Percy Charles SOMERSET

Poppy

SOMERSET, Percy Charles

Service Number: 969
Enlisted: 21 August 1914, Bendigo, Victoria
Last Rank: Corporal
Last Unit: 7th Infantry Battalion
Born: Brockley, Kent, England , 1893
Home Town: White Hills, Bendigo, Victoria
Schooling: Rathfern Road Council School, England
Occupation: Line Repairer
Died: Died of wounds, Leicester, England, 2 August 1916
Cemetery: Ladywell Cemetery
Row G, Grave No.142
Tree Plaque: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour, White Hills Arch of Triumph
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World War 1 Service

21 Aug 1914: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 969, Bendigo, Victoria
19 Oct 1914: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 969, 7th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
19 Oct 1914: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 969, 7th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Hororata, Melbourne
25 Apr 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 969, 7th Infantry Battalion, 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli
21 Jul 1916: Promoted Corporal, 7th Infantry Battalion
25 Jul 1916: Wounded AIF WW1, Corporal, SN 969, 7th Infantry Battalion, Pozières, GSW (left thigh)
2 Aug 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Corporal, SN 969, 7th Infantry Battalion

Help us honour Percy Charles Somerset's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Jack Coyne

Corporal Percy Somerset    SN 969

In the Bendigo Advertiser on July 16, 1915 the following article was published;

"Private Percy Somerset, a native of England but who volunteered from Bendigo has written to his aunt and uncle Mr and Mrs. William Pocock, of White Hills. He describes all the work after leaving Egypt to the landing in the Dardanelles. When he left Mena Camp his section was attached to the transport. 'Only 10 men were needed’, the writer proceeds, "so we drew lots, and Private Jack Hueston (White Hills) was the lucky one to stay with the company. Just as day was breaking on the 25th April we drew into a small bay at Gaba Tepe. We anchored about a mile out, and the beach seemed so narrow that a couple of steps from the sea you commenced to climb straight and precipitous cliffs. Our ship had the fifth Battalion, brigade staff and brigade transport. The soldiers landing were as cheerful as Larry as they went over the ship's side into the waiting boats. You would have thought they were going to a picnic. When about 20 yards from the shore the Turks opened fire with shrapnel, followed by rifle fire, and we could see little spurts of water thrown up all round the boats. It was a marvel how any landed. The last I heard of Jack Heuston was that, he was going strong. One of our chaps who was wounded said he was doing splendidly".  (Source – Bendigo Advertiser July 16, 1915 p.  – full transcript attached)

Percy Charles Somerset enlisted at the Bendigo Town Hall into the ‘First Australian’ Overseas Expeditionary Force on August 21, 1914. War had only been declared a few weeks earlier and the young men of Bendigo were clamouring to join the cause for ‘King and Country’.

Percy possibly had an added incentive; he had arrived in Australia in 1910 from England and had parents and family living in South London. Joining the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would surely be one way of getting a free passage home. The war would be soon over once the British got involved.  

In 1910 at age 18, Percy landed in Sydney to try his luck for three years. He would then come to Bendigo with the likely the draw being that he had family there. An Uncle, Aunt and cousins in the Pocock family living at St. Killians Rd, White Hills, three miles north of Bendigo (Jack Pocock, a cousin would enlist in the Bendigo battalion, the 38th, eighteen months later).

White Hills on the Bendigo creek had been one of richest gold fields in the country in the 1850’s and whilst the alluvial mining was largely finished, the city of Bendigo had grown and prospered since.The Pococks lived not far from the hamlet. 

Percy was twenty when he arrived in Bendigo and it appears became a popular addition to community life in the hamlet of White Hills. We read he was an active member of the newly established White Hills Reading Room, the focal point of the community renown for its 1500 strong book collection but also its snooker rooms.  

He stated on enlisting that he was a ‘Line repairer‘ which in most cases referred to the repairing of line on the railways. Percy had prior military service experience with the Twenty-Fifth City of London, Cycle Brigade.  Strangely, that brigade went into WW1 with service in India and the North West Frontier, including Afghanistan. (Source - http://www.25thlondon.com/soldiers-s.htm )

Of the many volunteers Percy is one of the lucky ones to meet both the physical requirements with prior military experience. He is allotted to 7th Battalion part of the 2nd Brigade which was among the first units raised. Forming less than a fortnight after the declaration of war, recruitment was conducted over just a period of three weeks and by the end of the period the process had been so successful that the battalion was over establishment. Percy and fifty-four other Bendigo and Northern district lads would leave the Bendigo Railway station on August 24, just four days after enlisting. (Source – Bendigoian newspaper August 25, 1914- attached)

The 7th battalion would be led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold Elliot who later became Brigadier General ‘Pompey’ Elliot. He became legendary for his front line leadership and care for the average soldier under his charge throughout and after the war. From the country town of Charlton, north west of Bendigo he would go on to become a one of very few Australian officers who would stand up to the often inadequate and inept British High Command. He would be notified on August 14, that he would lead the 7th battalion.

