A chance finding among the bric-a-brac at a backyard auction in Port Lincoln resulted in a 12-year journey that uncovered one of Australia’s most tragic family losses from war.
- The Watherston family’s tragedy started before war broke out with the parents drowning at sea
- There are only three families in Australia that lost four sons at war
- The Watherston brothers’ story was uncovered by accident, after a chance finding at a bric-a-brac auction
There are only three families in Australia that lost four sons at war, but only the Watherstons lost all four on the battlefield.
The tragic story of Frank, Cyril, Edward and James Watherston began before WWI broke out.
They were orphaned in childhood, watching their parents drown at sea.
The family’s trials captivated Port Lincoln local Lee Clayton who spent 12 years researching and writing about it.
Lee Clayton’s search to uncover the Watherston’s story took him to the cottage they grew up in on Boston Island, across the bay from Port Lincoln. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)
“The story captivated me because it was an unknown story and I felt angry, in a sense, that such a story had been lost in history,” Mr Clayton said.
“People I spoke to had no idea; even some of the family members were vague.
“It is … a significant story as far as Australia is concerned.”
The Dead Man’s Pennies presented to the next-of-kin of the four Watherston brothers and their cousin Sidney, who also died in WWI. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)
Mr Clayton’s interest was piqued at an auction in Port Lincoln in 2002 when among the offering were two supreme sacrifice plaques, which were given to the families of WWI deceased soldiers.
“There they were just sitting on the table with the crockery and cutlery and other household sundries and I thought, ‘That can’t be right’,” he said.
He discovered they were for brothers Cyril Anderson Watherston and Edward Alexander Watherston.
Mr Clayton investigated further, finding two more brothers, Frank and James, who had also died in the war.
His research took him Boston Island, across the bay from Port Lincoln, where the nine Watherston children were raised until their parents, James and Isabella, drowned.
Parents James and Isabella drowned in front of their nine children in the waters out from their Boston Island home in August, 1896. (Supplied: Lee Clayton)
The parents were being rowed out to a cutter in rough seas when the rowboat capsized.
“When they recovered the bodies James [the father] had his arms around Isabella [the mother] as if he was trying to hold her up, and they were still embraced together when they were pulled out of the surf,” Mr Clayton said.
He said the children were all playing nearby. The eldest daughter, 16-year-old Isabella, had her two-year-old sister, Christina, on her hip watching the rowboat.
Four brothers enlist
By the time war broke out the brothers had spread across the country for work.
Frank and James were in Perth, Cyril was in Sydney, and Edward was in Port Pirie.
“Cyril and Edward joined up very, very early September 1914 and they were in the first intakes of their two regiments,” Mr Clayton said.
Cyril was in the 7th Light Horse Regiment, from Sydney, and Edward left from Adelaide on the Ascanius with the 10th Battalion, one of the most famous battalions in Australian military history.
The 10th was among the first infantry units raised for the Australian Imperial Force, so was the first ashore around 4:30am on April 25, 1915 at Gallipoli, and penetrated the furthest inland of any of the Australian troops during the initial fighting.
Frank joined up in 1915 with the 11th Battalion, six months after his brothers.
He was working with this brother, James, where they had a wood merchant’s business in Perth, working out of Fremantle with the timber cutting.
James joined up after he discovered that his favourite brother and workmate, Frank, had been killed at Gallipoli at Knife Ridge in June 1915.
“[James] was married and had two children so you can imagine the distraught wife,” Mr Clayton said.
“The children also were old enough to understand what was going on so that was a heartbreaking thing.
“But he joined up anyway.
Cyril Watherston died on the Western Front on May 26, 1916 and was buried in France. (Supplied: Lee Clayton)
“Poor old Frank got hit with a machine gun burst moving forward, which smashed his rifle as far as we can tell, and he was told to get back to the trench lines.
“He turned to run and got shot in the legs so he had all four limbs machine gunned.
“The next thing that happened was the really distressing thing.
“Because there were so many wounded in such a short period of time he was left on the beach lying in donkey, mule and horse dung and he contracted tetanus.
“By the time he got evacuated to Lemnos Island in the town of Mudros he was a dead man walking, and he died four days later in hospital.”
Cyril was unusually permitted to transfer from the 7th Light Horse to the 10th Battalion to be nearer to brother Edward after hearing of Frank’s death.
But that didn’t protect either of them.
The Watherston sisters had to wait nine months for confirmation of Edward Watherston’s death because he was hit by a bomb and there were no remains. (Supplied: Lee Clayton)
“[Cyril] was taking gear up to the frontline near Armentieres [in northern France] and a speculative shell came across from the German artillery and blew up his little convoy of horses and equipment and he was killed,” Mr Clayton said.
Edward died at Pozieres two months later on July 23, just 15 kilometres away.
“As they left their little hidey hole, which was an old shell hole, a high explosive shell blew overhead and Edward disappeared completely and nothing was found, not even a button,” Mr Clayton said.
He said James knew Edward had died when he heard “scuttlebutt” from one battalion to another about who had returned and who had not.
“By the time James is ready to go into battle and it’s only a few weeks away, he already knows that all of his brothers are gone and there’s a lot of evidence, anecdotal evidence from the family, to say he was in a dreadful state psychologically,” Mr Clayton said.
“Nevertheless he attacked with the rest of the men of the 11th Battalion and he was shot and killed by machine gun fire on August 19 [at Pozieres].”
James Watherston was the final brother to die, falling at Pozieres on August 19, 1916. (Supplied: Lee Clayton)
Mr Clayton said the impact on the sisters at home would have been one of confusion at first.
“You can imagine the family at home,” he said.
“They’ve got three telegrams now all within six weeks.
“[They must have thought] ‘Who was dead? Surely not all of them. They must have it mixed up. Oh, they’re probably captured by the Germans or who knows where they are but it can’t be all of them”.”
He said it took until April 1917 to confirm all the brothers had died.
“Unfortunately because Edward had disappeared completely there had to be a coronial inquiry by the senior medical and officer staff,” he said.
The eldest and last surviving brother, Robert, was too old to enlist. He went up north boundary riding for a cattle company and stayed in the outback for the rest of his life.
Mr Clayton said Robert never married, and hardly ever went into town.
“Heartbroken. So war doesn’t really end.”