History | Culture | Ancestry
My Step-Dad’s family are about as quintessentially Australian as you can get – they play cricket, love their footy and speak with the rhyming slang of the Aussie accent. During the process of researching a little about this Australian branch of the family, I was to discover that their Australian credentials are actually deeper and much more important than anyone had previously realised.
One part of my Step-Dad’s family, the Rogersons, fit the Australian mould with an almost clichéd perfection. The Rogersons originate from a small village called Carlton in South Yorkshire, a village that coincidently lends its name to a prominent inner-city suburb of Melbourne. The family had lived in the area since at least the 1760s but in 1853 they set sail from Liverpool and arrived at Geelong in the colony of Victoria. By 1856 the Rogersons had settled at Clayton’s Hill in the gold mining town of Ballarat and they may even have been witnesses to one of the most famous events in Australian history, the Eureka Uprising, which took place there in 1854. Like many of these early European-Australians, the Rogersons eventually moved to suburban Melbourne, settling in the Eastern suburb of Box Hill.
It was in Box Hill that my Step-Dad’s Great-Grandfather was born in 1897. His name was Stirling John Rogerson and he was born to Abraham Rogerson, a Ballarat-born Woodcutter and Emily Archer whose parents had emigrated from Wales to North Melbourne. Stirling was born at a time when the Australian colonies were locked in negotiations that would eventually culminate in Australia becoming an independent nation in 1901. The idea of Australian nationhood was still a relatively recent concept and the political movement for a single Australian nation was less than 10 years old at the time of Stirling’s birth.
In 1903 Abraham Rogerson died at only 40 years of age, leaving the six year old Stirling and his older brother Abraham Leslie without their father. Around the age of 14, Stirling signed up as an Army Junior Cadet and at the outbreak of the First World War he was attached to the 48th Infantry AMF. The primary difference between the Australian Military Forces (AMF) and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at the outbreak of the First World War was that the AIF was established specifically for overseas service.
In August 1915, both Stirling and his brother Abraham enlisted for service in the AIF but after their initial training in Ascot Vale they were posted to separate units. Stirling was attached to the 8th Infantry Battalion and in November 1915 he left Australia via Adelaide onboard the HMAT Ceramic A40. Abraham on the other hand was with the 6th Infantry Battalion and he left for the front via Melbourne on board the HMAT Nestor A71 in October 1915.
By the end of 1915 the Australian Imperial Force had been fighting at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey for more than 6 months. The Gallipoli campaign was primarily conceived by the then British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and as the months dragged on, it became increasingly clear that the operation would not lead to the decisive Allied victory that Churchill had hoped would knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. Outside of the comparatively smaller Australian military commitments in the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Chinese Boxer Rebellion (1900), the Battle of Gallipoli was the first historically significant battle that Australian soldiers had participated in. Although the battle ultimately ended in defeat in January 1916, the story of the ANZACs at Gallipoli would subsequently figure prominently in the formation of an ‘Australian’ national consciousness.
Australia suffered around 28,000 casualties at Gallipoli and it was under this context that men like Stirling and Abraham Rogerson enlisted back home in Australia. Their units were even clearly identified as ‘re-enforcement’ units to bolster the AIF after the losses of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Yet by the time Stirling reached the Middle East the Battle of Gallipoli was drawing to a close. Stirling arrived in Egypt in early December, just a few weeks before the end of Gallipoli and the total evacuation of Australian forces from Turkey. With the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the AIF took the opportunity to reorganise and the re-enforcements sent from Australia were no longer immediately needed for front-line action in the Middle East.
