Fromelles centenary: Finding Private Harry Cressy | photos, video

Battle of Fromelles centenary commemoration, remembering the Hunter's fallen | honour roll, tribute wall

Battle of Fromelles centenary: Newcastle pays tribute to fallen in moonlit ceremony

HARRY Cressy was a 22-year-old who looked younger and who, in the months before he was shot dead in France, had a tendency to describe things that excited him as “bosker!”

Today’s equivalent is probably “awesome”, Catherine Murray, the World War One Private’s great niece, told a gathering at Sandgate Cemetery on Tuesday for the centenary of the Battle of Fromelles.

Such bursts peppered Harry’s diary of the war. His notes later took their place among the gifts he sent home from Egypt and France.

About 150 people sat in fold-out chairs or stood between gravestones to honour the boy from Boolaroo who died on the other side of the world 100 year ago.

There were local history buffs and elderly wellwishers and kids in various states of school uniform.

Many were descendents of Harry’s older brother Edward Cressy – “Cresscendents,” said one lady – who survived the war with a gunshot wound that brought them all within millimetres of never existing.

The fragility of so many families at once wasn’t lost on Dot Coe, Harry’s great grandniece.

There were an estimated 5,500 Australians casualties on July 19, 1916, the first day of the Battle of Fromelles. It was nearly Harry and Edward. Among so many dead, what was one brother more?

“If Edward had been killed too, we wouldn’t be here,” Ms Coe, of Swansea, said.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Descendents of World War One Private Edward Cressy - Dean Coe and Ben Harragon - unveil a cross to commemorate his brother Private Harry Cressy at Sandgate Cemetery on Tuesday. Picture: Marina Neil

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Descendents of World War One Private Edward Cressy - Dean Coe and Ben Harragon - unveil a cross to commemorate his brother Private Harry Cressy at Sandgate Cemetery on Tuesday. Picture: Marina Neil

There is a photo taken outside the Cressy house on Creek Road, Boolaroo sometime after August 1915 when the brothers enlisted.

The boys’ father Brougham and mother Ann, Edward’s wife Kit and other family members surround the recruits in their uniforms with caps and high boots.

Australia was a different place in 1915, Ms Murray told the gathering. 

It was a matter of when, not if, the young nation would follow Mother England into the fighting in Europe and North Africa. 

Harry enlisted six days after his brother, along with an estimated 38 per cent of Australian men aged between 18 and 44.

“We will never know why the two Cressy boys enlisted, but enlist they did.”

The brothers disembarked from Woolloomooloo aboard the troopship Aeneas, four days before Christmas Day 1915, bound for Egypt.

Kit and the boys’ sister Emily waved from a launch putting alongside the ship as it left the Heads.

Harry’s diary details much onboard that was bosker!; boxing bouts, card games, pillow fights.

His words read as those of an educated man jotting down his surrounds for his family’s benefit and maybe his own, filtered through the attitudes of the time.

Docking in Egypt in mid-January 1916, Harry declared the crushing heat “worse than being in the firing line”, the locals “a dirty race of people” and the country “a white man’s Hell”.

But when the brothers sailed to Marseille six months later to join the battlefields of France, that country and its people stirred Harry.

He saw women in mourning, old men guarding the railway and the locomotives they passed on their journey north. Harry was a train driver, and the devotion moved him.

This, he wrote, was “a country worth fighting for.”

Fromelles was meant to be a diversion. In July 1916, Allied forces prepared to attack the “Sugarloaf”, a German-held position near the village of Fromelles, to suck German resources from the Battle of the Somme.

The Australian force was bolstered by Gallipoli veterans but included many, like Harry and Edward, who were essentially civilian volunteers. The Germans were entrenched and had prepared for months. Among their ranks was a 27-year-old Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler.

The sides traded bombardments on July 19 before Harry’s 14th Brigade charged into the bullet-riddled space towards the German line. It was 400 yards. Harry made it.

By 8am the next day the Battle of Fromelles was over. 

The Australian War Memorial calls it “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.

“Practically all my best officers are dead,” noted senior officer General Harold Edward “Pompey” Elliott, who described the offensive as a “tactical abortion”.

Seven thousand diggers had charged, of whom nearly 2000 were killed.

If ever a place had born witness to the kind of warfare that French soldier Henri Barbusse, in his novel Le Feu, described as two armies fighting “like one large army that commits suicide”, it was Fromelles.

Edward was shot and wounded early in the battle. It probably saved him. He lived to be 69 and is buried at Sandgate Cemetery.

Harry made those 400 yards, into a gale of machine gunfire, watched from German bunkers in the French twilight. Then a sniper’s bullet hit him between the shoulders.

“Many families could describe the loss of a son or husband with one word; Pozieres, the Somme, Passchendaele,” Ms Murray told Tuesday’s ceremony.

“The Cressy family lost a son and a brother in a battle that was rarely mentioned.”

The younger son of Brougham and Ann Cressy from Boolaroo lay in the field for 95 years until 2008, when a Melbourne school teacher, Lambis Englezos, traced the lost diggers of Fromelles to nearby Pheasant Wood.

“My sister and I visited that field in 2009,” Ms Murray said.

“It is a quiet, peaceful corner of the village and I will be forever grateful to the French people who honour our dead and carefully maintain their resting places through the battlefields of France.”

In solemn scenes televised across the world in January 2010, British and Australian teams buried the soldiers’ remains with full military honours. Harry’s remains were identified two months later.

Ms Murray, two of her sisters and some other Cressy descendents were there to see him laid to rest.

Most of the village attended under a blue sky, and those that didn’t watched from their back gardens. Tears were shed, a memorial unveiled, and a grave dedicated to Henry Alfred Cressy.

And so it was on Tuesday that under a low sky full of clouds, bagpipes briefly drowned out the groan of trucks on Maitland Road and two young descendents of Edward Cressy – Ben Harragon and Dean Coe – unveiled a white cross.

“HENRY A CRESSY,” it read, “KIA, 1916.”