Limited training was able to take place at the Broadmeadows camp due to time constraints and in September the battalion is marched through the city of Melbourne and a fortnight later they embarked upon HMAT Hororata A20 bound for war wherever that be.  (Source- Footage of the loading of this vessel can be seen in the link. http://anzacsightsound.org/videos/departure-of-the-australian-expeditionary-force )

The Hororata A20 becomes part of the first Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) flotilla to leave Australian shores. They would be joined in Albany, Western Australia by ships carrying the New Zealand force for escort across the globe. There would be 29 Australian troop ships and 10 from New Zealand. Elliot would describe the impressive sight of the flotilla leaving the Albany Sound and how the Captain of the Hororata would propose a toast at mess, ‘to the youngest navy, the Australian Fleet’ which was most enthusiastically honoured. (Source – Pompey Elliot at War- ‘In his own words’ by Ross McMullin, Scribe)

Their first stop to refuel and replenish would be Colombo, Ceylon and then on into the Indian Ocean heading for the Suez Canal. Most on board this flotilla including the military hierarchy would have been thinking their destination was England and from there to Europe to fight the Germans. Pompey Elliot would only learn on November 28th as they approached the Suez Canal, that they would disembark at Cairo and not England after all.

They arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on 2 December 1914. They would set up camp at the Mena, ten miles west of Cairo on the river Nile looking towards the great pyramids of Giza. At the Mena Camp they were drilled six days a week – marching through the sand, digging and attacking trenches. It was here that they were formed into the ANZAC Corps, with the New Zealand forces. Major-General William Birdwood, a 49-year old British officer was given command of the Australian and New Zealand troops.

Training would end in the early April (5) 1915 when the 7th Battalion entrain to the port of Alexandria for the fateful journey to the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey. After a relatively short sea journey, they were to join over 50,000 AIF, New Zealand, British and French troops off Lemnos Island, Greece for the greatest amphibious landing force in history ever assembled.  (source - wikipedia- 7th Battalion AIF) 

On the morning of 25 April 1915, the 7th battalion took part in the Landing at Anzac Cove, coming ashore as part of the second wave. As we read earlier in the Percy’s letter, he did not land that day, held back in order to land other troops and tend to the horses. This is confirmed in another letter home written by Percy’s friend Dick Eliason of Eaglehawk who was wounded not long after the landing at Anzac Cove.  

The 7th Battalion got off to a bad start at Gallipoli.  On the left of the second wave, its boats landed near Fisherman's Hut to the north of North Beach.  Unfortunately for them, a Turkish defended locality was nearby and overlooked their landing point; the boats were caught in a hail of accurate machine gun fire, which inflicted heavy casualties. A number of the boats drifted off the beach full of dead and wounded.  A total of 5 officers and 179 men were lost during and immediately after the landing. This was higher than any other subsequent battle that the battalion fought during the war. (Source – RSL Virtual Memorial website) The battalion would later be involved in the Lone Pine battle and suffer heavy casualties. 

Very few entries were made on the service records of AIF soldiers involved in the Gallipoli campaign. Percy Somerset’s followed that pattern. We have only his letter to his family back in White Hills detailing the landing day.  The next piece of information in Percy's service record has him embarking again for Anzac Cove on October 18, 1915 on HMT Borda where he rejoins his Battalion on November 29. He survives those last three weeks on the deadly cliffs of Gallipoli before the planned evacuation on November 19, 1915.

Finally, in January 1916, after the loss of some 220,000 Allied casualties, the curtain fell on the whole sorry ‘side show’ that was Gallipoli. Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty was the chief architect of the strategy. His plan was to gain control of the strategic waterways linking the Black Sea in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. He was much criticised for the disaster at Gallipoli and resulted in severe setback to his reputation and early career. 

Percy Somerset and the severely depleted 7th battalion would limp back to the island of Lemnos again. After a short period regrouping and recovering there, they returned to Egypt on the RMT ‘Empress of Britain’ landing in Alexandria on January 7, 1916. Their new camp would be at Serapeum near the town of Ismailia on the Suez canal.

