For family historian Geoff Oliver, the centenary of World War One prompted him to start discovering more about a military ancestor. What he uncovered led him to remember the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele with special significance.
From France to Cootamundra, NSW, 30 October 1917:
I regret very much to inform you of the death of your son, Lt. J. D. Oliver. During the attack on the 4th instant, when trying to get his Stokes Mortar team forward through difficult country he was killed outright by a shell.
His work throughout has been of a very high order – his fearlessness and his consideration for his men being two of his chief characteristics.
His loss to his Battery will be hard to replace, both on account of his ability and none the less for his cheerful nature which had such an influence on his men.
Few battles of World War One epitomise the tragedy and futility of the Western Front more than Passchendaele in 1917. Officially referred as the Third Battle of Ypres, it is better known by the name of the village that was the end objective for the Allies – Passchendaele. From 31 July to 10 November 1917, Australians, British and Canadians fought to gain ground over the Germans. Nearly half a million soldiers, from both sides of the mud and trenches, were killed or wounded in the fields of Flanders, including 38,000 Australians.
Among them was Geoff Oliver’s first cousin twice removed, Lieutenant James Oliver, who was killed in action on 4 October 1917. James was born in Colac in 1891 and worked as a government dairy supervisor until enlisting in the AIF in August 1914. He was posted to Egypt in October of that year for training, where he contracted pneumonia. He was sent back to Australia to recuperate for most of 1915, before re-enlisting in December in the 39th AIF Battalion. He was subsequently promoted to Sergeant and posted to England. By July 1917 he’d made Lieutenant and was serving with the 10th light trench mortar battery in Belgium.
It was Geoff’s father who first told him about James, and it prompted Geoff to discover more about the Anzac as the centenary of the First World War approached.
“He was the only family member I knew of who was a solder in World War One,” says Geoff. “The more I found the more I looked and the more I learned both about him and solders like him.”
Through records available on Ancestry, Geoff has been able to piece together James’ life on the Front, and his family history before enlistment. “The ‘WW1 Service Records 1914 to 1920‘ were helpful as were the electoral rolls and birth index,” reveals Geoff.
“Through Ancestry I have also been able to locate a photo of James, his inscription in the Australian War Memorial and his headstone in Belgium, which I hope to visit one day. I feel very proud of his military record and his advancement through the ranks.”
James received the 1914/1915 Star, the Victory medal and the British War medal posthumously. He is buried in Tyne Cot war cemetery near Zonnebeke (near Passchendaele), West-Vlaanderen in Belgium. His headstone reads:
Lieutenant J. D. Oliver
Australian T. M. Battery
4th October 1917 Age 26
Hoping to learn more about a military ancestor? Here are Geoff’s top tips:
- Finding the service number in the service records is very useful because with that you can search the military records of an ancestor online. James had more than 100 pages of military records detailing his health, training and deployment.
- Through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I found out that James had been buried twice, first at the battlefield and then a Tyne Cot.
- Electoral rolls can give information about where an ancestor was living and their occupation before and after serving.
- And importantly, ask your own family. My father had a photo of James and his siblings before he enlisted.