Collie soldier no longer forgotten

COLLIE BOY: Alexander McCaughan in his new uniform. Photo: supplied

COLLIE BOY: Alexander McCaughan in his new uniform. Photo: supplied

Alexander McCaughan was a Collie boy who was killed in action during WW1.  

He died and is buried far from home.

His name has not yet been inscribed on Western Australia’s State War Memorial.  

This is a very small part of his story.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 Alexander was working in Queensland.

He enlisted almost immediately - 9th Infantry Battalion No. 177.

Alexander’s eyes were blue, his hair was fair and he was 22 years old.

He sailed from Albany on board HMAT Omrah on 1 November 1914, with the first convoy of Australia and New Zealand ships.

HMAT Omrah. After the convoy’s escort HMAS Sydney sunk the raider Emden, the German prisoners of war were taken on board the Omrah. Photo: supplied.

HMAT Omrah. After the convoy’s escort HMAS Sydney sunk the raider Emden, the German prisoners of war were taken on board the Omrah. Photo: supplied.

Alexander trained in Egypt and was then deployed to the Dardanelles.  His Battalion was the first ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

Alexander did not join his regiment there until a few days later.

This may have saved his life - for the time being.

He served on Gallipoli until November 1915 at which time the troops were withdrawn from that battlefield.

Along with the other AIF troops he then served in Egypt, on the Somme and in France and Belgium.

Alexander was killed in action whilst attacking an enemy machine gun post at Merris, France on 20 June 1918.

Why did Alexander enlist so quickly?  

No one will ever know for sure. He had been in the militia in Collie thus knew something of army life.

He was a mad keen sportsman and seems to have been action oriented. (He won a roller-skating marathon in Collie in 1910 as well as various swimming and diving competitions.)  

He seems also to have had a sense of adventure, setting off from Collie when he was 21 years old on what we now term a working holiday.

The government’s call for men to enlist would have provided Alexander with a rare chance to travel overseas and to be paid to do so (six shillings a day), an opportunity not generally available to someone of his class background.

Alexander McCaughan was my grandfather’s younger brother.  

I grew up learning from my grandmother, and my mother, that “Uncle Alexander had been killed at the very end of the First World War”.

I had long been interested in the history and details of the war that changed the world but I tended to visualise its reality in black and white.  

One day I came across a photograph of Alexander and found myself staring into the eyes of a young man who looked amazingly like my youngest son – or was it looking into the eyes of a young man my youngest son resembled?

Grave bearing Alexander’s name, Courcellette British Cemetery, France. Photo: supplied.

Grave bearing Alexander’s name, Courcellette British Cemetery, France. Photo: supplied.

This image brought life and depth to a global event I had only considered at the macro level.  

I began researching Alexander’s story in the context of his Battalion’s WW1 history.  

It was both fascinating and tragic, at the grand level and at the level of the individual.  

Driven by a need to gain a deeper understanding, my son (Jared) and I travelled to Merris in France to visit the exact place where Alexander had died.

We travelled to Courcellette British Cemetery and visited his burial place.  

We placed a small Australian flag and some gum leaves on his grave.

Jared told him the war was over. We did not tell him another and catastrophic world war had broken out only twenty years after the first global calamity.

School children reading a little of Alexander’s story, Merris France. Photo: supplied.

School children reading a little of Alexander’s story, Merris France. Photo: supplied.

This year I returned again to France.  

I participated in a series of events that commemorated the centenary of the liberation of Merris by Australian forces. I delivered a short speech, in French, during a commemorative service at a nearby war graves cemetery.  

Later, French school children read the names of a select number of Australian service men, including Alexander’s, and told something of their story.

Alexander’s photograph now hangs on the walls of the local (Merris) war museum.  

Alexander McCaughan’s name is inscribed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

During this centenary of the WW1 Armistice, having Alexander McCaughan’s name added to the WA State War Memorial is a symbolic way of 'bringing this Collie boy home'

Each night, and as part of the centenary of WW1 commemorations, the names of the war dead are projected, in rotating order, on the exterior walls of the AWM. Alexander’s name has been among these.  Alexander’s name is inscribed on the War Memorial in Soldiers’ Park in Collie and a rosebush planted nearby honours his name.

Alexander McCaughan’s name is not, however, inscribed on the walls of the Western Australian War Memorial in Kings Park.

Alexander enlisted in a QLD rather than WA regiment so I can understand how this might have happened; particularly in the absence of modern information technology such as we have today.

Alexander’s name projected on the exterior walls of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: supplied.

Alexander’s name projected on the exterior walls of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: supplied.

Despite this, I must say that when I recently visited the Kings Park memorial to examine the list of names of the fallen I experienced an absence, a sense of something not being quite right. A project to rectify the WA Honour Roll records is in progress and Alexander’s name has now been added to the official WA war dead database. This is wonderful news. This centenary of the WW1 Armistice, having Alexander McCaughan’s name added to the WA State War Memorial is a symbolic way of “bringing this Collie boy home”.