Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Matthew Knowles Thorburn - Private 5239

This page is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Knowles Thorburn who died on 5th November 1916 in France.

Matthew Knowles Thorburn was born in 1897 in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia, the fourth son of James Thorburn and his wife Mary Ann Knowles. He died on 5 November 1916 in France, one of the many millions of men who lost their lives in World War 1. It seemed sad for him to have died and all but these bare facts remembered, so I've tried to find out at least a little about his life until his untimely death aged just 19.

Matthew's parents were both Scots who had emigrated to Australia, presumably in the hope of a better life. James Thorburn had been born on the tiny island of Muck and Australia must have been a very different place for him. But he was part of a large extended family, many of whom had also moved to Australia. When Matthew was just 2 years old, tragedy struck when his mother died aged only 33, leaving James Thorburn with a large family of small children to look after. The family resided in Balmain, New South Wales.

Sadly I've not managed to find much out about Matthew's early life and I've not had any contact from descendants of this branch of the Thorburn family. So unfortunately the first record I have for him is the report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8th December 1916 that he was missing.

Tragically it seems to have taken a long time for him to be confirmed as dead rather than missing. This report didn't appear in the newspaper (The Sun, New South Wales, Australia) until 21st January 1918. All that time his family were probably praying that he was somehow still alive.

The final newspaper cutting was a commemoration placed by his father in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5th November 1918 - 2 years to the day after his son died.

The three small newspaper cuttings give some basic information - that he was sent to France in March 1916, fought in the trenches and died at Bapaume on 5th November 1916. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that he was a Private in the 1st Battalion of the Australian Infantry and that his service number was 5239 and that he is commemorated at the Villers-Bretonneux War Memorial in France. I can't reproduce the CWGC photo of the cemetery, but to see his page please click here. The Australian War Memorial website confirms much the same here.

Fortunately Matthew's attestation papers and service record survive and have a wealth of information about his time in the army. The records show that he signed up on 30th November 1915, he was aged 19 and his occupation was given as farmer. The image below shows part of the Attestation form.

The service record shows that Matthew was initially a member of the Waratahs, who were all volunteer recruits who marched to Sydney between late November and mid December 1915, gathering more men as they went. On arrival in Sydney the Waratahs joined the 1st Battalion of the Australian Infantry.

After some initial training Matthew and the other new recruits embarked on the SS Makarini on 1st April 1916 from Sydney. They went first to Suez and then in May 1916 from Suez to Alexandria. From there they went to Marseilles and the Etaples Base Camp in Northern France. Finally they joined the rest of the battalion in the trenches. The service records are very detailed and even show that he was admitted to hospital a couple of times suffering from scabies - a very common problem for soldiers in the trenches. After his last trip to hospital, he rejoined the battalion on 20th October 1916. Within weeks he was listed as wounded and missing.

Although Matthew Thorburn was listed as wounded and missing as early as 10th November 1916, it was a full year before a court of enquiry on 28th November declared him Killed in Action. The court heard from several witnesses who described how Matthew had been injured and a Sergeant Olsson had tried to carry him to safety but was shot too and had to leave him. The letter below is from one such witness.

Initially there was hope that although wounded, Matthew Thorburn may have been taken as a prisoner of war. The army corresponded with James Thorburn (Matthew's father) to see if he had any news of his son. The letters below are from the Red Cross Wounded & Missing files.

Unfortunately any hopes that he might still be alive were dashed by a letter received by the military from Private James Marr, stating that he was with a party that had found Matthew Thorburn's body with several others near Gueudecourt and that they had been killed by machine gun fire on 5th November in the Flers charge.

As I haven't tracked down a photo of Matthew yet, the next best thing I've found is this description from his service records: Height 5 feet 5 inches, weight 123 lbs, chest measurement 32/37 inches, complexion dark, eyes brown and hair dark brown. It would be so much better though to be able to add a photo of Matthew - so if anyone out there has one, do please get in touch.

Matthew Thorburn is commemorated on a memorial in France. Many thanks to Leeta Rutherford at www.november5th1916-gueudecourt.com website for letting me us this photo of the inscription on the wall at Villers-Bretonneux in France.

In researching Matthew's final days, several sites have been invaluable, so I've included links to some of them here.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great site to start with to give you the basic details you would need to then start digging deeper:

The Australian War Memorial website gives lots of information on Australian soldiers who died in WW1 (and other conflicts)

The National Library of Australia is a fantastic online resource for, amongst other things, digitised newspapers and images.


If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at: n.rowberry@btinternet.com

Nicky Rowberry 2017

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry