Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Stanley James Thorburn - Lance Corporal 1943

This page is dedicated to the memory of Stanley James Thorburn who died on 16th March 1918 in France.

Stanley James Thorburn was born on 13th November 1890 in Wyrallah, New South Wales, Australia, the fifth son of Alexander Thorburn and his wife Rosa Jane Rankin. He died on 16 March 1918 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 27.

Stanley's father Alexander Thorburn was born in Scotland and came to Australia as a small child with his parents in the 1850s. His parents presumably emigrated in the hope of a better life. They were part of a large influx of Scots, with several brothers from the same Thorburn family who settled in New South Wales. The original Thorburn settlers and their families formed a large extended family in the area. The photo below shows 4 generations of the Thorburn family, including Stanley (back row second on left). his father Alexander Thorburn (back row second from right) and his grandfather Alexander seated in the middle.

Stanley went to Wyrallah public school where besides studying he enjoyed cricket and tennis, the local newspaper mentions it several times. After school he worked as a farmer, probably on his father's dairy farm. With the outbreak of war Stanley signed up like so many other Australian men.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that Stanley was a Lance-Corporal in the 4th Battalion of the Australian Pioneers and that his service number was 1943 and that he is commemorated at the Outtersteene Communal Cemetery in Northern 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 Stanley'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 8th December 1915, he was aged 25. The image below shows part of the Attestation form. His father Alexnder Thorburn is listed as next of kin.

For his initial training he stayed in Australia; he was sent to Ennogera in Queensland for basic training, but fortunately he did get some home leave. The newspaper cutting below from March 1916, shows not only that he'd been home, but that he'd been given a fountain pen by his friends as a leaving present. Image courtesy National Library of Australia.

His service records reveal that he left Australia and landed in Egypt in May 1916. From there he went to France with the 4th Pioneer Battalion. He was admitted to hospital sick at the end of October 1916 where he developed a septic toe and hand. He seems then to have been in and out of hospital until March 1917. Not only do the service records show this, but another soldier (Private Roberts) wrote home during this time, that Stan was still in hospital, but doing well. His letter was published in the Northern Star newspaper.

A few months later Stan and Corporal Roberts (possible the same Roberts who wrote home in the previous newspaper article) had some leave which they spent in Edinburgh, Scotland - it sounds as if they had a good time there, judging by Corporal Roberts' letter home, which was also published in the Northern Star.

Stan must have been doing well as in October 1917 he was promoted to Lance-Corporal. Just a couple of weeks later, he was then temporarily promoted to full Corporal while another Corporal was in hospital. This promotion was revoked though as soon as the other chap recovered and rejoined the battalion, and Stan reverted to Lance-Corporal. He enjoyed another spell of leave in January 1918 - this time in Paris. Sadly that was his last leave and he became unwell with a heavy cold, then influenza in March. Unfortunately, the cold and flu quickly turned to pneumonia and he died at the casualty clearing station on 16th March 1918.

News of Stanley's death reached home by the end of March 1918 and was reported in the local newspaper (Northern Star).

Although the initial report of his death in the Northern Star was fairly brief, in the coming months two much longer obituaries were published for him. The first paints a picture of a likeable young man, popular with everyone back home. The second includes letters from his fellow soldiers and one from his commander - all stating how popular and diligent he was and how his death came so suddenly they were all shocked.

Stanley was buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension in Northern France. He is also commemorated on Lismore's Memorial to soldiers lost in the Great War, and Wyrallah Public School Memorial Scroll, back home in Australia. I haven't managed to track down photos of any of these, so if anyone can help, it would be much appreciated.

Despite the official report of his death, his parents clung to the idea that he was still alive. As late as 1922, his father wrote to the army, questioning whether it was possible Stanley was still alive, but perhaps suffering from amnesia and not knowing his own name? The army had already confirmed that this was not possible and that there were no unidentified soldiers in any of the hospitals or asylums and that there could be no doubt of his death. One final sad twist occurred with respect to Stanley's personal possessions. The army had sent them back aboard the ship Barunga, which was lost at sea on its way home, along with many soldiers' personal possessions. His parents were sent a list of the lost possessions - one of which was a fountain pen, probably the same pen that he had been presented with as a leaving present two years earlier.

Although I do have one photo of Stanley, it is not the clearest. So it is nice to have this description from his service records: Height 5 feet 5 inches, 8 stone 3lb, chest measurement 32/35 inches, dark complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair and a scar on his chin. If anyone can provide a better photo of Stan, do please get in touch. Stanley had 6 brothers and a sister, so hopefully there are descendants out there who might just have a photo. Feel free to e-mail me at: n.rowberry@btinternet.com

In researching Stanley'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