Infamous for the scale of its causalities and the horror of its conditions, the Passchendaele Campaign became a symbol of the tragedy and futility of war. But 100 years after the World War One offensive claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, descendants of one of the soldiers who fought and died on that muddy stretch of Belgium land will gather in Newcastle to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
A memorial service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Passchendaele Campaign will be held at Sandgate Cemetery on October 12, honouring all those tragically killed in action during the three-and-a-half month battle on the Western Front.
In particular, it will pay tribute to more than 60 Newcastle and Hunter members of the 35th Battalion of the 1st Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) who took part in the battle and are memorialised, or awaiting memorialisation, at Sandgate Cemetery.
As part of the service, event organiser and Sandgate Cemetery’s WW1 researcher Gary Mitchell will place a memorial cross to honour Wickham soldier Private Stephen Sarsfield Scott, who was killed in action during the 1st Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917.
Private Scott, also known as Bowser, was born in Scone on August 1, 1883, and was the fifth of 10 children of Irish immigrants William Henry Scott and Mary Maxwell.
As the son of a police constable who was stationed variously at Maitland, Scone, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, Carrington and Greta, Private Scott moved around a lot during his childhood before the family settled at Wickham in 1901 where his father remained stationed until he retired.
Private Scott’s military connections began when he spent three years volunteering with the NSW Irish Rifle Regiment in Newcastle before he moved to Lithgow to live with his younger brother George and work at the Small Arms Factory as a labourer.
He returned to Newcastle in January 1916 to enlist with the 35th Battalion before being tragically killed just 1.5 years later on a muddy field of war on the other side of the world.
Stephen Sarsfield Scott
The Passchendaele Campaign, officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, ran from July 31 to November 6, 1917, with the Allied Forces battling German soldiers for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres, in West Flanders.
It was fought during the heaviest rainfall the northeast of Belgium had seen for 30 years, which, combined with artillery shelling that damaged the area’s drainage system, created a quagmire of thick mud and water that clogged up rifles, immobilised tanks and caused many men and horses to drown during the battle.
Beset by horrendous conditions and fierce fighting, the campaign is thought to have resulted in more than 475,000 Allied and German causalities, including 38,000 Australians.
Of the 508 soldiers from the 35th Battalion who fought at Passchendaele, only 90 walked away unscathed.
Mr Mitchell said while Private Scott would be the focal point of this month’s memorial service, it was important to remember all who fought and died during the campaign.
“It’s important to remember there’s a lot of other soldiers that fell during this Passchendaele Campaign that were memorialised at Sandgate (Cemetery) and those names will be printed on the memorial booklet that we have done for the service,” he said.
“I’ve been going through the roll of honour for many, many months now, thousands and thousands of names trying to find that link between a soldier that fell; are his parents at Sandgate cemetery, or a sister or brother or wife maybe are buried there? So far there’s probably about 60-odd names that I’ve located, but I’m still researching trying to find more.”
Back: Stephen Sarsfield Scott, George Leslie Scott. Front: Patrick Francis Scott, Charles Cecil Scott.
More than 150 people are expected to gather for the service, which has been organised by Friends of Sandgate Cemetery and Northern Cemeteries.
This will include around 40 of Private Scott’s descendants, with many still living in the Hunter and others travelling from areas such as Lithgow and Queensland to attend.
Two of the soldier’s great, great, great nephews will take part in the ceremony, officially unveiling the cross placed in Private Scott’s honour, while Dianna Heather will share information about her ancestor’s life and military service. Mr Mitchell said this would be the third WWI 100th anniversary memorial service that has been held at the cemetery.
In June they paid tribute to local AIF soldiers who were killed during the Battle of Messines including Private James Hartley Antcliff (36th Battalion). In July 2016 a service was held to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles and remember soldiers including Private Henry Alfred Cressey, who was killed on July 19, 1916, while serving with the 54th Battalion.
The services have been a labour of love for Mr Mitchell, who has spent the past 20 years tracking down and recording the names and details of WWI soldiers who are buried, or who have family buried, in the cemetery.
As part of his quest, Gary places crosses made by the Morpeth Men’s Shed to remember his “lost boys” as he refers to them – those who served and died overseas or were buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery.
“I’m very passionate about the work I do at Sandgate Cemetery,” he said.
“When I locate a soldier that served in the First World War who’s buried in the cemetery, if they are in an unmarked grave a cross is supplied to me from Morpeth Men’s Shed, I place that cross on their unmarked plot.
“Same with those where the family are buried at the cemetery, and they lost son or sons during the First World War. If there is no recognition on the headstone that they lost that son, it might be an unmarked grave; I place a cross there as well to remember that particular soldier’s supreme sacrifice.
“It began back in the early 90s - for some reason I decided I wanted to research war memorials and rolls of honour, so I started to travel the countryside taking photos.
“About 1995 I was driving past Sandgate, and I thought I’d drop in to have a look and see if that would be an interesting research point for locating soldiers from Newcastle and the Valley.
“I thought it would take me four or five years to research the names and then I’d move on back to my rolls of honour, but 20 years later I’m still researching.
“It’s become, as my wife would say, my obsession, it’s something that I do every day whether I’m working or not, I just have to do it.
“To me I feel like it becomes a duty to do the work I do, especially locating those who are buried in unmarked graves and placing a cross to remember them.
“I give my speech at the services, and the words I always say are ‘The dead are only ever truly forgotten when they’re spoken of no more’.
“I emphasise that to people, to find these forgotten soldiers and even just place a marker like I do to remember them, at least that’s something.
“I plan on doing this until I can’t walk anymore, I can’t place any more crosses.”
The Passchendaele Campaign – 100th Anniversary Memorial Service will be held in the Catholic 1 section of Sandgate Cemetery from 10am on October 12.
Members of the community wishing to attend are asked to RSVP by contacting Glen Amies on 4968 3602 or via firstname.lastname@example.org