Lynne Palmer, a local history enthusiastWhen World War I ended and the dust settled on the fallen soldiers of Geurie, there was one family that was never able to properly put their son to rest.
Of the 112 Geurie brothers, sons, uncles and fathers who fought in The Great War, one beloved soldier remained unaccounted for, making his demise a painful mystery for relatives and friends.
But 95 years later, in an age of DNA precision and global networking, the remaining family of Clarence Timbrell Collier can finally put their angst to bed.
The resting place of Clarence Collier has been located in France, thanks to the German Army’s meticulous records on soldiers’ distinguishing “dog tags”, and although his body hasn’t been formally identified yet, his great-nephew David Ward said it’s only a matter of time.
It has recently been discovered Clarence died during the Battle of Fromelles – the most infamous onslaught in Australian history – where more than 1900 Diggers were killed in one evening.
The Allies were no match for the German machine-gun brutality and, as a result, the 5th Australian Division suffered 5533 casualties overall, compared to the Germans’ 1000.
Keen amateur historian Lambis Englezos launched a search for the lost sons in 2002 and eight years later the excavation, which would later reveal 250 hastily buried Australians, began. They’ve since been exhumed, reburied in a military ceremony and given the remembrance honours they never previously achieved.
Clarence’s remarkable story made its way back to Geurie in January, when his great nephew David Ward and his wife Brigitte stopped by the Geurie Cenotaph to pay tribute to their uncle. On the Cenotaph his name was marked with a small diamond to signify he was missing in action.
Mr and Mrs Ward recounted their astonishing story to Lynne Palmer, a local history enthusiast who has dedicated much time to sharing the small town’s past.
“Clarence’s story has haunted our family for almost 100 years,” Mr Ward, a Charles Sturt University lecturer from Cudal, said.
“My great grandparents (Clarence’s sister and brother-in-law) used to experience a jolt of hope every time they walked down the street and saw someone of similar height and stance… Sadly they went to their graves not knowing what had happened.”
Clarence Collier was born in Geurie in 1891 and spent the first few years of his life at Geurie Public School before he moved to Sydney in 1906 with his family, Mr Ward said.
His father, Thomas Timbrell Collier, was Geurie’s Stationmaster from 1890 to 1906 until he was appointed Stationmaster at Gordon Railway Station on Sydney’s North Shore.
A child prodigy, Clarence completed his education at Sydney’s Fort Street School and was Dux of his class when he finished.
At age 20, he completed his Bachelor of Law at the University of Sydney and became the youngest person to achieve such a degree.
But because of his age, Clarence was unable to practice as a lawyer and subsequently enlisted in the Australian Army at the start of World War I.
He was first shipped to New Guinea in early 1916 and then to France as Second Lieutenant.
On July 19-20 1916, The Battle of Fromelles claimed Clarence Collier’s life, however his family wouldn’t know about it for more than 90 years.
“Interestingly, my great uncle on my father’s side of the family also lost his life that night when he was trying to bring soldiers back,” Mr Ward said.
“So my grandparents may have lost a brother each a day apart.”
Mr Ward said Clarence died in No Man’s Land and was therefore taken by the Germans to a nearby grave site.
In 2007 – 91 years after Clarence’s death – Melbourne school teachers Lambis Engazoz and Tim Whitford made a discovery that would forever change the family’s history.
Eight large undisturbed pits were found in farmland at Pheasant Wood, just a few kilometres back from the German front line. Beneath them lay 250 Australian bodies with dog tags – one worn by Clarence Timbrell Collier.
Tracing Clarence’s relatives proved to be difficult at first, as Clarence had four sisters and no brothers, which meant the Collier name died the day he did.
However, Red Cross letters written by Mr Ward’s great aunt, Marrianne Dakin, allowed scientists to track the ancestral lines and make the crucial connection back to Sydney.
Mrs Dakin received a phone call a few years ago with the news and was reportedly “beside herself”.
Along with Mr Ward and his mother, she boarded a plane to France to attend a special memorial ceremony and give Clarence the burial he deserved. Close to 1000 relatives turned out for the military service, in which each of the previously missing soldiers were reburied.
“It was a privilege to attend,” Mr Ward said.
“I had never been able to visualise the impact these lost souls had on families until I stood there and saw them grieving in Fromelles.”
About 100 of the 250 bodies have now been formally identified, but Clarence isn’t one of them.
“For now, we’re just happy with the knowledge that he’s part of that group and within 3 or 4 years, we’ll be able to give him a named grave.” The tentative completion date for the DNA matching program is 2014.
For the Geurie community, Clarence’s recovery symbolises unification and peace – peace in the knowledge that all of the 112 men, with their extended families, have now been properly put to rest.
“This is something that all of us can and will celebrate, regardless of our relation to Clarence Timbrell Collier,” Mrs Palmer said.
“Anzac Day is always a solemn occasion, but it’s also a reminder of how close we are as a community and how much we look after each other.”
For Mr Ward, the discovery has more personal sentimental significance.
“It’s closure, it’s clarity and it’s pride,” he said.
“It’s like we’ve finally been able to complete the circle of our family story. When he’s identified, the circle will be closed.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.