14 May 2015

A tale of three plaques

Brilliant research from Bill.

This is the story of two searches, the longer they went the more tiring and emotional draining they have become. It is out of respect to the memory of the fallen and at the request of their families, that much of the research that went into returning these plaques has been edited.

The World War 1 Memorial Plaque has, by its simplicity, on many occasions made it impossible to identify those it commemorates. It carries no rank, it carries no regimental number, just the name. It was decided when it was designed that there is no distinction between sacrifices made by each solider. 
However, sometimes it is the unique name of the solider that allows a search to go ahead. This was the case in the search for the family of William Michael Quirke who was killed in action on the 8th August 1915 at Gallipoli. He is commemorated at the Lone Pine Cemetery. William was one of three brothers who served during World War I. Fortunately, the others survived. One of the most distinguishable things about the plaque is that it is still in its 4 leaf presentation envelope, 93 years after it was first sent to William’s father.
Today Natalie had the honour of passing William’s plaque to his great nephew John, to honour, to respect and to keep alive the memory of an ANZAC.

Even more unique are the names Robert and Fritz Westgarth, brothers who fell during World War 1. Robert on 24 March 1917 near Bapaume France, and Fritz on 28 May 1917, at Ploegstreert, Belgium.
The story of Robert and Fritz fits the ANZAC legend for it was an email from Dougal in New Zealand to ANZAC House in Melbourne, which in part said:

‘Somehow a pair of WW1 dead men’s pennies, excellent condition, and service medals for Robert and Fritz Westgarth found their way into our family heirlooms. The two servicemen are not of our family and we have no idea how we came to have these in our possession ... possibly family friends of our serving forbears.
Is there any way to locate any surviving family so we could pass the items on to their more-rightful inheritors?

This set the search in motion. Of all the newspaper articles and items I read, perhaps the Bendonian of Thursday 21 June 1917 was the most wrenching:

The sad news was conveyed to Mrs. Westgarth, of Big Hill [Cherry Tree], on Thursday, that her third son, Private F. Westgarth, had been killed in action in France on the 28th May. It is only a short time since Mrs. Westgarth received word that her second son, Private Bob Westgarth, had been killed in action on the 24th March. The fourth and youngest son is still fighting in France. The deepest sympathy is felt for the bereaved family.

On Sunday two families met for a quiet lunch in a Balwyn café, where the plaques and medals of Robert and Fritz Westgarth were returned to their family.
Below is the email I sent to Barry the great nephew of Robert and Fritz prior to the meeting:
Attached are my notes, scribbles etc. It should give you and your family some insight into the search, and where I went, as well as my overriding belief that the plaques and medals should go to a family that has an understanding of what war and having family members in the services means. That this would ensure that they and the memories of Robert and Fritz would be treated with the respect they deserve.
This has not been the longest search I have ever undertaken, but it has in many ways been the most involved in that it literally took up all my time, and anything else, well I just let it go, but from your words, I am not sorry I did’.

The returned medal tally is now 1678. 

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