Australian history

Remembering the 42nd Battalion

By | | comments |

The month of April leading up to Anzac Day has become the time of year when we reflect as a nation on our past, in particular our national identity, symbols and culture. Schools around the nation spend this time organising school Anzac Day ceremonies with any local politician wanting re-election making sure they are in the front row of the assembly hall, participating in essay competitions, and delivering curriculum units organised around the theme of the Spirit of Anzac. It’s important at this time of the year to spend time honouring ordinary Australians who have served their country — like my great-great Uncle Walter Steward, writes Glenn Davies.

Walter Steward at 19. This photo was taken in Rockhampton Studios Ltd, Mt Morgan a few weeks after enlistment in 1916. He would have been on his way to the Brisbane training camp.

[Editors note: Simply click on any of the images to see them at their full size.]

Anzac Day is a day for all Australians, regardless of religion, racial background or even place of birth. It is a day to commemorate the bravery and self-sacrifice of past and present generations. It is a day to acknowledge the selflessness of all those who have been prepared to lay down their lives for Australia so that it can be a place of freedom for all. Anzac Day is not a day for honouring war, for war is not something to be honoured. War is something which is used as a last resort when diplomacy has failed and it is used by a nation to safeguard its sovereignty. On Anzac Day we honour the people of Australia who have undertaken warfare to protect that sovereignty, no matter how distasteful it may have been to them personally and in spite of the risk of losing their lives.

The ultimate purpose of studying history is to give meaning to our own life — a personal statement of identity. The letters of Walter William Steward were written to his sister, Euphemia Maude Davies, my great-grandmother, between 1916 and 1917. The evaluation and interrogation of sources of evidence is fundamental to any study of history. The war letters of Walter Steward are subjective, value-laden, and, at times, ambiguous. They are also incomplete in the sense they are a one-way discussion as the responses from Euphemia Maude Davies, my great-grandmother do not exist. However, the value of Walter, my great-great Uncle’s letters lay in the manner in which he expressed his hopes and fears, described how he endured the conflict he as caught up in, and the rhythms and events of his life.

Ninety-three years after the Great War service of Walter Steward there have been a substantial number of texts written on the Western Front, and of Australia’s involvement in the First World War in general. However, the value in these letters is not only their frankness towards issues of the day, and at times even antipathy towards the Australian army, but their relative uniqueness in coming from the pen of a North Queensland soldier.

Walter William Steward was born on 2 August 1896 in Winton, Western Queensland, the third child, and first born son, of Donald Benjamin Steward, horse trainer, and his wife Elizabeth. By the birth of Walter’s next brother Edwin John in 1899 the family had moved back towards the Queensland coast to the goldfield of Charters Towers. Here Walter was raised in a family of two older sisters and two younger brothers.

Charters Towers had been discovered towards the end of December 1871, and officially proclaimed a goldfield in February 1872. It rapidly developed into a thriving reef mining centre. Declared a municipality in 1877, by the 1880’s Charters Towers was one of the major Australian gold reefing fields. Mid-decade saw production reach 109,000 ounces, and the town supporting its own stock exchange. By 1890 production had reached 155,236 ounces. During its heyday Charters Towers had a population approaching 30,000. It was considered the second town of Queensland and the undisputed capital of North Queensland. This financial powerhouse was largely credited with saving Queensland from the worst effects of the depressions of 1893 and 1903. Along with Ballarat and Johannesburg, Charters Towers was one of the great mining centres of the British Empire. Although there were a number of working-class radical elements present on the Charters Towers goldfield, it was still overwhelmingly British in character, and could quite easily pass off as a British town transplanted direct to the antipodes. It was in this imperialistic atmosphere that Walter Steward, and his brothers and sisters grew up.

Maude Davies (nee Steward) at 16. This photo was taken in studios in Charters Towers about 1910. It commemorated when she first “put up her hair”. This signified the beginning of womanhood.

In 1914, Britain declared war in Europe and as a result Australia automatically declared war. On 27 October 1915, William Morris Hughes took over the Prime Ministership from Queensland’s Andrew Fisher. Local recruiting committees were formed and a continuous recruiting campaign by parliamentary and local committees was for the first time launched throughout the Commonwealth.[1] One of the stories from the history of Charters Towers surrounds the men and women who enlisted for the Great War. Silk handkerchiefs were printed with the Charters Towers City Council’s coat of arms and given to soldiers to remind them of home while they were overseas. Every soldier to leave Charters Towers was given a silk handkerchief by the mayor when he was sworn in. Legend has these handkerchiefs were highly sought after the war. Towards the end of 1915, the Defence Authorities decided to form a new division of the Australian Imperial Forces, and Queensland was called upon to provide two Battalions. It was during December 1915 that sites were selected to train these two Battalions. A few miles from Brisbane, at Enoggera, the authorities selected Thompson’s Paddock to train what was at first called “The 36th Battalion”. This was soon afterwards permanently altered to “The 42nd Battalion”. The first Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel A.R. Woolcock, who remained Battalion Commander until the 42nd Battalion returned to Australia.[2]

