What happened to our Joe?
This is the story of Joe Cree, a young Australian farmer. But it could be the story of anyone who joined up to fight for his country. It is perhaps the archtypical story of war.
Joseph Cree was born in Majorca, a little town in Victoria, in November 1894. His father Samuel Talbot Cree was born in County Down, Ireland, probably in Portavo where his father and grandfather, both named Robert Cree, had been stonemasons. Samuel migrated to Victoria along with his parents in 1874, following two brothers who had travelled there earlier. All found their way to the country area of Victoria where gold had been found twenty or so years earlier.
We presume that by 1914 Joe was living on the farm of his parents, Samuel and Elizabeth Cree, since he described himself as a farmer. In fact Samuel was listed as a carter from from 1903 to 1909 and only from 1914 as a farmer.
As Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Australia’s Prime Minister Joseph Cook said “When the Empire is at war, so also is Australia.” Given the predominantly British heritage of most Australians at the time, there was considerable support from all corners of the country and large numbers of young men reported to recruiting centres around the country to enlist in the following months. Joe signed up at his home town of Majorca at the age of tewnty on 17 July 1915, and so avoided the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign. His father Samuel must have accompanied him to the recruitment centre for at the foot of his Attestation Paper he wrote, Mr S Cree, I have no objection of my son Joseph joining the Australian Imperial Force.
Joseph was medically examined and his description entered into his record: he was aged 20 years and 8 months, was 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighed 138 pounds with a chest measurement of 34 to 37 inches. He was of fair complexion with blue eyes and fair hair. His religious denomination was Presbyterian, a reflection of his Ulster heritage. Note that it was Joe’s mother, Elizabeth Cree, who was entered as his next of kin.
On that day Joe Cree swore, that I will well and truly serve my Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force from 17th July 1915 until the end of the War…. SO HELP ME, GOD.
Almost all we know about him comes from his military records held at the National Archives in Canberra. We have no photograph of Joe.
Training and embarkation
Joseph was assigned to the 10th Reinforcements of the 23rd Battalion on the 3rd August 1915. On 16th October he was transferred to Bathurst, NSW, presumably to continue training.
On 7th March 1916 he embarked at Melbourne on HMAT Wiltshire, arriving in England on 25 July 1916 as part of the 10th Reinforcements of the 23rd Battalion. Two days later he embarked for France where he joined the 23rd Battalion at the Divisional Base near Étaples. On 4th August he marched out to join his unit where he was taken on strength on the following day.
The next item in his record shows that he was promoted to Lance Corporal on 12 December 1916.
Conditions were pretty appalling on the Western Front through the Winter. At some time Joe would have started to suffer from toothache. On New Years Eve he was sent to a Field Ambulance Station and from there to the main ANZAC Dressing Station. He was recorded as suffering from tooth decay (dental caries) and defective teeth. He was discharged back to his unit for duty on 20th January 1917.
This is war
In May 1917 Sam and Elizabeth received a cable to say he had been wounded on 3rd May. Then they received this letter from the Base Record office in Melbourne:
Dear Madam, I regret to advise you that L/Corporal J. Cree has been reported wounded.
In the absence of further reports it is to be assumed that satisfactory progress is being maintained, but anything later received will be promptly transmitted, it being clearly understood that if no further advice is forwarded this deprtment has no further information to supply.
They received no further communication from the Defence Department for some time. Later a cable arrived to say he had been reported missing.
The winters are cool in the Central Goldfields area of Victoria and Sam and Elizabeth must been increasingly worried at the lack of news of their son Joe, notwithstanding the assurance that the absence of further reports meant that he was making satisfactory progress.
As Winter turned to Spring Sam would have busied himself with the annual round of farming tasks, ploughing, sowing his crops and tending his stock. Elizabeth still had two daughters at home to look after. At Christmas the older children, now married, would have visited but it would have been a sombre occasion. Perhaps they urged Sam to write to the authorities for news of Joseph, for on 29th December that’s what he did. The letter in Sam’s handwriting to a Mr Outtrim is in Joe’s military record. He passed it to his Member of Parliament, Edmund Jowett, who wrote to the Minister of Defence, Senator Pearce.
The army looked into the matter. The reply relayed back from Base Records through Edmund Jowett MP referred to a “brief cable message Previously reported missing, now reprted killed in action on 3/5/17. This would probably be the finding of a Court of Inquiry held to consider this case.”
We don’t know when or by whom Sam and Elizabeth were finally told that their son wouldn’t after all be coming home. There is no record of such a communication in the military archives. However we do know that Joe’s official record was twice altered, firstly from wounded to missing in action and then to killed in action on 3rd May 1917.
Sam and Elizabeth were later granted a military pension of 30 shillings a fortnight (there were 20 shillings in a pound), back-dated only, for some reason, to 8th September 1917.
There is a record of Joe’s kit being posted to Elizabeth from a military store in London in April 1918. It consisted of a balaclava, a testament (Bible), a writing pad, a bag handle, some curios and a wrist strap. She was asked to sign and return a receipt to the Base Records Office in Melbourne. The receipt with her signature is still in his file. She dated it 13th April 1919 although a rubber stamp on the receipt suggests this was an error for 1918.
Later, in September 1922, there was a Memorial Scroll, and in November a Memorial Plaque. In March 1923 they were sent a Victory Medal and in March 1924 a British War Medal. Also sent was a booklet Where the Australians rest giving details of Australian Military cemeteries and memorials in France.
But no-one ever knew where Joseph Cree’s final resting place was. That must have grieved Sam and Elizabeth.
The name Joseph Cree is inscribed on the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.