Feature: Frank Hurley, Infantry Marching in Single File to the Front Line, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW

Clive Purcell WWI Soldier

In Travel, The rest by tony2 Comments

Featured Image: Frank Hurley, Infantry Marching in Single File to the Front Line, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW

ORT_Logo Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 March 2022

Also see the article about Clive’s sister Annie Purcell WWI nurse.

Clive Purcell WWI Soldier, Gallipoli and France/Flanders, 1915-1919

Main Points

  • What was the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) in World War I (WWI)? What role did it play in Gallipoli and in France?
  • Why did Australians sign up? What was their experience? How did they differ from British soldiers in WWI?
  • What role did venereal disease play in the AIF? Was it greater than in other allied forces? Did pay rates have something to do with it?
  • Why was A.W.L. (absent without leave) rife in the AIF? How was it treated by Australian Officers?
  • What sort of war experience did my maternal grandfather have in WWI? What sort of war experience did a hero such as Captain Percy Lay have? Both served the entire war and survived.
  • What relevance does the First World War have today? Why is WWI jingoism dangerous? Why do today’s politicians use WWI to promote nationalism and patriotism? Why shouldn’t we forget what actually happened?


Australia joined the hostilities in August 1914. Three siblings James Osmond Purcell the youngest (b 4 July 1893; age 21), William Clive Purcell (b 3 October 1889; age 25) and Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (b 3 April 1887; age 29) joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in 1915. James joined first in February, followed by Clive in April and Annie in May by joining the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS).

The companion article to this one details the WWI career and beyond of Annie Purcell WWI Nurse a lightly edited version of the excellent article by Janet Scarfe for the Eastern Melbourne Historical Society entitled Biographical Notes: Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (1887-1941).

Clive and James were assigned to the 23rd Battalion raised in Victoria to provide reinforcements for the Gallipoli campaign. They left for Egypt on 10 May, ten days later Annie signed the AANS enrolment form. She embarked for Egypt with a group of nurses to reinforce 1 Australian General Hospital on 17 June 1915.

After a time of training in Egypt, Clive and James embarked for Gallipoli. The 23rd Battalion endured severe Turkish fire at Lone Pine and Browns Dip for weeks. Acting Sergeant Major James Osmond was killed by a ‘bomb’ on 6 November 1915. Clive wrote to Annie:

…poor dear old Jim, who was more than a brother to me, was killed by a bomb on Saturday evening inst. at about 7 o’clock, in a dug-out at the rear of the firing line. He was fixing up some details with an officer and two non-coms, when he met his death. The officer and the others were wounded, and cruel fate . . . our darling Jim was killed almost instantly. When I heard the sad news shortly afterwards I hurried round, but before I reached him Jim’s soul had gone to God. In death he looked very peaceful and happy, but God alone knows how I miss him. He was always so bright and cheerful and loved his work…

He died a soldiers death and full of honours. He was most popular in the Company and at his burial next day, all the officers (including officers from other companies) were present to pay their last respects… (Letter 7)

The Three Siblings, Cairo, 1915

The Three Siblings, Cairo, 1915

World War I — the war to end all wars

There never was a greater tragedy than World War I. It engulfed an age, and conditioned the times that followed. It contaminated every ideal for which it was waged, it threw up waste and horror worse than all the evils it sought to avert, and it left legacies of staunchness and savagery equal to any which have bewildered men about their purpose on earth. (Bill Gammage, xvi)

We naively went to war and, for our new nation, paid a blood sacrifice that was too costly. The figures were awful: 460,809 men and women put on uniforms; 331,781 left Australia. 57, 425 were killed and 156,935 returned as casualties, many to die in Australia before their allotted time. In simple round figures, two out of three fighting men were killed or injured. (JL Turner, ii)

(There were about 1,000,000 men of eligible age to enlist in 1915 (18-44), 368,000 of them young men (18-26), in a total population of about 4,970,000.)

There is a great deal of Word War I jingoism in Australia at present. People in Australia currently value the idea of war sacrifice in WWI and tend to remember their relatives. Many young people attend the Anzac Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) ceremonies at Gallipoli. But, politicians and others tend to utilise the currents of emotion generated about Anzac Day, relating it to patriotism and nationalism. Jingoism arises from this.

