer of property can occur and the finalisation of his Estate. The return reply requested the charge of 2/6 for the cost of the document. The worst one of all is the confirmation notice of the death of Pte W.F. Byrne, Sern 5980, 1st Australian Infantry Battalion, 19th Reinforcements.
I didn’t expect to find you. Now I have.
NSW Birth Certificate, Sydney 8887/1898 William Francis Byrne.
National Archive of Australia, Death of Pioneer, Mrs Bridget Byrne, The Daily Advertiser, 25/06/1929.
National Archive of Australia, Service Records of William Francis Byrne 1916-1919.
1st Battalion AIF Historical Committee, The History of the First Battalion AIF 1914-1919 (Sydney: James J. Lee, 1931).
D. J. Blair, Dinkum Diggers: An Australian Battalion at War (Carlton; Melbourne Uni Press, 2001).
Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2013).