Walter Steward signed up for service on 6 March 1916 in Charters Towers and was assigned the service number 1259.[3] His younger brother, Edwin John Steward, also joined the 42nd Battalion on 20 June 1916, and was to return to Australia almost three years later to the day on 12 June 1919. At the time of enlistment Walter was 19 years and 6 months, working as a stockman in the Charters Towers district. The age requirements for all enlistment had been altered only a year before in February 1915 from 19-38 to 18-45.[4] Upon enlistment there was the inevitable preparation of rolls, attestation papers, allotments and pay books. In due course, clothing and equipment were issued. At these enlistment camps spasmodic training, fatigue duties, and the furnishing of picquets, vaccination and inoculations, gradually eliminated the civilian side of life from the new soldier.

From the first few letters Walter sent to his sister Maude it appears that he had quite a bit of trouble with the vaccinations.

Letter 1

Frazers March 14th 1915 (1916)

Dear Maude

Just a line to let you know how things are. I had a good time coming down. George Tracey was here for a few days but was passed out. It is very hot. Have you heard from Dad lately. I was going to write to you before but I was not certain about passing the final test. It is very hard here for a start but it is getting better as you go along. There are more Northerners than any other here. I have been crook with a cold since I got enockulated [inoculated]. It always brings on something.


I suppose the duchess is very quiet just now. You can tell the boys I am doing alright. They put you in Dungarees and a little white hat. I look a trick in mine. There are about 5,000 here they come and go every day. I don’t think too much of Brisbane it is alright to put a week or so in. The tarts all go mad for the soldiers. They allow you half a day a week off and the week end every month. George was not sorry he was put out he is going to drive a bus in Townsville. They expect another batch from the west on Friday. We had a good time on the boat but the tucker was rotten. I will write to you as soon as I get a reply so I think I will close now as I have a lot of letters to write wishing you all good luck and health. Remember me to Fred.

I remain Your Loving Brother Walter Steward Address: E Company 11th Depot Battalion Frazers

This postcard was addressed to Maude’s husband Fred, who has been friends with Walter before he enlisted:

Postcard 1

Postmarked: 8 April 1916, Brisbane

Dear Fred,

I hope this arrives in good time and finds all in the best of health. Have had a bad time with vaxanation.. (vaccination).


In late March 1916 Walter received a few days leave. However, there is a tone to his letter that indicates his growing disillusionment with military life.


Letter 2

Frazers April 1st 1916

Just a line to let you know I received your letter last night. I am doing all right except for the cold and vaxanation (vaccination). I am writing this under differculties (difficulties). I am writing it on the Port Mantu. I had a very good trip on the Bingera. The measels (measles) are in full swing here. The last I heard of Dad he was on Inala Station. I have got sores as big as a shilling on my arm from the vaxanation (vaccination) they generaly (generally) get the size of a two bob piece before they are ripe. This is a crook place but I will ware (wear) it out as it is not to (too) bad in the next camp. I will put in for home leave after I get into the next camp for a couple of weeks. They don’t give you much time to go home. They allow you two clear days of travelling and expect a man to do his bisness (business) in two days. They take leave most of them. They put you in the bird cage for twenty eight days if you are over time. I don’t care how may days birdcadge (birdcage) I get I am going to see my people if it takes a month. This Bird Cadge (cage) is a flash name for a camp Joal (gaol). The mail from the north was 12 hours late owing to rough water it is raining here today light showers. I have been into Brisbane once since I came into camp. I went in to town for St. Patrick’s Day. They won’t give us leave now for thirteen days owing to vaxanation (vaccination). I feel anyhow today so don’t disgrace my writing as it is compulsory to me to do it or I would let it rip. There is not much news to tell you this time so I will draw to a close wishing you all good health as I would give a pound to be right now.

I remain Your Lov Brother Walter

The next letter shows the problems faced by north Queensland soldiers in respect to home leave. Walter’s sister was living in Duchess, a western Queensland town at the time that the letter was penned. Tom McIvor was to later marry Walter’s eldest sister, Kate.