Unfortunately, the generational distance from 1914-1918 means that many Australians of all ages are relatively ignorant of what actually went on in WWI. The Australian troops were relatively competent, seasoned and steadfast in battle. They developed a reputation for this. But, this does not mean they behaved heroically all the time.

There were ‘bad apples’, bad behaviour and attitudes many of which would not be acceptable today. When they experienced combat in WWI they quickly developed a realistic cynicism and disdain for aspects of the higher command and for the sacrifice that was expected of them, which was certainly not what they expected when they freely signed up.

Clive Purcell, Editor, Colac Herald, before he died

Clive Purcell, Editor, Colac Herald, before he died


I was fortunate to know Jim Turner through the Fred Emery network. He stayed with my mother while researching the war diaries of Captain Percy Lay at the Australian War Memorial (AWM). He kindly typed up and presented Clive Purcell’s letters to her, in a much more useable form.

Clive Purcell Letters

The family presented the originals to the AWM referenced in the previous article Auntie Nam WWI Nurse as AWM: Purcell Papers, PR84/096.

J L (Jim) Turner

The War Diaries of Captain Percy Lay (1914-1919) D.C.M., M.M., M.C., C de G. Transcribed and Edited by J L Turner 1983. (Available from the Australian War Memorial and the Australian National Library)

Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin 1974 (and many subsequent printings).

I have been acquainted with Bill for many years. This quite famous book is based on his PhD thesis at the Australian National University (ANU) 1970. It is a study and an analysis based on the diaries and letters of 1000 Australians who fought as front line AIF soldiers in the Great War.

Alexandria, Mahmoudieh Canal, WWI Postcard

Alexandria, Mahmoudieh Canal, WWI Postcard

Bill Gammage Overview of Early Discipline in Egypt

Bill Gammage provides an overview of intolerable behaviour within the ranks of the AIF in Egypt before Gallipoli, which needed to be dealt with and was also was the cause and precursor to undisciplined but acceptable behaviour in the AIF after Gallipoli and especially in France/Flanders.

Bad Behaviour and Racism in Egypt

On arrival in Egypt in 1914, Bill Gammage says:

Military offences multiplied: during December 1914 absence without leave, desertion, insubordination, drunkenness, assaults on natives and military police, robbery, and venereal disease all increased markedly. Men broke bounds at will, and over 300 in the First Division were posted absent without leave by early January 1915, despite stricter penalties and closer supervision. On one day two-fifths of one 10th Battalion company were absent without leave at roll call, and half of them were still absent a day later. On Boxing Day 1914 the 2nd Battalion was obliged to cancel a parade because it could not muster enough men to hold it, even after it had included sixty 2nd Battalion men then in the unit prison. Far from making civilians soldiers, the authorities feared, training in Egypt was reducing recruits to rabble, and by the close of 1914 ‘matters were swiftly coming to a point when discipline in the A.I.F. must either be upheld or abandoned’. …

In January 1915 training hours were extended, long desert marches were introduced, a strong standing picket was placed across the Cairo-Mena road, and some Australian units were sent to garrisons along the Suez Canal. On 3 February 131 disciplinary cases and twenty-four men with venereal disease were returned to Australia in disgrace, while a despatch to the Australian public explained that these men had stained their country’s reputation.

These measures were partly effective. Exhaustion and shame limited Australian excesses, …

Even during the last week of 1914, the period of worst disorder, at least one man judged that,

Taken all through, the discipline in all ranks has been good . . . we are freeborn men, used to living a free life, with very few restraints of any kind, recognising no one as Master . . . [considering this,] the discipline is good. Certainly there are some undesirables, but they are very far in the minority.