Despite the lull in hostilities, Stirling still managed to find himself a regular visitor to the Australian field hospitals in Egypt. On the 5th of January, 1916 he was admitted for observation at the 1st Australian General Hospital (1st AGH) at Heliopolis Palace, near Cairo. Just 2 weeks later he was again admitted for care, this time at the 1st Auxiliary Hospital (1st AUX) with the painful condition known as ‘hammer toe’. Later documents record that Stirling had at least one toe missing from his foot and as the 1st AUX was known for specialising in surgical cases and amputees, it is possible that his toe was amputated there. The luckless Stirling was discharged from hospital at the beginning of February but by the end of March 1916 he was back under care near Cairo at the 3rd AGH with a case of food poisoning.
In May 1916, Stirling was transferred to the 60th Infantry Battalion and without any immediate combat duties in Egypt the men settled into a consistent schedule of training. Parades and marches were held and men practised their small arms fire, learnt to dig trenches and how to form skirmish lines and other battle formations.
The order finally came to leave for the Western Front and in August 1916 Stirling left Egypt at the port city of Alexandria on board the troop ship Franconia. After a week long journey the men were disembarked on the South Coast of England and the Franconia returned to the Mediterranean where it was sunk by a German U-Boat near Malta just 8 weeks later.
Stirling and the Australian re-enforcements arrived next at the garrison town of Larkshill in Wiltshire, less than 2km from Stonehenge. In mid-September, as the men prepared to travel to the trenches in France, Stirling was transferred from the 60th Battalion to the 59th Battalion, which were both part of the 15th Brigade. Stirling arrived at the French port of Etaples on the 23rd of September, 1916 and proceeded towards the front.
It is likely that Stirling reached the front line by the end of September or beginning of October. The battalion was still recovering from the nearly 700 casualties it had suffered at the Battle of Fromelles in August. Between July and mid-October the 59th remained in the Fromelles-Armentieres area of the line. Although there were no concerted attacks during this time, the men were still subject to the regular dangers of trench warfare and casualties occurred in a steady trickle. Alerts of gas attacks were routine, as were German snipers and sporadic artillery bombardment. Orders eventually arrived stating that the 59th would be transferred to the Somme front. Travelling by train from Ballieul, they arrived on the Somme on the 18th of October and by the 23rd of October they went into reserve at Montauban (de Picardie) and began a routine of bayonet, rifle and physical exercises.
At the end of October the 59th moved into the ‘Carlton’ trench in the vicinity of Longeuval. Stirling would have appreciated the irony of being moved into this trench, as his own Grandfather had emigrated to Australia from Carlton in Yorkshire, while Stirling himself was born in Box Hill, Melbourne just a stone’s throw away from another Carlton. As Stirling sat in the ‘Carlton’ Trench, he may not have been aware that his Carlton-born Grandfather had actually died just a few weeks earlier at his home in Ballarat.
In October 1916 the 59th began a routine of trench rotation on the Somme battlefield near the villages of Flers, Longueval, Gueudecourt and Lesboeufs. While here they came under sustained heavy bombardment, sometimes for up to an hour at a time, causing dozens of casualties – including at least one case of ‘shell shock’ or as we’d more accurately define it today, Post Traumatic Stress.
Thomas Ralph Brain was a member of the 60th Battalion before being transferred to the 59th Battalion later in the war. On the 19th of July 1916 all of his teeth were knocked out in an artillery barrage that also killed his best friend. He suffered from shell shock in October 1916 after narrowly surviving another barrage that blew him out of his shelter. In July 1917 he accidentally shot himself in the foot while mishandling a rifle and he was also wounded in battle in July 1918. He would have known Abraham Rogerson from his time in the 60th Battalion. Thomas Brain discussed his wartime experiences in an interview recorded in 1992 from his home in Frankston, Victoria. [Link]
The 59th had a short break from the front line during Christmas 1916 but returned to the trenches under the cover of snow in January 1917. Settling into positions near Delville Wood and ‘Needle’ trench, the battalion continued their work in creating and improving the existing network of wooden ‘duck board’ paths which assisted the infantry in being able to walk quickly to the trenches over muddy fields.
