“I may not be able to write a letter as our time is short and they are expecting Fritz [the Germans] to make his next big move and the Australians will have to be there to help stop him,” Lance Corporal Cuthbert William “Billy” Debenham Wheeldon wrote to his sister Nina on May 23, 1918. “But do not worry over this as we will give him a rough time when he shows up.”
A farmer’s son from Gladstone on the northern NSW coast, Billy had been fighting against the Germans for nearly 18 months by the time he wrote this message to his family back home.
Luck – and courage – had taken him from the dusty paddocks of his home town to the bloody battlefields of Europe in 1916.
“He was 22 when he decided he wanted to go to war but his mother said no,” explains Billy’s great-nephew, John Thomas. For more than a decade, John, a retiree from Sydney’s Panania, has devoted countless hours to piecing together Billy’s incredible story of bravery and sacrifice which he is sharing for the first time in honour of Anzac Day. His research has taken him everywhere from The Australian War Memorial in Canberra to the fields of France to unravel the truth about his relative.
“He was obviously a bit of a larrikin as a lad, and said to his mum, ‘If I kick a goal at the next football match on the weekend, you’ll let me go,’” John says. “He’d never kicked a goal in his life so his mum thought she was pretty safe. Come the next Saturday, what did he do? He kicks the goal, his mother honours her agreement and off he goes to war.”
Billy joined the 45th Battalion and from about February 1917 he fought with heroism on the frontline, as he and tens of thousands of other young men desperately tried to push back the German lines. A gunner, he and two other men were in charge of a cutting-edge Lewis machine gun. As the number one in the unit, his was the most dangerous position.
“He had been lightly wounded but he stayed on with the battalion and fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Ypres,” John says.
On August 18, 1918, Billy and his battalion were fighting near Villers-Bretonneux, with the allies raining down a bombardment of artillery on the German forces, who were a mere 30 metres away.
“After the barrage had stopped, Billy just popped his head up a bit to see if he could get a shot at some of the Germans just across the road,” John says. “One of them shot him in the head before he got a chance to do anything. He died a couple of minutes later.”
Despite the clear danger, a brave Anzac took up Billy’s perilous position. “One of the guys from the gunner team picked up the gun and then carried on fighting quite vigorously to the point where he was awarded a military medal for his actions.”
Heartbreakingly, that very same day, the 45th Battalion were recalled from the front line. “If he had kept his head down for a couple of hours, history may have been different,” John says. The war itself would end three months later when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
In 2010, John and his wife Hazel travelled to France to visit Billy’s last resting place in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Fouquescourt.
“We met some wonderful people there who showed us the actual cemetery,” John recalls. “You go to the middle of a paddock where there’s a brick wall with 300 perfect little white headstones in the middle of manicured lawns. We found his grave and it really was a tremendously moving experience.”
Over time, John’s connection to Billy has only grown stronger. This year, he discovered a precious trove of messages that Billy had sent home to his family and friends in Gladstone, helping to bring the young man cut down in his prime vividly and wonderfully to life. “You read the histories and read about the exploits of the 45th Battalion and it’s wonderful stuff but it’s not terribly personal. Then you find letters and postcards that they sent and all of a sudden a person emerges.”
“He seemed to be quite a down-to-earth sort of guy. He was just an average guy in extraordinary circumstances as World War I was. You feel as though you know the guy. He’s almost, to us, still a living person.”
Billy’s story lives on through John’s enduring commitment to making sure his death is never forgotten. “This year we were able to arrange for Billy to be commemorated in a Last Post Ceremony [at The Australian War Memorial in Canberra]. It’s a very moving ceremony normally yet when a family member is the subject of that Last Post, it takes it on a whole new dimension.”
John is now following his great-uncle’s example to do whatever he can to assist those in need. “I’m involved in an organisation which is aiming to help find World War I soldiers who have been left in unmarked graves. Our version of help is to turn an unmarked plot of dirt into a headstone to commemorate these guys. Our role is to find them and to recognise their service. Help is just going outside of what you would normally do for yourself to support others.”
While Billy might have lost his life more than a century ago, the Aussie drive and commitment to come to the aid of those in need is as strong today as it was then, John says, and is still an intrinsic part of our national character.
“The Australian spirit of mateship is to support each other, to fight for your mates … that’s what these young guys did in World War I and in subsequent conflicts. In moments of extreme danger, they didn’t let their mates down.”