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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

From A Hospital Bed: a Tribute to Justin Breguet and his brother Leslie.



Our Sepia Saturday photo prompt this week dates from the 1930s and shows a twin-bedded room in the Hotel Imperial, Ostend Belgium. I don't have anything similar in my collection. Instead I have two published letters, one of which was written from a hospital bed.

 My post relates to the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, which has been commemorated this week both in Australia and in France. 2000 Australians died on the first day of battle, namely 19 July 1916. Thanks to the wonderful Trove web site, I found two letters that were been written home by Signaller Leslie William Breguet to his parents Councillor Justin Augustas Breguet and his wife Rose Hannah, and published in the Geelong Advertiser. Leslie was a first cousin of my husband's grandfather Joseph Henry Featherston and his brother Albert Leslie, their mothers Rose and Margaret Neilson being sisters. The first letter was written in November 1915, not from hospital but  "in the midst of a heavy bombardment of artillery fire". This would appear to have been at Gallipoli, where Leslie had returned after recovering from what he described as non serious battle scars.  It's difficult to imagine how he was able to write under such conditions at all. He is fervently patriotic and says he is glad his brother Justin is coming and wishes him the best of luck, because "the more men we have, the less risk to each". 

Geelong Advertiser 22 January 1916
Transcription:
LESLIE BREGUET,
Son of Cr. J. A. Breguet, writes to his parents at Anderson-street, Geelong West. under date November 21st, 1915: " I am in the midst of a heavy bombardment of artillery fire, and the place is just like hell on earth. Have been having a very strenuous time, but still am in good spirits, and full of hope.We have just come back from ---Island, where we have been have resting for a few weeks. I have received most of your letters and papers, and I thank you so much for them, especially the "News of the Week" : it is one of our few pleasures to receive letters and papers from home and dear old Geelong. I have written several letters and cards. and hope you received them. I have been in fairly good health, and though I received several battle scars they are not serious. I got my right arm and hand in the way of an exploding bomb, and it put me out of action for a while, but am now back doing my duty. Fred England was wounded on the third day with shrapnel. I had a letter from him, and he is in the hospital at —, and will be at it again shortly. I have lost some of my best mates, shot down at my side, I am glad Justin is coming, and wish him every luck. They are all wanted: we must win, and to do so we must put forth all our strength. Many brave lads have fallen: the more men we have the less risk to each. Remember me to all my friends. I suppose my mates are all gone by this to the front Wishing you all a merry Christmas, and that the New Year will bring us success.-- Your loving soldier boy. Leslie.

The second letter from Leslie to his parents was dated 2 August 1916, and this one was written from his hospital bed in Bramshott Hospital, Hampshire. This would have been Bramshott (12th Canadian General) Hospital, developed at Bramshott Camp. The ward and beds would have looked nothing like our prompt photo, but Leslie clearly was very grateful to be there, "between the white sheets". From Gallipoli he had gone on to Fromelles, where he had been been wounded by shrapnel in a midnight charge on that fateful day of 19 July. He had not seen his brother Justin but hoped he was safe and through the 19 July battle.

Geelong Advertiser 23 September 1916 
Transcription:

SGNR.. BREQUET.
IS ILL. HIS ONE DESIRE IS TO
"GET BACK TO HELP MY
MATES."
Copy of a letter received from Signaller L. W. Breguet by his parents in Anderson street Geelong West, from Bramshott Hospital, Hampshire, England, dated August 2nd, 1916:
"My Dear Parents, By the time you receive this letter you will have heard of my being out of action; I write this somewhat under difficulties, sitting up in bed. It is an unspeakable joy to be between the white sheets after over 12 months' fighting. The doctors and nurses are so kind and attentive; they cannot do enough for our Australian lads. We have had a very strenuous time:- there are only a few left in my battalion that came from Gallipoli, but all the new lads from Australia have proved themselves just the same as those before them. I am suffering from shell shock and wounds. I was wounded in the side by shrapnel on July 19th in a midnight charge. I was almost completely buried on two occasions, but managed to come out. Several of my mates went down. It. was a fearful battle. The Australians will stop at nothing; my one desire is, to get well, and to go back to help my mates, for they need all the help possible. We had the honor of being the first Australians to take part in the great battle of the Somme. I have not met Justin yet. I, am so longing to see him. I hope he is safe and through the 19th July battle. I have seen Gordon Moore, and several of my Geelong com-rades. Fred England was with me just before the orders came to advance; he was very fit. Tell his parents from me that he is a game fighter, always ready to do his bit. I have not heard of him. since, but hope he came safely through. I have never seen one coward amongst the Australians on the field; they conduct themselves well. There is a kind of wild blood in our bodies that makes us such fine fighters: it is a boast I am proud of. I sometimes long for home. I would like to see yon all. but the call to duty is uppermost in my mind. How I hope to have another go At the Huns, and if I have the good luck to get through this great war, I will have experiences such as you never would dream of to relate. You see sights in travel: beautiful countries, sunny France, and then the battle field, it's wonderful what one can stand. I must when I get well enough have my photo, taken, and send it to you: you would hardly know me. Remember me to all my friends. This war cannot last if the Allies can keep the supply to the required amount, as we have them moving. I will write again in a day or so. do not worry about me'. The people in England are out to do anything and everything for us wounded, and sick boys: They are so kind."


