Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Visitation of William Morcombe

 The Visitation of William Morcombe

Research & original text by Laurie Favelle

A friend recently described an occasion where she had had a discussion with a woman who was on a mission to visit the Australian War Memorial. The woman in question was heading for her latest of several visits where she would place a Commemorative Poppy next to a specific name on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour.

The story was that the visitor would call into the Memorial, whenever in Canberra, to place a poppy next to the name of an Australian soldier, a William Morcombe. Morcombe was totally unrelated to the visitor, yet - it was alleged - he had visited her during a dream one night some years previously. During this visitation, Morcombe had identified himself, possibly referred to the presence of his name on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour and appeared to be pointing to, or holding, his head. It appears that the woman felt some obligation to recognise Morcombe’s service and her visits to the Memorial served that purpose.

The name of the visitor to the Memorial is not known, nor is the state or city from which she travelled. It appeared, however, that the visitor was very familiar with the location of Morcombe’s name and it seemed that she had always had this knowledge.

There are three Morcombes on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour and only two of them are William Morcombe - William Henry and William James. The other is Frank Keith Morcombe. Both William James and Frank Keith are from World War 2 and both were in the RAAF. William James was missing, presumed killed, during air operations with 622 Squadron and Frank Keith was killed during a training accident in South Australia. Details of injuries are unknown and both gentlemen appeared to be cousins from a rural community in Western Australia.  

William Henry Morcombe served in the First World War with the 14th Australian Field Artillery Brigade. It is this man, based on the very limited information available, I believe to be the one honoured by the visitor. His story is told below.

729 Driver William Henry Morcombe

William Henry Morcombe enlisted in the AIF on the 10th of December 1914. He was the second son, but third child, of John Thomas Vickery Morcombe and Jane Coutt Morcombe (born Thomas). His siblings were John (1867), Elizabeth (1870) and Alice (1874).

William’s enlistment gives his age as 38 years and 3 months (38 was the maximum age limit in 1914), suggesting a birth date of September, 1876. In fact, William was born in Gympie, Queensland, on the 2nd of September, 1872. On enlistment, he was actually 42 years old.

William Morcombe, who described himself as a Station Hand, married Elizabeth Leslie Humbley, in Sydney, in March 1891. A son, Frank, was born later that same year, followed by Stanley in 1893 and a third child - name, gender and date unknown. The marriage failed, with Elizabeth petitioning for divorce on the grounds of desertion. The petition was granted in 1903.

William continued to work in the bush as a station hand and general labourer, mostly in Queensland. In 1912, we find him in the Muttaburra district, between Longreach, Winton and Hughenden in Queensland, employed as a labourer on Anembo Station. Here, according to the 1912 Electoral Roll, he seems to be living with Hilda Florence Morcombe (housewife), although no evidence of marriage has yet been found. Upon enlistment, he describes himself as single.

Originally posted to the 2nd Reinforcements of the 6th Light Horse, William arrived in Gallipoli on the 6th of August 1915, the day the infamous August Offensive commenced. The 6th, however, were deployed in a sector to the far right of the ANZAC line and performed a largely defensive role until evacuated on the 20th of December 1915. While on the Gallipoli Peninsula, William was made acting Lance Corporal (temporary), but spent much of the last days there ill, either onboard a hospital ship or back in Egypt.

Following the evacuation of Gallipoli, the 6th Light Horse became part of the ANZAC Mounted Division and went on to defend the Suez Canal and later campaigns, including the Battle of Romani. Not our William Morcombe, however. Having recovered from his lengthy illness in early March 1916, William was taken on strength with the 60th Field Artillery Brigade (Gunner) and proceeded to join the British Expeditionary Force bound for the Western Front. He again transferred to the 25th Field Artillery Brigade (FAB) and finally, in January 1917, we find him as a driver in the 14th FAB.

As a member of the 14th FAB, William was deployed to the 54th Battery. On the 3rd of October, 1917, the 54th was in action east of Ypres but also on the receiving end of enemy artillery fire. Field telephone communication lines were constantly being broken by enemy fire. William was carrying out duties as a linesman and was constantly repairing damaged lines while under fire. His work that day resulted in the award of the Military Medal, with effect on 21 October 1917. His Citation reads, in part:

“No. 729 Gunner W. Morcombe, 54th Battery, who was a linesman, was continually on the lines mending the breaks and at such personal risk and disregard for his own safety enabled the Battery to complete its registration and thus successfully carrying out its task in the operations on the following day. The splendid work carried out by this man is deserving of special recognition.”

