“But the toll of missing is getting smaller. It is not quite the disaster which at first appeared. I would say we lost something between 4000 and 5000”. Such are the relatively dispassionate words entered in the diary of Australia’s military historian, Charles Bean, after the Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916.[i] However the personal reality for the men was quite different. Lt Col Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass commanded the 54th Battalion during that battle and also had a role with the 53rd who’d lost their commanding officer. The 54th had come too close to being outflanked by the Germans and only a calm head and experience combined with the extreme bravery of the messengers Cass sent to HQ, got the survivors of the battalion away safely.
Only days later on 22 July 1916 Cass was admitted to the Officers’ Rest Home with shell shock and discharged 10 days later.[ii] The human devastation of the battle hit him hard and he reportedly accused his superior officer, General McCay, of slaughtering his men – an insubordination that might well have seen Cass court-martialled in another army.[iii] Fromelles was one of Australia’s most severe battles and regarded by soldiers who’d been there as worse than Gallipoli[iv]. Australia’s casualties totalled 5533.
To put Cass’s injury in perspective he had just spent over a year in the Dardenelles and was wounded twice before being evacuated. He had also served in the Boer War. This was a man who was experienced and familiar with the devastation and human costs of war. He had been mentioned in despatches by General Haig and been awarded the Cross of St Michael and St George (CMG) in January 1916. He was once again mentioned in despatches in 1917 and recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his role at Fromelles but he would never go back into battle. It seems to me that he must have been held in high regard to be exempt from being returned to the field on the Western Front. Charles Bean, official historian for the AIF in WWI, wrote of Cass: “the leaders of the AIF were mostly generous men, and marked for their sense of duty; but there were perhaps few in whom the recognition of duty was quite so strong, or sympathy with the rank and file so keen, as in Walter Cass”.[v] Cass relinquished command of the 54th and took over command of the 14thTraining Battalion at Larkhill. His experience in South Africa, and at Gallipoli and Fromelles would have been invaluable to those under his command.
Soon after arriving in England Cass married his long-time correspondent, a Canadian nurse and journalist, Helena Holmes. The silver tea tray given to the couple by his men, testifies to the regard in which the soldiers held their commanding officer. Extracts of his correspondence with Helena, kindly shared with us by his granddaughter, reveal a witty, clever, ambitious and romantic man. Interestingly he was very frank about the risks of war with this woman who he had been courting assiduously for a number of years: a tribute to her resilience, or perhaps even a test of her capacity to be a career officer’s wife.
Walter Cass had some amazing experiences, serving in the Army both before and after World War I. He attended the 1912 Delhi Durbarwhich was held to celebrate the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India. After returning to Australia in 1917, Cass held a number of roles which gave him remarkable social opportunities. He was State Marshal for the 1927 Melbourne visit of the Duke of York (later King George VI); was involved in the organisation of the celebrated arrival in Melbourne of Ross and Keith Smith after the great London-Australia air race 1920 and in his official capacity met many interesting people from Japanese naval officers to the Governor. The man who had survived war and battles, died at home after an operation for appendicitis on 6 November 1931, shortly before penicillin became widely available.
Our trip to Melbourne last month was primarily to visit an exhibition on Brigadier General WEH Cass and his wife Helena Holmes, and to meet some newly-found rellies. This exhibition is being held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and has been extended until September. You might recall that I used “J is for Jealousy” in the Family History Alphabet series. If you are at all interested do go and visit this exhibition and you will see why I might use “jealousy”. The exhibition is primarily an amazing family collection of memorabilia which illustrates Walter Cass’s diverse career. There are invitation cards and souvenirs from the Durbar; formal gifts from Japanese naval officers who visited Australia officially pre-World War II; the cigarette case given to him by the Duke of York; some of his personal letters to Helena as well as his uniform and accoutrements. Cass was a keen and very good amateur photographer. The exhibition included his photos taken during the Boer War, Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Helena’s nurse’s uniform is featured as is her typewriter which she used to write her news stories, many published under her own by-line. It really is a fascinating display at a number of levels and while we might all wish for such a family inheritance of memorabilia, imagine the responsibility of caring for and preserving it all.
If you plan to visit I suggest you ring in advance to ensure the room in which the exhibition is held is not being used for a public meeting. We had to wait around on both occasions we visited but it didn’t matter too much as it meant we were able to have a good look at the Kokoda exhibition which also featured Milne Bay during WW II.
[i] http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm38/3drl606/awm38-3drl606-52-1.pdf Page 18. First read at the Australian War Memorial 1994.
[ii] Another page of his personnel file also indicates he was wounded.
[iii] Don’t Forget Me Cobber, the Battle of Fromelles, 19/20 July 1916. R S Corfield. Corfield and Company, Rosanna, Australia, page 146.
[iv] Quote by HR Williams of the 56th Battalion from his book, The Gallant Company 1933, referenced in Don’t Forget Me Cobber, page 127.
[v] C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929). Extract from Australian Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cass-walter-edmund-hutchinson-5529