Searching for Sonny

Heavy toll: Sonny?s grave at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres, is second from left in the front. Photo: Chris MoonOn a pilgrimage to a family war grave in the battlefields of France, Chris Moon is unprepared for what he finds.

World War I was won and lost on the Western Front, on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Three-quarters of Australia’s total WWI losses – more than 46,000 men, five times as many as at Gallipoli – were there. Most never returned, buried near where they fell. One of those was my great-uncle Sonny.

I hadn’t heard of Sonny until an old WWI medal came my way after my grandfather’s death. All my family could tell me was that Sonny died on the Somme. The medal, awarded posthumously, shows the winged figure of Victory on one side and the intriguing words “The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919” on the other.

After some searching, I found an old envelope with Sonny’s Memorial Scroll and Memorial Plaque, but most poignant of all was the receipt, signed by his distraught mother, for the parcel containing his “personal effects received from the field: 1 purse, German coins, 1 mark note, 1 wallet, photos, cards, odd papers, 1 religious book, 1 tie pin”.

I wanted to know more about this mysterious ancestor. Millions of Australians can trace a family link to a digger who died on the Western Front. Sonny’s is just one small story – but he’s family. I feel we owe it to him to tell his story.

The Battle of Amiens started on August 8, 1918, and Sonny was killed three days later, aged 20. He is buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres, France.

With no one now alive who knew Sonny, this is all the information left about this young man who gave his life for king and country.

I decide to travel to Amiens, to trace his final days and pay my family’s respects at his grave.

The website of the Australian War Memorial (AWM)contains Sonny’s war record: born in 1898 in Sandringham, Victoria; enlisted on April 16, 1917; five feet six inches tall, 141 pounds, with a fresh complexion. He embarked, as a private in 1Machine Gun Company, for the war from Melbourne on HMATA60Aeneas on October 30, 1917, and fought with the 20th Battalion (infantry). On August 3, 1918, he was made lance-corporal.

Amiens is a small, unhurried city in Picardie, northern France. I immediately feel comfortable here.

Australians, especially battlefield tourists, are welcome.

After checking in to the Hotel Central Anzac, I visit the cathedral, which contains a tribute to the Australians who fell in defence of Amiens, then cross the river to lunch at one of the restaurants that line the opposite bank. With a shock, I realise this is the Somme, a river with the most painful memories for Australians.

I enlist Barbara Legrand, of True Blue Digger Tours, to take us to Pozieres, then Bullecourt on the Hindenburg Line, where 10,000 diggers died in 1917, breaching this impregnable line without artillery or tank support, only to have to cede it because of poor leadership.

Barbara is scathing of the Allies’ tactics, except for the Australians, whose practicality, adaptability and bare courage eventually won the war on the Western Front, especially after our own general, Sir John Monash, arrived and changed tactics.

We visit war cemeteries – there are 657 (596 with Australians) in northern France, and 422 in the Somme area alone. All are immaculately maintained.

Braving icy winds, we stand in the battlefields and learn how the action unfolded.

There was little cover for advancing infantry, who were mown down in their hundreds by artillery shells and machine guns.

It was the farmers who cleaned up afterwards. The first half metre of soil is clean, but modern ploughs go deeper. Today, farmers around Bullecourt are still dragging up unexploded shells and mortar bombs, which they stack by the roadside for bomb disposal teams.

In the late afternoon, we arrive at the scene of Sonny’s last day.

I have with me an account of the course of the Battle of Amiens covering this day, from The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, from the AWM’s website.

Chapter 15 recounts the activities of the 20th Battalion.

Where was Sonny in this account? Was he the ‘‘machinegun officer who established his guns on the left near the Proyart- Rainecourt road under Lieutenant Richardson, of Captain Cameron’s company?’’ Or was he part of the right company, Lieutenant Oliver’s, which ‘‘passed easily through Rainecourt, firing from the hip at German advanced groups, and dived into the valley’’.

Rainecourt was to have been mopped up by the second-line company, Captain Moore’s, but, before he could pass the order to his officers, Moore was gassed and Lieutenant Sharp, taking command and having no orders, went on after the left company [Cameron’s].’’ I will never know exactly, but I have enough information to know that I’m looking over the fields and village where Sonny died.

Sonny’s wasn’t the more usual story of trench warfare on the Somme. He was winning this fight.

The Germans were turned around in this series of battles and, if he had not been killed that day, the odds are he would have returned home a conquering hero.

I imagine the guns, smoke, shouting, terror and the elation when a strategic point is taken, and I imagine the despair of Alice, the mother who withheld approval of her son’s enlistment until his badgering forced her hand, and who subsequently received the unthinkable news: ‘‘Killed in action.’’ Finally, we reach Heath Cemetery at Harbonnieres. From the register book, I locate Sonny’s grave. There, with the barest of details of who he was, are the words, chosen by the family, ‘‘So dearly loved, so deeply mourned’’.

I had crossed the globe for this, but am not at all prepared. How, exactly, does one ‘‘pay respects’’?

I need a ritual of some kind, something to leave at his graveside, a poppy perhaps.

I take photos: of the gravestone, the cemetery, the countryside, myself. It requires more.

Finally I mumble, ‘‘G’day, mate’’, then, haltingly, with tears, I tell him who I am, of the things he missed, how his sister’s life (my grandmother) unfolded, her marriage and children. I tell him how grateful everyone is, and how the war ended with ‘‘civilisation’’ victorious. And I tell him that his grave is on land protected in perpetuity by a grateful French nation, so the world will never forget. And I salute.

In the visitors’ book, I write, ‘‘Vale, Sonny. R.I.P.’’

The writer travelled at his expense.



Trains to Amiens leave daily from Paris’s Gare du Nord, a 70-minute journey. See raileurope苏州美甲培训.au. The Mercure Amiens Cathedrale is opposite Amiens’ World Heritage-listed cathedral. Rooms from $160 a night. See mercure苏州美甲培训.


True Blue Digger Tours hosts day-long Somme tours from €120 ($180) a person. See trueblue-diggertours苏州美甲培训. APT has a 19-day Paris and Somme Battlefields with Magnificent Europe cruise; it includes visits to Amiens for Somme battlefields, the Musee Franco-Australien and the National Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, Fromelles, and Bullecourt. See aptouring苏州美甲培训.au.


The National Australian War Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens. See ww1westernfront.gov.au/villers-bretonneux.

The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front – 12 WWI sites along the Western Front allowing visitors to interpret the Australian experience of war. See ww1westernfront.gov.au.


awm.gov.au; ww1westernfront.gov.au.

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