After receiving a period of intensified artillery bombardment in early February 1917, the 59th was removed from the front line and posted to the secondary trenches near Delville Wood and Trones Wood for resupply and a “scabbies inspection”. A notable event at this time was a bombing run by a single German aircraft and while these aerial attacks were relatively ineffective, the first recorded use of aeroplanes in warfare had only occurred 5 years previously.
The battalion diary for the 12th of February recorded that it was a snowy and misty day. An alarm had been raised for an imminent gas attack which never materialised and there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the battalion routine aside from two men being listed as wounded in action. However, while it was routine for the battalion, it certainly wasn’t for Stirling, who was in fact one of the two men who had been wounded in action that day. Stirling’s service record states that he was ‘wounded in action’, a ‘gun shot wound’ to the ‘chest and back’. Either this means that he was hit twice, both in the chest and back, or the more likely case that the chest/back wound was the entry and exit points of a projectile which had passed through his body.
What remains a mystery is the events that led to this wound, and where exactly it took place.
My understanding is that on the 12th of February the 59th Battalion was not posted on the direct front line, with A, B and C Companies posted at “B Camp” at Trones Wood and D Company at Delville Wood. Both of these locations are close enough to the front line to be in imminent danger of artillery bombardment, but probably not close for a stray bullet to hit them. In a letter written in 1942, Stirling reveals that he was a member of ‘B’ Company, 59th Battalion’ which should put him at or near Trones Wood on the day of his wounding and not on the front line trenches. We can only therefore speculate on the events leading to Stirling’s wound. It is likely that Stirling’s injury was not a gun shot wound at all, but an injury sustained from artillery shrapnel. Doctors in the First World War frequently erroneously used the expression ‘gun shot wound’ to describe any wounding, including a wound from artillery shrapnel. This was partially because bullet and shrapnel wounds were often indistinguishable. Shellfire was by far the most common cause of injury in the trenches and the most likely scenario is that Stirling was wounded by a stray artillery shell while behind the lines at Trones Wood. This theory is supported by the 15th Brigade diary, which reported that on the 12th of February, “hostile artillery was fairly active in the morning – otherwise there was little activity.”
Stirling was immediately evacuated to the rear following his injury. He was boarded on a ship at Havre, then evacuated to England, eventually arriving at the 1st Birmingham War Hospital. After a five month recuperation, he was transferred back to duty and in July he travelled from Folkestone on the South coast of England and back to Havre in France. While there he enjoyed a last few moments of freedom, being charged with drunken behaviour and fined 21 days wages.
Stirling was back with his battalion by August 1917. The 59th had been transferred to Sercus, in Northern France and far behind the front lines at Ypres. When the Australian troops transferred to Ypres it was noted that the way in which the Germans defended their position was different to the way they did so at the Somme. In the Ypres sector, the Germans had begun defending in depth, rather than fortifying single lines, and hundreds of concrete pillboxes were constructed all over the territory now controlled by Germany.
In September 1917, the I ANZAC Corp had been participating in the Battle of Passchendaele that was taking place near Ypres in Belgium. Through a series of coordinated and still controversial operations, the Western Allies progressively took ground from the Imperial German Army, but at the cost of huge casualties. As Stirling and the 59th Battalion moved towards the battle, the I ANZAC Corp attacked the German forces east of Ypres at the Battle of Menin Road on the 20th of September. “Hellfire Corner“, a road junction near the Australian front line was said to have been one of the most dangerous places in the world in 1917.
The result of this attack meant that the front line in the ANZAC sector now crossed a place known as Polygon Wood or Racecourse Wood because of the racecourse that existed there before the war. The area had also ironically been a Belgian Army firing range in previous years but by 1917 the entire ‘wood’ had been turned into a muddy quagmire due to the impact of thousands of artillery shells.
