The next time I saw Clive and Mary I was fourteen and dad had left the air force. We were on a road trip to Melbourne to visit all our relatives on both sides of the family. My strongest memory was one of surprise when at dinner Uncle Clive suddenly asked who would say grace? A foreign concept for me.
In 2012, on a visit to Aunt Mary, she proudly showed me a small framed certificate she had in her hallway. It was given to her father Corporal Rupert Charles McWhinney to acknowledge his gallant and distinguished service in the field and he was “mentioned in a despatch” by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig on 7 November 1917. The certificate is signed by Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for War, Whitehall dated 1 March 1919, and says “I have it in command from the King to record His Majesty’s high appreciation of the services rendered”.
Aunt Mary now lives in a nursing home at Forest Hill in Melbourne and will be 90 in May 2018. When I visited her on Friday it was a little sad to see this grand lady, who was awarded with the Order of Australia medal in 2002 for years of service fostering hundreds of babies and young children, now confined to a chair with little memory of who I was. When I asked about her father though and showed her the framed certificate that hangs in her room, her eyes brightened and she said “we couldn’t find out what he did to receive it”.
I have looked through Rupert’s service record, number 360, and I cannot see any details apart from the usual details of enlistment, 24 January 1916, departure to England 19 October 1916, and shipped to France 22 November 1916. I also found a copy of his 37th battalion diary on the internet yesterday and read through the chapter on the Battle of Messines, 7 June 1917, when he was wounded quite badly, as were many of his battalion that day, and found no mention of his name anywhere.
From his service record though I know he was also wounded in action on 28 December 1916 by a gas shell but returned to his battalion on 1 January 1917. During the night before the major battle at Messines Mary’s father would have heard and felt the famous explosion of the Hill 60 mines as it is recorded in the 37th battalion diary. Later the next day he received a compound fracture of his left tibia and was admitted to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital in London on 19 June, before being returned to Australia on 31 October 1917, and finally being invalided and discharged on 28 May 1918. During the same battle when he was injured his Commanding Officer, Captain Robert Grieve, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Mary’s father was also awarded two oak leaves, one large and one small, the “mentioned in despatches” emblem worn on WWI medals. I searched the London Gazette for any details relating to this but could only find his name recorded, published on 28 December 1917, Supplement Number 30448, page 13567.
A few notes discovered by reading the 37th Battalion history:
The battalion was formed, as part of the 10th Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division, in February 1916 at Seymour in Victoria. Its recruits were drawn from Melbourne, north-east Victoria and Gippsland. After training in both Australia and Britain, the battalion moved to France on 23 November 1916. Within a week it had begun to occupy trenches on the Western Front, just in time for the onset of the terrible winter of 1916-17. During this time the 3rd Division was heavily involved in raiding the German trenches.
The 37th fought in its first major battle at Messines, in Belgium, from 7-9 June 1917. It also mentions the 34th battalion several times during that engagement. So my Melbourne and Adelaide Lilja cousins had both their grandfathers’ battalions fighting side by side for a time. The battalion fought in another two major attacks in this sector - the battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, and the battle of Passchendaele on 12 October, the same battle my grandfather Harold Lilja fought in.
Quoted from the battalion history: “The naming of the objectives - Red, Green, and Black - resulted from the use of those crayons on the staff maps prepared for the operation. It was an easy matter to mark such lines on a map, but it was another thing for the troops to reach them on the ground, when troubled by machine-gun and artillery fire.
And in regard to the gas shelling: “The gas had a pleasant "pineapple" smell, but it made the eyes stream with tears, and, if breathed in, caused a painful dryness and soreness in the throat, at times making men vomit violently.”
The 37th battalion motto “Indivisible” takes its rise from the occasion when the original 37th strove hard to avert oblivion, and then went valiantly forward to battle, as determined as ever to give a good account of itself. “To you from falling hands, we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high”.
Statistics published in 37th battalion history: Australia enlisted 416,809; 330,000 sent overseas; 226,073 casualties; 59, 285 killed, died, missing; a total of 68.5% casualties to numbers.
Battalion Decorations & Awards: 1 Victoria Cross Capt Grieve; 2 x Distinguished Service Orders; 18 x Military Crosses; 8 x Distinguished Conduct Medals; 68 x Military Medals; 1 x Bar to Military Medal; 16 x Mentioned in Despatches; 7 x Meritorious Service Medals; 2 x Croix de Guerre Belgium; 1 x Medaille Militaire.
Battle Honours included: Messines 1917, Ypres 1917, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Somme 1918.
Lest we forget Corporal R C McWhinney!