A huge elliptical scar which ran from his back and then down and up under his rib cage towards his chest was the only outward sign that Henry Lea had lost a lung serving in the Great War.
A severe shrapnel wound to the right shoulder and chest in October 1917 had ended Henry’s war – and almost his life – on the Western Front, but in early 1918 he returned to his family’s farm at Witherin, resuming the life he had left behind when he had enlisted two and a half years earlier.
Henry’s nephew, George Lea, who still maintains the connection his pioneering family has had to the Witherin area since 1872, has fond memories of a much-loved uncle who seemed to take the war in his stride.
“He never spoke much about the war and didn’t have anything to do with the RSL – he just considered the job was done and over with and got on with his life,” said George, for whom Henry will always be “Uncle Tom”.
Henry only ever told the story of how, when his mate had been killed by an enemy shell exploding in their trench, he had been spattered with his friend’s remains.
“It was a horrible thing. Perhaps that was why he never talked about the war,” said George.
Born in 1894, Henry was the third of 10 children and was nicknamed Tom because he had been named for his father, also Henry.
He had been working at Tamrookum Station as a labourer before enlisting on August 13, 1915, and as an experienced horseman was originally marked for the 14th reinforcements of the 5th Light Horse Regiment.
Henry sailed from Brisbane for the Middle East on the HMAT Wandilla on January 31, 1916. On March 9 at Maadi he was taken on strength of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force which included veterans of the Gallipoli campaign.
Within weeks, Henry was transferred to the 55th Battery of the 14th Field Artillery Brigade. He was hospitalised with mumps for a week from April 1 and when discharged to duty was remustered as a Driver at Ferry Post.
On August 1, 1916, Henry left Alexandria on the Lake Manitoba as part of the British Expeditionary Force and, after arriving in England on September 29, was taken on strength of the 13th Training Battalion.
While training at Parkhouse, Henry overstayed his leave from midnight on October 15 to noon on October 16, forfeiting two days’ pay.
On December 4, as France was in the grip of its worst winter in decades, Henry embarked from England, via Folkestone on the Princess Victoria, to reinforce the 49th Battalion on the Western Front.
The battalion had taken a huge hit in the fighting in September around Mouquet Farm – known by the Diggers as MooCow Farm – and spent the horrendous winter of 1916-17 alternating between front-line duty and training and laboring behind the lines.
As the Germans made their strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in early 1917, the 49th Battalion was part of the pursuit and supported an allied attack at Noreuil on April 2.
The focus of the AIF’s operations in coming months was turned to the Ypes sector in Belgium.
Henry was witness to one of the greatest explosions in history, when 19 massive mines were detonated under the German front lines in an operation precipitating the Battle of Messines on June 7. The explosion that day was heard as far away as London and in the ensuing battle Henry was wounded in action, suffering a gunshot wound to the right arm.
He was treated in hospital in France from June 8 to 30, rejoining his battalion in Belgium on July 2.
The next major action for the 49th Battalion was the Battle of Polygon Wood on September 26, part of the larger operation known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
As Australia’s infantrymen advanced behind a massive artillery barrage, the noise of the field guns was so great that it reminded many of the Diggers of the roar of a bushfire back home.
Henry was wounded in action for the second time on October 19 when, according to the battalion’s war diary for 1917, the 49th Battalion moved to the Ypres Canal dugout area after being relieved by the 48th Battalion.
Suffering a severe shrapnel wound which penetrated his chest and right shoulder, Henry was treated in hospital in France and then evacuated to England on November 6.
A telegram dated November 9 was sent to Henry’s family at Pine Creek. It was collected from the Canungra Post Office by his much younger brother, William, who became George’s father.
“Dad was only 11 years old and he had to ride home with the telegram not knowing if his brother was alive or dead,” said George.
In hospital at Cambridge, Henry put up a brave fight for life, beating off infection in a pre-penicillin era.
“He had had a lung removed and they expected him to die,” said George. “He came from a tough family.”
In March 1918, Henry was returned to Australia on the Wiltshire. The ship docked in Melbourne on May 1 and Henry travelled overland to Brisbane where he was discharged from the AIF.
Henry married in 1924 and he and his wife had two children, a daughter Sylvia, born that year, and a son, Cecil, born in 1926. In the years after the war and up until his retirement, Henry worked as a carpenter for the Department of Works.
At 75, Henry passed away in 1969 after developing pneumonia.
“He was a great guy and we were very fond of him,” said George.