Yongala historians find Potter family's World War I tragedy: three brothers killed, one wounded in three days

Yongala historians Dennis and Pam Parker have uncovered the remarkable and tragic story of four brothers who prompted the Australian government to change its deployment rules after they fought in the same World War I battle.
Yongala historians Dennis and Pam Parker have uncovered the remarkable and tragic story of four brothers who prompted the Australian government to change its deployment rules after they fought in the same World War I battle.

On September 5 it will be 98 years since three of four brothers from Yongala lost their lives during a single battle after being sent to fight in France during World War I.

The extraordinary tale of the Potter brothers was uncovered by Yongala historians Dennis and Pam Parker, who have spent more than 16 years of their life researching something most people would find somewhat depressing: the cemeteries of the Mid North.

To date they have produced an impressive seven volumes on local cemetery history, including the Yongala, Dawsone, Lancelot, Nackara, Oodla Wirra, Hallett, Terowie and Whyte Yarcowie cemeteries.

The Parkers have spent significant amounts of their own time and money researching burials, finding burial plots and learning about the lives of every single person interred in the different cemeteries.

They are currently working on researching seven cemeteries in the Orroroo-Carrieton council district.

Their research has meant many days spent cooped up in libraries, searching births, deaths and marriages records and poring over old newspaper articles to find as much history about the different cemeteries and the people buried therein as possible.

Each book also contains a section on war history, which recognises those from the various towns who lost their lives during all different conflicts.

They self-publish their books, which are all A4 size and hundreds of pages thick.

They stumbled upon the astonishing story of the four Potter brothers from Yongala when researching the Yongala cemetery.

Dennis said the story was vaguely known in the districts, but there was not much preservation of such history.

He and Pam took it upon themselves to research the story of the four brothers more after making contact with Ian Lymburn, a relative of the brothers’.

Together, Pam, Dennis and Ian researched more into the tragic tale of these four brothers all sent to fight in World War I, but only one came home to their mother.

A working family

Benjamin Potter and Eliza Miller married in the home of Eliza’s parents in the Hundred of Mannanarie, near Yongala, in 1881.

There were eight children to the marriage, all born in the Hundred of Yongala.

The Potter family home was situated at Farraville, a suburban area adjacent to the small rural township of Yongala; the home is still lived in today.

Having done their schooling at Yongala, the Potter sons followed their father’s building tradition, taking up the trades of stonemasonry, plastering and carpentry.

The Potter name is associated with many homes and buildings over a very wide surrounding area.

For King and country

Shortly after the outbreak of WWI four of the six Potter brothers enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on, or very close to, the same day.

On November 13, 1915, the Yongala Cheer-up Society rendered a social in the Yongala Institute, attended by a very large crowd, to farewell the four Potter boys who were leaving for the front.

The residents of town and district presented a wristlet watch each to Privates Wilf E and Hurtle FC Potter, a pipe and tobacco pouch to Private Thomas JA Potter and a pair of military brushes to Private Ralph V Potter.

Each soldier was also presented with a parcel containing knitted articles.

The four brothers were taken on strength as members of the AIF’s 12th Battalion and, joining troops taken on board in Tasmania, embarked from Port Adelaide on December 2 aboard the P&O Royal Mail Steamer troop ship Malwa, and after taking on a further contingent from Western Australia they were landed in Egypt for training.

On March 1, 1916, at Tel el Kebir in Egypt, the AIF’s 52nd Battalion was raised, consisting of veterans of the 12th and the newly arrived 12th reinforcements from Australia.

It then became a Battalion of the 13th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division, of 1 Anzac Corps, under British command.

The Battle of Mouquet Farm

After arriving in France on June 11, 1916 direct from Egypt and having missed the earlier fighting in the battle of August 13-15 because they were given a support role, the 52nd engaged in its first major battle at Mouquet Farm, an important and bloodied element of the Battle of the Somme, on September 3.

Mouquet Farm was 1.1 miles north-west of the high ground near Pozieres.

