- Saving Private Ockenden: The Story of Six Brothers Who Served in WWI
Saving Private Ockenden: The Story of Six Brothers Who Served in WWI
Monday 4 May, 2015
His name was Oliver Ockenden but everyone called him Twist. He was a barber in the town of Burra in South Australia, a quiet man who liked to listen to more stories than he told.
All of his regular customers had their own ceramic shaving mug on the shelf next to his chair.
The local paper carried the headline, “Barber-less Burra”, when Twist and the other two barbers in town coincidentally took their holidays at the same time, leaving the men of the town with stubbly chins for a week.
Twist’s fingers moved quickly as he combed, cut and shaved – his hands were his living.
Few people saw the scar on Twist’s right hand, he never talked about it. But it was a clue to a remarkable story, another life, within a life. The scar was a gunshot wound from the Great War.
Twist was one of six Ockenden brothers who joined up: Oliver, Harold, Stanley, Charles, Richard and Arthur.
Their parents both died of illness shortly before the start of World War I, leaving them to find their own way into adulthood.
Their elder sister Dora had married and moved to Broken Hill, and elder brother Frank was in Adelaide, in poor health.
So, their teenage sister Nellie tried to run the family home as best she could, along with youngest brother Baden Powell, who was still at school.
One by one the Ockenden boys boarded the train for Adelaide to sign up for the AIF (Australian Imperial Force).
Part 1 – Joining up
He would be the first of many to return, deeply changed by the war. The locals were told that if they meet a man suffering from shock, they should just shake his hand.
Richard Ockenden (Australian War Memorial)
Nineteen-year-old Richard was the first to go. He left his job as a blacksmith in Burra and joined the 3rd Light Horse Regiment in 1914.
Arthur went to the Field Ambulance, Stanley to the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company, Charles was selected for the Flying Corps, Harold joined the 27th Infantry Battalion, and Twist went to the 50th Infantry Battalion.
More than 600 young men from the Burra district joined up. As they left, local women gathered stockpiles of pyjamas and clean sheets, hoping to care for any wounded when they got home.
There was no real understanding of the magnitude of the conflict and the losses to come, just buoyant patriotism.
The Burra Boys were soon confronted by the horrific reality of the war.
Richard Ockenden landed into appalling conditions at Gallipoli on May 5, 1915. He was hospitalised for seven weeks with influenza, gastroenteritis and malaria.
Richard Ockenden’s casualty form
He rejoined his unit at Quinn’s Post on August 28, but only lasted two days before he was shot in the neck and his hand was blown off.
The young blacksmith was taken to an army hospital in Egypt, where his arm was amputated below the elbow.
The news reached Burra several weeks later and was the start of four years of uncertainty for the Ockendens’ younger sister Nellie.
She waited, hoping her brothers would come home safely from the war. There were months of nothing, and then flurries of telegrams and letters with stilted information about wounds and illness. It must have been a full-time job, wondering and worrying.
Richard Ockenden returned home wounded from Gallipoli in October 1915, with the stump of his arm still bandaged. Hundreds of people turned out at the Burra Institute to welcome him and several comrades back from the front.
The Mayor asked if he would like to say a few words to the crowd, but Richard whispered that he wasn’t up to it.
He would be the first of many to return, deeply changed by the war.
The locals were told that if they meet a man suffering from shock, they should just shake his hand.
Part 2 – Brothers in arms
Despite Richard’s terrible injuries, Arthur, Harold and Twist were still eager to join the AIF. Twist said goodbye to his customers at the barbershop and enlisted in early 1916, Harold finished his job as an ironworker and signed up too. It would be the last time they were all together.
Twist Ockenden (Australian War Memorial
Harold Ockenden was short and stocky, with a face full of freckles and a cheeky grin. He and his mates from the 27th Battalion arrived in the beautiful French port of Marseille in June 1916.
They broke out of camp and went AWOL for a day, drinking and chatting up the local girls.
They were caught and docked several days’ pay, but their commanders knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole unit was heading to the worst of the Western Front, at Pozieres, Ypres, and the miserable mud of the Somme.
Twist Ockenden was already fighting in the Somme. His battalion was camped at Brickfields, an old brick factory just outside the village of Albert.
On August 12, the soldiers marched to the frontline, through heavy fog.
The Germans pounded the trenches with artillery, making it almost impossible to get food and water to the diggers.
Telegram: Oliver wounded
The battalion’s losses were appalling – in only three days, 62 men were killed, 285 wounded and 67 missing.
Several senior officers were so badly affected by shell shock they had to leave the line.
Twist survived the worst of it. On the 16th, the Battalion moved back to the wire trench, ready for the march back to Brickfields.
It took all day and most of the night, because the shelling was so heavy.
Twist was shot in the hand before he could reach the Brickfields camp. He was sent to hospital in England for surgery.
A telegram reached his sister Nellie, back in Burra, almost a month later.