The 59th Battalion was to join the next phase of the attack that was to take place on the 26th of September. A new tactic would be used in which the infantry would attack under the cover of an advancing artillery bombardment. When the objective was taken, the men would dig in while the artillery prevented an enemy counter-attack. After a few days of preparation and consolidation this ‘bite and hold’ strategy would be repeated. On the 23rd of September the 15th Brigade (57th, 58th, 59th & 60th Battalions) moved into their positions on the line. The 59th went into reserve, while the 57th, 58th and 60th took up positions facing the Germans. In the days before the planned offensive, the 58th took a large amount of casualties when it received a heavy bombardment and then an attack from specially trained German storm troops. The 57th, 58th and 60th were then shelled on the morning of the offensive and it was therefore agreed that as Stirling’s 59th was the freshest of the 15th Brigade’s battalions it would lead the attack.
On the night of the 25th of September, Stirling and the men of the 59th moved into position. Passing by Black Watch Corner, they finished forming up by 2:17am and white tape had been used on the ground to guide the men into their correct positions.
The attack began precisely at 5:50am when thousands of shells were fired on the German lines. As the shells began to land, the men of the 59th were noted to have been in good spirits and were calmly finishing their last cigarettes. Exactly 3 minutes later, Stirling and his comrades went ‘over the top’ and advanced across no man’s land towards the concrete bunkers and machine gun posts occupied by the Germans. The misty conditions were ideal for an attack and the Australians made good initial gains, capturing many of the pillboxes before the Germans could recover from the shock of the initial barrage. However, when the British Middlesex Regiment failed to successfully link up on the Australian right flank, the 59th had to give ground – and it was here that they suffered most of their casualties. Further problems developed when the 29th and 31st, who were meant to be advancing behind the first attack, became bunched up with the 59th. Despite this, all of the initial objectives were captured by the 59th and the 29th and 31st Battalions moved past them to attack the secondary objectives, which were also largely taken and held against German counter-attacks.
Stirling’s unit (‘B’ Company) is mentioned specifically in a personal report filed with the papers of the 15th Brigade. A recount of the battle written by Signal Officer Lt A.J Pinkerton states:
“We moved into our position which had been carefully taped out early in the night. Every thing went off very smoothly and up to that time the Battalion had not suffered casualties. On reaching Black Watch Corner where Battalion Headquarters were. I being Signal Officer left 3 signallers there to establish the signal station, I went forward with the remainder of signallers, with necessary equipment to a position on the forward tape. Here, all were anxiously waiting zero hour which was 5:50am on the 26th. All of a sudden down came our barrage, well clear of the trench and seemed very well defined. When the barrage lifted Lieut. McIntosh jumped out the trench, the men being very quick to follow. From the front line I ran a telephone line forward, keeping in line with second wave. I saw about 10 men from ‘B’ Coy, 59th Battalion rush a pill box on the right of the sector and 8 prisoners were evacuated. There were prisoners coming from every direction by this time.” (1/10/1917)
The attack was a ‘success’ in that the Australians advanced about a kilometre from their initial positions. For the capture of this single kilometre of muddy, worthless ground, around 34,700 men were killed or wounded – 15,375 British, 5,770 Australians and 13,550 Germans. Of the 716 men of the 59th Battalion, 46 were killed, 200 wounded and 17 listed as missing, meaning the 59th had a casualty rate of 38%. This figure includes Stirling himself, who was shot in the right shoulder during the advance. The following day, Stirling’s brother Abraham, who was a member of the 60th Battalion, was shot in the back just metres away from where Stirling had been wounded less than 24 hours previously.
A week after his wounding, Stirling travelled over the channel aboard the hospital ship Ville de Liege and was admitted to Reading War Hospital. Following a prolonged period of recovery, he was eventually transferred to the hospital staff of the 1st Australian Dermatological Hospital (ADH) at Bulford in March 1918. Stirling’s conduct in the trenches was characterised by good behaviour and fulfilment of his duty, but he did not take on his new role as a member of hospital staff with any great enthusiasm. Between March 1918 and May 1919, Stirling left his post and went ‘absent without leave’ on numerous occasions, sometimes not returning for days at a time. Stirling was readmitted as a patient at the 1st ADH on the same day as his brother Abraham, who had also been in England after being shot for a second time, this time at The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
Stirling had another milestone in his life in February 1919 when he married a local woman, Ethel Boyington, in the Christ Church at Albany Street, London. At the time of their marriage, Ethel was serving in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). Unfortunately nearly all records relating to the QMAAC were destroyed in a World War Two bombing raid and it is now all but impossible to find further information regarding her service. Shortly after their marriage, Stirling’s first child was born and named Leslie Robert Rogerson.
