Born in the winter of 1895 in the far North East of Tasmania, Gordon Henry Watts was a gentle soul. His is a story of neither fame nor fortune. It is similar to many Tasmanian men of his era – those who served in World War I, returning changed forever, and who rarely spoke of their experiences thereafter.
Gordon’s family were amongst early settlers in the country hamlet of Derby. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the district came alive with the discovery of tin. The surrounding townships of Pioneer, Moorina, Herrick and Garibaldi all swelled with workers chasing a livelihood from the mine and the branched railway line that carried its precious cargo away to Launceston.
Gordon grew up on a farming property, the third child of parents Jabez and Ada Watts. Sister Lydia Beatrice was the couple’s precious first born (1892), followed by Gordon’s elder brother Byron Jabez (1893). Two years later came Gordon, closely followed by younger siblings William James (Bill, 1897), Gladys Mildred (1901), Frederick Reginald (Ted, 1903), Muriel Irene (Rene, 1906) and Marjorie Mavis (1913, deceased aged 2 months). In 1914, some 22 years after the birth of her first child and just months before both Gordon and Byron headed off to war, Ada completed the family by welcoming baby Hector Thomas, affectionally known as Heck.
As a young man, like most in the district, Gordon carved an unskilled living from the land. Later in life he would recount stories of long days working with bullocks, clearing the bush in preparation for the railway line to inch further forward. His experience was later put to further use on the state’s North West coast where he worked on the railway that carried timbers from deep inland to the industrious ports of Wynyard, Burnie and Ulverstone.
Gordon enlisted in the Australian Army on 1 July 1915. He quickly found himself a member of the 12th Battalion, an infantry battalion raised for the First Australian Imperial Force that consisted of recruits from Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. Gordon soon joined his comrades in the Egyptian desert preparing for service along the Western Front. One wonders what this young man from rural Tasmania made of life under the blazing sun. Letters that Gordon penned to Zella Matthews – his young love waiting patiently back in Wynyard – were lost along with priceless recollections of his time abroad.
Early members of the 12th Battalion were deployed to Gallipoli and became the covering force for the ANZAC landing on 25 April 1915, however Gordon was amongst a second wave of young men that subsequently served along the Western Front. Whilst records detailing Gordon’s individual experience are scant to say the least, the gallantry and endurance displayed by the 12th Battalion is well documented. This determined band of men received battle honours at the Somme, Pozieres, Bullecourt, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Hindenburg Line, Flanders and Ypres. In 1918, the Battalion participated in the last Allied offensive near Amiens. The 12th Battalion was disbanded in 1919 having sustained casualties of 1135 killed and 2422 wounded.
Throughout his active service Gordon was a machine gunner. He returned to Tasmania with a solid reputation for his remarkable ability to operate such heavy equipment with unfailing accuracy. It was a skill that earned him the respect of his comrades and, seemingly, the Military Medal – a decoration awarded to members of the armed forces for bravery in battle on land.
The exact details leading to Gordon’s receipt of the Military Medal remain unclear. What is known however is that it was awarded for actions during an attack on the 3rd Australian Brigade towards the end of the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, near Ypres in Belgium, on 20 September 1917. At the time, the Allied infantry was undertaking tactical movements, adopting a leap-frog method of attack that ultimately paved the way for one of the most significant accomplishments of the 12th Battalion – the capture of Polygon Wood. Gordon’s award was promulgated in the ANZAC Routine Order of 31 October and gazetted in the London Gazette on 17 December 1917. It was one of several Military Medals awarded to soldiers of the 12th Battalion for outstanding conduct during that same battle.
Upon his return to Tasmania, the Military Medal was officially presented to Gordon by none other than General Birdwood himself – famed for his role as Commander during the Gallipoli campaign. Gordon received the medal during Birdwood’s visit to East Wynyard in 1920. A lone photograph captures black and white memories of the town’s residents dressed in their finery, busily heading either to or from the presentation of the medal atop horses and carts and in early motor vehicles.
A snippet appearing in The Advocate on 19 August 1919 reported the following welcome home in the township of Moorleah:
On Monday evening the residents of the Moorleah and the surrounding districts assembled together to welcome home two of the district’s returned warriors, in the person of Corporal Gordon Watts, M.M., and Private Byron Watts, both sons of Mr and Mrs J Watts…The spacious hall was taxed to its utmost capacity and visitors were present from Flowerdale, Sisters Creek, Boat Harbour, Wynyard and numerous other districts.
After a bounteous supper had been provided by the ladies, Mr J A Smith, on behalf of all present, extended to both soldiers a cordial welcome home, and complimented Corporal Watts on his four and a half years’ service without being once wounded. Gold medals were pinned on the chests of both soldiers by their mother, and after each had suitably responded they were greeted by three ringing cheers and the singing of ‘For they are jolly good fellows’. Dancing was then continued until a late hour.
Records indicate that Gordon’s eldest brother Byron almost didn’t return home after very nearly succumbing to a serious bout of influenza in late 1918. A series of telegrams sent home to the family track his ill health, eventually advising of his ‘critical condition’. Fortunately he recovered. Younger brother Bill also served in World War I, enlisting in 1917. He was at first rejected after being unable to gain parental permission. He must have been persistent as Jabez and Ada eventually agreed and signed the required documents. What a draining few years of worry it must have been for this humble Tasmanian couple.
After returning from the war Gordon kept his experiences largely hidden beneath a veil of silence, preferring not to speak of the horrors he undoubtedly witnessed. Only occasionally would he recount glimpses of life in the trenches to his grandson. He described weeks living in water and waste up to his knees. Gordon and his mates would create a dry place to sleep by digging into the wall of the trench above the water line.
In the years to follow, Gordon quietly recounted one particular story working a machine gun that required two operators. Gordon was usually responsible for firing the gun whilst the man alongside him would feed the bullets in. Gordon had two mates shot and killed beside him whilst performing his role on one particular day. There was no time to pause and mourn – the day demanded only focus and resolution. Perhaps that was the day that his fortitude was noted with the Military Medal?
Gordon was discharged from the AIF on 19 September 1919. His discharge papers note the loss of the middle finger on his right hand, however this was an old injury that occurred prior to the war. Gordon would joke with the children of the family that it was chopped off as a consequence of picking his nose. He warned them with a smile that they should think twice about dabbling in the act themselves so as to avoid the same consequence.
Gordon returned to the North West coast, residing in Moorleah, before marrying Zella in January 1921. The couple were the very first to wed at St Stephens Church of England in the township of Wynyard. Zella was the daughter of William and Sarah Matthews of Moore’s Plains, a rural district some twenty kilometres further inland.
Gordon and Zella went on to have a son and a daughter, Gordon Rex (Rex) and Marjorie – perhaps named after Gordon’s tiny baby sister who passed away in 1913. Whilst the children were born on the North West coast the couple soon relocated their young family to Hobart. Over the years Gordon and Zella called numerous addresses around the city home, including a general store in Antill Street which they ran together, a second floor apartment in Elizabeth Street, and then homes in both Swan Street and Stoke Street. Gordon and Zella enjoyed keeping budgies and ‘Jimmy Watts’ was a particularly chatty favourite during their days living in Swan Street.
Over the years Gordon again worked for the Australian Army training new recruits at the Brighton barracks. He served during the Second World War, enlisting in 1940 in the Volunteer Defence Corps until late 1944. During this time his role was in a training capacity. He remained in Hobart and did not find himself on the battlefield again.
Gordon and Zella’s final family home was in Cross Street, New Town. It was well kept, with rose bushes lining the front path and swans carefully carved out of old tyres – a specialty of Gordon’s. He would paint them in coats of white and finish them with bright potted colour. A stone sharpening wheel was a permanent fixture in the back garden, perhaps installed by Gordon for use by his son Rex who became a butcher.
As was common in the day, Gordon was involved in the local pacing scene. Hobart’s northern suburbs represented the heart of horse racing and Gordon enjoyed time at the ‘trots’, even trying his hand driving pacers. In a newspaper article published in The Mercury in January 1981, on the occasion of Gordon and Zella’s 60th wedding anniversary, it is reported that he won every major trotting trophy in the state. Interestingly, family members recall his pacing success very differently, and don’t recall such accolades. It seems that Gordon took the opportunity to have the lend of a young reporters ear.
Photographs of Gordon and his brothers dressed as soldiers hung solemnly in the living room of the Watts family home. The black and white portraits watched silently over the couple as they welcomed grandchildren and great-grandchildren into the world. Family filled Gordon with joy – perhaps an escape for him as Zella tended to rule the roost. He would take delight in mystifying his grandchildren with a coin he could magically make appear from behind one’s ear.
For many years Gordon worked as a hairdresser in Glenorchy, a role he later also drew upon when he found work as a nurse. Gordon spent quite a few years working at St John’s Hospital in New Town. At the time, male nurses were quite unusual however Gordon relished the role and found solace in caring for others – even taking the time to carefully cut their hair.
For some time, Gordon also worked for a local charity who supported disabled children. He would travel around the state, accompanied by Zella, emptying the collection points in hotels and pubs. It appears he was drawn to roles that involved helping others.
Gordon and Zella were both fans of the card game cribbage. They passed this love onto their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren and now great-great grandchildren. It is a family tradition that lives on and the quiet counting…15-2…15-4…and the movement of old matchsticks along a well-loved board still continues.
As he grew older, Gordon spent his spare time pottering in his workshop – a well-kept ‘lean-to’ at the rear of the house that smelled strongly of sawdust and oil. He would fashion small pieces of furniture such as bedside and occasional tables and would intermittingly appear at the back door, peering through the multicoloured plastic strips that acted as a flyscreen. If his great-grandchildren were visiting, he would come in and pour them a glass of Cascade raspberry cordial. Later in life he became quite deaf – perhaps a consequence of many months at the helm of a machine gun. The hearing protection provided on the Western Front was likely primitive at best.
In 1980 Gordon lodged a Statutory Declaration reporting the theft of his war medals from his home in Hobart. Details of the event remain unknown. Records indicate it took many months for replacements to arrive, including a new Military Medal that was sent from London. One wonders where the original medals lie today.
Prior to his death, Gordon revealed that he had three beautifully preserved World War I pistols hidden in his workshop – they were carefully wrapped in an oily rag and hidden high under the rafters out of harms way. One was a German Luger, one an American Colt 45 and the third one unknown. He promised the pistols to his grandson, but following his passing the pistols were sadly unable to be located. Another family mystery that remains unsolved.
Gordon passed away just prior to Christmas in 1983, aged 88 years. Today Gordon’s war medals, including the Military Medal, are well cared for by his family. Small symbols of events that carved the path of one quiet Tasmanian.
Gordon is remembered by his family as a pacifist – a soft voice, a gentle smile and a thick pair of black rimmed glasses.
The story of the twelfth – A record of the 12th Battalion, A.I.F. during the Great War of 1914-1918.
LM Newton. Originally printed by J Walch & Sons Pty Ltd, Hobart 1925.