Stockman Sidney Graham’s service record tells the story of one of the most colourful characters to enlist from the Canungra district and is a testament to the larrikinism at the heart of the ANZAC legend.
It reveals run-ins with military police and senior officers, forfeitures of pay for unauthorised absences – and of a young life cut sadly short when Private Graham died suddenly in England while on active service.
Sidney had been born at Tweed Heads to John and Eleanor Graham and enlisted in March 1916, three months before his 21st birthday.
He was allotted to the 4th reinforcements of the mostly Queensland 49th Battalion and left Brisbane on the Boorara on August 16.
En route to England, it was not long before Sidney found himself in trouble. The first “crime” documented in his service record was committed on September 22, when he was absent without leave for four hours – failing to report when the ship left port – for which he was fined four days’ pay.
Sidney arrived at Plymouth on October 13 and, after a further two months of training in England, embarked for France on the SS Arundel from Folkestone.
He joined the 49th Battalion in the field on December 23 as France was in the grip of its worst winter in decades. During the bleak months of December 1916 and early 1917, the battalion alternated between the trenches at the front and training and working behind the lines.
During March and April, when the German Army made a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, the 49th Battalion was part of the Allied advance.
Next month, Sidney was in more strife, going absent without leave from 5.30am on May 8 until he was apprehended at 11.45am by military police at Amiens, where he produced a false pass. That escapade cost him 15 days’ pay, the substantial sum of three pounds fifteen shillings.
Belgium soon became the focus of the AIF’s operations and Sidney was with the 49th Battalion at the Battle of Messines.
In two days from June 7, according to unit diaries, the battalion took heavy casualties – 367 from a strength of 31 officers and 892 other ranks – with 66 killed in action, 274 wounded, 20 missing and seven dying of wounds.
After being relieved at midnight on June 10, the men of the 49th took time out to rest and clean clothing and equipment before travelling by bus to Vieux-Berquin, France, some 20 kilometres behind the front line, where they resumed training in rapid loading and firing; bayonet fighting, gas drill and musketry.
The next major action was the Battle of Polygon Wood, near Ypres, which began on September 26. According to unit diaries, the “49th used their rifles effectively” to capture and hold the German line, at a cost of 25 other ranks killed, five officers and 94 other ranks wounded, and five men missing.
There was some relief from another bitter winter in the trenches when Sidney was granted leave on January 16, 1918. However, in London on February 3 he was admitted to hospital and was treated for the next 52 days before being sent to the convalescent depot at Sutton Veny on April 6.
On May 3, Sidney was charged with making a false statement to his superior officer, which cost him a day’s pay. Being absent without leave from midnight on May 14 until 7.45am on May 15 cost him another two days’ pay.
Sidney was back in hospital, suffering scabies, on May 26, and returned to Sutton Veny from Parkhouse Hospital on July 23.
In preparation for his return to the front, Sidney reported at the Overseas Training Brigade at Longbridge Deverill on August 5.
But Sidney never returned to his battalion or the battlefield. He was taken ill with influenza and was admitted to the King George Hospital, London, on August 20.
Sidney died suddenly three days later, of acute toxaemia, at 8.30am on August 23.
On August 27, at 1.30pm, Private Sidney Graham, aged 23 and a Roman Catholic, was buried in grave number 181,429 in a consecrated portion of Brookwood Military Cemetery, part of the 202-hectare (500 acre) London Necropolis.
According to the burial report prepared on September 13 for Sidney’s family in Australia, he was laid to rest in a coffin of “good polished elm”.
“The deceased soldier was accorded a military funeral, firing party, bugler and pallbearers being in attendance from Administrative Headquarters, AIF, London. The coffin was draped with the Australian Flag and surmounted by a beautiful wreath sent by comrades in hospital. Chaplain the Rev Father JJ Kelly officiated at the graveside and the Last Post was sounded by an AIF bugler. An oak cross has been erected at the grave,” read the report.
On April 15, 1919, Eleanor Graham signed the receipt for her son’s possessions which had been returned to Australia on the Gaika. The parcel from the King George Hospital, where Sidney had passed away, contained a devotional, a rosary, a strop, a matchbox cover, a comb, a wallet and a YMCA wallet containing photos.
On March 28, 1923, a letter was dispatched to Sidney’s mother, care of her daughter-in-law, Mrs MT Donovan at Symes Street, Fortitude Valley, advising that her son’s grave had been officially registered as Plot 4, Row C, Grave 2, at Brookwood Military Cemetery.
However, Sidney’s father, John, who was then more than 74 years old, was deemed by Army regulations to be a “nearer blood relation” than his mother and therefore entitled to his son’s British War Medal and Victory Medal.
These were forwarded to him, along with a memorial scroll, a memorial plaque and a pamphlet about Australian war graves, in July 1923, care of his daughter-in-law Mrs Donovan.