With the armistice of November 1918 and the official end of the First World War in 1919, the men of the Australian Imperial Force were rapidly disbanded and sent home. On the 23rd of December 1919, Stirling, together with his wife and child, boarded the SS Port Napier for the trip back to Australia. They finally returned home in February 1920 but Stirling’s infant son died just 4 days after their arrival. Stirling was at least able to reunite with his brother Abraham, who had also survived the war and made it back to Australia. By the time Stirling was finally discharged from war service in July 1920, the Rogerson brothers had accumulated 10 years of service, at least 3 major battles and 4 separate woundings. Stirling remained in the army until at least 1924 and by 1928 he was listed on electoral records as an engine driver living with his family in Box Hill, Victoria.
The passage of time has made it less clear what Stirling John Rogerson did in the inter-war period. We do know that Stirling and his wife Ethel had at least 4 daughters born between 1920 and 1926 – Nellie (Doreen), Violet, Margaret and Ethel. In addition to working as a soldier and engine driver, later documents also reveal that he was employed as a carpenter.
However, this wasn’t the end of the Stirling’s story. On the 3rd of July 1940, he enlisted for duty with the Australian Army for his second war. As the Australian Army had changed its maximum age of enlistment to 40 years of age, Stirling lied on his enlistment papers by giving his birth year as 1901, when he was in fact born in 1897.
Stirling was subsequently allocated to various logistical units, but between November and December 1940 he experienced a number of painful health problems that resulted in him being repeatedly admitted to hospital. The army doctors were uncertain of what the illness was, listing it variably as ‘abdominal pain’, ‘appendicitis’, ‘enteritis’, ‘peptic ulcers’, ‘duodenal ulcers’, ‘myositis’, ‘neurasthenia’, ‘dyspepsia’, ‘neurasthenia’ and ‘pre-senility’. Later information would show that Stirling was in fact dying from abdominal cancer.
None the less, his health had recovered sufficiently that he was transferred to the 4th Reserve Motor Transport Company (4th Res MT Coy) and sent on overseas duty. In April 1941, Stirling and the 4th Res MT Coy boarded their ships at Sydney before sailing to Perth to pick up more men and equipment. They eventually disembarked at Singapore on the 24th of May 1941 – around the same time that the Japanese Government began planning its attack on the Western powers in South East Asia.
Stirling’s illness became progressively worse when he arrived in Singapore and he was sent to the 10th Australian General Hospital (10th AGH) at Malacca in June 1941. He was discharged in July but was back in hospital just 8 weeks later. The army eventually decided that Stirling’s illness was serious enough that he should be sent home. Stirling was transferred from Malaya to Singapore, where he embarked for Australia on the 15th of November, 1941.
Meanwhile, Japan’s relationship with the Netherlands, UK and the United States had become sufficiently strained that the Western powers had stopped selling them key economic resources such as oil. Faced with total economic collapse or seizing the resources of South-East Asia, Japan launched a series of successful offensives on American, British, Dutch and Chinese forces from December 1941.
When the war broke out, the men of Stirling’s unit, the 4th Res MT Coy, had the role of moving the men and equipment of the Australian 8th Division around Malaya and Singapore. Three months after Stirling left Singapore the Japanese quickly advanced through Malaya, capturing Singapore and 80,000 allied personnel. Hundreds of men from Stirling’s unit were captured and forced to endure the brutal conditions of the Japanese prisoner of war camps in Borneo and Burma. Only a small proportion of these prisoners ever returned home to Australia as most died while being used as forced labour or during ‘death marches’. One such march, the Sandakan death march, resulted in 2,345 deaths – meaning that of all the Allied prisoners of the Sandakan and Ranau camps, only 6 Australians survived.
