My Uncle Douglas

My Uncle Douglas

It is widely known that many families sacrificed much during the first World War. One such family was that of the Rev. Dr. John and Mrs. Jeannie Burgess. Rev. Dr. Burgess. M.A., D.D., was the Clerk of the N.S.W. Presbyterian Assembly from 1906 until 1929 while he was also minister at Marrickville. Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Burgess had seven sons and two daughters. Five of those sons served in the First World War and Stewart, a theological student, was killed in action near Villiers Bretonneau.

One of the five sons who returned from the war was my uncle Douglas. He and his wife Margaret had no children and I was the only nephew on my side of the family.

The uncle Douglas I knew worked in the head office of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney in Martin Place. My two sisters and I visited him during school holidays following picnics in the Botanical Gardens. He drove an immaculate black Morris Cowley which always seemed to travel faster than dad’s Austin A40 tourer, up and down the hilly street we called “the big dipper”. Uncle Douglas and auntie Margaret shared picnic lunches and swam with us in the pool and surf at Cronulla beach. My uncle Douglas taught me how to grow radish and when I was twelve he took me to an open day at the University of Sydney where he showed me a museum of Egyptian artefacts and took me into the Great Hall from which he expected me to graduate. When our family went on holidays, and while I attended a Scout Jamboree, I wrote letters to uncle Douglas and auntie Margaret. My uncle Douglas was an Elder in the church at Penshurst and he took me along to several Wednesday lunchtime services at St. Stephen’s Macquarie Street.

My uncle Douglas died of cancer in 1954. He had been very sick for some time and my two sisters and I were not allowed to see him. As children we were not allowed to go to his funeral. Also, by now I knew I was a disappointment to my uncle Douglas because at the end of 1953 I was given the option of repeating second year at Canterbury Junior High School or going into third year at Belmore Technical High School.

I had started high school at Canterbury studying Latin, French and English. In second year it was French, English and woodwork. Then at Belmore I did English, woodwork and metalwork for my Intermediate Certificate. I “lifted my game” and passed all subjects to gain my Intermediate Certificate. But uncle Douglas was dead and that was that. I took up an apprenticeship in the printing industry and became a hand compositor – setting the individual pieces of type that made up pages ready to be locked up to print. At the age of twenty three I answered a call to the ministry and so began a new phase of my life leading to ordination and ongoing ministry.

In due time my aunty Margaret gave me a box of uncle Douglas’s letters and papers. Over the years I discovered that my uncle Douglas was born in Kiama as Douglas Theodore Burgess. He was one of nine children of the Rev. Dr. John and Mrs Jeannie Burgess and had six brothers and two sisters.

Born in October 1892 Douglas first went to school in Kiama and then Marrickville before completing his education at Sydney Grammar School and then commencing work with The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney.

Douglas’ first wife, Dora, died of cancer in 1938 while he was manager of the Stockinbingal branch of the bank in southern New South Wales. They had no children.

Douglas became my uncle when he married my mother’s sister, Margaret, in March 1940. I was just six weeks old.

I knew that my Uncle Douglas had been to the First World War. In the box of “treasures” given to me by my auntie I found that he was at the Gallipoli landing on 25th April, 1915.

Douglas had responded to Prime Minister Wm. Hughes “Call to Arms” and enlisted in the 3rd Battalion, A.I.F on the 11th November, 1914. His service number was 1312 and his rank was that of Private.

Douglas embarked on H.M.A.T. A48 “Seang Bee” on the 11th February, 1915. He landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula at Gaba Tepe on the 25th April, 1915, where he spent some five weeks in the trenches. He noted in later correspondence to Stewart that on Empire Day he had “carted water on Cook’s Fatigue… and got very hot…. and that just about did it.” In a letter dated 31st May, 1915 Douglas’ father wrote: “Theodore is your name – the gift of God. Perhaps we chose a better name than we thought or knew at the time. Perhaps you may be God’s gift to the nation as well as to your father and mother.”

Douglas contracted pleurisy and pneumonia on Gallipoli and was transported by hospital ship back to the Heliopolis Hospital near Cairo from where he was repatriated to Australia. Douglas was sent to a dry region of New South Wales, the property known as “Oakleigh” at Tancoon “on the Western rail line”  and wrote to his brother Stewart, who was serving overseas at Flanders, that the Bank had granted him six months leave “on full pay” the down side of which meant that he now felt “obligated to the bank”. Douglas was discharged as medically unfit, “not due to misconduct”, on the 11th February, 1916. Douglas served overseas for 201 days and received the Silver War Medal.

