My brother’s keeper

Roy and Sid Whittle from Kenmore, near Goulburn NSW.  Roy was killed at Bullecourt, Sid was wounded but survived the war (AWM photo P05921.001 A).

Roy and Sid Whittle from Kenmore, near Goulburn NSW. Roy (R) was killed at Bullecourt, Sid was later wounded but survived the war (AWM photo P05921.001).

With most AIF infantry battalions recruited on a state basis, it was common to have quite a few men from the same suburbs or rural districts together, and often groups of mates who knew each other before the war serving in the same companies or platoons.  In many cases, perhaps to a greater degree than I previously imagined, family members were also an important factor in a unit’s make-up. 

Having a brother in your battalion could be a mixed blessing.  On one hand it might be good to have a familiar face close by, someone who knew you well and you could also look out for each other; whether that be on leave, or in the front line.  On the other hand perhaps a younger brother could be viewed as an encumbrance, cramping your style and an unwelcome family witness to what you got up to on leave. I suppose it would have depended on the age difference and whether you saw each other as mates or not.

But one thing I suspect common to most brothers would have been the expectation, perhaps even backed by a solemn promise to the parents, that an older brother would ‘look after’ the younger lad and see him brought home safely.  The reality of modern warfare and the scale of death and maiming would have soon brought home the realisation that this would be an unrealistic expectation to fulfil and largely down to chance. Many older brothers after experiencing the horrors of war wrote home trying desperately to discourage their younger brothers from joining them (see previous post concerning John Jameson).

So far our research has identified almost fifty sets of brothers serving in the 56th Battalion and we’ll probably find a few more as we go on.  Most we’ve confirmed as definite brothers; a handful we’re not yet totally sure of their connection.  Of these fifty-odd, in three cases both were killed, in fourteen cases one lived and one died, while in the other 29 sibling duos, both survived the war.  Naturally losing both sons would be the worst case for a family, but a young man returning home without his brother could also impose a lasting impact.  In many cases ‘survivor guilt’ was surely a factor.

We’ve also found one case of three brothers in the battalion; Arnold, Donald and John Bone from Cootamundra.  There were also several sets of cousins and one father and son combination; James and James Jnr Mitchell from Pyrmont in Sydney.

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One Response to “My brother’s keeper”

  1. Darryl Kelly Says:

    Craig

    Excellent snippets ref brothers serving in the 56th. Is this the only battalion that your looking at? I’ve done a fair bit of research on brothers who were KIA on the same day. I wrote a story in my book “Just Soldiers” on twins from the 14th Battalion who were killed simultaneously by the same shell.

    Keep up the good work and if I can be of any assistance please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Regards

    Darryl Kelly

    Editor’s response: Hi Darryl, many thanks for your positive comments. We’re only looking at the one battalion and the three sets of brothers who died in the 56th were killed at different battles. The Whittle brothers (pictured above) were actually on the same Lewis Gun team until only a matter of weeks before Roy was killed, when the decision was made to split them up. If this hadn’t happened Sid may well have been killed by the same shell as Roy.

    We did actually have two cousins killed on the same day (Captains Single and Thompson), and the family also lost a third cousin (serving in another battalion) the same day on 26 Sept 1917 at Polygon Wood.

    I see we have your book in the AWM library, so I’ll have a look at it when I get back from holidays.

    Cheers,
    Craig.

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