Letter 3

Rifle Range Ennogera May 21st 1915 (1916)

Dear Maude,

I am writing an appoligy (apology) for not coming to see you. I was short of money so I could not possibly come. I wish to be forgiven. I saw Fred at Malbon. I told him I might be over. Of corce (course) I did not tell him the situation. I am glad to be back in camp again. It is no good of travelling about without money. I wired you from Townsville. Dave McIvor is in Townsville he is married so I heard. I saw Tom Mac last night in town. He is in Kangaroo Point Hospital. Also don’t forget to drop him a line.


I saw Jim Gosney in the Towers he has a bad hand. Alf Gosney is working in the Hampden Smelters. I expect to be away in about three weeks at the outside so loose (lose) no time in answering this. Brisbane is just the same as before. I had a good time in the Towers. I was four days over leave when I got in to camp and I was let off. There was about fifty left in camp together and the most of them are in the bird cage. I think [I] was lucky to get off. Tom is as big a dooer as ever he is having a good time with the girls. There was a funy (funny) thing appeared in the Brisbane papers the other day. A young girl about eight years old was deaf and dumb in England born that way and never spoke a word in her life before until the other week when the Mother heard her calling Mother and run in to see if it realy (really) was her child she got a bit of a shock when the child asked her if there was a big war on and she answered yes so the girl said it will be over in July and fell back dead it is a remarkable incident. And if it comes off it will be a great mystery. Well Maude I think I have told you all the news so I will draw to a close wishing you all the best of health as I am not too bad myself Regards to all

I remain Your Lov Brother Walter Steward Reserve Company Artillery Barracks Rifle Range Ennogera

The reference in this letter to the war being over by July 1916 gives a glimpse into the anxieties of ordinary soldiers. Curiously, as a part of the newly raised 3rd Division, the 42nd Battalion was to arrive in Britain in July 1916. Unfortunately the war was not over but heating up.

At day break on 22 June 1916 the 42nd Battalion marched out of Thompson’s Paddock to the railway station at Enoggera Rifle Range. The Battalion travelled by train to Sydney, and arrived at 5.30 the next afternoon. On 24 June 1916 the Battalion embarked upon S.S. Borda from Woolloomooloo. By 6 July 1916 they passed through Suez Canal and arrived the next day at Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, where the 42nd was once again inoculated. Re-embarking on S.S. Borda at Alexandria the 42nd passed through the Mediterranean on the way to Marseilles. Although the menace of submarines was great, Marseilles was reached on 19 July 1916. The 42nd then proceeded through France by train to Le Havre.

Postcard 2

Postcard 2: Anzac transport halted in a captured village

The 42nd Battalion crossed the English Channel on the night of 22 July 1916, and disembarked next morning at Southampton, England. The final leg of their journey entailed travelling to Amesbury by train, where, for the next three months their home was to be Lark Hill, Salisbury Plains.[5] (The Kate referred to in the letter is Walter’s oldest sister, and Freddie is Maude’s son)

Letter 4

Lark hill Salisbury Plains 26th July 1916

My Dear Sister,

I am writing a few lines to let you know where I am and how I am getting on. Well I had a good trip over anyway the sea could not have been better if one ordered it to be. It is not very often one gets time to write so I am doing my best to keep you in touch with me. We went through Egypt and France and it was beautiful to see the grapes growing in the valeys (valleys) and on top of the mountains. The French people are very industrious every acre of land is taken up and cultivated growing almost anything. We used to get into a fix with them when the train wold (would) stop and we wanted to buy anything they could not understand us and we could not understand them. We got within twenty miles of Paris and branched off to a place called Haure and then we got on the boat again and crossed the channel to Southampton and then we came to a place called Amesbury it is about four miles form the camp. There is


a great piece of poetry about this camp. I have some curious coins Egyptian and France they are easy enough to recon (reckon) up the French count in tens but the Egyptian has about a hundred different coins. We camped in Egypt for a few days in a place called Tel el Kebir the town is about the dirtiest place in the world the houses are made of clay if a stone hit one it would fall on the inhabitants. Alexandria is a big place about the bigest (biggest) in Egypt. We used to cary (carry) our life belts about with us on deck in case of a submarine giving us a bit of a start. How is the two Freddies doing. Little Fred would not know me now. I do not know your address but I am sending this in care of Kate. She will know where to find you. Well Maude I think I have told you all the news this time so I will draw to a close wishing you all good luck I am sending my kindest regards,

I remain Your Loving Brother No. 1259 Walter Steward A Coy 42nd Battalion 11th Infantry Brigade 3rd Australian Division AIF Lark Hill, Salisbury Plains, England

One interesting aspect of the following letter is Walter’s reference to the view of the soldiers at the Front towards the conscription issue. Towards the end of the letter a sense of fatalism emerges, or perhaps impending doom. Walter’s Statement of Service shows that he was charged with absence without leave from midnight 14 August to 15 August 1916. His punishment was the forfeiture of 2 days pay on 18 August 1916.

