Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

William Hugh Thorburn - Private 6178

This page is dedicated to the memory of William Hugh Thorburn who died on 1st September 1918 in France.

William Hugh Thorburn was born in 1884 in New South Wales, Australia, the son of Hugh Thorburn and his wife Lois Eliza Reynolds. He died on 1st September 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 34.

William's father Hugh Thorburn was also born in Australia to Scottish immigrant parents. 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. Hugh Thorburn had married Lois Eliza Reynolds in 1873 and they went on to have 6 children together, William Hugh Thorburn being the youngest, born in 1884. The family settled in the Newtown area of Sydney, New South Wales, where Hugh worked as a baker. I don't have much else on William Hugh's early life, the family seem to have lived quietly in Gowrie Street, Newtown. After school, William Hugh Thorburn worked as an attendant at the local mental hospital, certainly immediately prior to the war starting.

The war of course changed everything for William Hugh Thorburn, as it did for so many young Australian men. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that William became a Private in the 21st Battalion of the Australian Infantry and that his service number was 6178 and that he is commemorated at the Peronne 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 William'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 3rd August 1916, just short of his 32nd birthday. The image below shows part of the Attestation form. His father Hugh Thorburn was initially listed as next of kin, but it was later changed to his wife.

His service records reveal that although initially his training took place in Australia, by November 1916 he embarked on HMAT (His Majesty's Australian Transport Ship) A19 Afric, heading for the war in Europe. He arrived in Plymouth, England in January 1917. He remained in England for the next six months, before being posted to France with his battalion in July 1917. By October 1917 William had become ill and was sent to hospital in France, where he was diagnosed with severe myalgia. It must have been pretty bad as he was sent back to Chatham in England to recuperate. He was finally discharged from hospital in December 1917. His parents were sent periodic notifications of his illness and his recuperation in hospital.

William's illness of December 1917 was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald - it is the only mention of him that I've found in the papers so far. (Image courtesy of National Library of Australia)

Following his illness William was sent to Hurdcott in Wiltshire in March 1918, where large numbers of Australian soldiers were stationed in 1917. He seems to have moved between Hurdcott, Longbridge Deverill and Fovant over the next couple of months, before heading to Folkestone to go back to France, rejoining his battalion at the end of June 1918. At some point during his time in England, William must have met Esther Hobbs. She was about 14 years younger than him, but became his wife on 18th February 1918 at her local parish church. There is no mention in William's service records for any time off for getting married, so their time together must have been brief. Esther grew up in West Farleigh, Kent, so it seems likely he met her while he was still in Chatham. Perhaps she was one of the nurses? It would be lovely if anyone could throw some light on this. They could only really have had about a month together after the marriage before he was sent to Hurdcott.

William's second stay in France was shortlived, as sadly he was killed in action on 1st September 1918. He and Esther had only been married for about 6 months, most of which they'd been apart. Esther would have received William's war medals, memorial plaque and scroll. Esther did eventually remarry after the war, hopefully she found some happiness in the end.

The Australian Red Cross Society Wounded & Missing Enquiry Bureau Files reveal a few more details about William's death. There is a brief report in them from Sgt T.J. Allen of the B. Coy, 21st Battalion. He stated that "Thorburn and I went into the Stunt together at Mont St. Quentin on 2/9/18 not 1/9/18 - He was killed by a sniper at a quarry. He was buried about 200 yards E. of Mont St Quentin - not in a cemetery - A cross was erected." This testimony casts doubt on the exact date of William's death, but since all the official records say he died on 1st September, I have stuck with that date for this article.

At some point William's body was moved and he was re-buried in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension in the Somme, France. He is also commemorated the Newtown Public School Honour Roll and in Uk at his wife's parish of West Farleigh.

I haven't managed to find a photo of William yet. So it is nice to have this description from his service records: Height 5 feet 8 inches, 9 stone 3lb, chest measurement 31/33 inches, tan complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair and a scar on his right arm from an old fracture. If anyone can provide a photo of William, do please get in touch. William had 4 sisters and a brother, 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 William'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 2018

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry