Clive Purcell WWI Soldier

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Feature: Frank Hurley, Infantry Marching in Single File to the Front Line, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW
Feature: Frank Hurley, Infantry Marching in Single File to the Front Line, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW

ORT_Logo Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 March 2022

Clive Purcell WWI Soldier, Gallipoli and France/Flanders, 1915-1919

Main Points

  • What was the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) in World War I (WWI)? What role did it play in Gallipoli and in France?
  • Why did Australians sign up? What was their experience? How did they differ from British soldiers in WWI?
  • What role did venereal disease play in the AIF? Was it greater than in other allied forces? Did pay rates have something to do with it?
  • Why was A.W.L. (absent without leave) rife in the AIF? How was it treated by Australian Officers?
  • What sort of war experience did my maternal grandfather have in WWI? What sort of war experience did a hero such as Captain Percy Lay have? Both served the entire war and survived.
  • What relevance does the First World War have today? Why is WWI jingoism dangerous? Why do today’s politicians use WWI to promote nationalism and patriotism? Why shouldn’t we forget what actually happened?


Australia joined the hostilities in August 1914. Three siblings James Osmond Purcell the youngest (b 4 July 1893; age 20), William Clive Purcell (b 3 October 1889; age 24) and Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (b 3 April 1887; age 29) joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in 1915. James joined first in February, followed by Clive in April and Annie in May by joining the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS).

Clive and James were assigned to the 23rd Battalion raised in Victoria to provide reinforcements for the Gallipoli campaign. They left for Egypt on 10 May, ten days later Annie signed the AANS enrolment form. She embarked for Egypt with a group of nurses to reinforce 1 Australian General Hospital on 17 June 1915.

Annie’s career during the war was covered in a previous article Auntie Nam WWI Nurse a lightly edited version of the excellent article by Janet Scarfe for the Eastern Melbourne Historical Society entitled Biographical Notes: Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (1887-1941).

After a time of training in Egypt, Clive and James embarked for Gallipoli. The 23rd Battalion endured severe Turkish fire at Lone Pine and Browns Dip for weeks. Acting Sergeant Major James Osmond was killed by a ‘bomb’ on 6 November 1915. Clive wrote to Annie:

…poor dear old Jim, who was more than a brother to me, was killed by a bomb on Saturday evening inst. at about 7 o’clock, in a dug-out at the rear of the firing line. He was fixing up some details with an officer and two non-coms, when he met his death. The officer and the others were wounded, and cruel fate . . . our darling Jim was killed almost instantly. When I heard the sad news shortly afterwards I hurried round, but before I reached him Jim’s soul had gone to God. In death he looked very peaceful and happy, but God alone knows how I miss him. He was always so bright and cheerful and loved his work…

He died a soldiers death and full of honours. He was most popular in the Company and at his burial next day, all the officers (including officers from other companies) were present to pay their last respects… (Letter 7)

Alexandria, Cherif Pacha Street, WWI Postcard
Alexandria, Cherif Pacha Street, WWI Postcard

World War I — the war to end all war

There never was a greater tragedy than World War I. It engulfed an age, and conditioned the times that followed. It contaminated every ideal for which it was waged, it threw up waste and horror worse than all the evils it sought to avert, and it left legacies of staunchness and savagery equal to any which have bewildered men about their purpose on earth. (Bill Gammage, xvi)

We naively went to war and, for our new nation, paid a blood sacrifice that was too costly. The figures were awful: 460,809 men and women put on uniforms; 331,781 left Australia. 57, 425 were killed and 156,935 returned as casualties, many to die in Australia before their allotted time. In simple round figures, two out of three fighting men were killed or injured. (JL Turner, ii)

There is a great deal of Word War I jingoism in Australia at present. People in Australia currently value the idea of war sacrifice in WWI and tend to remember their relatives. Many young people attend the Anzac Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) ceremonies at Gallipoli. But, politicians and others tend to utilise the currents of emotion generated about Anzac Day, relating it to patriotism and nationalism. Jingoism arises from this.

Unfortunately, the generational distance from 1914-1918 means that many Australians of all ages are relatively ignorant of what actually went on in WWI. The Australian troops were relatively competent, seasoned and steadfast in battle. They developed a reputation for this. But, this does not mean they behaved heroically all the time.

There were ‘bad apples’, bad behaviour and attitudes many of which would not be acceptable today. When they experienced combat in WWI they quickly developed a realistic cynicism and disdain for aspects of the higher command and for the sacrifice that was expected of them, which was certainly not what they expected when they freely signed up.

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