Alexandria, Cherif Pacha Street, WWI Postcard

Alexandria, Cherif Pacha Street, WWI Postcard

Treatment of the Egyptians

Australian soldiers also mistreated local Egyptians, whom they despised. As they had in 1915, men gave Egyptians ‘references’ in English advising readers to kick the bearer, upset trays of food and fruit, and burnt Egyptian stalls; but by 1916 months of warfare had weakened Australian respect for civilian niceties, and the slouch hat terrorised the natives. One man stated,

We put in most of the day in the Wassa and explored most of the Joy houses but didn’t do any business with them. The Aussies have got these people bluffed alright. I don’t think there is any other place on Earth where a man can go into a house of this character do almost as he likes and walk out without cashing up or getting ‘flattened out’ but these people fear the Aussies more than they fear their God. (Gammage, p 123)

Captain Percy Lay’s War (JimTurner)

Jim Turner gives a summary of Percy Lay’s war from extracts from Reveille, 1 July, 1933. The extracts are too long to repeat here (everything below is covered in the Reveille article).

… had he stayed with the 8th Bn., instead of going to Dunsterforce, he was certain of a V.C., according to the conviction of his old battalion mates; and one of them who shares that conviction is Major W.D. Joynt. V.C. of the 8th Bn.

From the official history:

At Bullecourt on May 8 1917… Lay left a newly captured post to bring in a wounded German, when he saw another German making back towards the Bullecourt-Riencourt Rd. Though unarmed Lay worked round behind this man, cutting him off and though the German stood with his rifle at the ready, watching the approach. Lay went boldly up to him, took the rifle from him, and marched him back a prisoner.

Frank Hurley, Chateau Wood, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW

Frank Hurley, Chateau Wood, Western Front 1917, State Library NSW

C.E.W. Bean (the official war historian) says of the incident and Lay:

Perhaps of all the men who served in the old Eighth, Percy Lay is the most outstanding when cool bravery, commonsense and natural leadership are considered.

The descriptions of incidents go on and on.

This is enough, however, to explain that Captain Percy Lay and Private Clive Purcell were very different soldiers.

Jim Turner’s transcribed diaries of Percy Lay are a marvel of a war record of a true ‘hero’ in the Greek tradition and should be read by anyone interested in what WWI was really like.

Jim does comment later in the battle for Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Ridge in September/October 1917 (notes 40 & 41, p 184-5) with the former’s ‘frenzy, waste and administrative stupidity’ and of the latter:

In my opinion this was both his finest hour and his worst. From this day forward Lay shunned church and refused to talk about Broodseinde Ridge. I believe the answer to his changed behaviour resided in guilt and bitterness…

He saw his beloved “A” Coy nearly wiped out [while Lay was deployed temporarily to another Co.] and

…he broke basic rules by which he lived. Forcing a prisoner to turn his machine gun on his own men and then shooting him…

Turner later relates Lay’s further experiences with Dunsterforce in Syria. Percy Lay had to contend with masses of civilians dying of starvation in Syria. And, although Dunsterforce liberated quantities of grain hoarded by rich merchants and distributed it, the measure was only a band-aid.

Percy Lay also experienced first hand, what he had not before, at the highest levels of how apparent resentment and jealousy by General Marshall could, through obtuseness, inaction and outright hostility, derail even the most determined professional commander in General Dunsterville (in a secret mission condoned by the War Office), despite everything. History and the end of the war also perhaps made the Dunsterforce objectives moot.

About the diaries, Jim Turner says:

The keeping of diaries was forbidden by the army for one simple and good reason: if taken prisoner a soldier’s diary might reveal valuable intelligence to the enemy.

Lay was of course well aware of this, as he was often responsible for collecting papers and diaries from the dead in no man’s land etc. and from prisoners.

Lay was most circumspect about what he wrote in his pocket diaries, (3.8 x 10 cm) each day. In his kit back at base camp or billet he kept a larger diary into which he transcribed and amplifies.

Clive’s War

Clive Purcell continued serving to the end of the war. He did not rise above the rank of private and had no desire to do so.

Clive in Pre-War Civvies

Clive in Pre-War Civvies

Janet Scarfe in her excellent article on Annie is rather dismissive of Clive’s military career:

Despite a chequered disciplinary history (AWOL charges, several bouts of venereal disease as well as hospitalisations with illness), he survived the slaughter on the Western Front though it seems unlikely that he and Annie ever crossed paths again till both returned to Australia. 

Janet Scarfe isn’t family and perhaps she lets her modern prejudices hold sway. However, there are a couple of minor errors of fact that need to be addressed.

Venereal Disease

Clive had three bouts of gonorrhoea infection (not several), two were treated in France and one in England (probably also acquired there). Each required over a month’s treatment in hospital. (It wasn’t pleasant.)

