Wartime tragedy that devastated one Croydon family

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: Records at Croydon Minster and beyond reveal many stories of service and sacrifice.
Ahead of Remembrance Day, in the first of a series of articles, DAVID MORGAN unravels the tragic history of one Croydon family in the First World War

On the Croydon Minster Roll of Honour for those who lost their lives in the Great War is an entry that reads:

Polhill Herbert William, Gunner, Australian Trench Mortar Battery, date of death 23/08/1917

With the Australian Imperial Force records now digitised, it is straightforward from a desk in south London to look up the record of an old soldier who signed up more than a century ago, half a world away.

But what is revealed in this case is a deeply tragic story.

Herbert Polhill’s attestation papers, which were compiled when he joined up, provide much information.

Signed up: Herbert Polhill’s attestation papers from May 1917 provide some information about the Croydon emigrant

His next of kin was Mr Arthur Polhill, who lived at 14, St John’s Grove, Croydon, just across the road from the Parish Church, as it was in those days. At some point, Herbert had emigrated to Australia in the early years of the 20th Century to make a new life for himself. He didn’t join up in the Australian Forces until May 18, 1917.

The forms tell us that he was 29 years old, was 5ft 6in tall, had blue eyes and brown hair.

He gave his religion as Methodist. His occupation was given as an accountant and a bushman, a fascinating combination, and he signed on at a place called Kempsey, in New South Wales.

Polhill’s papers reveal that Herbert was in the Australian Army for less than three months before his death.

What happened to him is laid bare in his file.

Polhill died, “from a bullet wound in the head, willfully inflicted by himself”.

Stark: the official record of the incident in which Herbert Polhill died

An army inquiry provided the detail.

A soldier in the same block as Polhill, Hut 16 in an army training camp, gave a witness statement. He told the tribunal that Polhill took a rifle down from the rack and began to clean it. He had his back to Polhill when he heard a shot. Turning around he saw the deceased fallen between the bed and a locker.

After a senior officer entered, this same witness was sent to fetch a doctor.

The witness went on to say that Polhill was a quiet, reserved, almost melancholy man but one who had never threatened to take his own life. Despite the prompt attendance of medical staff, Polhill could not be saved.

A second soldier, Staff Sergeant Falconer, gave his sworn statement. He had trained Polhill on the rifle range and the deceased had achieved to standard of a second-class shot. He was at a loss as to how Polhill came to be in possession of live ammunition. Falconer had been in charge of this group of new recruits for three months and explained that Polhill was always willing and trustworthy although he was very quiet. He had no reason to suspect that Polhill was likely to commit suicide.

However, correspondence also came to light in which Polhill had written to his superior officer asking to be discharged. The brief note, read today with all that we have learned and understand about shellshock and what is today called PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, makes for unsettling, troubling reading.

“Dear Sir,” Polhill’s brief note begins with all the deference off that bygone age, “I will be obliged if you will try and obtain my discharge for me.

“I have been suffering from nervousness, I cannot sleep, and I fear I am going ut of my mind.

“Do try and get my discharge for me before I go out of my mind.”

Dire news: the first telegram report of Herbert Polhill’s death

With this note set before them as evidence, the Army Court of Enquiry found that Polhill had inflicted the lethal wound on himself, that the deceased had been suffering from some mental worry but it was unable to say whether the wound was intentionally or accidentally inflicted.

Herbert Polhill was buried on August 24 in the Methodist section of the Liverpool Cemetery in New South Wales.

The headstone, still standing today, shows that his army comrades raised the money to provide a memorial.

By the standards of the time, Polhill’s death might have been dismissed as an act of cowardice, of someone not prepared to “do their bit” for King and Country on the Western Front or whichever other theatre of the global conflict they might have been despatched to. But contemporary newspaper reports about Polhill and his death reveal a much more complex, and troubling, possible explanation.

A report of Polhill’s death in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that Herbert had been a popular figure in the town of Macksville, a small town in Nambucca Valley, just inland of the Pacific coast, 300 miles north of Sydney. Together with another brother, they had built themselves a farm in Warrell Creek. The other brother had already enlisted. Herbert was turned down initially because of a defective eye.

After undergoing an eye operation to rectify his sight, Herbert Polhill was passed fit for military service and travelled the 40 miles or so to enlist at Kempsey.

Herbert’s letters back to his friends in Macksville reveal additional concerns. Following the operation, he informed them that he began to suffer from multiple headaches, “which never left him”. He endured a general despondency and, for a time, partial memory loss.

No wonder he came across as a quiet individual in his army hut. Poor Herbert must have regretted that operation. None of this evidence came out in the military inquest.

Before enlisting, Herbert had put his cottage up for rent. In the Nambucca and Bellinger News in March 1917, Polhill advertised, “A four-room cottage, with tank, and use of paddock. Lessee to keep down brush only.” No rental value was put with the advert.

Within such a short period of time, Herbert’s life was turned upside down and snuffed out in the most tragic of circumstances. His father, back in St John’s Grove, would have been heartbroken.

News of the brother will be in another tale.

Read more: How Corporal Luff’s cross became a symbol for all Croydon
Read more: ‘For gallantry’: Croydon hero who died at Passchendaele
Read more: Until the daybreak Mother: Four-fold tragedy of Croydon family
Read more: Victorian church painting that leads to a Great War tragedy

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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