Wearside Echoes: Lest We Forget

The "forgotten grave" of Australian soldier Thomas Thornton Powell
The "forgotten grave" of Australian soldier Thomas Thornton Powell
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THE bloody trenches of rain-soaked France must have seemed a million miles away from life as an Edwardian dairy farmer in Australia.

However, a patriotic sense of duty inspired Thomas Thornton Powell to travel half-way around the world to fight for King and Country.

Tragically, the 37-year-old was never to see his sunny homeland again. Instead, he died a thousand miles from his family – in Sunderland.

“I would be surprised if many people had ever heard of Thomas Thornton Powell. Yet they should,” said Grangetown historian Rob Shepherd.

“Only a neglected grave marks his last resting place – but Thomas was one of many servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all.”

Born in Australia in 1879, Thomas was the son of English emigrants and made his living as a farmer and timber getter in rural Queensland.

The outbreak of war in Europe, however, prompted him to enlist in 1915. He waved a final farewell to his homeland in March 1916.

“Private Powell joined the 16th/15th Reinforcements and, a month after leaving Sydney, arrived at Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt,” said Rob.

“Here he joined D Company, 47th Battalion, AIF – a unit raised three months earlier which included Gallipoli veterans and new recruits.

“Following less than a month of training, the battalion left Alexandria on June 7, to join the British Expeditionary Force in Europe.”

Thomas found himself shipped to Marseille, in southern France. Just a few weeks later, he was fighting in the First Battle of the Somme.

The conflict was fierce, and bloody. Thomas and his comrades came under heavy bombardment, and “considerable casualties” were recorded.

“Just one day after reaching the front line, Thomas was shot in the leg and foot. His war was over within hours,” said Rob.

The brave soldier received basic first aid in the chaos of the trenches, before being transferred to the 2nd Australian General Hospital.

His injuries, however, were deemed too serious to remain in France, and Thomas was shipped off to England for specialist care.

Thekla Bowser, a nurse with the Order of St John, later recalled the sight of the hospital ship in a book about nurses of the Great War.

“Nothing more beautiful, nor more sad, can be seen than a hospital ship bringing to the homeland her load of broken humanity,” she wrote.

“The ship was majestic, beautiful, elegant in her fine proportions; but she was a palace of pain at best, though the pain was mitigated by every possible care and comfort, and above all by the knowledge that the ship was England-bound!”

It was Thomas’s fate to be transferred to Sunderland after arriving in England on August 16, 1916.

Convoys of wounded soldiers arrived regularly at Sunderland Station, and The Sunderland Daily Echo reported at the time:

“The clearing of the train is carried out in a very expeditious manner. This is largely due to the St John Ambulance Brigade.

“Nearly two hundred men parade on these occasions and every man is needed.”

“After his arrival in Sunderland on September 20, 1916, a very matter-of-fact letter was set to Thomas’s widowed mother,” said Rob.

“She was told that he had been admitted to the Royal Infirmary, and was suffering from a mild gunshot wound to his leg and foot.”

The first women medical officers were appointed at this time too, with surgical work overseen by Albert Morison and William Robinson.

Dr Morison, who had spent time overseas in France and Belgium as a surgeon attached to a French Regiment, later recalled in his memoirs:

“During the war, the number of operations I performed rose sometimes to nearly 30 per week and this in addition to all my other work.

“Usually, my only free time was Sunday afternoons. Sunday evenings were nearly always given up to entertaining young officers.”

At the time Thomas was a patient at the infirmary, Dr Robinson’s House Surgeon was Durham University graduate Annie Neilson.

“She tended to soldiers wounded overseas with caring and compassion, despite the heavy heart of having lost her own husband,” said Rob.

Thomas was transferred after treatment to an auxiliary hospital at Hammerton House, a former 1812-built manor house in Gray Road.

Designed by renowned Sunderland architect, Clayton Greene, it was run as a hospital under the organisation of the British Red Cross.

Five other VAD hospitals also operated throughout Sunderland at this time, including Herrington Hall and what is now The Royalty theatre.

But Hammerton – administered by Evelyn Streatfeild and Mrs Ernest Vaux – was the only one to cater for officers, NCO’s and enlisted men.

“Both women had military backgrounds,” said Rob. “Mrs Streatfield was the wife of Major Hugh Streatfeild, a former soldier and managing director of Ryhope Coal Company.

“Meanwhile, Mrs Vaux was the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Vaux, who famously commanded the Maxim Guns of the 5th Imperial Yeomanry during the Boer War.

“Mrs Streatfield would be awarded the OBE, Mrs Vaux the MBE and Matron Wallace the Royal Red Cross Medal, 2nd Class, for their services during the war.”

Sadly, it was while at Hammerton House, that Thomas finally succumbed to exhaustion and his war wounds on November 21, 1916.

He was buried three days later, at Sunderland Cemetery in Grangetown, in plot 12175, Ward 6, Section A.

“His widowed mother later received his personal effects which included a belt, devotional book, knife, brush and comb, pencils, badge, identity disc, matchbox, cigarette lighter and his photographs, letters and wallet. All that was left of his life and sacrifice,” said Rob.

It would be two more years, however, before a photograph of his grave and final resting place was finally presented to his family.

And it wasn’t until 1923 that Thomas’s brother H.J. Powell, an Australian customs officer, received an official tribute to his bravery.

“He was given a small bronze medallion, displaying an image of Britannia and the words ‘He died for freedom and honour,’” said Rob.

“This was what was known as a ‘dead man’s penny’ – a memorial plaque issued to the next of kin of servicemen who fell in the Great War.

“He received a memorial scroll, too, with the poignant words ‘Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.’”

Sadly, it appears from Thomas’s tumbledown grave that his sacrifice has been forgotten – at least on Wearside. His memory lives on, however, through the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.