[The treatment] entailed repeated daily injections of heavy metals such as silver, arsenic and mercury; urethral syringings, douching and the application of caustic substances on their genitals. One of the upsides of the VD epidemic was that treatment for sexually transmitted diseases improved exponentially during the war years. (Canberra Times article, 2014)

The bouts of Gonorrhoea were 21 April 1916, hospital in Boulogne, for 34 days; 4 June 1916, hospital in Camiers for 41 days; and, 31 May 1917, Bulford Camp VD hospital, for 50 days. (Clive’s letters do not cover these periods.)

The proximity of the first and second bouts of gonorrhoea infection could mean the treatment didn’t work. But, Clive broke out of camp for 3 days from 31 May 1917, so he may well have fled into sympathetic arms. However, the the dates make it likely that a relapse from first treatment may explain the second. It should also be mentioned that these incidents were within 5 and 7 months of the death of his beloved brother. Indeed, one wonders whether Clive’s whole military career to 1919 wasn’t conditioned by his brother’s death.

Clive also had a serious bout of trench foot requiring close to 6 months treatment mainly in hospital in Birmingham, followed by the last bout of gonorrhoea infection. Other sickness issues were relatively minor.

Trench Foot Poster WWII, US National Archives

Trench Foot Poster WWII, US National Archives

Bill Gamage says about his thousand letter writers or diarists:

Although one or two soldiers discussed their love affairs, most never wrote about sex, so that consideration of the subject is not possible here. To judge from venereal disease statistics, some applied taboos about sex to words but not to actions, and I am told that many men took advantage of whatever ‘horizontal refreshment’ chanced to offer. Yet apparently sex did not loom large among them.

…   In practice the manner of their lives rarely made sex possible, and when it did, probably, most honoured the honourable, and availed themselves of the available.

Venereal disease was particularly serious among Australian troops (higher it is thought than for British or New Zealand troops) because the Australians were paid much more than the British (~4x) and were consequently called derisively ‘six bob a day tourists’.

Around 15% of the entire AIF contracted venereal disease (Canberra Times article, 2014). Or, an estimated 63,350 occurred among the 417,000 troops of the 1st AIF (JMVH, 2019); yielding a similar figure. Hence, venereal disease had a major impact on the health of troops, slightly more were infected than the number killed in action.

Although affected soldiers were initially punished by having their pay docked, officials were forced to drop their disapproving attitudes due to the sheer number of affected men. (Canberra Times, 2014)

Bill Gammage comments on the problem of venereal disease early on in Egypt:

Not even Australians could defend some transgressions. Venereal disease clearly impaired battle efficiency, yet Australians in Egypt were particularly susceptible to it. In every army the sole effective counter to venereal disease was removal from sources of infection, but to Australians no area was out of bounds, and the higher rates of pay they enjoyed increased the disease rate among them. (Gammage, p 123)

The problem of venereal disease continued in France/Flanders but gradually became accepted by authority and was no longer particularly punished. Clive appeared to be on half pay during his hospitalisations for gonorrhoea.

The Stigma of Venereal Disease

Nevertheless, there was considerable stigma about venereal disease then in Australia, throughout Clive’s life and during my parents’ lives.

Indeed, I can’t put a date on it, but sometime in my lifetime, perhaps in the generational revolution around the Vietnam War, or perhaps later, STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) became much less controversial. Young people in my generation (baby boomers) and in subsequent generations (not all) couldn’t give a stuff about venereal disease, different sexual orientations and so forth. Although, AIDS certainly changed sexual mores.

However, there is probably a significant minority in Australia today who would still consider venereal disease shameful. And, in general company, one doesn’t expect acquaintances to update you on their STDs.

A Mature Clive Purcell

A Mature Clive Purcell

I’m glad that my parents are dead because I expect my mother would not have wanted to know about her adored father’s bouts of gonorrhoea. And, I suspect that Clive didn’t enlighten his wife Olive before they were married or even tell his sister Annie. For myself, I’m selfishly pleased that these infections did not impede his ability to produce healthy daughters.


