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Saturday 17 September, 2016
At 12:30pm on 31 July this year (2016), a short but poignant service was held in the medieval cathedral city of Peterborough in the midlands of the United Kingdom. The service was to commemorate the centenary of the death of an Australian soldier. 505 Sergeant Thomas Hunter was a member of the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force who was seriously wounded at the battle of Pozieres, and who subsequently died after medical evacuation to the United Kingdom.
Nothing special in this story so far; many thousands of other soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded or captured during the same offensive. But what follows is a remarkable story of enduring gratitude and dedication that must be acknowledged.
Thomas Hunter was born on 5 May 1880, in Medomsley; a small village in County Durham, England not far (by Australian standards) from his final resting place in Peterborough. His mother died when he was very young, and, like his father, he lived a spartan life as a 19th century North Country coal miner. He did manage, however, to serve for almost ten years in the Militia and in the Territorial Army, but in 1910, at age 30, emigrated to Australia. Tom initially worked in the coal fields in Kurri Kurri, New South Wales, but had subsequently moved to Broken Hill in search of better pay and conditions. The date of his relocation is not known, but it is known that he joined Australia’s Militia in Cobalt Street, Broken Hill.
It is also not clear why he emigrated to Australia, or what family trauma occurred that caused him to declare his previous service or choose to list himself as an orphan when he enlisted into the 10th Battalion of the AIF after war broke out in 1914. We shall see that this is significant shortly.
Thomas was amongst the first draft of volunteers who travelled to Adelaide from Broken Hill, and because of his age and previous military service, he was rapidly promoted to sergeant. His service record throughout World War I, though impressive – as they all were – was fairly unremarkable, and very familiar. He was a soldier who did his duty; Morphettville, embarkation, Mena Camp, Gallipoli Landing, evacuation to a medical facility as a result of a serious injury, redeployment to Gallipoli, evacuation back to Egypt and deployment to the Western Front. At the Battle of Pozieres on or about 25 July 1916, he sustained serious gun-shot wounds to his spine. He was evacuated to the United Kingdom and was en-route to the hospital at Halifax when it was decided that his injuries were so severe he would need to be disembarked at Peterborough and transferred to the infirmary there. He died the following day on 31 July, 1916.
Believing that Tom was an orphan, and far from his friends in Australia, the reaction and response of the Peterborough community in this small corner of the United Kingdom was overwhelming. Sergeant Hunter was quickly dubbed “The Lonely ANZAC” and was buried with full military honours in the local Peterborough cemetery. Shops were shuttered on the route of the funeral procession. The cortege included the Mayor of Peterborough and the Matron of the Infirmary. Floral tributes and wreaths were laid from many sympathetic parties. Their inscriptions were truly moving. From the press clippings of the day: “And so was laid to his last rest the stranger whom nobody knew, but whom everybody honoured, and much sympathy was felt for his friends in Australia.”
Subsequently, an inscribed memorial headstone in the form of a two metre high Celtic cross and a bronze plaque in the cathedral chapel were erected as a result of generous public subscriptions received from more than 2000 donors. To this day, a memorial service has been conducted at his gravesite on 25 April every year for the last 100 years. The service includes the same prayers used at his funeral. This year, being the centenary of his death, the service was conducted on 31 July, 2016 in the Peterborough Cathedral.
Several theories have been proffered regarding the initial outpouring of grief and the sustained nature of the recognition of Sergeant Thomas Hunter’s sacrifice. The most enduring is threefold in nature. Firstly, there was great sympathy for the fact that he died alone, far from his friends in Australia. Secondly, widows, relatives and friends from England who lost men overseas did not have an opportunity to bury their loved ones in a similar manner. Their men were buried overseas, many in unmarked graves. Notifications of their fate were often vague, late, or indeed non-existent. Thirdly, there is genuine appreciation and recognition of the contribution Commonwealth Forces made in support of the war against Germany. To quote again from the press article of the time: ”I know,” the Mayor said,” that I am voicing your wishes and desires when I express, on your behalf, our sympathy and condolence with his friends and relations, and to Australia, the great debt we owe to the men who responded so quickly to the call to Empire.”
In Australia, as in many other places, at the conclusion of a memorial service we often recite those immortal words of Kipling; “Lest We Forget”.
The good townsfolk of Peterborough have not forgotten.