A comprehensive expansion of the AIF was ordered and new reinforcements were landing from Australia almost on a daily basis. Unhappily established Battalions were divided in order to spread the experienced soldiers among the raw recruits. Lt Colonel Pompey Elliot would be promoted to command a brigade which meant he was now responsible for four battalions. Percy himself would gain promotion appointed a Lance Corporal in early March 1916.

On March 26, the 7th would leave the searing sands of Egypt behind for Europe. They embarked again from Alexandria and no doubt welcomed the cooler climate of the Mediterranean. They arrived in Marseilles on the last day of March and from there it would be 600 miles of train journeys through the heart of lush, green France.

Arriving in Northern France at the British and Dominion base in Estaples, Percy would be promoted to Temporary Corporal on April 21. On May (10) he would have to relinquish the rank of Temporary Corporal as we read Sergeant Cleland in his Company returns from hospital. In late May he is again made Acting Corporal and then in July (21) promoted to Corporal. Quite an achievement for a englishman in the Australian army.

The battalion’s first major action in France was at Pozières in the Somme valley.

Between 23 July and 5 August 1916, the Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions captured Pozières village and Pozières heights, a ridge 500 metres east of the village. The initial attack began at 12.30 am on Sunday 23 July when the 1st Division seized the German front line and in the following hour reached the main road through Pozières. At dawn the Germans counter-attacked but the Australians held on. The rest of Pozières fell on the night of 23–24 July and further gains were made on the night of 24–25 July. The Germans reacted to the seizure of Pozières by concentrating the bulk of their artillery on the Australians. Constant barrages were directed onto the village and the narrow approaches creating a nightmarish situation for troops forming up and attacking in the dark. (Source - http://www.awmlondon.gov.au/battles/pozieres)

After surviving Gallipoli, winning promotions, Percy’s luck would run out. Between July 22 and 25, Percy would be wounded in action. He received a Gun Shot Wound (GSW) to the thigh, left leg. He would be treated at the 54th Casualty Clearing Station then taken further behind the lines to Boulogne. From here it is decided his wound is too serious to be treated in France and he is transferred to England on July 28.  

He is taken to the Northern General Hospital in Leicester and they attempt to save his life by amputating his leg. Sadly Percy dies a few days later on August 2nd 1916.

His parents are cabled this sad news, however, we read in the Bendigo Advertiser in August 1916, that Percy’s father has died since he enlisted. Now a widower, Mrs Isabel Somerset would bury her twenty three year old son she had not seen for six years at the cemetery near the family home (Ladywell Cemetery in the Borough of Lewisham) on August 7, 1916. Percy’s mother would write the difficult letter to the Australian Military authorities in London to confirm the date and location of his burial.

In the 1920's, Percy's mother would receive three medals from the Australian Government including the converted 1914/15 Star that was only given to Gallipoli veterans. She would die in 1929. 

The Bendigo Independent August 28, 1916 reported that the MEMORIAM SERVICE held at St. Luke's Church of England, White Hills on August 27;

Last night, a service, in memory of the late Corporal P. C, Somerset, who died of wounds in France, was held. There was a large attendance, and hymns appropriate to the occasion were sung. The Rev. G. II, Matthews officiated, and said -                                 ‘the late Corporal Somerset was well known to all present, though the honor of his acquaintance had not been his (the speaker).He was one worthy of admiration, for he was one of the first who, when the call to duty came, offered his services, and as it has turned out, laid down his life for his country and the fight for freedom. Of that original band, news had come through from time to time of one and another being wounded, but all were shocked and saddened at the announcement during the week of the death of the hero whom we desire to honor.’ (source – Bendigo Independent August 28,1916 – see attached full transcript)

Corporal Percy Somerset of the AIF 7th Battalion is remembered by the people of White Hills. The names of the local lads who sacrificed their lives and those that were fortunate to return from the Great War are shown on the embossed copper plaques on the White Hills Arch of Triumph, at the entrance to the White Hills Botanic Gardens.

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Biography contributed by Geoffrey Gillon

He was 23 and the son of Mr. C. E. Somerset, of 8, Kemble Rd., Forest Hill, London, England, and Isabel Sarah Somerset.


Births Jun 1893   Somerset Percy Charles Lewisham 1d 1157

Deaths Sep 1916   Somerset Percy C 23 Leicester 7a 242