The A.W.L (Absent Without Leave) charges were not unusual in the AIF and were not considered serious. Anti-authoritarian behaviour in Australian troops, by the time they got to France, were relatively routine and not of concern to Australian officers. Clive’s A.W.L were relatively frequent, minor and punished by restriction to camp and docking of pay.

These incidents of A.W.L had nothing to do with being on the front line. Desertion whilst on the front line was rare in the AIF and was treated very seriously. But, at least the Australians unlike their British counterparts did not permit capital punishment (sentences of execution were made but never carried out).

Clive’s military offences were all A.W.L., apart from three. Of the three, two and perhaps all were also A.W.L. related: 15 April 1916 Absent from Tattoo Roll, 29 April 1916 docked pay for cost of replacing a hat (France), and 11 May 1917, neglecting to obey general order 11.8.16 para, Bounds (Salisbury UK, Award 5 days).

Award usually meant confined to base. Clive routinely was docked 2 days pay for each day A.W.L. The offences were as follows:

31 May 1916, 3 days, France, Breaking out of camp, absent till apprehended by an M.P. (Award 14 Days C.C., confined to camp)

2 November 1916, France, 1 day, A.W.L. docked 2 days pay; 20 days F.P. #2

18 April 1917, 1 day, Peckham Downs UK, A.W.L. docked 2 days pay; Award 5 days

11 August 1917, 4 days, Peckham Downs UK, A.W.L. docked 4 days pay

26 May 1918, 3 days, Sandhill Camp UK, A.W.L. docked 6 days pay, Award 3 days

The 8 offences were over a long period of time and hardly excessive, but also do not paint Clive as the ideal private.

Clive and Annie Meeting

Clive and Annie did meet up in England (and possibly in France/Flanders) at least once and possibly several times. (When one reads war diaries of the time. It is amazing how often people who know each other do happen to meet up.)

Clive & Annie Purcell, Studio Portrait, Sandhill Camp, England, June 1918

Clive & Annie Purcell, Studio Portrait, Sandhill Camp, England, June 1918

Percy Lay and A.W.L.

In comparison Percy Lay, the consummate soldier and hero, as an NCO and later as a commissioned officer was never charged with A.W.L., but this did not mean that he didn’t go A.W.L. when it suited him or comment on it and other matters, as the following diary entries show.

Percy Lay also enjoyed socialising with fellow soldiers whenever the opportunity arose (and they arose more frequently as he rose higher in the ranks; he was also not averse to having a good time when chance put it in his way when on duty, and bending the rules).

22 January 1916. Egypt The boys that broke camp got 28 days, when they returned. This is our first field punishment.

16 June 1916. (All France, England) Got paid and that evening we went into Estaires and had the best of times. (etc.)

26-27  September 1916. Leave was up [in London] and just as I was going to get my kit who should I meet but… and he would have me go and spend the night with him and we had the best time of the trip.       Took me all I knew to catch my train…

25 November 1916. Got paid a fiver each and a lot of our lads broke camp to go to Amiens.

27 November 1916. Three Corporals in my platoon were absent and there was a general check parade. We got a bit of a roaring up by the Major.

30 November 1916. My three Corporals were up before the orderly room. Two of them got stripped and the other bloke was sent for District Court Martial.

12 May 1917. The Colonel called me up and told me that he was getting me special leave to England, on account of good work I did at Bullecourt.

24 May 1917. Had to report back to France today but was having too good a time so decided to stay a few days over.

28 May 1917. Made up my mind to go back to France. We had a good trip to Folkestone and on arrival there we heard that there had been a bombing raid on the place. Had to stay there for the night.

29 May 1917. Arrived at Boulogne Camp and we were to leave next morning but decided to wait for the next train. Three of us decided to have a look around the town. Found it nothing like Edinburgh.

30 May 1917. Caught the next train in the morning and found the three mates I met in London on it and we got as far as Etaples that day.

31 May 1917. Had to stay the day in Etaples so we all put on crowns (as only Sgt. Majors were allowed out) on our sleeves and went out to Parie Plais.

1 June 1917. Had to spend another day in Etaples but it was rather quiet. Had a good look around Etaples. We were all about stony broke.

2 June 1917. Got our train early in the morning and had a good trip to Merricourt and found our Battalion about 5 kilometres away at a place called Bresle. (He had more days off because on his break his wounded hand had turned septic.)

