A century ago Private Herbert Medhurst was declared “Fate: to be determined”, but his family never stopped looking for their son lost at Polygon Wood in Belgium.
On the eve of the centenary of the Western Front battle Pte Medhurst’s great-niece Donna Leigh told Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Dan Tehan his parents “looked for him for the rest of his days”.
“The parents thought he might have survived, so his father used to travel to Brisbane, which was a really long arduous trip at that time, and wait at the train station,” she said, standing among the war graves at Buttes New British Cemetery.
From the small Queensland town of Killarney, the 24-year-old Pte Medhurst was the second son the family lost in WWI and was one of the 5700 Australian casualties in the week-long battle.
“I too have a 24-year-old son and cannot imagine losing him in these circumstances,” Ms Leigh said.
Rosslyn Hamilton and her husband Stephen have travelled from Melbourne to mark the death of her great-grandfather Private Clarence Victor Prew, who was killed in shelling on the first day of the battle.
He signed up as a 35-year-old father of three, and was already a veteran from the Boer War.
“You do wonder why, although in Australia at that time there was a very big push for people to join up,” Mrs Hamilton said. “Whilst it’s tragic and awful, at least we know what happened to him.”
Other soldiers managed to make it home.
Neil Anderson’s grandfather James Anderson spent from 1916 to 1919 on the Western Front, seeing many of the major battles including Polygon Wood, Hellfires Gate and the final battle of Passchendaele.
He returned to the small village of Seahampton outside of Newcastle and started a family, but later died in a car crash with a drunken driver.
After 18 months of research and help from a local historian, Mr Anderson and his wife Julie travelled from the Hunter Valley to visit the battle sites Private Anderson fought at.
“This whole area was just mud,” Mrs Anderson said. “It was decimated, there wasn’t even a tree, not a blade of grass and he lived through that for three-and-a-half years. It was a miracle he even returned from here.”
For Mrs Hamilton, who is marking her third visit to Polygon Wood, the regrowth of the forest helps her feel a connection to the place her great-grandfather died.
“Life does continue, maybe not in the way you want it to be but there is growth here,” she reflects. “He’s part of the earth here, and he’ll always be part of the earth.”