Message in  bottle leads to tale of war tragedy
War woe: Sharon Kent with the jar. Picture: Lincoln Baker/The West Australian

Gathered aboard a troop transport ship at Albany in 1916, the four young Aussie blokes were full of enthusiasm and hope, and no doubt champing at the bit to get off the ship and on with their grand adventure.

They must have had little idea about the horrors that awaited them on the bloody battlefields of World War I's Western Front.

Perhaps just to pass the time, they penned a letter, stuffed it in a jar and tossed it overboard in the hope someone, anyone, would find it.

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A little over four months later one would be dead. Just over a year later a second would fall.

Now, almost a century later, their letter has come to light, providing a remarkable insight into the minds of the soldiers and the history of the time.

It sits in a glass jar in the Attadale home of Sharon Kent, whose family has had it since her grandfather, Charles Blythe, found it, as best as anyone knows, on an Albany beach in the 1930s.

Scratched into the lid is a notation that appears to read 19/4/16. The two pages of the letter itself are yellowing and marked with deep creases and written in an elegant hand on letterhead which reads: "Melbourne YMCA on active service with the Australian Imperial Forces."

It is dated Tuesday April 11, Albany 1916.

"Dear friend," the letter begins. "Would you the finder of this message be so kind as to write and let our people know that you found (it) . . . and say that we are having a grand time and in the best of health and on our way to Egypt.

"By doing so friend we should be very grateful and only too pleased to hear from you saying you have found it also we may have the pleasure of thanking you again."

On page two each gave an initial or initials and their surname, war service number, battalion, listed their address as "Australian Intermediate Base Egypt" and then added addresses of families in Victoria.

Mrs Kent said her family was not aware of any contact having been made with the families and she had made a start on trying to track them down some time ago, but had been unsuccessful.

However, with the centenary of the war approaching, she wanted to try again.

The Weekend West, with help from the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives, set out to shed light on the men.

The first of the four letter writers gave his name as H. Coxon. Harold Coxon, number 5363, whose family lived in Abbotsford, Melbourne, was originally a reinforcement for the 8th Infantry Battalion and with his three mates had embarked on April 4, 1916 from Melbourne aboard HMAT Euripides A14.

His enlistment paper says he was a salesman and not married when he joined up on January 17, 1916 aged 20. The AWM said he joined the 5th Battalion in October 1916 and was promoted to corporal on March 6, 1917.

He spent time in hospital in May 1918 and in July 1918 he received a gunshot wound to his right hand and was evacuated to England for treatment.

He returned to Australia in January 1919.

Fate was not so kind to R. Swift, number 5458.

Reginald Norton Swift, from Northcote, was also a reinforcement for the 8th Battalion, and a farmer when he enlisted on January 22, 1916 aged 24.

He, too, was unmarried and in 1917 he found himself in a fierce battle at Lagnicourt, northern France.

According to the AWM, "the Germans launched a counter-stroke in the Lagnicourt area at dawn on 15 April, utilising 23 battalions".

Records say Swift died of wounds on April 19 and was buried at Grevillers British Cemetery, in France.

Details provided to the government after his death say he was "of a genial and kindly temperament steady and reliable and well liked by all with whom he came in contact".

Soldier three was J.V. Brown, number 5489.

James Valentine Brown, of Ballarat, was an advertising agent when he joined up on November 11, 1915 aged 26. Not married, he was also a part of the 8th Battalion and was also a member of its band.

He spent some time ill in hospital in July 1918 and came home in March 1919.

H.E. Williams, number 1800, provided a tragic end to the search.

Henry Egryn Williams, whose family lived in Collingwood, was an engraver with the Government Printing Office and not married when he enlisted in January 1916 aged just 19.

First with the 57th Battalion, he joined the 60th Battalion in May 1916.

The AWM said that on July 19, 1916 he received a gunshot wound to his left thigh and was evacuated to England for medical treatment.

The memorial's history of the 60th Battalion says it "became embroiled in its first major battle on the Western Front on 19 July, without the benefit of an introduction to the trenches in a 'quiet' sector. The battle of Fromelles was a disaster for the battalion. In a single day it was virtually wiped out".

Williams was admitted to Chelmsford Red Cross Hospital on July 22. He died on August 18, 1916.

He was, as the soldiers' letter finished, one of four mates who set off into the unknown and who would "try to do their best".

The West Australian

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