29 June 1917. Lecture on Venereal Diseases by Archbishop Ward.

17 August 1917. Route march in the morning… It was also three years since we had first joined up.

12 November 1917. Three of us went into St Omer and had a good time. We arrived back in camp late that night.

23 November 1917. Got paid and we all had a pretty large evening, up at Marguerite’s Cape.

24 November 1917. … went out to 2nd A.G.H. and met Sister Grace Turnley, an old friend of mine. Spent the night in Boulogne.

25 November 1917. Met Captains …. and we had a good day and got back to camp late that night.

2 December 1917 (Sunday). Had a good day. Some of our mates told us we were likely to get into trouble for clearing away.

3 December 1917. Had to go up before the C.O. We got told off a bit but it was worth it.

9 December 1917 (Sunday). Spent a good day. Went out and had dinner with the sisters at the 2nd AGH.

9 January 1918. Had a very pleasant evening at the club. Five of our officers rejoined our Bn.

Shortly after this he went to London on leave and was inducted into Dunsterforce.

As can be seen the soldier’s soldier Percy Lay also had a very casual attitude to A.W.L but was never punished for it (quite rightly). He also took every opportunity to have a good time when chance presented. But, don’t forget the boring route marches, the maintenance, digging and cleaning up operations, and all horrors of battle he endured in the interim.

Whilst Clive was certainly not a soldier’s soldier, and took every opportunity he could to avoid front line duty, his casual approach to A.W.L was not unusual nor were his bouts of venereal disease. His war experiences are particularly poignant because he apparently only signed up to support his younger brother and, after Jim’s death, he no longer had any reason to participate in the war. And, I suspect he endured long and hard times making the best of it!

Clive’s Letters

Clive’s letters are somewhat unsatisfactory. They are a random series and never reveal enough. However, one can read between the lines to gain additional information. (Similarly, with Captain Percy Lay one needs to read between the lines of his laconic diary entries to understand what he really meant, which Jim Turner does carefully and admirably in his book.)

Because of the time of enlisting in 1915, one gets the strong impression that Clive and Annie enlisted because of Jim (James Osmond).

James Osmond (Jim) Purcell

James Osmond (Jim) Purcell on Enlisting

Jim’s death on 6 November 1915 at Gallipoli was devastating to both of them. Clive said:

…Jim, who was more than a brother to me … Nobody knows what we were to each other… (Letter 7)

I think that this was more than just platitudes. I also think that Clive wasn’t much of a combat soldier. Even before Jim’s death, he tried to avoid being on the front line. And, I suspect his superiors knew he wasn’t much use in combat. But, he was personable, well-educated and useful in other roles.

From Jim’s death, Clive’s commitment to the war effort was probably half-hearted at best and he certainly tried as much as he could to distance himself from front line fighting.

At the time in Gallipoli and Egypt, like most, Clive didn’t think the war would last long. In France/Flanders, he just wanted it to end, but he endured stoically.

Clive Avoiding the Front Line

Whether he was often or only sometimes successful in avoiding front line duty is not obvious, but he certainly tried and did succeed.

The work I am doing now — orderly at Head Quarters [on the beach at Anzac Cove] — is to my liking, and all my comrades are very nice chaps. (Letter 6, 17 November 1915, Gallipoli)

I have applied for a transfer to the Royal Engineers Printing Section; that is, out of the firing line. I may be successful. (Letter 10, 6 December 1915, Gallipoli)

He doesn’t seem to have been successful. Enroute to meet up with sister Annie in Cairo, he says:

I am now Battalion Postmaster. Major B. got me the position. Very good of him and I like it. (Letter 11, 14 January 1916, Tel-el-Kebir Camp, Egypt)

I am now at Head Quarters, you know, my old game at the peninsula [Gallipoli], carrying despatches. (Letter 13, 19 February 1916, Canal Zone)

Clive in autumn 1918 meets up with a (not previously known) cousin J. Purcell Clark, [Colonel] commanding 44th Bn and has lunch with him and tells him of about running a Bn newspaper like the 23rd Bn. Clive says Jim liked the idea. The yarn was interrupted, by a meeting with a general. But, Clive says he’ll wait at the QM’s (horse line) an excellent excuse.