Letter 5

Lark Hill Salisbury Pins, October 25th 1916

Dear Maude,

I received your loving letter tonight and was pleased to hear from you. I got a letter from Kate the day before yesterday. They are alright. This is not much of a country over here this England it is too cold and it rains every day. You say Fred is copper gauging. How is the conscription going in Australia? I believe they stopped the soldiers voting over in France as there was too many no. I don’t think any man after going through what one has to go through would vote yes. The only one’s would be those who think because they are here every one else ought to be here also. It is a perfect hell in France at present and they expect to keep them all through the winter if they do there will be a terrible cauality (casualty) list by next Spring. I recon (reckon) if a man lasts three months in the trenches he is a marvel so it is pretty hot but were (we’re) not down hearted yet. I suppose Freddie is just as cheeky as ever. Well I wish him luck as he is in his best days now.


There are a lot of old houses and farms that is all there is to see in England. We came through France in summer it is a lovely place to look at. Well by the time you get this it will be Christmas so I will wish you a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year and hope to be home with you again before many months but I don’t suppose I will get back before Xmas 1917 if I am lucky and don’t get killed or wounded only thing to do is to live in hopes. Well Maude I think I have told you all the news this time so I will draw to a close with fond love from your Loving Brother Walter.

On 27 September 1916 the 3rd Australian Division was reviewed by King George V. The new Division consisted of 18,000 men. From the start, the 3rd Division engaged in the type of training that it was likely to encounter at the Front. On Salisbury Plain a brigade trench system was dug, wired, and equipped, each Brigade occupying it for five days at a time to practise reliefs, raids, and deliberate attacks. The climax came on 6 November 1916 in a major exercise involving all arms, and with air support. As a consequence, the 3rd Division arrived in France the best prepared of any of the Australian divisions.

The 42nd Battalion strength was 33 Officers and 994 other ranks. The 11th Infantry Brigade consisted of two Queensland battalions, the 41st and 42nd; one battalion of South Australians, the 43rd; and a Western Australian battalion, the 44th. The colour patch of the 42nd was oval in shape, made in two colours, and worn at the top of either sleeve of both tunics and overcoats. The bottom colour represented the brigade and the top colour designated the battalion. The 11th Brigade colour was Saxe Blue and the 42nd Battalion Dark Blue. The Battalion motto for the 42nd was Cede Nullis (yield to none) and bore the same regimental number as the Highland Regiment called “The Black Watch”. As a result it was jocularly referred to as “The Australian Black Watch”, although, ironically, the 42nd contained a large number of men of Scottish descent, such as William Steward.

The 42nd Battalion departed Salisbury Plains on Saturday, 25 November 1916 and went via Southampton, Le Havre, and reached Bailleul, France, by train on Tuesday, 28 November 1916. They were then marched to the village of Ootersteene where they spent five days training and getting used to the unusual conditions. On 6 December 1916 the 42nd were marched on to Armentieres, and on 22 December 1916, with other units of the 3rd Division, were inspected at Steenwerke, France by General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.

Postcard 3

Postcard 3: Members of the Australian Field Ambulance take shelter in ‘Funk Holes’

The 42nd Battalion finally made its entry into the Front Line on Sunday, 24 December 1916. They were relieved by the 44th Battalion in the trenches on New Year’s Day 1917, but were immediately ordered back again as working parties. Up to that time it had not been recorded that the 42nd were subjected to any gas attack, although the Germans were using it in the Sector they occupied.[6]

The causes are unknown but Walter Steward was injured in a gas attack during late February or early March 1917, and was returned to Australia.[7] On 17 March 1917 he sailed from Plymouth on HT Beltana and arrived in Australia on 12 May 1917. His Statement of Service records the reason for discharge as Lung Tuberculosis. His letter to Maude is frank, and explains the type of treatment that was used for gas victims in Australia.

