Letters to his mother described how Private Percy Watterson was killed while bravely going forward with a Lewis gun under heavy enemy fire at Hamel in July 1918, and of his platoon leader’s grief at the loss of one of his “best boys”.
Published in the Brisbane Courier in the last months of the war, the letters to Mary Watterson, of Canungra, tell of the high regard in which Percy was held by officers of the 15th Battalion, Lieutenant Charles Barwood and Major Burford Sampson.
“Long ere this you will have received the official notification of your boy’s death,” wrote Major Sampson, Percy’s company commander who, in January 1919, was himself awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
“Now that we are out for a brief spell, I want to tell you how it happened and how his mates in this company feel for you.
“At 3.10 am on the morning of July 4 the Australians attacked the village and wood of Hamel and captured it.
“We were in the leading waves. Your poor lad was killed by a shell whilst bravely going forward. Death was instantaneous.
“Next day after the fight, we gathered all our dead and laid them to rest on the slope under Vaire Wood.
“There the body of your boy lies surrounded by many of his comrades of this company. Our chaplain buried them and we have erected a cross inscribed with their numbers and names.
“Your son was a good lad, a brave fighter and cheer-fully endured all hardships. He was liked and respected by us all.
“Please accept the sincere sympathy of all his mates of this company.”
Percy’s platoon leader, Lieutenant Charles Barwood, also wrote to Mrs Watterson, expressing his “deepest sympathy”:
“I happened to be away from the battalion during the attack on Hamel. I was very grieved on my return to hear of his death. He had been in my platoon for some considerable time, and his work and conduct both in and out of the lines, was worthy of all praise.
“His friend, J M Broomfied was also killed at the same time, and I feel their loss more keenly as they were two of my best boys. I trust there may be consolation in knowing that Perce died as a brave man while advancing with a Lewis machine gun under heavy fire from the enemy. His work in the past will always keep his memory bright with us all.”
Born in Mullimbimby, New South Wales, to Thomas and Mary Watterson in 1891, Percy had a younger brother, Allan (Allie) Watterson, who also served during the war.
The family had relocated to Pine Creek around 1908 and Percy was working as a labourer at Lahey’s Sawmill in the nearby timber town of Canungra when he enlisted in November 1916, aged 25.
He left Sydney on the Ayrshire on January 24, 1917, and arrived in Devonport, England, on April 12.
After further training at Codford, he embarked for France on July 17, and in early August was taken on strength with the 24th reinforcements of the 15th Battalion.
The mostly Queensland battalion had suffered heavy losses at Bullecourt in April, after attacking strongly defended German positions without the tank support it had expected.
For the rest of 1917, most of the 15th Battalion’s operations were in Belgium, pushing towards the Hindenburg Line. In March and April of 1918, the battalion played an important role helping to halt the German army’s Spring Offensive.
The battalion’s only Victoria Cross of the war was awarded to Private Henry Dalziel, for his bravery at Hamel, where Percy Watterson was killed in action.
Initially buried at Hamel with his other fallen comrades, Percy was later re-interred at the Crucifix Corner Cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux.
In June 1921, Percy’s mother wrote to Army records requesting the words for her son’s headstone: “May perpetual light shine upon him and may his soul rest in peace”.
In years to come, his brother Norman would name his son – born on the anniversary of Percy’s death on July 4 – Percy John Watterson, in honour of a young man who had shown true courage under fire.
Also named after Percy was Allan Watterson’s first son, Percy Kevin Watterson, who enlisted in the RAAF in World War Two. Like his namesake, Leading Aircraftman Percy Watterson was killed in action, when he came under enemy fire over Biak, New Guinea, on July 15, 1944.