Pension for Mum, medals for Dad

During the last few months I’ve been spending a lot of time with the records of C.E.W. Bean, the Australian official correspondent and official historian of the First World War. Like his official history, Bean’s diaries, folders and notebooks (digitised and made freely available by the Australian War Memorial) teem with references to individual servicemen. A reference to two soldiers of the 10th Battalion, Private Clarence Tidswell and Private Hartley Oborn, took me on quite the adventure in the archives, which I’ll share with you in this post. The fate of Tidswell and Oborn is a fascinating story in its own right, and it also raised some interesting questions for me about the ways in which different family members remembered – and were allowed by the state to remember – the war dead.

My adventure in the archives began like this. I was reading one of Bean’s folders about the Passchendaele campaign when I came across some notes on the 10th Battalion’s involvement in the Battle of Poelcappelle on 9 October 1917.[1] During this fourth attempted offensive ‘step’ in three weeks, a party of the 10th made a diversionary attack on Celtic Wood. Bean would later write in the official history, “Of 85 officers and men, only 14 had by next day returned unwounded. The missing were never heard of again. Their names were not in any list of prisoners received during the war. The [Imperial War] Graves Commission found no trace of their bodies after it.”[2] This was despite Bean’s specific enquiries to the Commission in the mid-1920s. (To the best of my knowledge the fate of the party remains a mystery. The episode is examined well by Tony Spagnoly in his 1991 book The Anatomy of a Raid.[3])

But the Commission did find trace of two other men of the 10th Battalion: Private Clarence Tidswell and Private Hartley Oborn, reported as missing in action on 2 and 3 October 1917 respectively. In 1926 a rather incredible thing happened: Tidswell and Oborn’s families were notified that their sons’ bodies had been recovered and identified, and buried in Divisional Collecting Post Cemetery and Extension.

I now looked for information about Tidswell and Oborn in the usual places: the websites of the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives of Australia, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

With the Australian War Memorial’s “Search for a person” feature I found them both on the Roll of Honour and in the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files. Their mothers, Matilda Tidswell and Emily Oborn, each dutifully filled out the Roll of Honour “circular”, the form the Australian War Museum (as it was then known) sent to next of kin seeking details regarding the deceased. These circulars are among my favourite First World War records, because even in a single page they can reveal a great deal not only about the deceased serviceman, but also about their family’s sense of loss. For Matilda Tidswell, for example, it was important to be as accurate as possible about Clarence’s date and place of death: “2/10/17… Westhoeke [sic] Ridge near Broodseinde Ridge or Celtic Wood opposite Ypres” (the varying locations she offered were probably the result of contradictions between official notifications of death and various comrades’ letters of condolence).[4] Emily Oborn gave the more general “October 3rd 1917… Zonnebeke Belgium.”[5] One of these women was likely mistaken, for Tidswell and Oborn’s Red Cross files – the records of investigations into the fate of servicemen listed as wounded and missing – agree that the two privates were killed together, when hit and buried by the same shell.[6] It is unclear whether this was on 2 or 3 October, but one of the official dates of death is surely inaccurate.

Given the level of detail she provided on the Roll of Honour circular, I was unsurprised to find correspondence between Matilda Tidswell and the military in her son’s service record. In 1921, when he remained ‘missing’, she sought physical connection with his affects in the absence of his body, writing to the Base Records Office at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, “I have been wondering if any of my Son’s… belongings had been sent to Australia… I was thinking that perhaps some of his things had been overlooked.”[7] A newspaper report about the imminent closure of the office gave urgency to her query.