On the 2nd of November, 1917, however, William Morecombe’s luck ran out. Falling victim to a gas attack, he was soon back in England being treated for the effects which would mark him for the remainder of his life.

We pause briefly here for a short discussion on the subject of chemical weapons. The reader will be aware that the use of chemical weapons, in the form of gases such as Chlorine, Mustard and Phosgene, was common during the 1st World War. Both sides used these weapons at various times, with various degrees of success.

Mustard Gas was a much feared substance, largely due to the rapid onset of its terrifying symptoms and significant suffering, rather than its lethality. Severe blistering, both external and internal in the respiratory tract and lungs, together with blindness, both temporary and often permanent, were immediate and long lasting.

Long term effects slowly became evident after the war. Studies have revealed that “a positive correlation has been proven between exposure to mustard agents and skin cancers, other respiratory and skin conditions, leukemia, several eye conditions, bone marrow depression and subsequent immunosuppression, psychological disorders and sexual dysfunction.”  {Mary Fox, Frank Curriero, Kathryn Kulbicki, Beth Resnick, Thomas Burke, "Evaluating the Community Health Legacy of WWI Chemical Weapons Testing," Journal of Community Health, 35, (18 November 2009):}

A more substantial discussion on this subject may be found here

William Morcombe’s injuries were caused by Mustard Gas. We know this because his service record describes him suffering “gas poisoning” and, in an associated entry “Wounded S”. “S” was code or jargon for Mustard Gas, due to the presence of sulphur. 

(The original jargon was “HS”, literally short for “Hun Stuff”. The British used the “S” version late in 1917, while the USA continued with the “HS” term.)

Originally treated in 56 General Hospital, Etaples, William entered the care of Norfolk War Hospital in Norwich on November 10, 1917. It soon became apparent that he was no longer fit for duty and was recommended for discharge and pension. He returned to Australia on the 13th of May, 1918, and was discharged on the 21st of August that year. His final diagnosis prior to discharge was “DAH and Bronchitis”. DAH is short for Diffuse alveolar haemorrhage. This is persistent or recurrent pulmonary haemorrhage (bleeding in the lungs) and was often mistaken for consumption or tuberculosis. There are numerous causes, but autoimmune disorders are most common. This is a classic enduring consequence of mustard gas poisoning.

William Henry Morcombe, MM, returned to Sydney, a man much diminished by the suffering he endured from Mustard Gas poisoning. With lungs bleeding, a difficult cough, a weakening immune system and unable to work, he faced a bleak future in a country about to be hit with an influenza pandemic. 

William appears to have remained close to his former brother-in-law Norman Robert Humbley (aka Robert Norman Humbley). In July 1919 the two gentlemen were residing at the same residence at number 7 Liverpool St, Paddington, an inner Sydney suburb. It was at this address, during the evening of July 5, 1919, that William took a small brown bottle into his hand and quickly swallowed the contents. Within minutes, William Henry Morcombe was dead. He was discovered, the following morning, in bed, an empty bottle, smelling strongly of cyanide, nearby. Evidence was later given that William, while continuing to suffer the effects of being gassed while on active service, was also deeply depressed. Little did he know that there would be many who would choose the same pathway to easing their suffering.

You will recall, dear reader, that in the second paragraph of this story, mention is made of Morcombe touching or pointing to his head during his dream visitation. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning have a generally rapid onset, within a couple of minutes. The earliest symptoms are headache and confusion. Perhaps this explains the head gestures I have mentioned.

William Henry Morcombe, MM, was laid to rest in the early afternoon of Tuesday, July 8, 1919, at the Church of England Cemetery, Waverley, NSW.

A Postscript

Wilfred Owen, the acclaimed First World War poet, wrote a graphic, yet moving, description of a mustard gas attack. Owen’s most significant works were written in the period 1917 to 1918. He was no back room poet describing war from the comfort of a fireside and lounge chair. Owen was a soldier, a Military Cross recipient and killed in action late in 1918. His biography can be found here.

Here is his seminal piece Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori