Private Arthur Singleton (Service No. 301) was one of the first young Australians to volunteer in WWI. He was a farmer’s son, from South Road, Ulverstone. Aged 20, he joined the Tasmanian 12th Battalion, sailing off to Egypt aboard the troopship Geelong on October 20 1914. He is standing at the back on the far left of the following photo, at a family gathering to say goodbye. His parents, John and Emma, are at left in the middle row.
Arthur was at the dawn landing at Gallipoli, and later fought at the bloody battle of Lone Pine.
Shortly after this action he was evacuated to Malta, suffering from enteritis and a septic hand. It was here he received the terrible news that his mother had died from diabetes, aged only 50. From Malta he returned to Egypt. After a further period in hospital recovering from a dislocated clavicle, his father was informed that Arthur would be returning home. Instead, he went on to fight in France. Presumably he volunteered, anxious to rejoin his mates.
While on leave in London at Christmas 1916 his clavicle dislocated again. He spent several months in a military hospital at Wandsworth, undergoing a reconstruction of his shoulder. During this stay in hospital Arthur apparently saw his name gazetted as being recommended for a medal. He understood it was for action around August 6 1915, at the height of the Lone Pine battle.
Now there is a slight discrepancy here, as Arthur’s family were seemingly aware of the decoration even before he entered hospital. In mid December 1916 a fundraising event was held at the South Road school. Arthur’s father John Singleton was chosen to unfurl an honour roll naming local boys at the front. This was because his son had been the first to enlist in the district, and had apparently received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. In reality, this decoration was only for officers.
Arthur returned to Tasmania in October 1917 after being discharged unfit for further action. Not surprisingly, he was welcomed as a hero. There was a party for him at the schoolhouse. Some years ago I was able to speak his niece Edna about this occasion. She was aged about six in 1917, but remembered waving a flag and being helped across the creek by her hero uncle on their way home. Edna is the little girl sitting in the middle of the front row in the Singleton family photo.
With three other soldiers, Arthur was also honoured at a reception held at the Ulverstone Town Hall. A report of the occasion in the local paper (The Advocate) read;
Pte Singleton was among the ANZACS who landed in Gallipoli on April 25 1915, and was wounded at Lone Pine. He received the D.C.M (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for services rendered to Major Brand. He went to France and was again wounded at the Battle of Armentieres. Now the major Battle of Armentieres took place in 1914, but the AIF, including Arthur’s 12th Battalion, were fighting there in 1916.
Major Brand was in command of the Australian contingent at Lone Pine, which adds substance to Arthur’s claim. I should also point out that Private Singleton had an unblemished service record. He was from a deeply religious Methodist family, where telling the truth was sacrosanct.
But oddly enough, nothing more was heard about the medal. On December 12 1918 an ex-officer friend called Ronald Smith wrote to the Military Base Records Office in Melbourne on Arthur’s behalf;
Smith received a letter back advising that there was no record of the medal being awarded. The humiliation Arthur must have felt exacerbated the post traumatic stress he was suffering (then known as shellshock). Could he have simply imagined being recommended for a decoration? I suppose it’s possible, but there is nothing to suggest he was delusional while a serving soldier. In fact, while he was in France he was able to assist the Red Cross in determining the fate of a fellow ANZAC, missing after the Gallipoli landing.
He married within months of returning home, and had two little girls. However, by 1922 he was becoming seriously disturbed. His condition worsened after he resorted to alcohol to blunt his memories. Sadly, the family disintegrated. Arthur’s wife left and the children were placed in an orphanage. Apart from brief periods when he was released or escaped, he spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum at New Norfolk in southern Tasmania.
In 1961 he underwent a fairly extensive case review. It was now nearly fifty years since Private Singleton scrambled ashore on the beach at Anzac Cove. Despite this, he was still falling in imaginary soldiers and marching them around the hospital’s airing yard. His reconstructed shoulder continued to cause him pain. Mental relief from shellhock only came with the onset of dementia. He died on May 29 1966.
A MEDAL AFTER ALL
Arthur Singleton was my great-uncle. When I started researching his life, the first thing family members told me was that he had won what they now referred to as the Military Medal. His niece Edna, who knew him well, was convinced it was true. How did this misinformation trickle down the generations? Did they just accept and believe it for Arthur’s sake? And then I stumbled across some information that at least partly explained things. On November 8, 1917, just days after he returned home, the following article appeared in The Advocate;
Sunday and Monday were the days set apart for the Methodist Sunday School anniversary….On Monday the usual games and tea took place, when everyone had an enjoyable time, and in the evening a concert and coffee supper were held. A large number of people was present. This large attendance was not only due to the exceedingly good entertainment provided, but also to the fact that Mr Arthur Singleton, who has lately returned from the war – to which he went at the very first call – was to be presented with a medal by his many friends in token of their admiration of his patriotism and bravery. Not only has he done the ordinary duty of a soldier, but, by special merit, he obtained the D.C.M. The concert opened with the National Anthem……..During the concert the presentation to Mr Singleton took place. He thanked his friends in a becoming manner and received repeated cheers from those present.
Well well, a medal! I have a horrible feeling that this kind gesture only made things worse for Arthur. The more he was feted as having been decorated by the military, the more humiliation he would have felt when nothing eventuated. I suspect this is the ‘party’ Edna remembered attending and that this is where confusion over the medals began.
I did my level best to find out whether he really was recommended for a ‘proper’ war medal. Staff at The Australian War Memorial made a thorough search through the 12th Battalion’s records (free of charge), but found nothing . They did say that in those chaotic times following Lone Pine, it is quite possible that Arthur’s name was mentioned. I guess the mystery will never be solved. Never mind, he was a hero in my eyes, as he clearly was in the eyes of his family and community.
POSTSCRIPT – When I first came across The Advocate’s report of Arthur’s homecoming there was one word I simply could not decipher.
I studied it again when I began writing this piece and suddenly the blurred, distorted letters made sense…. ‘He went to France and was again wounded at the battle of ARMENTIERES.’ It reminded me of the old song, Madamoiselle From Armentieres. Some of the latter verses are very poignant, especially in relation to the thousands of men like Arthur, who gave so much but were never formally recognized; ‘The Colonel got the Croix de Guerre, Parley-voo, the son-of-a-gun was never there, Parley-voo…..’
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