Thrilled to receive his son’s war medals almost six years after he had been killed in action, Private Wilfred Montgomery’s father wrote to Army records asking if he might also have a photo of his son’s grave.
A fortnight later, in June 1923, Mr Montgomery was informed that his son’s final resting place had still not been found.
“I regret no photograph or official advice of the registration of the grave of your son, the late No. 5078 Private W.A. Montgomery 26th Battalion, has been received and in the absence of same it must be reluctantly concluded that the search parties have not succeeded in locating his resting place,” wrote Captain Mackintosh, of Base Records, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne.
“Failing the recovery and identification of actual remains, it is the intention of the authorities to perpetuate the memory of these missing by means of collective memorials which will be erected in certain defined battle areas and on which the name, full regimental particulars and date of death of the soldier will be inscribed.”
No trace was ever found of Private Montgomery, and his name was listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing at Ypres, along with those of some 55,000 British and Commonwealth troops lost in the battlefields of Belgium. His name appears on Panel 29 of the memorial, with that of Private Robert Martin, of Tamborine, with whom he enlisted in January 1916 and died on October 4, 1917.
The correspondence between Army records and George Montgomery – the son of a Presbyterian minister who had emigrated to Australia from northern England – provides a rare insight into how Wilfred Montgomery’s parents dealt with their son’s loss.
In January 1922, the Army had written to Harriet Montgomery inquiring whether her husband were still living, even though she had been listed on his records as Private Montgomery’s next-of-kin. Under the Deceased Soldiers Estates Act, the soldier’s father was considered to be a “nearer blood relation” than his mother and was therefore more entitled to their son’s medals.
Further attempts by the Army to contact Mr Montgomery in Byron Bay the following year produced this response, dated May 2, 1923:
“With reference to your inquiries dated April 23, asking my little wife am I still alive, very much so. You will quite understand that it did hurt Mam to have had our best kid knocked, but that is only an incidence in the great struggle.
“Mam has been very reticent about war correspondence, it hurt us both at the time but the Great Master knows his Business and we, Mam and I, and a lot of others of your kin will meet again on the other side. I am father of my good kid, Wilfred Arthur Montgomery, No. 5078, 26th Battalion and would be proud to have a medal, or if it is Mam’s, all right.
“P.S. It appears by official correspondence that my wife and I are not living together, but this is absolutely wrong, we have lived together for the last thirty six years, bred a lot of good kids, and there is no hope of having any other address but one. You will of course excuse this somewhat familiar tone of address, but if you make a visit to Byron Bay or any of our four rivers, ask for Old Monty Sawmiller, you can always get yours truly and get a sincere welcome.”
The next month, when Mr Montgomery received his son’s British War Medal and Victory Medal, he wrote again to Captain Mackintosh.
“I the undersigned have great pleasure to intimate to you, having received both medals mailed to me. They are just bonny and you may rest assured they will be treasured as a memento of my Bonny Boy,” he wrote.
Mr Montgomery also enquired about his son’s grave, “as mayhap if the Great Geometrician wills it, I may seek the spot next year”, only to be told there was none.
Wilfred Montgomery was a 23-year-old machinist, who had likely followed his father into the sawmilling industry, and was working in the timber town of Canungra when he enlisted in the AIF in January, 1916.
He became part of the 13th reinforcements of the 26th Battalion and left for overseas service from Brisbane in May on the HMAT Seang Choon.
Wilfred arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, in June and in August embarked for France on the Franconia.
However, it was not until late November that he was taken on strength with his unit and three weeks later was temporarily attached to the 7th Australian Machine Gun Company, whose men were drawn from the battalions they supported.
Wilfred was involved in the pursuit of the Germans to the Hindenburg Line in early 1917 and would have been part of the attack at Warlencourt on March 1 and 2. Some weeks later, he was struck down by a “fever of unknown origin” and was out of action for months, recovering in France.
Wilfred returned to the lines in July and in September was among the Australians who overcame fierce German opposition during the Battle of Menin Road, part of the larger operation that later became known as Third Ypres.
The following month, Wilfred was among the troops of three Australian divisions who fought side by side, taking the Germans head-on to capture Broodseinde Ridge on October 4. It was during this action that he lost his life and joined Australia’s legion of the missing in Belgium.
The Menin Gate forms a triumphal arch across Menin Road, a main thoroughfare of Ypres, along which traffic passes each day. Every evening, at 8pm, the road is closed while the Last Post is played, marking the end of the soldier’s day.
Harriet Montgomery never forgot her lost soldier son and every day until her death wore a memorial brooch pinned to her dress as a symbol of her undying love, according to family historian Evelyn Sanderson, whose great grandmother Emma Mahony (nee Daniels) was Harriet’s sister.