Part 3 – Breaking point
The Ockenden brothers wrote to each other, each week. Their letters criss-crossed from the trenches to training camps and hospital wards. But, late in 1916, the brothers were worried.
Harold Ockenden (Australian War Memorial)
They had all written several letters to Harold on the Western Front, with no reply. A week before Christmas 1916, Arthur sent a handwritten note to the Enquiry Bureau for Wounded and Missing Soldiers, desperately trying to find out if Harold was still alive.
“I have a brother at Wareham Camp, Dorset who has written to Harold three times and received no reply; another brother in the Tunnelling Company in France has done likewise with the same result, whilst I have written four letters also with no reply.”
Harold Ockenden was alive, but slogging through the winter on the frontline. The 27th Battalion spent Christmas Day in the mud at Montauban, France.
The pencil-written entries in the official unit diary give a sense of the misery:
“Bitterly cold, wet day. Xmas Cheer conspicuous by its absence… Bitterly cold winds and almost impassable mud everywhere. Great difficulty is being experienced in preventing trench feet.”
In January 1917, Arthur finally received word that Harold was still alive. The good news was passed on among the brothers, and to Nellie in Burra.
Several months later, Arthur and Harold met up on the battlefield – it was September 26, 1917. Arthur had been wounded in a blast a few days earlier, and was suffering from shell shock.
He had seen the bloody screaming hell of the trenches as a private with the Field Ambulance, trying to save men who had been shot, gassed and blown up.
Harold had just returned from leave in England and was about to be transferred to the 22nd Machine Gun Company.
On the night of October 7 1917, Private Harold Ockenden was helping to carry supplies up to the frontline at Polygon Wood, near Ypres in Belgium.
The darkness was broken by a blast as a shell exploded into the mud. Harold was killed instantly. His mates could do nothing to save him.
“I knew Ockenden well. We came over to England together. He was killed instantly by a shell, with three other men on October 7th at night. He was on a fatigue, taking stuff into the trenches. They were all buried together and a little wooden cross with their names on was put up.” – Pte PT Hanks 4138, 27th Battalion
“The Battalion Pioneers buried him where he fell and put a cross up… He was in B Coy and was a mate of mine and was a farmer in Burra, South Australia. Short, about 22, sandy hair and freckled complexion.” – Cpl JC Gleeson, 4123, 27th Battalion.
“I saw him killed at Ypres, near the Belgian Chateau: I was only a few yards away. He was coming back from a fatigue party job with some Aust Engineers, when a shell came and killed him instantly – blew him up. He was buried, but I do not know where. He was a little, short, thickset man, about 24, a ‘nuggety’ sort of chap. He came from Burra, S Australia.” – Pte S Branford, 3757.
Twist Ockenden requests discharge
It took several weeks for a telegram to reach Nellie Ockenden. Back home in Burra she did her best to comfort her little brother Baden Powell, who was distraught by the loss. The two teenagers were living alone in the family home.
It took several months for all the Ockenden brothers on active service to receive the terrible news that Harold had been killed in action. It was bleak.
Twist was in England, on a training course with the Field Ambulance. But he had little time to grieve. A few weeks later he was transferred as a medic to the Artillery and shipped back to France and then to Belgium.
By January 1918, Twist Ockenden had reached breaking point. After consulting with his brothers, he wrote a letter to his commanders, explaining his family’s circumstances, and asking permission to return to Australia.
I respectfully beg to apply for my return to Australia for various reasons. Both of our parents are dead. Five of my brothers have enlisted in the AIF. My youngest brother is 17 ½ years and my sister aged 18 ½ years are now living at home alone, and in a letter just recently received, she states that she is in a delicate state of health, having suffered from heart trouble since birth, and melancholy owing to the strain of our continued absence.
The following is a list of my brothers serving in the AIF –
Pte RA Ockenden, 3rd Lt Horse had his right hand blown off at Gallipoli.
Pte H Ockenden, 27th Bn, killed in action.
Pte CL Ockenden, AFC.
Pte AG Ockenden, 7th Field Ambulance, now in Convalescent Camp in Boulogne.
Pte SL Ockenden, Tunnelling Corps, wounded, now in England.
Trusting this will meet with your favourable consideration.
Part 4 – Homecoming
Twist’s letter eventually arrived on the desk of Lt Colonel Henry Douglas Wynter, at AIF Headquarters in London. Wynter was a sugarcane farmer’s son from Gin Gin in Queensland, one of six siblings. On January 30 1918, after reading the story of the Ockenden brothers, Lt Colonel Wynter granted special permission for Oliver Henry ‘Twist’ Ockenden to be discharged and return to Australia.
Twist Ockenden discharged
Twist finally returned home to Burra on Monday night, May 13, 1918. More than 200 people gathered to welcome him. The Cheer-Up Girls band played Home, Sweet Home as the train pulled up to the station.