The most interesting and important letter of my Uncle Douglas’s letters was written in pencil from his hospital bed in Egypt to his brother Stewart who was on his way to fight at Gallipoli.

Here is that letter:

Grand Hotel Convalescent Hospital,
Heliopolis, Egypt
23rd July, 1915
(The letter is marked as having been received 28-7-15)

My Dear Stewart,

I believe you are about to land in Egypt so welcome to Egypt. I hope it brings you good health and that your stay here may be enjoyable and helpful to you. I suppose landing here will give you a bit of a shock but there are many things of interest. I will also wish you many happy returns of the 30th and hope you may spend a happy year.

Now I suppose you are wondering what I am doing here, so I will tell you. On May 26th I awoke feeling off colour and on reporting to Dr. was sent to Hospital and on 31st May landed in Alexandria and then proceeded to Cairo and on to the Palace Hotel Hospital (No.1 Aus General Hospital). Here I received excellent treatment but I was very slow recovering.. My complaint was Pleurisy and Pneumonia – fortunately very mild. As all Pneumonia cases have to return to Aus for a change I was boarded and booked for Aus. This happened on June 16th. I missed a boat on July 3rd as there was not room for me. On July 4th I came to Hotel Al Hayet, Heliopolis. On 16th I came here where only those returning to Aus or N.Z. are. I am feeling pretty good now and hope the change will sufficiently renew me to enable me to return and to go on to France. But speaking from my present knowledge I have my doubts. I am sorry I will not likely see you as I expect to be leaving almost any day now (maybe a week) but will drop you a post card the day I leave. Now I suppose you are wondering how I received your address. Well I received a cable from home hoping I had recovered and giving me your no. and Battalion. Yesterday I received 4 letters. One from father and mother, 1 from Jack, 1 father and Lawrence, and 1 from Jeannie. I have missed getting 3 at least. However I was pleased to get so many as it is very hard tracing the troops. I saw Neil Beith at Heliopolis Hospital. When I was there he was well.

I landed on Gallipoli Peninsula about 6am on April 25 and was at it all the time till coming away. So I got in a month and missed all the shots and shells although several came quite close enough I can tell you. I did not take part in a bayonet charge but fired several hundred rounds in defence of trenches and worked on trenches and dug-outs etc night and day. Our position was pretty strong when I came away and things should be slightly easier now. My colony* didn’t our side get a shock the way the Turks hang on. Few thought it was going to be tough a job. Most of the  chaps seemed to think that a couple of weeks would see them in Constantinople. Our losses were very heavy and will be heavier still before the finish. I should not be surprised if you are sent there. If you are I wish you luck, and if you have to go to France to fight I wish you the same. How is your French? You will be able to improve it here as there are a lot of French people about.

Kindly excuse the pencil. Hope you had a good trip over and I hope I have a good trip back to Aus and then here and then back again. My word those Gallipoli hills knock it out of you especially when you carry provisions up them. The Dr. who attended me at the Hospital was a Major Summons and he was very nice and appeared to know his work thoroughly. This is a bit disjointed but that cannot be helped. I don’t feel much like letters somehow. I am much afraid I am getting very lazy having nothing to do and a long time to do it in. The meals here are very good and the place altogether is good. I have not seen round much as coming through only had a fortnight and three of those days were spent on board boat, and since I returned I have been rather confined, first to bed and then to the “Homes“. Well, hoping this finds you OK and hoping you have some decent chaps, and getting along nicely.

I am your loving brother, D. T. Burgess

My Uncle Douglas returned to Australia while his brother Stewart went on to Gallipoli only to be involved in the withdrawal. Subsequently Stewart attended an officer’s course in England before being killed in action near Villiers Bretonneau in France.

I cannot remember my uncle Douglas ever mentioning Gallipoli or the War to me. I guess, like most soldiers, it was part of the burden carried through life. The visit to the Egyptian artefacts in the University of Sydney was as near as we got to that, and it was very much in my mind as I graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree in the Great Hall of Sydney University in 1991. My wife, Lynette, and I named our second son, Douglas in fond memory of a wonderful uncle. And I still grow radishes.

* My golly; gosh!

Rev. Dr Les Hewitt, Koonawarra


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