One Hundred Years On: a Commemoration of the Deaths of Privates Walter Edward and Walter Leslie Peake of Peakhurst, 20 September 2017

By Wayne Leonard Peake

Every Anzac Day and Armistice Day, when I was young, my father would retell the story of how his Uncle Wally Peake of Peakhurst had been killed by a stray German shell on the Western Front, several hours after the armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918. Wally and his cobbers, the story went, were gathering to leave the Front and move to the rear, when the shell landed among them and blew them all to eternity.  Tears would well in Dad’s eyes, and we boys’ too, as we reflected on the story’s intrinsic poignancy, and the sheer rotten luck of it all.

It was only in recent years, when AIF service histories and Red Cross enquiries about the war dead and missing became available on the Internet, and well after my father’s own death, that I learnt that this family history, which I and my brothers had already memorised as ritual and passed on, was a myth (or 'furphy' in the Australian idiom of the time). Like most myths however, there was something to it. Uncle Wally—or Private Walter Edward Peake—had died not on the first Armistice Day, but more than a year earlier, on 20 September 1917. And he had been killed by a German shell. He had been among a party of men bringing stretchers back from the front line when one landed in the midst of them. However, he had not been blown in an instant into the next world, but rather succumbed to the wounds inflicted on him sometime later; at least that was one version of his death.

So, the family’s story tellers have reluctantly abandoned the gothic plot-twist provided by Walter’s supposed post-armistice death—the tale was so depressing it gave me a sort of ‘Samuel Beckett’ feeling of hopelessness. It  impressed on me the appalling consequences a few hours’ ‘either way’ can bring, in the same way that Burke and Wills arrival back at Cooper’s Creek, just after the departure of their base camp south, did.  Nevertheless 20 September 1917 is itself an extremely significant date in the history of the first AIF and its Western Front campaigns of World War I. It was the first day of the Battle of the Menin Road on the Passchendaele sector of the front. Here General Haig launched what proved to be a disastrous, ultimately bogged push against the German lines. Following Fromelles, Pozières, and Bullecourt, Passchendaele was the fourth of those advances that proved the most costly in terms of Australians killed and wounded.

However, while the Armistice Day embellishment of the story has perforce been written out, another almost equally quirky footnote has emerged, or rather re-emerged, some 100 years later to replace it. Walter Edward Peake’s uncle, Walter Leslie Peake, the brother of his father George, was also fighting with the AIF on the Western Front, just a few miles away on the Passchendaele sector of the line.

I had heard much less about Walter Leslie Peake than of his nephew. However the sight of his name—WL Peake—on the Hurstville cenotaph had disturbed me even more as a boy, because it exactly matched my own abbreviated form.  In fact he had enlisted before his nephew, in February 1916 at the comparatively advanced age of thirty-five. Just a fortnight after WE Peake’s death, on 4 October at 8am WL Peake strayed into the direct fire of a German machine gun and was instantly killed.

Given they shared the surname ‘Peake’ and very similar Christian names, were both natives of an obscure location called Peakhurst somewhere near Sydney, and died within a few weeks of one another at locations just miles apart, it is not entirely surprising that the AIF bureaucracy  got them mixed up in their post-war tidying up. Some of the post-mortem documentation for Walter Edward, now deposited at the National Archives of Australia, was originally annotated ‘WL Peake’ and bore his regimental number (5772). And in 1920 George Peake was advised by the Military that three photographs of his son’s second gravesite at Birrs Cross Cemetery (he had originally been buried in the field near Anzac House—a pillbox captured by the 18th Battalion on 20 September) had been mistakenly sent to the father of WL Peake—George’s own father, Isaac. The letter advised him that the original recipient had been asked to pass them on to him, as it was noted they shared an address: ‘Forest Road Peakhurst’.

Back-story: the Peakes of the Georges River District

Walter Edward Peake was born at Peakhurst, at the time a primarily rural village in southern Sydney, a few miles south-west down the Forest Road from the town of Hurstville in 1896.  Peakhurst was named after his great-grandfather, John Robert Peake, born in 1815, the son of a convict named John Peake who had been transported for possessing forged bank-notes.

Isaac Peake, John Robert’s fourth-born son, was born in 1838; the year that John Robert bought his first land in the Georges River District. This was 10 acres of the old Hebblewhite estate. Peake’s land extended along the southern side of the line of modern-day Forest Road from opposite Jacques Avenue (a monument marks the location of the homestead and chapel) to the site of today’s Peakhurst Inn.

