Admitting he was Australian likely cost Frank Curtis his life at the hands of a German officer in the Somme in April, 1918.
The shocking circumstances of the “uncommon brutality” surrounding the death of Private Frank Curtis of Tamborine Mountain were recorded by the eminent correspondent Charles Bean in his epic Official History of Australians in the War of 1914-1918.
The information had been drawn from statements contained in an Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file in which eyewitnesses, including a D Company comrade of Frank Curtis’ 37th Battalion, described how he had been taken prisoner “in a hop-over by Fritz at Albert”.
Another eyewitness was Private James O’Rourke, one of eight men including Frank Curtis and two officers, taken prisoner when the Germans attacked and broke through the front line, surrounding them in a trench at Dernancourt on April 5, 1918.
“An enemy officer, when we came out of the trench asked ‘Who are you?’ and since Curtis was nearest to him he replied ‘We are Australians,” said Private O’Rourke, in his statement.
“This German officer, without a word, pulled out his revolver and shot him in the stomach about eight paces distant.
“There was absolutely no reason for this as Curtis was a very quiet chap and gave no offence.
“This enemy officer then instructed some of us to carry Curtis to the German Dressing Station about half a mile back.
“We were eventually taken to Moislaine Hospital and put to work at Stretcher Bearing.
“I am sure Curtis was fatally wounded and the others were all of the same opinion, as his wound was a bad one and he was bleeding freely.
“We never heard any more of him after the boys carried him about 400 yards, stopped and endeavoured to stop the bleeding.”
However, Private Henry Wotton, who knew Frank Curtis from training with the 13th reinforcements of the 12th Machine Gun Company at Seymour and had shipped with him on the Suevic from Melbourne in June 1917, said he saw Frank’s body when he “went up to the line” at Dernancourt.
“It was not covered and I recognised him,” said Private Wotton in his statement of September 5, 1918, recalling that Frank Curtis came from Tamborine Mountain in Queensland.
“We had to come back and I am unable to say whether he was brought back and buried or not. We had to get back tout suite.
“I have no doubt it was he and that he was dead.”
Initially posted as Missing in Action on April 5, 1918, Frank Curtis was finally listed as Killed in Action on November 1, 1918.
The Red Cross file also contains a letter written in July, 1918, by Frank’s fiancée, Bessie Clowes, of Greenslopes in Brisbane, seeking “information regarding his whereabouts” after he was reported Missing in Action in France three months earlier.
The Curtis family still keeps a photo taken of Frank and Bessie together on horseback during his last visit home before he left to go to war.
Frank, born on February 21, 1891 to Tamborine Mountain’s pioneering Curtis family, had established a citrus orchard with his brothers William and Ernie before the war.
All three brothers had served in the Militia in the years leading up to the war and Frank enlisted for overseas service on January 13, 1917.
He shipped from Melbourne in June, arriving in England two months later, but illness delayed his arrival in France, with Queensland’s 47th Battalion as part of the 4th Division AIF, until January of 1918.
In March, the division was rushed to the Somme region to stem the German Spring Offensive and repulsed the advancing Germans in hard-fought battles at Hebuterne and Dernancourt.
It was at Dernancourt, on April 5, 1918, that Frank lost his life.
The high number of casualties in repelling the German offensive and the shortage of reinforcements from Australia resulted in Frank’s battalion, the 47th, being disbanded the following month.
His comrades went on to fight as reinforcements for other battalions in the battles of Hamel, Amiens and the Hindenburg Line, sustaining horrendous losses in the last months of the war.
Born nine years after Frank Curtis was killed, Raymond Curtis was given the second name of Frank in honour of his father Edmund’s brother. Although he never knew him, Raymond always felt a close connection with his lost uncle and was conscious of the ‘gap’ his death had left in the Curtis family.
Raymond, now well in his 80s, said he had spent ‘half a lifetime’ trying to understand why a German officer would simply shoot a prisoner who had clearly surrendered.
“God knows,” said Raymond, who was moved to write a poem about his uncle’s death.
“The man who did it had to live with that.
“It was a time of horrifying slaughter, of Australians and Germans, with thousands killed in a day.”
Although news of Frank’s death had come as a shock to many family members, it was something his father had ‘foreseen’ – even before the war had begun.
Raymond said that some six years before war broke out, his grandfather, Edmund Ford Curtis, had had a vision of his son Frank being hit by a bullet and slumping to the ground.
“He didn’t tell anybody at the time because he thought there was no object in saying ‘I’ve just seen Frank die’,” said Raymond.