Private Walter Cavell was among the few men who could lay claim to having been with the 42nd Battalion at its birth in Brisbane in 1915 and at its death on the Western Front in 1918.
A farmer, Walter was the son of Francis and Sarah Cavell, of Boyland, and was 19 years old when he enlisted in the AIF on October 12, 1915 with his mate Jack, (John) Barrett.
The friends were initially marked for the 36th Battalion but then allotted to the 42nd Battalion just as it was being raised at Enoggera in December, 1915.
They left Sydney on the Borda on June 5, 1916 and, after travelling via Suez, Egypt and France, arrived in Southampton on July 23, 1916.
After a further training at Lark Hill on Salisbury Plain, the battalion embarked for France, arriving in November to the worst winter in decades.
Twice during December, as the men endured wet and freezing conditions in mud and snow, Walter was sick in hospital, firstly with bronchitis and then with mumps.
Walter was in and out of hospital through much of the early part of 1917, rejoining his unit on April 16, when the focus of the battalion’s operations was the Ypres sector in Belgium.
The 42nd participated at major battles at Messines in June and Warneton in July, but the Battle of Passchendaele, where Walter was wounded and the battalion lost a third of its strength, proved particularly costly.
While many of the casualties were due to attacks of poison gas and trench foot, Walter suffered a gunshot wound to the hip and left buttock on October 21. He was invalided to England and admitted to hospital in Exeter on November 11 and was finally released after three months’ recuperation.
After further training at the 3rd Divisional Signal School at Fovant, Walter returned to his battalion on the front line in France in June, 1918.
The following month the 42nd took part in the well executed battle of Hamel, losing only three men killed in action. The battalion also played a key role in the Allied offensive, launched on August 8, and the subsequent advance.
Depleted by months of fighting, the 42nd Battalion was one of seven ordered in September to disband to provide reinforcements to other similarly bruised battalions.
The order sparked a famous ‘mutiny’ among the men, who saw disbanding as an attack on their identity, and clung loyally to their old battalions and comrades. Although refusing to report to their ‘new’ battalions, many were charged not with the serious crime of mutiny but instead with the lesser offence of being absent without leave.
The 42nd won a temporary reprieve and fought its last battle at St Quentin Canal between September 29 and October 2. The order to disband was issued again on October 2 and while there was still stubborn resistance from the men they were finally forced to surrender to the inevitable.
When the 42nd Battalion was eventually disbanded on October 22, Walter was taken on strength of the 41st Battalion which, like the 42nd had seen its last action of the war at St Quentin Canal.
The 41st was out of the lines when the war ended with the Armistice in November and was itself disbanded in May, 1919.
In a letter to his mother from Belgium dated March 10, 1919, Walter’s brother, Arthur Cavell, described the frustration shared by the soldiers still waiting to return home four months after the war had ended.
“I had hopes of being home in time for Exhibition but I am beginning to think I will be lucky if I am home in time for Xmas,” Arthur wrote.
“I had a letter from Walter a few days ago and he hadn’t left France, he is just about fed up with things too.”
Two months later, in London on May 10, Walter finally boarded the Wahehe, which was making its maiden voyage as an Allied troopship.
The surrendered German merchant vessel, formerly known as the Hilda Woermann, was one of the Allies’ spoils of war. Relatively new, having been competed just after the outbreak of war, the ship created keen interest at the docks when it arrived in Sydney on July 1, 1919, according to a newspaper report printed next day in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Walter’s niece, Evelyn Sanderson, said that after the war her uncle had returned to Canungra and resumed life as a teamster and timber mill worker.
He married Belle Burton, from Canungra, in 1925 and they had two children, Jean and Alan.
With the decline of the Canungra timber industry in the 1930s, Walter relocated his family to Townsville where he continued to work as a timber mill foreman until his retirement.
Walter passed away at the Townsville General Hospital on June 13, 1977 – almost 60 years after being wounded in action on the Western Front.