The West

War sacrifice tore family apart

It is almost incomprehensible to imagine.

In less than six months, Guildford widow Mary Ellen Davis lost three sons at the Western Front.

The bodies of two were never found, literally blown to pieces on the bleak battlefields of Belgium and northern France.

It is little wonder her grandchildren would later say Mary Ellen never smiled. What did she have to smile about? Her family had been torn apart in a supreme sacrifice to a war on the other side of the world.

Her family was my family.

Mary Ellen was my great-great-grandmother. And her dead sons were the brothers of my great-grandmother.

Her pain endures and is immortalised on the obelisk memorial that stands in Guildford's Stirling Square, where the names of the three brothers are included among the many local men who died during World War I.

Mary Ellen Sewell married accountant John Murray Davis near Geraldton on New Year's Day, 1870. They had 13 children but three died soon after birth.

The family moved to Guildford in the 1890s but John died in 1905.

By the time war broke out in 1914, two of Mary Ellen's six sons had married and moved to Wheatbelt farms. Three other sons joined the war effort in 1916. A fourth joined up a year later.

Walter Herbert, a Boer War veteran, was 37 when he joined up and sailed for France in June 1916, leaving behind wife Connie and daughters, Victoria, 6, and Edwina, 2. He was one of about 3400 Australians killed on the first day of the Bullecourt offensive on April 10, 1917. His remains were never found.

Frederick Charles had been married less than a month when he sailed for the Western Front in December 1916. After five days of bombardment, Frederick's battalion began a ground offensive to secure the important Belgium route known as Menin Road on September 20, 1917. About 5000 Australians were killed. One of them was Frederick. His remains were never found.

Reginald, a public servant, joined up on April 25, 1915 - the day of the Gallipoli landing. Assigned as a driver, he sailed to England in October 1916 before serving in France. After serving alongside his brother at Menin Road, Reginald died on the first day of the next phase of the offensive. He is buried at the Birr Cross Roads Cemetery. His inscription, written by his mother, reads: "In memory of my brave son, who sleeps so far away."

Fourth son Gilbert Murray enlisted in September, 1916 and sailed for England in June 1918, leaving behind wife Mary and five children. Though suffering "defective vision", he performed nursing duties before being discharged at the end of the war. He returned to WA and he and Mary had two more children.

One of his grandchildren is acclaimed actress Judy Davis.

Today, Garth Denny, 86, is one of the oldest living relatives of the Davis brothers. He knew very little of their story and their tragic demise. "No one ever talked about it," he said. "It just wasn't discussed."

When Mary Ellen died in 1923, she had seven surviving children and 30 grandchildren, including toddler Donald Charles Longson.

Donald followed in his uncles' footsteps and joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a teenager. He was stationed in England during World War II.

Just two days after the 20th anniversary of his grandmother's death, on August 13, 1943, Donald and the crew of Sunderland DV 968 were shot down somewhere over the Bay of Biscay.

There were no survivors. The family of Mary Ellen Davis had made another supreme sacrifice.

The West Australian

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