Letter 6

Brisbane June 15th 1917

Dear Maude,

I received your letter and was surprised to hear you were still about Ballara. I don’t think you realize how bad my throat is when you say it ought to be right. I wish it was. I am not here for the good of my health I can assure you. If I get cured in a couple of months I’ll be very lucky. I am living on baby’s food. I can’t eat anything with a spoon all the food I consume has to be drank down. They say I have consumption in the throat if so it is a case of a long time perhaps never get cured. I am discharged from the


Army and a good job too. I have had enough of it. The weather down here the last few days has been awful cold and raining it is a lovely day today if it will only keep like this for a while and give me a chance I will get a bit better. I would not care if I could eat a decent feed. Nestles food and (?) food is my diet. I have been pretty thin at times but I am nothing but skin and bone now I don’t think I would weigh seven stone. It was the doing on the boat that caused all the mischief. I was all but right when I came on the boat and there was nothing on board to give me


so I just had to waste away and it got that pad (bad) at last that I could not even drink tea so they decided to spray it with a light solution of cocain (cocaine) and I have had it ever since. It is pretty quiet here at present but there are always a good few visitors which breaks the monotony. I have to hand in all the Military clothes by the 23rd of this month so I am sending a wire to Kate to send my coat and a couple of pairs of trousers down. I might want them even if it is only to walk about the grounds in. I am pleased to hear that Fred has got a start with a team is he on halfs or are they his own. Now that I am discharged and all fixed up I wish


to god I could get right and get back to the old beat again. I had a letter from Dad he is always in trouble with his racehorse. I will be stiff if Kate has given my clothes to Tom Mc. I don’t think she would. Well Maude I have not much more to tell you this time as one don’t get much information when he is in bed pretty well all day. I just take a stroll up and down the verandah in the morning and evening just to keep the legs in order they would not carry me far. I will draw to a close wishing you good luck and health remember me to Fred 1 and 2.

I remain Your loving brother Walter

On 23 June 1917, Walter Steward was officially discharged from the 42nd Battalion. He was then granted a 3 pound fortnightly pension.

Postcard 4

Letter 7

July 18th 1917 Diamantina Hospital South Brisbane

Dear Maude,

Just a line in answer to your much looked for letter wich (which) came to hand today. I am about the same as I was when I last wrote anyway I am no worse. I am pleased to hear that Fred has made a rise. Dad is still in Winton he has stables in there and expects to do well at the next meeting. It seems hard to think that a fellow will be in this place when he ought to be having a good time amongst friends. I think my throat has improved a little. Yes our Birthdays are close to mine will not be up to much but I will expect a better one next time. Well this is a dead place there is no news to tell anybody so I will draw to a clos (close) with best wishes for all

I remain Your Loving Brother Walter Steward

On 4 September 1917, Walter William Steward died in the Diamantina Hospital, Brisbane. Ninety-three years later, under the Shrine of Remembrance that looks over Brisbane’s Anzac Square, is the long, sloping tunnel that houses the Shrine of Memories. Along the walls of the tunnel are the Rolls of Honour of the different Battalions, Regiments and Units that have been raised in Queensland. At the very end of the dark, eerie tunnel is the 42nd Battalion Roll of Honour. However, Walter William Steward’s name is not recorded here as he did not die in battle or of his injuries soon after. Instead he died of injuries after he had been returned to Australia was discharged. But in the Charters Towers RSL he is remembered. The World War 1 Roll of Honour that hangs on the wall next to the front door lists all the men who enlisted from the Charters Towers district. It is here, in the town where he grew up and enlisted, that Walter William Steward is remembered.

My family have lived in Charters Towers since the 1890s and with the next generation of my brother’s family born there it looks like our presence will continue well into this third century. History is an act of remembering the past and defining personal identity.

[1] C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 Vol. III The AIF in France: 1916 (Sydney, 1939), p.11.

[2] S.E. Benson, The Story of the 42 Aust. Inf. Bn. (Sydney, 1952), p.1. (courtesy of Department of Veterans Affairs)

[3] 1914-1918. Nominal Roll of AIF who left Australia for service abroad (John Oxley Library, Brisbane)

[4] Bean, Vol. III, p.6 fn.

[5] V Brahms, The Spirit of the Forty-Second. Narrative of the 42nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division, Australian Imperial Forces, during the Great War, 1914-1918 (Brisbane, 1938) p.11 (Courtesy of Fisher Library, University of Sydney).

[6] Brahms, The Spirit of the Forty-Second, p.31.

[7] 1914-1918. Nominal Roll of AIF who left Australia for service abroad (John Oxley Library).

Recent articles by Glenn Davies
Ringleaders, riots and ruin: The story of Charters Towers

The year 2022 marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of North Queensland ...  
Craig Foster succeeds Peter FitzSimons as Republic Movement head

Human rights and anti-racism activist, former Socceroo Craig Foster AM, has been ...  
Queen's birthday absurdity demonstrates denial of choice

After a public holiday for the former Queen Elizabeth II to mourn her death, ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate