As a novelist, I love stories. I love reading them, creating them, writing them, and discovering them. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the tales of the past, to imagining (and re-imagining) past peoples, places, and events. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy blending research and creativity to bring the past to life through storytelling. I love digging around in the records, discovering those delightful snippets of information bequeathed to us by time and wondering, what then? Why? How? I suppose that same curiosity is what drew me to another interest of mine: genealogy. Over a number of years, I have been researching my own family tree and unearthing the stories of my ancestors. Today, on Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you one of those stories.
The photo above was taken by Darge Photographic Company at Seymour Army Camp in Victoria, Australia, around 21st November 1915. The young man pictured is my ancestor, Thomas Brocklebank, who in July 1915 enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force to fight in the First World War. Five days after this photograph was taken, Private Brocklebank embarked with the 24th Battalion from Melbourne, aboard the HMAT Commonwealth. The records indicate that he first travelled to the AIF Training Camps in North Africa, including Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo. From there he travelled onwards to France and the western front. On 3rd July 1916 he went missing in action. He was never found and following a Court of Enquiry in 1917, was declared to have been killed in action. He was nineteen years old. As he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux near Amiens, northern France.
As is so often the case with history, the answer to one question provokes many others. While researching Thomas’s tragic story, I found myself repeatedly wondering how a young man from my family ended up enlisting with the Australian Imperial Force. As far as I knew, I had no connection to Australia, nor did the Brocklebank branch of my family tree, a branch firmly rooted in Cumbria, northern England. It was quite the mystery – a mystery I felt compelled to solve. So I dug further into the records, tracing Thomas’s life through both the military records and census data, taking the clues it offered and building it into the story of his life.
This, I believe, is his story.
Thomas Brocklebank was born in the village of Baycliff, near Dalton-in-Furness in 1897, the youngest son of Thomas Brocklebank snr and his wife, Mary. Mary Brocklebank appears to have died during Thomas’s early infancy, and sometime afterwards his father seems to have left for South Africa, where he fought in the Boer War and subsequently remained for the rest of his life, working as a miner. By 1901, Thomas was living in the Dalton area with his aunt and uncle, Margaret and William Raven, and their family.
Thomas then disappears from the British census records, and I believe therefore that sometime before 1911 he emigrated to Australia with another of his aunts, a lady called Clara Smith and her husband, Richard. They lived in Swan Hill, Victoria, where Thomas worked as a farm labourer until his enlistment in 1915. Thomas’s military record contains some deeply sad correspondence between his aunt Clara and the authorities concerning his whereabouts during the time he was missing, asking for information about what had happened to him. His story is sadly an all too common one, with so many of his generation losing their lives on the battlefields of Europe. Seeing those records, and knowing the profound sense of loss which sits between the lines of Clara’s letters, was very moving.
Unlike many British war records which fell victim to the Blitz, the Australian records remain intact and have been digitised. Whilst census data, by its very nature, can only provide a snapshot of a person at a moment in time, the Australian war records present a timeline of a young man’s army life from enlistment, through training, in combat and ultimately, to his death. The records make for heart-wrenching reading, demonstrating the impact of the war on one young man and his family. They also give some very specific details. I know, for example, that Thomas was five feet two inches tall, with brown hair and green eyes. But a lot of other information has, of course, been lost to time – most importantly, Thomas’s voice. He left no record of himself, no words of his own to stand as testament to what he saw, thought and felt during those short but tumultuous years. And that, for a curious historian and a descendant, is one of the saddest details of all.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorate the sacrifice made by millions of men like Thomas. They were the lost generation of the early twentieth century. Lest we forget.