Susan Stephens from Lapstone in the Blue Mountains treasures a hand knitted jumper brought home from WWI by her grandfather, Hedley Stephens. Fighting in France in May 1916, Corporal Stephens went ‘over the top’ with a senior officer to check on their men. The pair were severely wounded by shrapnel and taken prisoner. The officer, a Lieutenant, died overnight in a German field hospital.
Corporal Stephens received good medical treatment from the enemy medics, but never fully recovered. He spent the next two years in captivity, including a period at Dulmen Internment Camp.
In the same camp was Lance Corporal Percy Burge, a bank clerk from Bendigo. Percy had enlisted aged only 18 and served in Gallipoli before going on to France. A letter home to his mother from Gallipoli illustrates his humour and spirit in the most challenging of circumstances;
I am well and happy. We are having a good time, and are being fed better than I expected. We get a tin o f bully beef, bacon, cheese, jam, tea, sugar and spuds every day, so you can see we are living like kings. We were relieved for a rest three days ago after being about five weeks in the firing line. One good thing now we are here is that I can have a swim every day. We needed it too. My shirt and pants tried to stand up and fight me, so I had to discard them. I wish you could have seen those socks! A homeless bullet wandered into my haversack, cutting it all around and spilling a tin of ‘bully’ by puncturing a hole through it. As you say, we have seen a lot, and have had enough narrow escapes to write a book about , but there is not enough paper here to do it on….. Bendigo Advertiser, July 19 1915.
Two years later Percy was captured at Bullecourt on the Western Front. He had been hit by a grenade and wounded in both legs. He also had shrapnel in one of his kidneys. A letter to his mother was published in the Bendigo Advertiser on August 7 1917;
I am in hospital badly wounded, but am getting on fine. I was captured on the 11th April and have received excellent treatment. I got about 15 scratches from grenades , and the shock put me out of action and, after lying in a shell hole for two hours, I was again hit by fragments of shell, which caused serious injuries to my leg and abdomen. We are permitted to write two letters a month and a card once a week.
It was while Percy Burge was interned at Dulmen after being discharged from hospital that he taught himself to knit. He made the jumper brought home and treasured by Hedley Stephens. How Percy managed such an intricate pattern is a mystery, but his mate Hedley must have so appreciated the garment’s warmth and comfort.
Another jumper known to have been made by Percy Burge is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The garments are almost identical, with a cable pattern and an attached, garter stitch collar. It is amazing to think that they were knitted on needles fashioned from wire. The wool was recycled from old woolen socks, hence the colours of brown, greys and kharki.
In a tribute to the man who helped keep her grandfather warm during his interment, Susan Stephens knitted her own jumper, with the same cable pattern.
Knitting by soldiers in hospitals and internment camps was more common than we may think. For the recuperating wounded, it was a wonderful and very practical form of occupational therapy. Mind you, Percy Burge’s talent was something very special.
NOTE – I would like to acknowledge the Blue Mountains Gazette, where a piece about Susan Stephens and her grandfather Hedley was published in April 2018.