Clive had written to Jim Clark who suggested a meeting and a yarn over transfer. Jim set the military wheels rolling before the meeting, as he says to Annie, he went to see his commander:

He was awfully decent and said he would certainly recommend my transfer so your exceedingly bright brother set the military wheels rolling and here I am writing to you in the Q.M. stores of the 44th Bn. (Letter 16, 3 September 1918, France)

Later in the letter Clive explains about the 23rd Bn newspaper’s significance, which was started while he was away in hospital:

… but after the hop-over [‘hopping over the sand bags’ or beginning an attack] in July at Villers Brettoneaux I heard the printer of the old paper wanted an assistant so I immediately went up and saw the Col. And he told me to report down to the corporal in charge, back at the horse lines . . . always a bit back from the firing line. (Letter 16)

Attacks at the Villers Brettoneaux continued for months after the major battles in April/May, which means that Clive’s triumphs of escaping the front line were somewhat disingenuous. And, he must have participated in some if not much front line activity over the period of the war.

Frank Hurley, AIF Small Box Respirators, Ypres 1917, Australian War Memorial

Frank Hurley, AIF Small Box Respirators, Ypres 1917, Australian War Memorial

Bill Gammage compares AIF and British Attitudes to A.W.L.

A.W.L was treated very differently in the AIF than in British ranks to the great concern of the British. Bill Gammage provides a good general overview. He says:

Almost every Australian soldier in France must at some time have gone absent from his billet to visit another camp or a farm, or to drink ‘vin blong’ or ‘vin rouge’ at a nearby estaminet. Many did so habitually, and generally officers cheerfully accepted and even defended their absence. (p 232)

[A] singular example of the divergence between English and Australian attitudes to discipline occurred in 1918, when a man of the 2nd Battalion indicated a Tommy in the lines of the next camp tied to a wooden cross . . . Everybody crowded around and started asking questions, it transpired the poor devil had abused a Lance Corporal and had to do 2 hours morning and afternoon for his trouble. Poor devil, a private in the Imperial Labour Corp Coy., somebody suggested cutting him free, the suggestion was no sooner made than carried out, poor beggar kept saying ‘Don’t cut me free chum, I’ll only get more,’ the raiders assured him he would not get any more while they were around. Having destroyed the cross, pelted the officers Huts with bricks and jam tins and named them for a lot of Prussian b— the raiders returned to our line. Next morning the Col[onel] read out on parade ‘with a smile and his tongue in his cheek’ that he had received a complaint . . . and that any man . . . who entered those lines would be crimed. No one was crimed, and the Tommy next door was not tied up again . . . a couple of days later, he had not even then recovered from the shock and was living in fear and trembling that the Iron hand of English Army discipline would fall on him again.

This was an extreme version of what was called Field Punishment 1 (shackles and restraints) and Australian officers were very averse to ordering it.

Clive’s Further Career

Clive finally returned to Australia in April 1919 on the Kashmir. Before the War Clive had purchased the Romsey Examiner and was involved in a printing business with his brothers. He disposed of the newspaper before enlisting. On his return Clive purchased the Caxton Press in Malvern. He was also associated with the Melbourne Argus as a journalist and an editor. In 1920 he married Olive Maud Cook a widow. And, in 1927 he moved the family to Colac to take up the position of editor of the Colac Herald. He and Olive had two daughters Anne Enid Francis (b 1921) and Pamela Ellen Emina (b 1925). Clive died unexpectedly on 22 January 1948 in Colac of heart failure aged 59. His sister Annie died similarly aged 54.

The obituary of 23 January in the Colac Herald said:

He was possessed of a charming personality which endeared him to all who had the pleasure of his company. Mr. Purcell took pride in his work which was always of a high-standard. High-class literature, particularly poetry, held a fascination for him and was his principal form of relaxation for him. He possessed a particularly wide field of knowledge.

Although the writer did not appear to be a close friend, the sentiment accords with family history. As Editor, Clive was widely known, respected and liked. He was genial to all and not at all pompous.

Neither Clive nor Percy Lay talked about their wartime experiences.

