Thursday, 27 November 2008

Lest We Forget - Peter Fitzhenry AIF Killed In Action

A recent post was a timely reminder of those Fitzhenrys who gave their lives fighting for their country. Amongst them was the name of an Australian, Peter Fitzhenry who died thousands of miles from home in the fields of Belgium in October 1917. I thought it might be appropriate to give some more details about this fallen Fitzhenry, so that he doesn't remain simply a name on a plaque.

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) is a wonderful repository, holding amongst many other documents, the service records for Australian service personnel. It is their longterm goal to have all documents digitalised allowing free internet access viewing. In the interim, where someone requests a file, and is prepared to pay a nominal fee (usually around $20 AUD) it is assessed for privacy issues, and if deemed appropriate for open access is immediately digitalised,' jumping the queue" so to speak. In the case of the surname Fitzhenry 1914-1920 seven files are listed, ALL of which are digitalised (I suspect that thanks are due to our North Queensland Fitzhenry rsearcher??). Much of the following was gleaned from the details included in the service file of Private Peter Fitzhenry, which helps to fill in some details relating to this fallen soldier.

Peter Fitzhenry was born in Ultimo, near Sydney in New South Wales the second son of Matthew Fitzhenry, a plumber, and his wife Catherine (nee Nelson). Although Peter had 7 brothers and sisters, and one could imagine many happy times as he played with his siblings, the fact was that for much of the time, life must have been pretty hard for young Peter. When he was only 3 his baby sister Ellen died, and the next year his big brother, Stephen, who was only 6 died. This must have been an awful tragedy for the family and for Peter. Stephen's death made Peter the eldest son, with responsibilities for helping his parents and looking after the younger children - and these responsibilities would have been substantial since his father's drinking became more and more of a problem. Money was scarse, but became even more so as he "drank all he earned' ( Catherine Fitzhenry). Eventually, in 1906, when Peter was only 16, his father Matthew finally deserted the family. Although Catherine, Peter's mother had a warrant issued for his arrest for desertion, it was still outstanding 16 years later.
Army documents describe Peter's mother Catherine as a "respectable woman, living with her daughters". Peter must have had a strong sense of responsibility for his mother and younger siblings though, as he lived all his life with her, even after his marriage in 1912 to Janet (nee Murdoch).
The family stayed close to Sydney, living in Redfern, an inner Sydney surburb. In its earlier days Redfern was described as a "neat workers suburb", but by the second decade of the 20th century it was considered more rough. John Tierney (1892-1972) author and teacher described it thus ..." it was a depressing place. It was nasty, hot, dusty. There was the grind and rattle of trams in Castlereagh Street and Redfern Street; the ceaseless clomping of horses' hooves, and the jarring accents of lorry wheels. Two of the largest carrying firms had their headquarters in Redfern, and the very air smelt stale of horses and was filled with specks of dried manure whenever a breeze stirred along those drab streets."

Given the importance of the carrying businesses in the area it is not particularly surprising to discover that Peter's occupation in 1917 was Carter!!

When he enlisted, on 23 January 1917, Australia had been at war for nearly 3 years. Whilst many young men had raced to join up in 1914, no doubt thinking of glory and a short stay overseas, (whilst other- older- men had joined up to escape unhappy marriages!!) Peter did not rush to enlist. At 26, he was no child, and had in fact been married for nearly 5 years, though he had no children. We will probably never know what prompted Peter to join H M forces in that January of 1917, but a poignant - even tragic - hint lies in a document included in his service file. Although initially reported "Missing In Action" 4 October 1917, his body was never located. He was only reported "Killed in Action" after a Court Of Inquiry held in March of 1918. In 1922 the Graves Service Unit was still doing its best to try to identify bodies of deceased sevicemen who were lacking any form of identification. Peter's surviving family was contacted and asked if they could furnish any information regarding the last known sighting of him, or if they had been notified by other groups of a place of burial, or anything that might give a precise location of his death. The response was provided by his youngest brother William * .
" Dear Sir,
the late Private P Fitzhenry was killed just outside the trench where A Company of the 1st battalion hopped over on the 4th October 1917 for Broodseide [?] Ridge. He has been posted missing but that is the exact locality as I happened to be with him,
Yours faithfully
W'm Fitzhenry "

In 1917 William turned 18.

The fact that William was in the same unit as his brother suggests that they joined up together. Is it possible that a young William full of youthful bravado decided to join up, and that Peter felt he should be with his baby brother, to try to protect him in what was to come? Again, we will never know.

Yet despite this, and having no known photos of Peter, we still know a surprising amount about him. For instance, we know that he had brown hair, and blue eyes, was 5 ft 4 inches tall and weighed 120lbs ( or 8 and a half stone). The little toe on his right foot was slightly raised, and he was a Congregationalist. We know that when he arrived in Plymouth England he was deployed to Durrington in Wiltshire for training. We know he overstayed his leave by 3 days in May 1917, and as a consequence he lost a weeks pay. We know that this wasn't an isolated incident because on the 4 August 1917 he was AWOL from 6.45am (and missed Parade) and that cost him 4 days confined to barracks. Sadly, Peter's story doesn't last much longer. He embarked for France at Southhampton arriving at Havre 5th September, and was listed as being available for fighting in France 15 September. He was reported Missing in Action 3 weeks later, in Belgium 4 October 1917, although only listed as Killed In Action after the Court Of Inquiry was held in March 1918. His body was never found.

In a surprising and sad addendum to Peter's story, I discovered that at the time of his own death, Peter was a widower.On 26 March 1917, just 5 weeks after Peter embarked on H.M Osterley in Sydney on his way to England and the front, his 24 year old wife Janet died. She never lived to hear of the death of her husband, but it is probable that he heard of hers. It is just so sad....

RIP Peter Fitzhenry 1890-1917

* I have been unable to locate a service record for William, but a service record has been located for a Walter J Fitzhenry, living at the same address as Peter and his family and listing his next of kin as Catherine Fitzhenry. He lists his age as 21 and 3 months at the time of enlistment. A view of the signature suggests that the soldier started to write Wi.. but then rounded the i to an a (of Walter) so I think it highly probable it is William putting his age up and assuming a different forename.

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  1. Lesley - that's a brilliant post. Thank you.

  2. Peter Fitzhenry was my Great Uncle my grandfather Matthew was Peters younger brother. My father (Ronald Mathew)had told us the story about Peter but with not as much detail. My fathers brother John Peter Fitzhenry was named after Peter. If I had been a boy I also would have been called Peter. Would anyone have a photo of Peter and William? I have a photo of Peters mother Catherine. I also have photos of some of Peters brothers and sisters (Jessie, Matthew, Arthur, Ruby). Thank you

    1. Kerry,
      I am attempting contact with you regarding Peter Fitzhenry. He was also my Great Uncle. His sister Jessie was my maternal Grandmother. Please contact me at Thank you.
      Mark Biagioli

  3. Kerry
    Thank you for your reply.
    Yes, we would be very interested in seeing your photos if you would be willing to share them.
    Please send us an email - the contact links are on every posting and on the main page on the right hand side.
    Jo Fitz-Henry

  4. Kerry,
    I would like to have you contact me at, Private Peter Fitzhenry was also my Great Uncle. Jessie was my maternal Grandmother. Thank you.
    Mark Biagioli