While several of JR Peake’s offspring relocated themselves around NSW, the majority of them, including Isaac, remained in the district that was known from 1879 as Peakhurst. In 1862 Isaac married Martha Holley. They began their married lives at a location known locally as ‘Billy Burton’s shack’. Later Isaac established a farm on the eastern side of today’s Stoney Creek Road that extended from Queensbery Road to Forest Road. In fact, Isaac and his brother Jacob, whose farm bordered his own to the west, donated a strip of land that enabled the extension of Stoney Creek Road to Forest Road. Isaac’s homestead (not quite deserving so grand description perhaps, but as the photograph below demonstrates, nor should it be humbled by ‘shack’ or even ‘cottage’) was named ‘Holleyview’.

Isaac’s son, George Isaac, also remained in the district. He married Ellen Tynan, who was from the Liverpool district, in 1893. He occupied a dwelling that was named ‘Braeside’ at an address that came to be 710 Forest Road Peakhurst. It is likely that this had been sub-divided from his father’s property. During the war years ‘Braeside’ was to become the home-base of the Peakhurst Tennis Club, for which George’s daughter, Daisy, was a leading player.

On his enlistment papers WE Peake described himself as a labourer. His forefathers had been in the habit of using the rather more Lawsonesque appellation of ‘bushman’ to identify themselves in censuses and electoral rolls. Moreover his father, George Isaac Peake, had literary aspirations. He liked to demonstrate his superior knowledge of Shakespeare to passers-by, and sometime before his death he dictated several thousand words that ultimately were published under the title Reminiscences of Early Peakhurst. In 1904 the Sydney Morning Herald published an account of one George Peake of Forest Road, Peakhurst, being stabbed after a late night altercation with a man in inner Sydney. The victim was almost certainly George Isaac Peake. His presence in the city early in the morning suggests a possible connection with either the Demimonde or Bohemian society.

The c. 1908 Photograph of ‘Braeside’

A recently resurrected photograph shows Walter Edward Peake with his father, mother, brother and sister standing outside the family home, ‘Braeside’, around 1908. His father is revealed as an unusually tall man. Peake’s older brother, Sydney George Alfred Peake, a youth of about sixteen, is also much taller than the average. He has something of the larrikin about him and could be mistaken for a customer of John Wren’s infamous Collingwood tote. Walter, though still a boy, was clearly destined to be a much shorter man than either his father or his brother—more like his demure mother and sister. Still, credited with a height of 5 feet 10 inches on enlistment, he hardly turned out to be a midget.

Syd Peake—my grandfather—was also to remain in the Peakhurst/Hurstville district all his life, but in that small-village-and-farmlets environment he became a colourful and somewhat controversial figure. Born in 1893, Syd—another who sometimes described himself as a ‘bushman’ to the census takers—had resisted any temptation and urgings to enlist for service in World War I, despite being in 1914 the ‘ideal’ age of 21 to do so. Instead, in 1916, he took up a uniform of a different kind; he became a probationary constable of the NSW Police Force. We do not know what his motives were: it might have been as simple the desire for a steady wage, for he was to marry Mabel Smith of Richmond Victoria the following year. Perhaps it was a means of diminishing himself as a target for those patriotic young women who thrust symbolic white feathers at able-bodied men in mufti in those early years of the war.

Whatever Syd Peake’s reasons for joining the Force, they were short lived. In an article that appeared in the Sydney Truth on 26 July 1931 he was identified as a ‘wood carter’. The article described how he had come, axe in hand, running to the aid of a man being attacked by several assailants near the Herne Bay end of Bonds Road, close by Peake’s Junction Road home.

This story cast him in a better light than his previous appearance in the Sydney press had. In February 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, Syd had so much abandoned his old vocation as an agent of the law that he attempted an act of petty larceny at a Penshurst plant nursery, was caught and was shamed by an account of the case and the ensuing appearance in court on page 2 of the intriguingly named Hurstville Propeller.

My father Jack used to tell me stories about my grandfather Syd’s often dubious doings (selling blind horses to gullible neighbours, ‘knocking’ the knees of stock at the sales yard so as to get them at a cheap price, using stock whips to discipline his boys, and so on.) However by the late 1930s Syd seems to have undergone an evangelical experience as he became a lay Methodist preacher on the Peakhurst/Mortdale/Oatley beat. But even now his inconsistent morality could not be reined in. In 1949 he was named in a divorce case that made the pages of the Sydney Truth. He was said to have had an adulterous affair with one of his flock. Syd could not be called as a witness though, as he had died of an apparent heart-attack in 1946.

I believe Syd’s brother Walter was a much a milder person. His physiognomy (though he shared Syd’s very full lips, the eyes are much less intense), the written accounts by family and friends, and perhaps even his service record suggests this to me.

Private Walter Edward Peake

Walter Edward Peake was recruited by the AIF and took his preliminary medical examination on 6 March 2016 at Hurstville. He took the oath and formally enlisted at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Moore Park Showgrounds on 20 March, whence he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion depot camp at Cootamundra. His regimental number was 5615.

Walter Edward weighed 11st 9lbs on enlistment, with an expanded chest measurement of 39 inches. His hair and complexion were noted as ‘fair’, his eyes ‘blue’. His religion was given as Church of England—not the Methodism of his nineteenth-century paternal forefathers, and his uncle Walter.

Walter Edward’s service record indicates he was at Cootamundra until 17 April 1916, whence he was transferred to the 19th Battalion’s camp at Liverpool, near Sydney. He thus missed, by just two months—another chance of timing—being present at the Liverpool camps during the infamous February riots. This ‘strike’ or mutiny sparked by poor condition camp conditions ended with a drunken spree in central Sydney and the killing by military police of one rioter. This 1916 riot was the catalyst for the introduction of six o’clock hotel closures, which remained in force until the nineteen-fifties.

On 9 September, at Sydney Harbour, Walter Edward embarked on the troopship Euripides, bound for England. He reached it on 27 October and disembarked at Plymouth. On route he evidently encountered the first of the illnesses that punctuated his service record and was admitted to the ship’s infirmary on 10 October. The nature of the illness is not recorded. Meanwhile, in France, the AIF was on relief behind the main lines, attempting to recover from the dreadful losses and exhaustion it had suffered during the battle for Pozières.

His record notes that on 13 December 2016 aboard the ‘Princess Henrietta’ Walter Edward sailed from Folkestone and was ‘taken on strength’ by the 19th Battalion five days later. On 15 February 2017 he again reported sick and was hospitalised. Then, on 5 March, he embarked on the ‘Warialda’ at Le Havre for repatriation to the 1st London General Hospital, Camberwell. His illness was diagnosed as lobar pneumonia. He left the Hospital for a location known as Hanover Park on 2 April, from where he was in turn released on 30 April. It appears he was stationed at Perham Downs Command depot before he left Folk for the Continent, again from Folkestone, on 4 June and rejoined his unit on 24 June. This is the last entry on his service record before an inked stamp ‘Killed in Action’ was marked on it against the date 20 September 2017.

 A studio portrait taken presumably around the time of his recruitment show the new recruit Walter Edward Peake in a typically ill-fitting AIF uniform. The tunic does not seem to quite match the breeches. Perhaps it was second hand. Walter has been issued a peaked service cap—still common among recruits training in Australia, but rarely seen in images of Australian soldiers on the frontline after the Gallipoli campaign.

Walter Leslie Peake’s portrait, by comparison, though also capturing the subject in a peaked cap, features a rather better fitting tunic.  It reveals a quite youthful, well-made man for thirty-five. He bears  a marked resemblance to his father Isaac.

Dulce et Decorum est

There is considerable documentation of the deaths of WE and WL Peake in September and October 1917. After the War the Australian Red Cross sought to contact men who had known the dead for information. The form letters read:

Dear Sir, we are making enquiries about a man of your unit, [serial number, name, battalion, reported date of death inserted]. We should be most grateful for any details you can send us concerning him, but our enquirers wish especially to know whether he was buried, if so whether it was on the field, or in a soldiers’ cemetery where the grave would be registered. We would also be glad if you could add a short description of his personal appearance or any points that might help to prove his identity.

 In the case of WE Peake the Red Cross wrote to eight possible informants and received replies from seven of them: Lance Corporal F Donnett; Private William Frudenstein (who replied twice) Private Stanley Marsh; Private JH Lysaght; Private FH O’Brien; and Private WA Sheil.

The feedback from his former colleagues provides an intriguing mixture of corroboration and disagreement. All state that Peake died on 20 September 2017, but one reports it happened in the morning, another that it was at sunset. The location was given as Westhoek Ridge, twice, and once as Zonnebeke (Frudenstein varied in his two accounts). The Westhoek Ridge was about 1.5kms north of the Menin Road at Hooge and about 2kms to the south-west of Zonnebeke village. Its proximity to the Birrs Cross Cemetery, where Walter was finally interred, supports it as the most likely place of his death.

All agreed he had been sent out to bring in stretchers (presumably bearing men) – one called it ‘fatigue’, usually defined as labour of a non-military type. Only one identified the number of men in the party (at 12) and the informant suggested only four returned unscathed. All also agreed that a shell had lobbed in the midst of the party. Most testified that Peake had died of his wounds on route to a dressing station, but one (Marsh) understood he had had the misfortune to be hit by a second shell – which killed him instantly.

 Regarding Walter’s appearance; the informants estimated it at between 5 feet 8 and 5-feet-10. He was described as ‘rather stout’ and ‘very thickset’, which is surprising given his bouts of influenza and pneumonia since leaving Australia. Most described him as fair (though one dissenter had him dark). One informant (Frudenstein) made reference to a big nose—in two separate accounts. Judging by the 1916 studio portrait this is a bit of a tough call.

Shiel, Lysaght and Marsh seemed to know him best of the informants. Lysaght wrote he had known him in Peakhurst, where he said Peake had been a contractor. Marsh described him as a ‘great friend of mine’, but it was O’Brien who nominated a nickname—‘Paddy’, somewhat surprisingly (there was nothing remotely Irish about the Peakes of Peakhurst.)

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The circumstances of Walter Leslie Peake’s death were much less contested. The Red Cross made enquiries to seven of his comrades (Sergeant A Bray; Private GL Boniface; Private LH Carpenter; Private R Northrop; Corporal WA Wotton; Lance Corporal EP Lycett and Private PJ Selmes). All agreed that ‘Watty’ had been killed instantaneously by a bullet, all but one believing that he had been killed by machine fire; the dissenter asserted that he had been picked off by a sniper. Again, there was general agreement that the fatal bullet had struck the body, but one witness’s memory was that he had been struck on the head.

Several of the informants observed that Walter Leslie was a quiet, reserved fellow. So they were probably never told he had, many years earlier, had another close encounter with death. 0n 24 June 1882 the Town & Country Journal reported that the family of Mr [Isaac] Peake of the Georges River district had suffered an outbreak of Typhoid Fever and that another family member Elizabeth Peake, aged 15, had died. Still more had been infected but were ‘progressing favourably.’ Then, on 28 June the Evening News reported that ‘in the case of the child Walter Peak [sic] there are now no special symptoms of typhoid fever existing.’ Walter must have been aged about two. I feel an overwhelming sense of pathos when I think about the toddler who overcame the odds against surviving that dreadful disease, only to be killed 33 years later, half a world away, fighting in a war in which England, let alone Australia, had no valid reason to be a combatant. 

Note: I have learnt, since the copy above was written,  through contact with my third cousin Kevin Short, and reading his excellent account of the life of Walter Edward Peake's cousin  Frank Kemp, Son of the Mountain, that Walter Leslie Peake in fact left Peakhurst in 1906 to settle on a farm in the Dorrigo district. He had come back in 1916 to his grandfather Isaac's property in Peakhurst in order to enlist. This accounts for his presence on the Hurstville WWI memorial, and in part, for his absence from the equivalent in Dorrigo. Frank Kemp was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery, promoted to the rank of sergeant, but also went AWOL in England for an extended period.  He like his cousins lost his life on the Western Front, though very late in the war, shortly before the armistice. I think it very likely that my father had morphed the fates of WE Peake and Frank Kemp into one story, and this explains the mythological version of it  recounted in the first paragraphs of this piece.

Family reaction to the deaths and the aftermath

 No doubt the Peake family back at Peakhurst waited anxiously in 1917 for the War to end and for the two ‘boys’ to come home. The news of the death of the younger man, which presumably was received first, was no doubt devastating, but the loss of the second family member so soon after must have been almost too much to bear. Perhaps they hoped against hope that there had been a mistake and that Walter Edward’s death was being reported a second time, under the wrong name.

More alarming news followed almost immediately. Walter Leslie’s first cousin, Lance Corporal George Herbert Peake, had been ‘dangerously wounded’ on the same day that Walter lost his life.  George was the son of Jacob Peake, the co-holder with his brother Isaac of the Stoney Creek Road farms. George was immediately evacuated to England and repatriated to Australia, where he died at Peakhurst in 1927.

Ellen and George Peake signed receipts for the return of their son Walter Edward’s personal effects, photographs of his gravesite and various medals from the end of the war until 1923. Eva Kate Peake, Walter Leslie’s sister performed similar tasks. His elderly mother was perhaps too distraught; his father Isaac had died in November 1920.

The reaction of WE Peake’s elder brother Sydney George Alfred Peake, is not recorded, but one can imagine that it consisted of at least a degree of guilt. In 1919 he named his first-born child Walter Edward Peake. The boy was soon packed off to live with his grandfather and grandmother in the comparative comfort of ‘Braeside’ and was virtually adopted as a replacement for the fallen WE Peake. The adoption was so complete that in her 1940 newspaper death notice the second WE Peake (who was known as Billy in later life) was in fact described as her son.

Meanwhile Syd Peake, his wife and other children habituated what was little more than a shack situated off Bauman’s Rd Peakhurst, some few hundred yards away from the centre of the Peake clan around the corner of Stony Creek and Forest roads. Here my father was born into abject poverty in 1930. That might have seemed bad luck, but as it turned out, the timing enabled him to avoid the fate of his uncle and great-uncle, as he was just too young to serve in the second War.

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On 20 September 2017 my son Bryce and I laid wreaths at the Hurstville cenotaph for the two Peake men killed on the Western Front one hundred years earlier. I have uploaded some photographs here.

Pvte Walter Leslie Peake

'Braeside', c. 1908

'Holleyview', c. 1910

Battle of the  Menin Road, Belgium  September 1917 (Aust. War Memorial)

Pvte Walter Edward Peake