                        Justin Brequet, pictured right, before embarkation for World War 1.
                         Photograph from the Australian War Memorial Collection, DA13759

Contrary to his brother's hopes, Private Justin Hercules Breguet did not survive the Battle of Fromelles. He was one of those 2000 men killed there on 19 July and hastily interred in a mass grave. His name appears on the memorial wall at Fromelles, but only very recently his remains have been identified by means of DNA testing and matching with a relative on his father's side of the family, which you can read about here in the Geelong Advertiser. A new headstone bearing his details was dedicated to him at a ceremony at Fromelles yesterday, 100 years later on 19 July 2016. 

Geelong Advertiser, 20 July 1917


Justin and Leslie's cousin Albert Leslie Featherston was killed in the Somme just a few days after Leslie's second letter was written, on 8 August 1916, and I have written about him in an earlier post here.. L
eslie William Breguet survived the war. He married but had no children and died in 1983 aged 89. There are headstones for the whole Breguet family at the Geelong Eastern Cemetery, where hopefully they can now rest in peace. They had known earlier tragedy when their daughter Florence Elizabeth died as a baby, as shown in this very sad little death notice. 


Geelong Advertiser, 27 May 1896

I don't know if the boys' mothers Rose Hannah and Margaret were in contact with one another but I hope they were able to comfort one another in their sorrow. Their brother William Alexander Neilson had died in 1913, and Margaret's husband Joseph Featherston in 1914, so it must have been a very sad period in their lives.

To read more blogs that may or may not be related to this week's theme photograph, go to 
Sepia Saturday #340


Postscript:
Since writing this, I've made contact with Sharyn, the lady who arranged for DNA identification to be made, and she said it was a pity we were not in touch earlier because apparently maternal DNA from our family would have made the identification process simpler. Never mind, the main thing is that 100 years later Justin Hercules Breguet has been found and laid to rest with honour.  Sharyn attended the ceremony and has kindly shared a photograph with me of the newly unveiled headstone.

                                Memorial created by Pierre Seillier, Battlefield Guide, Fromelles

Newly unveiled headstone for Justin Hercules Breguet at Fromelles.
Photograph courtesy of Sharyn Breguet Powell

10 comments:

  1. It must have been satisfying for the family to finally have a grave for him. I saw it on TV. War-such an awful waste of young lives.

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  2. So very sad! It was an horrendous battle and inevitably luck played a part. Sadly, so many of the new men being "blooded" that day never had the chance to hone their fighting skills, that terrible bloodbath claimed their lives. Leslie must have felt very lucky to be between those white sheets but devastated when he heard of Justin's death, or more accurately, his MIA.

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  3. The letters are real treasures to have saved for posterity. His patriotism was incredible and it seems he never ran out of hope which must be a miracle when you friends are dropping all around you. Was there any family at the headstone ceremony July 19th? A wonderful post.

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    1. I don't know if anyone has the original letters, but they are saved because Leslie's parents sent them to the newspaper. I believe someone went to the ceremony who is related to Justin on his paternal side, to the same degree as my husband is on the maternal side, but who unlike us has been involved in the process of identifying DNA. We could have gone too if we had known about it in advance. We were in France in May.

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  4. Perfect timing for this most incredible post. Oh those letters! It really says something to be glad to be in a hospital bed.

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  5. You've created a beautiful tribute, Jo. The horror of war was surely more difficult for the soldiers of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. and their families being separated by such great distance. For those of us 100 years later, I think it is challenging to understand their patriotism through the prism of history. The artwork, the music, and the literature of this era, came out of a romantic sentimentality that is no longer appreciated in the same way it was then. I can't recall seeing a similar letter being published in a modern newspaper.

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  6. Thank you for sharing. Very personal view of history, and a part of which I know little. Amazing and sad, so many young men killed so quickly.

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  7. A wonderful tribute to the brothers and those letters are indeed a real treasure. I need to read more about DNA testing too I think; it’s fascinating.

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  8. I can't help thinking of all those - reaching back through time immemorial - who died in wars away from home & their families never knowing for sure what happened to them or where they wound up. The advent of DNA testing has been a blessing for those wondering those age-old questions.

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  9. I can only imagine how stressful it was to receive a letter like this. Knowing your loved one was alive when they wrote it but also knowing so much time had passed since they'd mailed it. You'd never really know what had just happened.

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