Stirling narrowly missed this fate and arrived back in Australia on the 30th of November, 1941. Although he was still technically in the army, there is no mention of what he was doing in the months following his return. The last note on his service record shows that he had been disciplined and fined for a petty offence:
“Conduct to the prejudice or good order and military discipline. (1) Did assault a superior officer, to wit Sgt France (2) Did damage Government property, to wit breaking a window at Craigs Building value approximately at 10/6 admonished, fined 12/6.” Date- 19/1/1942
On the 2nd of February 1942 Stirling was discharged from service, being found medically unfit for further duty.
Stirling would not live to see the end of the war – he passed away from abdominal cancer on the 26th of March, 1945 at Prince Henry’s Hospital, South Melbourne. He was only 48 years old and was survived by his wife Ethel Rogerson (nee Boyington), his four daughters and his brother Abraham Rogerson, who became the executor of his estate.
Stirling served his country faithfully in two World Wars and was wounded twice in battle, yet the Rogerson family had difficulties in having Stirling’s wartime service properly recognised. In January 1942 Stirling wrote to the Australian authorities requesting that his wife be allocated a ‘Next of Kin Badge’ as she was the wife of a solder that had served in the First World War. The army refused this request on the grounds that according to the criteria of the award, the wife/husband relationship must have existed while the soldier was serving with the AIF and before November 1918. Stirling and Ethel’s marriage took place in February 1919 and not before the armistice of November 1918. While the army is correct to point out that technically Stirling and Ethel weren’t eligible because of their marriage date, it is hardly in the spirit of the award for it to be denied due to a 12 week date discrepancy. This is particularly the case as Stirling served with the AIF for most of its existence, he even remained in the army after the AIF was disbanded in 1921. Nearly 100 years later, Australian Next of Kin badges from the First World War can be bought on ebay for £20, yet despite his herculean efforts on the battlefield, Stirling was never given one – the army never even bothered to reply to his request for the badge in 1920, and his request in 1942 was also refused.
In 1950 the now widowed Ethel Rogerson wrote to the army to make another request, this time for a ‘Widow’s Badge’. Again, the family was refused, the reason given was that Stirling’s death occurred after he left the service. This appears to be a pretty inflexible reading of the rule, particularly when Stirling left the service because he had a terminal illness. Ethel replied to the army’s letter and her response implies that she initially made this enquiry because she had information that suggested Stirling’s death was directly due to his war service. It’s possible that Stirling was at an increased risk of cancer from his exposure to chemical weapons in the First World War. Regardless of this, there is no record of any further Army response to the enquiry, and it seems highly unlikely that Ethel ever received a Widow’s Badge.
Finally, Stirling’s eldest daughter Doreen wrote to the army in 1967 to enquire if her father was eligible for the newly created ANZAC medallion. Despite his service with the I and II ANZAC Corp at Passchendaele and the Somme, Stirling was not eligible for the ANZAC medallion because he had not been present at the Battle of Gallipoli. Again, this special awarding of a medal specifically for Gallipoli shows how even by 1967 the battle had taken on a mythologised status in Australian culture. The ANZAC veterans of Polygon Wood, Menin Road and Villers-Bretonneux never received any special recognition, even though they didn’t suffer any more or less than those at Gallipoli.
None the less, I’d like to dedicate this small post to the Victorians of the 59th Battalion AIF (1916-1919) and the the men of the 4th Reserve Motor Transport Company (1941-1945). Stirling John Rogerson’s name will also always be remembered – it is permanently located on panel 84 of the commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial.
History of the 59th Battalion (Click ‘view online’)