By Messenger Newspapers
“REMEMBER me until we meet again. To Daisy, with best of love, from Walter.”
For more than 50 years, these heartfelt words were the only link Margaret Billings and Catherine Henningsen had to their great uncle.
Woodville man Lance Corporal Walter Ackeroyd had them embroidered on an Egyptian cotton pillow cushion case, which he sent to his wife from Egypt in 1915, shortly after enlisting to fight in World War I. “I was given the pillow cushion as a small child, but it was kept in a box wrapped in tissue paper and I never took much interest in it,” Ms Henningsen, 72, says. That would all change in 1992, when Ms Henningsen’s brother-in-law found a black and white photo in his house in Nowra, NSW, of a man dressed in an army uniform. “Everything sort of came to life when we saw that photo and realised it was Walter,” Ms Billings says. The sisters contacted the Australian War Memorial to retrieve their great uncle’s war records. It led to them unearthing their most significant discovery of all – Walter’s war diary – hidden among other family records.
Born on August 16, 1891, Walter worked as a Stallman in Woodville. He enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force on August 7, 1915, and left for Suez Port, Egypt, two months later. His diary tells of his amazement at the pyramids in Abbassia. “Possibly one would never see the like of it again,” his diary reads. He describes the “terrible nightmare” of August 15, 1916, when the 50th Battalion suffered more than 600 casualties at the battle of Mouquet Farm. He also recalls the three weeks’ respite from the firing line while stationed at Tatinghem as “the best time I have had since joining the army … an absolute change and pleasure”. Walter’s entry on November 12, 1916, would be his last. He writes of the march to Fricourt, “the place remembered for heavy fighting at the start of the push”. Eight days after that post, he was killed in action. For the next 77 years, details of his life remained hidden – and presumed lost by his family. The discovery of his diary and the black and white photo have allowed his great-nieces to preserve his memory.
From the diary of Lance Corporal Walter Ackeroyd, June 1916.
We arrived at Marseille on Sunday, June 11. We disembarked on Monday morning and marched to camp about two miles. Leave was granted from 2pm so we had a good look around Marseille. It is a lovely place and everything is nice and clean, including the people. There is a certain sad element in the streets where one sees so many black-clad women with sorrow written on their face. There are statues, fountains and churches too numerous to mention which we visited. We arrived at camp in good time and were complimented the next morning by the Chief Officer for good behaviour and only four being absent from the battalion. We get in the train and leave for the north at 2 o’clock. This journey takes three days and nights. It is full of interest, lovely gardens, orchards and pretty women in galore. It seems like an Eden after the desert. We arrived at our billet at Croix Rouge after a two mile march from the Castres station at 3 o’clock on Friday morning. The billet is a farm and we have straw for a bed which we find nice and soft. Everything here is a lot cheaper than Egypt. We do not stay long, just three days, then we march 14 miles to the town of Sailly. Now we are right in the danger zone and could hear the guns and see the aeroplanes in dozens. It is marvellous the ammunition the Germans waste in trying to bring our planes down. We get eight days here and then pack up for the support, which are about a mile from the firing line. We are still in a billet and do fatigue work at night. I had my first night in the firing line on June 27. We were laying on barbed wire and soon got used to the sound of shot and shell. We were not as nervous as I thought I would be. The next night we go in up to the front line and are treated to a magnificent display of artillery, machine guns, starlights, aerial torpedos and rockets. One can hardly credit or believe what a great sight it is, though so terrible. We stay here for a fortnight and get used to shells falling around us then we pack up and leave on July 10.