Following the fighting that had occurred around the village earlier in the year, the British decided to gain control of the ridge beyond the village in order to create a gap in the German lines.

The British hoped capturing Mouquet Farm would destabilise the German position and enable subsequent gains.

During the battle, the three Australian divisions of 1 Anzac Corps advanced north-west along the Pozieres ridge towards the German strongpoint, with British divisions supporting on the left.

The approach to the farm, however, was under observation from German artillery spotters who were able to call down barrages on the attackers from three sides of the salient that had developed in the lines.

These intense barrages resulted in heavy casualties amongst the attackers before they even reached the farm, however, over the course of August and into September, the Australian divisions managed to reach the farm three times, only to be forced back each time.

In the second attack of Sept 3-5 the 52nd Battalion had a key assaulting role and suffered heavy casualties, 50 per cent of its fighting strength.

1 Anzac Corps suffered some 6300 casualties and was so depleted they had to be taken off the front for two months.

As that battle dragged on, the Canadian Corps took over from the Australians, who were withdrawn on September 5.

The Canadians captured the farm on September 16 but were pushed out by a counter-attack and by the time the battle concluded in mid-September, the German garrison still held out in part of the farm.

The farm was eventually captured on September 26.

During those violent and fateful three days of the battle for Mouquet Farm, three of the Potter brothers from Yongala were killed in action – Thomas, Wilf and Hurtle – and the fourth wounded.

Names remembered in France

Having enlisted on September 4, 1915 then embarked on December 2, the Potter boys entered their first battle as members of the 52nd Battalion on September 3, 1916 and became casualties within two days, a bare eight months after their embarkation.

Any training they undertook would have been short and less than adequate for the environment into which they would be thrown, but no level of training could have prepared the 52nd for the unbelievably hostile and soul-shattering environment they were ordered to enter.

Of the three boys killed in action only Private Hurtle Potter was interred and awarded a memorial stone in Courcelette British Cemetery, Somme, France.

Privates Thomas and Wilf Potter are named on the section of the memorial walls dedicated to the 52nd Infantry Battalion of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

Their bodies were not recovered from the battle field, though searches continue for all Australian personnel missing in action.

Corporal Potter comes home

On November 22, 1917 a large crowd gathered at the Yongala railway station to welcome home Corporal Ralph Potter, who was invalided home after being wounded in the same action that saw the sacrifice of his three brothers, one of which Corporal Potter witnessed and was subsequently asked to provide official confirmation.

The names of all four brothers are immortalised on Yongala and district honour rolls, as are all those from the district who served their country in WWI and WWII.

A grieving mother dies

The mother of the four boys, Eliza Potter, died on December 20, 1917 aged 57 years.

General regret was felt at the death of Mrs Potter, wife of Mr B Potter, in Jamestown Hospital after having been admitted a few hours before.

Two of the sons were reported as missing for some months, but when Mrs Potter eventually received the news that they had been killed in action at about the same time as the other son, she rejoiced in the thought that they were not separated from each other, but had gone home together.

Though not enjoying good health It was believed that the grief of losing three sons and the fourth badly wounded had contributed to the death of Mrs Potter.

She was interred in the Yongala cemetery, where she shared a headstone with her sister.

Her husband, Benjamin Potter, father of the four boys, died in hospital in Adelaide in 1934 aged 76 years and was buried in the Cheltenham cemetery.

A new rule for the Australian military

Ralph, the son who returned, married Grace Turner in 1926; he died at Howard, Queensland in 1961 age 69 and was buried in Maryborough cemetery in Queensland.

It is because of this particular tragedy that befell the Potter family in Sept 1916, three deaths and one wounded within a period of three days, that Australian armed forces very quickly took steps to avoid placing close family members in the same unit and/or action.

How scattered and lonely can this family be, their resting places being so distantly scattered?

Possibly the Potter boys saw their enlistment as an adventure, as many young men did, but there must have been an element of national honour and a belief that dictators, oppressors and destructive wars should not be allowed to flourish.

This prompts the question: was the bloody sacrifice of so many from a generation of Australian youth in vain?

They shall grow not old.