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Think Piece: A salute to ‘Boss’

Thursday 16 June, 2016

Peter FitzSimonsAnd so to the story of a World War I Digger that has moved me most in the trilogy of books that I have written.

Russell Bosisto, see, is a 19-year-old South Australian, from a warm and loving family, and every week while away he writes loving letters to his parents, Ernest and Annie, together with frequent postcards to each of his five elder sisters. And they all adore him in turn, having sent him away with a beautiful fountain pen that he always has on him so he can write those missives, and a handcrafted and engraved identity disc, which he treasures. But a party? Doesn’t mind one!

Once his 27th Battalion has left Gallipoli and got to the Western Front, Russell fights well, but truly pours his passion – in down-times, when the 27th is relieved from front-line duties – into les filles françaises, in the towns behind the lines, not to mention drinking enough wine and champagne to float a battleship. I kid you not, 98 per cent of “Boss’s” army pay is spent on wine, women and song, and the rest of it, as the saying goes, he wasted! But Boss don’t care. And he don’t care either, when he regularly gets thrown into military prison for a few days for his trouble. He knows he will be let out if there is a big stink on, and he won’t miss out.

It’s just that he hadn’t figured on the particular stink being this big. When the 27th Battalion is about to go over the top at Pozières on the night of 5 August 1918, Russell is indeed there, having been released two days early from a fortnight’s stint of ‘Field Punishment No. 2’ – heavy labour – for having been found with grog in his kit. And the shells are bursting and the German machine-guns have unleashed their shattering chattering. Now, just before he goes over the top, this only son writes to his beloved father, pouring out his angst about how things are so much worse here than at Gallipoli. There is, of course, to be no retreat, and the only way out of here is to go forward, Dad. He also asks his father not to read the letter to the rest of the family and to prepare them for what might happen. His mates are doing the same. The letters are gathered by a corporal, and sent back, while they prepare themselves.

The whistle blows, and out they charge. Now, whatever they have said about Boss’s constant AWLs, no-one has ever doubted his ability as a soldier when a donnybrook is on, and, sure enough, he is right in the forefront of the 27th’s attack on this night when . . .
When suddenly a shell lands nearby, sending up heavy chunks of earth. He disappears. Just like that!

One second he is there, and the next he is GONE.
After the war, his family live in hope that through some miracle he might still be alive – perhaps “somewhere unable to write or suffering from loss of memory . . .”

But there is nothing, nothing, nothing, no news. All they have is their treasured photo of him in uniform in pride of place above the fireplace – looking so smart – as the family settles in to decades of mourning, wondering what happened to him.

But you know what?
In January 1998, a French farmer is ploughing his field just by Pozières when his plough brings something to the surface. Bones? Yes, covered in tattered cloth. The farmer carefully digs around with his hands, and the remarkably complete remains of an Australian soldier emerges, replete with his pipe, tattered gasmask, penknife and razor and loaded rifle. And here is his identity disc. The farmer scrapes away the mud with his index finger and holds it up to the bright sunshine. It is different to the usual scungy dog tags he has seen. Not regulation. Qu’est-ce que c’est? This one is of finer metal, clearly done with a lot of love. And what is the name on it?
R G Bosisto 27th Battalion

Eighty-two years after he had disappeared on that terrible night, Russell Bosisto, “Boss,” has at last been found. The farmer calls les Gendarmes. The Australian Embassy is soon contacted, who in turn informs the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A long legal and forensic process has begun . . .

The only point of confusion is that, despite only being a private, the soldier is found to have the insignia of a Lieutenant inside his pants pocket. It takes a while for them to work it out, but finally they do, just as the Boss had worked it out:  While Private Bosisto might struggle with a French girl on a Saturday night, by Gawd LIEUTENANT Bosisto does very well indeed, and he always liked to carry the insignia in case he might meet one!

Finally, however, on 5 July 1998, we come to the end of the story. In the presence of two of his weeping nieces, an honour guard from Russell’s old outfit, the 10/27th Battalion, Royal South Australia Regiment, carry his coffin, draped in the Australian flag, in a slow march behind the United Mineworkers’ Federation of Australia Pipe Band, to an open pit at the nearest military cemetery to Pozières. As they approach the grave, the bagpipes stop, and they all slow-march to the beat of a sole bass drum.

After the brief service, the coffin is, with great respect and ceremony, lowered into the pit, so Boss can rest for all eternity, right by nine of his mates of the 27th Battalion, who had been killed in the same action. And those four old men, now stepping forward – after the Chaplain sprinkles holy water from an upturned helmet of the Great War – to throw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin below, who are they?

Well, friends, they are four surviving First World War Diggers, flown to France for the occasion. One of them was from Bosisto’s battalion, Howard Pope, and is now 101 years old. As Bosisto is laid beneath the sod, in a recognised grave, at last, the four Diggers, led by Pope, salute. Others, including his nieces, step forward to take one of the many blood-red poppies available in a large white basket to drop down onto his grave.

The Honour Guard of the 10/27th Regiment fires 18 shots into the air, and the bugler sounds ‘The Last Post’, followed by ‘Reveille’.
It is over.

Lest We Forget.

Peter FitzSimons is a former radio presenter and national representative rugby union player. He currently works as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald, and is a busy events and motivational speaker. Peter is the author of twenty seven books including ‘Tobruk’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Fromelles and Pozieres – in the trenches of Hell’, along with several biographies about prominent Australians including Douglas Mawson, Nancy Wake, Kim Beazley and Les Darcy. Peter is one of Australia’s biggest selling non-fiction authors of the last fifteen years. He recently became Chair of the Australian Republican Movement; an issue about which he is very passionate. Peter lives in Sydney with his wife Lisa Wilkinson, and their three children.

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