One of the more important figures in the 56th’s history was a remarkable and brave young man named John Charles Watt. Previously this post called for assistance in finding a photo of him and showed a blank silhouette of a man with a question mark on his face. Happily, thanks to the assistant of a couple of readers of this blog (see comments below), contact was soon made with the Watt family and the photo shown at left made available.
John was born on 28 September 1896 at Stewart’s Brook near Scone, NSW, son of John Howard Watt and Eliza Jane Watt. He later attended high school in Newcastle where he also completed four years of compulsory military service. At some stage the family (at least John Jr. and his mother) moved north to Emmaville, a tiny settlement in a tin mining area about 30 km north of Glen Innes. There John became a miner.
When war broke out in 1914, John was not quite 18, but it wasn’t long before he enlisted in the AIF in Sydney the following July. His father had recently died in Port Augusta, SA in March 1915. At the time he enlisted, John stood 5’ 10” tall, weighed 156 pounds (71 kg), and had brown eyes and dark hair. His religion was Church of England. He was initially allotted to the 10th Reinforcement of 4th Battalion and embarked for service overseas in October, joining his unit in Egypt on 21 January 1916. Almost straight away he began his rise through the ranks, making lance corporal on 2 February.
A fortnight later Watt was transferred to the newly raised 56th Battalion, where he was soon promoted again, to corporal on 4 March, then sergeant by the end of May. After enduring the heat, flies, hard work and boredom of Egypt, he went with the 56th Battalion to France in June 1916. The following month he was wounded in the elbow and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal in his first battle – Fromelles. The recommendation for the award reads:
‘For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When engaged with his company constructing a communication trench, he went forward to the assistance of some men in the occupied enemy trenches, and helped them to hold off the enemy’s bombers. When hit himself by a bomb, he rushed out, killed the bomber, and brought back his rifle.’
After several weeks recovering from this wound he rejoined his unit in September. Known as a particularly daring patrol leader, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 25 November 1916, but strangely his service record does not record his attendance at an officer training college. Nevertheless on 6 March 1917 he was again promoted to lieutenant. In his next battle, at Louverval on 2 April 1917, John was again wounded (this time in both legs) and won another award for his actions that day. The recommendation for his Military Cross reads:
‘[Watt] displayed conspicuous bravery and reorganised his disorganised company after its commander became a casualty. Despite heavy shelling, regardless of all danger he moved about cheering the men up and inspiring their confidence. He was largely responsible for holding the left top edge of the wood. He also led an attack to eject a party of Germans who had infiltrated the wood. His conduct was exemplary. He worked tirelessly for 20 hours straight until badly wounded.
John’s recovery from his latest wounds took longer; while convalescing in England, he missed the battalion’s next two battles of 1917 – Bullecourt and Polygon Wood. During his extended period in the UK however, John met and married an English girl, Daisy Taylor in September 1917. At the time, Daisy was living in Westminster, London, just across the park from Buckingham Palace, no less. Finally, having regained the strength in his legs (from the wound of course), he rejoined the battalion in early November 1917 and saw out the battalion’s stint in the Ypres-Passchendaele sector, before they moved first to the Samer rest area, then back to the Hollebeke sector of the front into the New Year, 1918. In early March, John enjoyed two weeks leave in the UK, no doubt spent with Daisy.
After his leave, John’s next taste of action was on the night of 24/25 April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux. Here, he was one of those selected to guide ‘Pompey’ Elliott’s 15th Brigade on to their objective during this famous Australian counterattack. Immediately after this action, he was again wounded in the leg and gassed. This was now his third wound, and on top of that, in June he also suffered a bout of influenza which hampered his recovery.
According to the memoir of another 56th man, John was nicknamed ‘Butcher’ in the battalion, but for what reason we do not know. There are no indications that he was particularly ruthless with either his own men, or the enemy, and it seemed he was one of the most admired and well-liked men in the unit. Several accounts noted Watt’s ‘reckless bravery’ in battle, or that he was just about the best soldier in the battalion.
Watt again recovered from his latest leg wound and the effects of gassing and flu, to rejoin the 56th at the very end of August, the day before the battalion became involved in their next large battle – Peronne. For once, John wasn’t wounded in this scrap. After the battalion’s final battle at the Hindenburg Line in early October, he went to Fourth Army School for a month, then to the Flying Corps in UK, but by early December, he had returned to the 56th. Back in the UK, he was then demobilised in May 1919, and discharged in July.
At some stage John probably moved to Bradford as his service dossier records Daisy’s change of address to that city, probably in mid 1918. It then seems Daisy may have died there around early to mid 1920, as death records seem to indicate. John then re-married in the latter half of 1921, to a Mabel Blanche Lugg in Poole, Dorest. The couple had a son, John Charles Watt Jr., who was born in December the following year. In May 1923 John, Mabel and their baby son travelled to Australia aboard the SS Borda . With the family settling in Sydney, John rejoined the peacetime army as a lieutenant the following year and the couple soon had a second son, named Alan. At the end of 1927 John was placed on the retired list, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was reinstated as a reserve officer in Australia in 1940, initially with the amalgamated 20/19th Battalion. With that war entering its final stages, he was once more removed from the retired list in July 1945, as he approached the age of 50.
At some stage John and family settled at Kogarah, and were there at least through much of the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Sadly, John died of cancer in 1955 in the Parramatta District.
There is one tantalizing hint of the existence of a photo of John Watt. In a letter written in 1976, a former comrade, Corporal Nicholas Brain, refers to still having several photos, including one of Lieutenant Watt. I have made contact with the Brain family, but so far no such photo has been discovered. Appeals for help in finding a photo of Watt have also been lodged with local libraries, museums and historical societies in the Emmaville, Glen Innes and Kogarah area.
Please let us know if anyone comes up with any leads that may find us a photo of him.
Update (29 Oct 2009): Contact has just now been made with the Watt family who should be able to provide a photo. See comments below.