Daily Archives: 17 December, 2011

ANZAC #9 – Private Thomas Pearson

Thomas Owen Pearson was born in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1895, the son of Thomas and Ellen Pearson. In 1914, Thomas Pearson (junior) was working as an unapprenticed clerk. By this time, the Pearson family, including 19 year-old Thomas, were living at Walareyan, Dean Street, in Toowong. As well as working as a clerk, Pearson had been serving in a militia unit, the Oxley Infantry, for just over a year.

Thomas Pearson joined the Australian Army on 7  September 1914, very soon after the start of the Great War. He was initially drafted to the Australian Army Medical Corps, in No 3 Field Ambulance, A Section. He was 5ft 6 1/2 inches tall, weighed 133lbs, had a chest measurement of 33 and 36 inches, a fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair, and was a member of the Church of England.

After joining up Pearson spent less than three weeks in Australia, before he embarked for the Middle East, onboard the HMAT Rangatira (A22), on 25 September 1914 from Queensland. In common with most of the early members of the Australian Forces, Pearson and 3 Field Ambulance went to Egypt to await further instructions. Whilst there they commenced training, and it was not until 2 March 1915 that Pearson finally embarked for active service, joining the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. The Australians did not actually land at ANZAC Bay until 25 April 1915, but Pearson – who landed on the first day – was wounded in his shoulder and right hip on 9 May. He was taken to the Hospital Ship Gloucester Castle, and from there to Egypt. He was admitted to the 1st General Hospital in Helipololis, in Cairo. He had sufficiently recovered by 23 June to be discharged. On 21 July he again embarked for Gallipoli, this time on board HMAT Seang Bee.

Pearson was again evacuated from the Dardanelles on 26 September, this time suffering with Diaorrhoea. Admitted to the 1st Casualty Clearing Station, he then passed through 3 Field Ambulance – his own unit – and onto the Hospital ship Gascon. on 2 October he disembarked at Malta, where on 25 October he boarded the Hospital Ship Gibraltar, this time bound for England. He arrived in England on 31 October, and was admitted to the 2nd Southern General Hospital, at Mandlin Street in Bristol. There he remained for a good couple of months, evidently very weak after suffering from acute diarrhoea. A cable back home in November reported that he was suffering from debility, a serious weakness brought on by his illness. He was finally discharged on 4 January 1916, and reported to the ANZAC Depot at Abbeywood.

Pearson was destined to go back to the Mediterranean, but failed to report when he was supposed to. On 9 February he was fined a days pay, a remarkably light fine compared to some men who went AWOL for a matter of hours and were fined weeks worth of pay! Pearson finally embarked for the Middle East again on 24 February, onboard the MHAT Kingstonian. The Kingstonian arrived at Alexandria on 24 February 1916, and from there Pearson reported to the overseas draft base at Ghezerieh. He was finally assigned to the 2nd Field Ambulance on 12 March, at Serapeum. Two days later he was actually admitted to the Field Ambulance as a patient, suffering from Inflenza. This was edivently not serious, as he was discharged a week later.

The MEF had been evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916, and since then the ANZAC troops had been awaiting their next move in Egypt. As the Western Front was consuming vast numbers of men, it was decided to bring the Australians to France to join the BEF. Accordingly, on 23 March Pearson embarked on the HMAT Briton at Alexandria. He had only been back in Egypt for less than a month.

The Briton docked at Marseilles on 30 March 1916, and from there Pearson proceeded to the Western Front. On 19 June Pearson was transferred from 2 Field Ambulance to the 25th Battalion of the Australian Infantry – whether he had been transferred as medical orderly or stretcher bearer, or even as an infantryman, is unclear. But on 30 June 1916, the day before the opening of the Somme offensive, Thomas Pearson received a serious shrapnel wound in his left leg. Admitted to the 7th Field Ambulance the next day, by 3 July he was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital. By this time his wounds were described as a gunshot wound in his left leg, and a severely fractured fibula.

It appeared that Pearson’s wound was clearing up and healing well. Sadly developed Tetanus, probably as a result of the filthy conditions on the western front, the nature of his wound and lack of development of battlefield medicine at the time. On 24 July he reported a stiffness in his jaw, and by the next day was showing symptoms of Tetanus. He was treated with anti-tetanus serum, but died at 11.10pm on 26 July 1916. He was just 20. Unlike most soldiers who died at the Hospital in Milton, Pearson was actually buried in Highland Cemetery in Southsea. His personal effects were sent back to his fathe, consisting of 2 wallets, photos, letters, watch, correspondence, note book, purse, 3 coins, cigarette holder, cigarette case, tooth brush, scissors, ring, 2 pipes and a tobacco pouch. Pearson’s body was later exhumed after the war, and re-interred with his fellow Australians in Milton Cemetery.

Tragically, Thomas Pearson’s parents lost another son on the Western Front. Corporal F.W. Pearson, also serving with the 25th Battalion Australian Infantry, was reported missing on 29 July 1916, during the Battle of Pozieres on the Somme. Twelve months later he was reported killed in action. Thus it seems feasible that the two Pearson brothers died within three days of each other.

A series of letters from Thomas Pearson senior to the Australian Infantry Base Records Depot sheds much light on what this poor family went through. By the early 1920’s the family were living at Wilmington Street, in Newmarket, Queensland. Evidently their moving confused matters, as there is evidence that Thomas’s memorial scroll took some time to reach them. His letters also tell us that Mr Sanderson of Exeter Road, who voluntarily tended the Australian graves in Milton, had actually visited Thomas whilst he was hill. It seems reasonable to suggest that Mr Sanderson looked after the Australian boys in life as he did in death.

The last words, perhaps, belong to Thomas Pearson senior:

to know a lad is buried decently softens the blow exceedingly… of my other lad I suppose we shall never know

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Filed under Pompey ANZAC's, western front, World War One

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War Two