Clive with My Mother, early-1920s

Clive with My Mother, early-1920s


This article is a tribute to Clive Purcell. Apart from WWI, he and his sister led fulfilling lives. I don’t think his war experience should be minimised by sensitivities. He spent four-and-a-half years overseas in the AIF, against his wishes. He was undoubtably on the front line much more than he liked and he certainly witnessed awful things repeatedly. The death of his beloved brother Jim influenced the bulk of his wartime service in ways we can never know or imagine. Ignorant people might say he should have done better. But, who are they to pontificate. Life is not defined by sound bites. Similarly, Percy Lay’s daily diaries peak our interest, but do not reveal the man himself or what he really felt.

World War I was a disaster in so many ways that are almost impossible for us to comprehend. The harshness of the Treaty of Versailles prepared the ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War twenty years later.

None of the participants would welcome the jingoism that their sacrifice perpetuates today.

Jim Turner wrote on the copy he gave me (11 August 1983):

Please feel free to use this book in the ways we have discussed.

I hope Jim would approve of what I have now written, because like a fool I no longer have any idea of ‘what we discussed’. And worse, it has taken me nearly forty years to get around to it!

Key words: World War One, The Great War, Clive Purcell, James Osmond Purcell, Annie Purcell, Percy Lay, Janet Scarfe, Australia, AIF, British, UK, Egypt, Turkey, France, Flanders, discipline, punishment, venereal disease, gonorrhoea, A.W.L., military offences, racism, jingoism, Jim Turner, Bill Gammage, war diaries, Gallipoli, Lone Pine, Browns Dip, France, Flanders, Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde Ridge, Villers Brettoneaux, Dunsterforce, Boulogne, Etaples, Camiers, Bulford Camp, Birmingham, trench foot, Colac Herald

Further Information

The three main sources: Clive’s Letters, Jim Turner on Percy Lay’s Diaries and Bill Gammage on WWI in general through the eyes of 1000 soldiers, are given above.

Janet Scarfe

Janet Scarfe Biographical Notes: Annie Watkins Bennett Vize Purcell (1887-1941) East Melbourne Historical Society is also republished with light editing in my previous article Auntie Nam WWI Nurse.

Cited articles

Canberra Times, 2014

Kathy Evans Secret WWI history of Australian soldiers with venereal disease Canberra Times, 24 October 2014.

JMVH, 2019

Ian Howie-Willis The Australian Army’s Two Traditional Diseases: Gonorrhoea and Syphilis — A Military-Medical History During the twentieth Century JMVH (Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health) 27:1 2019.

The (First) Battle of the Wassa 2 April 1915

The quote regarding the Wassa came from Bill Gammage’s Overview of disciplinary problems in Egypt and the racism of the Australians towards the Egyptians. The (First) Battle for the Wassa was an unsavoury episode glossed over by C.E.W. Bean in the official history and expunged by recent politicians, such as, John Howard, because history has no place in destroying current myths. 

Wikipedia gives a decent overview.

Robbie Mason gives a more comprehensive account. Robbie Mason The (First) “Battle of the Wassa” 2 April 1915: A Footnote in History. History Council of NSW 2019 (pdf). 


Wikipedia on Dunsterforce

Wikipedia on Lionel Charles Dunsterville

Wikipedia on Sir William Raine Marshall

Lionel Charles Dunsterville wrote  The Adventures of Dunsterforce, 1920. He did not overtly criticise Marshall in the book. However, Wikipedia on Dunsterforce provides background on Marshall’s activities.

For those who want to learn more about Dunsterforce in Persia, Harry Fecitt has written a detailed article on the military aspects. There is also a book on specific Australian involvement: Alan Stewart Persian Expedition, The Australians in Dunsterforce: 1918, 2006.


A 2009 PhD Thesis provides a detailed analysis of Australian and British Punishment on the Western Front and some of the pros and cons.

Edward John Garstang Crime and Punishment on the Western Front: the Australian Imperial Force and British Army Discipline, 2009.




  1. A remarkable tribute. Thanks Tony. This line made me smile ‘For myself, I’m selfishly pleased that these infections did not impede his ability to produce healthy daughters.’

  2. Author

    Thanks Peggy I liked that line too, in more ways than one.

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