I was surprised, however, by a kind of physical connection she was potentially denied. The year before, the office had written to Matilda about Clarence’s medals. Was Clarence’s father still alive? If so, the medals would be issued to him, not Matilda. This was in accordance with the Deceased Soldiers’ Estates Act 1918, which required that a deceased serviceman’s medals go to his nearest relation as determined by the Minister for Defence. In order, these relations were widow, eldest surviving son, eldest surviving daughter, father, mother, eldest surviving brother, eldest surviving sister, eldest surviving half-brother and eldest surviving half-sister – a clear bias towards men as inheritors over women, except widows. Clarence had listed Matilda as next of kin, made her executor of his estate, and she received his pension, but his medals must go to his father, unless, the letter explained, “good and sufficient reasons” were given.[8]

This reference to the Act in Clarence’s service record was the first I knew of the legislation. In the case of Clarence’s medals, it is unlikely to have mattered much; his parents were married and resided at the same address on King William Road in Adelaide. Probably most parents who had lost sons were in the same situation. But I wonder about cases in which this was not so. Were there mothers who were granted a Female Relatives Badge “For Duty Done” but not their son’s medals, irrespective of his wishes?

The Act brings to mind Joy Damousi’s work on grief during and after the First World War. In her 1999 book The Labour of Loss, Damousi writes about an “artificial hierarchy of sacrifice” that developed in Australia immediately after the war around the issue of compensation: “whose sacrifice was to be deemed the most worthy among the living?… to what extent should these familial groups” – mothers, fathers, widows and wives (of disabled returned servicemen) – “be honoured in recognition of their loss?”[9] She also argues that grieving “fathers gained legitimacy by being drawn into the male fraternity of the army” – as they certainly were by the Act.[10] Around the issue of medals, another artificial hierarchy of sacrifice developed.

I am also reminded of a reference in Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995) to the fate of French servicemen’s bodies that were claimed for repatriation home from 1922. In cases where there was a disagreement between widows and parents about the serviceman’s final resting place, it was the parents’ wishes that were honoured – a very different hierarchy to Australia.[11]

Are you aware of any other gendered or generational distinctions in how families of the war dead were treated, in Australia or elsewhere? Do leave a comment to let me know, or just to share any thoughts you have on the post.


[1] Australian War Memorial. AWM38, Official History, 1914-18 War: Records of C E W Bean, Official Historian; 3DRL 606/254/1, “Folder, 1917-1933”. View online.

[2] C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 4 The Australian Imperial Force in France: 1917, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1982 [first published by Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1933], p. 900. View online.

[3] Tony Spagnoly, The Anatomy of a Raid: Australia at Celtic Wood 9th October 1917, Multidream Publications Ltd, London, 1991.

[4] Australian War Memorial. AWM131, Roll of Honour Circulars; 675/26, “2803B Private Tidswell, Clarence Tom Horatio”. View online.

[5] Australian War Memorial. AWM131, Roll of Honour Circulars; 502/37, “6088 Private Oborn, Hartley Morrish”. View online.

[6] Australian War Memorial. AWM1DRL/0428, Australian Red Cross Society, Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files 1914-1918 War, “2803B Private Clarence Tom Horatio Tidswell, 10th Battalion” and “6088 Private Hartley Morrish Oborn, 10th Battalion”. View Tidswell online; view Oborn online.

[7] National Archives of Australia. B2455, “Tidswell, Clarence Tom Horatio”. View online.

[8] NAA: B2455 Tidswell.

[9] Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p. 26.

[10] Damousi, The Labour of Loss, p. 61.

[11] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 26-27.


3 thoughts on “Pension for Mum, medals for Dad

    • Hi Jeannine,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. In the early 1920s Clarence’s father, Horatio, received his son’s 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal, and also the Memorial Scroll and Plaque (‘Dead Man’s Penny’). In 1926 he also received the items that were recovered with Clarence’s body: identity disc, metal matchbox and coins. Hartley Oborn’s family received an identity disc at the same time. Horatio contributed two documents to Clarence’s service record: his July 1915 permission for Clarence to enlist (Clarence was 18 and so needed it) and, in March 1926, a letter stating simply, “The Father and Mother of the Late 2803B C.T.H. Tidswell desire to thank all in connection with the finding and returning of momentos.”

      As I said in the post, I was also unaware of the heirarchy until now. I think this might explain the frequency with which mothers’ names have been replaced with fathers’ names as next of kin on the original attestation (enlistment) papers. I’d imagined this might have happened as the soldier was filling the form out: “Say, son, are you sure you want your mother to receive the telegram if anything happens to you? Best put your father down instead.” But I now think they might be mostly post-war changes, related to who would receive the medals.

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