Private Percy Armstrong, 42nd Infantry Battalion

Guest blogger: Darrell Armstrong

Percy Armstrong in his uniform. Acc. 30632/1

Percy Armstrong in his uniform. Acc. 30632/1

Percy Armstrong was born 28 July 1893 at Ebenezer, the first child of Thomas and Ida Armstrong. He attended Ebenezer State School and afterwards he worked on the family farm "Spring Hill".

On 6 April 1916 Percy enlisted in the 1st AIF and after basic training at Enoggera in Brisbane, he was posted to 41st Battalion. His regimental number was 2027. Percy was transferred to 42nd Battalion 3rd reinforcements and on 7 September 1916 he boarded the Clan Macgillvray and left for England. He disembarked at Plymouth 16 November 1916.

Presentation to Pte. Armstrong. Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld.) 1 August 1916, p. 6

Presentation to Pte. Armstrong. Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld.) 1 August 1916, p. 6

Percy was attached to the 3rd Division Amalgamated Training Battalion at Hurdcott. He spent two weeks in the Military Hospital at Fovant ill with his medical records marked NYD (not yet diagnosed) and upon discharge on 2 December 1916, he returned to his unit.

Letter from Percy to his father, 27 June 1916. Acc: 30362/4

Letter from Percy to his father, 27 June 1916. Acc: 30362/4

On 2 February 1917 Percy left for France on board the Invicta from Folkestone. He joined his battalion, the 42nd, on 7 February and "into the firing line", as he put it in his letter to his father dated 20 June. He was at Armentieres. He spent some months rotating between the trench and a billet two miles behind the line on a six or seven day rotation. While in the billet, he "dug cables". They dug channels six feet deep to run telephone wires for communications to the fun positions.

Postcard from Percy from Somewhere in France Dear Mother, 1917. Acc: 30632/41

Postcard from Percy from Somewhere in France Dear Mother, 1917. Acc: 30632/41

After two months at Armentieres they moved about two miles to Messines where they " held the line against Fritz's gas attacks". They then marched for four days back, approximately fifty miles, to train for "the big stunt at Messines". The Messines drive was "war as bad as it can be" and many men went down; " mates killed along side of him" as Percy wrote. Miraculously Percy survived unscathed. They captured " a lot of Fritz" and gained some ground, but at a terrible cost of Australian lives.

A telegram sent to Mrs I. Armstrong, Ebenezer, 18-8-17 was the first his family knew that Percy had been wounded in France - "gunshot wounds arm and buttock severe".

Percy was indeed shot in the right arm, shoulder and buttock on 31 July 1917 "when we went over the bags", and invalided to England on 5 August. He was admitted to the Edmonton General Military Hospital. He afterwards spent a period convalescing at Hurdcott, where he wrote letter and caught up with friends from home who had been wounded, and learnt of others who had been killed or were missing.

Letter from Percy to his father, 2 October 1917. Acc: 30362/16

Letter from Percy to his father, 2 October 1917. Acc: 30362/16

On 15 November 1917 Percy was deemed fit, and was sent back to France via Southampton. He rejoined his unit on the Western Front on 22 November. Christmas was a quiet time in the trenches, the firing ceased, but it was bitterly cold with  about a foot of snow falling. Percy's health was good and he reported, "we are still boxing on, with a few shells flying around". He remained in the trenches, was promoted to Lance Corporal on 10 September 1918, and reported that "we are showing Fritz a thing or two lately". On 14 October Percy was transferred to 41st Battalion.

‘Ebenezer Notes’. Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld.), 24 October 1918, p. 6

‘Ebenezer Notes’. Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld.), 24 October 1918, p. 6

In November he was able to report that "things are looking very good in our favour" and experienced a hope that the war would be over before winter set in.

Postcard from Percy to his brother Arthur, 28 Nov 1918. Acc: 30632/52

Postcard from Percy to his brother Arthur, 28 Nov 1918. Acc: 30632/52

Another Christmas in France, but under different conditions now that Armistice had been declared. Percy was camped at Saint Mexent about 25 miles from Amiens, "the town the Aussies saved" and he began to think about life after the war and whether he should apply for repatriation. Some men died of influenza as they waited for word on when the move back to "Blighty" (England) was on, and most grew restless. Percy put in to do a "Stock Breeding Course: back in England, but missed our, so he did "Sheep and Wool" in France instead.

There was a problem finding ships to get men home on. The 1915 men were sent off first then the 1916 men with wives in Australia. Percy took leave and visited Ireland, enjoying the scenery around Killarney and the Lakes. He reduced himself to Private on 20 December 1918, and remained in France until 28 April 1919.

Percy Armstrong during the First World War. Acc: 30632/5

Percy Armstrong during the First World War. Acc: 30632/5

Back in England, all talk was of home with word that a ship had been found, a sailing date was set and Percy expressed the thought that they might be home for the Exhibition.

He did indeed embark on 12 June on board the Themistocles for Australia. They visited Cape Town, South Africa on the trip back, and on 3 July their ship ran into trouble. She was struck by a Norwegian coal barque in heavy fog and damaged her propeller. She was dry-docked in Siamons, and thoughts of making it home to the Brisbane Exhibition were forgotten. The men were camped at Wynberg near Cape Town, and sports were played to fill in the time. A team was picked from among them to play the "All Blacks", a New Zealand rugby team playing at Newlands at the time. The Themistocles eventually arrived back in Brisbane 15 August 1919 and Percy was discharged from the army on 26 September.

So it was home to the farm at Ebenezer for Percy. He was instrumental in building the giant hayshed that stands at "Spring Hill" to this day.

In August 1927 Percy married Alison Dickson Cairns and they set up home at 22 Campbell Street, Woodend, Ipswich.

Percy had been involved with the Ebenezer Wesleyan Church before his enlistment and he continued his involvement on his return. After his marriage to Alison, he supported the West End Methodist Church at Woodend, and later the Ipswich Central Methodist Church. He was employed by the City Electric Light at Ipswich and later he worked as caretaker of the RSL Hall in Nicholas Street.

Portrait of Percy Armstrong. Acc: 30632/2

Portrait of Percy Armstrong. Acc: 30632/2

Percy was never a well man after his war experience and he died 26 April 1947 aged just fifty-four. He was cremated at Mt Thompson Crematorium, and his crematorium number was 13,000.

The Armstrong family kept most of the letters and postcards that Percy sent home from WWI between April 1916 and July 1919. These were retained by his sister Ciss (Annie) and are a valued part of the family records. The digitised versions of more than 30 letters and 60 postcards are now found at State Library in the 30632 Percy Armstrong papers 1915-1919.

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