For the people of Burra, the Great War ended with the sounding of the fire-bell just after 9.30pm on Monday, November 11, 1918.
Within 15 minutes, the market square was crowded with locals. The Ladies and Men’s bands played God Save the King and the celebrations went on into the early hours of the morning.
It took more than a year for all the surviving Burra boys to return home.
BURRA CHEER-UP GIRLS – When the men went to war, the women of Burra ensured their band instruments did not fall silent.
The Cheer-Up Girls made sure every train carrying diggers was met by a large crowd.
All of the returned soldiers received a wallet containing five pounds from the local sporting club, to help them get back on their feet.
It is hard to know whether all the fuss was comforting or overwhelming for those who made it back to Burra.
Of the more than 600 men from the Burra District who served in the Great War, 102 were killed, including Harold Ockenden.
The survivors did their best to blend back into the community. There were whispers of shell shock, for those who had been changed and been damaged by their time in the trenches. But mostly it was unspoken.
Twist Ockenden went back to work at the barbershop. He married Vera Pascoe in 1921.
Richard Ockenden, who had his hand blown off at Gallipoli, also married that year. He became an accountant in Adelaide. He never spoke of his injury or the war.
Stanley, Charles and Arthur Ockenden also returned safely from the war. Like more than 60,000 other returned soldiers Arthur died within 10 years of returning home, because his health was so badly damaged.
He was buried in November, 1927. It was the second wave of lost lives.
The boys’ younger sister Nellie married Carlton Rabbich, a tall, handsome returned trooper from the Light Horse.
He had spent much of the war in trouble and in hospital, after trying to jump his horse over a fence to show off to his mates.
Nellie was walked down the aisle by her brother, Arthur.
The other Ockenden boys were there and made a toast, thanking her for keeping the family home going while they were at war.
Part 5 – After the war
Dorothy Ockenden, the only surviving niece of the six brothers who went to war.
The only surviving niece of the Ockenden brothers, Dorothy, is now 85 years old. She remembers sitting in the kitchen of the family’s home in North Adelaide, watching her uncle Richard roll cigarettes with a special machine designed for amputee soldiers.
“I do remember that and I remember it vividly. He would sit down at the table and we would all look at it and talk about it after he went. He never really made an issue about it,” she said.
“He never discussed what happened to him during the war. I look at the photograph of the boys, taken obviously after the war and he is in the front, clasping his hand.”
One of Dorothy’s brothers was named Harold, in honour of his uncle who died on the Western Front. But, very little was spoken about the loss. It was too painful, even decades later.
The older sister of the Ockenden brothers, Dora, never really recovered from Harold’s death during the war. She took her own life in 1941.
“Harold’s death just got to her. It was quite, quite tragic, because we were expecting them to come down to Adelaide and stay with us. And it was on the day they were to come down. Uncle Dick got in touch with us to say she had committed suicide,” Dorothy said.
The brothers maintained a strong bond after the war and went on to have families of their own.
“They were very close, actually. I think it’s a family trait. Losing their parents and having to be brought up by their sister. I guess that brought them all together,” Dorothy said.
Dorothy made many visits to Burra as a child and remembers her uncle Twist riding his bicycle to work at the barbershop.
“Oh yes, I do, I do. Even now when I go to Burra, I look and I say, ‘Oh look, there’s Uncle Twist’s house’,” she said.
“He was always remembered as the barber in Burra. Always. He was a quiet fellow. He was always known as Twist, always. Most people wouldn’t have known his name was Oliver.
The obituary of Oliver Ockenden in 1953.
“I always go to the cemetery there and I walk around and I think, ‘I can tell my life story by those headstones’.”
Twist Ockenden died in May 1953, just short of his 65th birthday. He had spent more than 45 years as the barber in Burra, quietly cutting hair and shaving chins, never talking about his experiences in the war or the gunshot scar on his hand.
But Twist was loved by the community he served.
The obituary in The Burra Record described him as one of the town’s best-known identities.
Hundreds of people turned out for his funeral, including dozens of men who had gone to war with him. Richard and Charlie Ockenden helped to carry his coffin to the grave.
Now, Dorothy Ockenden is one of the few people left who remembers the story of the six brothers from Burra in South Australia, who went to the Great War.
“Absolutely, and I’m sad I’m the only one of the family left. It was a dreadful war, dreadful. These men were just lovely, lovely creatures. I feel very proud of them, very proud.”
The Ockenden brothers after WW1 LtoR back – Charles, Stanley, Baden Powell, LtoR front – Frank, Arthur, Oliver ‘Twist’, Richard. (Photo courtesy Ockenden family)
Photographs, documents and articles courtesy of The Australian War Memorial, The Burra History Group, The National Library of Australia and The National Archives of Australia.
The Ockenden brothers also have profiles on the Virtual War Memorial. Click on their names below to view their Virtual War Memorial profiles.