Buried in Katoomba: The Story of Private John Parker, Veteran of The Great War
© John Low
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John Parker lies in an unmarked grave,1 one of many in the cemetery at Katoomba. Untended, it is indistinguishable from the unoccupied plots nearby. His death was one of those small tragedies reported occasionally in the local press and arousing for a brief moment a flutter of community interest before fading from memory. With Anzac day approaching, Parker's tale may well bear retelling.
On the afternoon of Thursday 15th September 1932 a spring cart of unusual appearance, pulled by a bay horse, arrived in Katoomba. After calling at the police station to collect a food order the driver, a man in his 'fifties, another of the wandering unemployed who passed regularly through the town, pulled up outside Bartle & Bell's general grocery store in Main Street (Bathurst Road) where his conveyance drew a crowd of curious passers-by. At its four corners upright posts had been screwed, while a ridge pole rested on two further poles screwed down front and back. Over this frame the traveller had thrown his tent, creating a mobile home that kept out the weather and protected his few possessions.
He was, he told one of the constables, suffering from pernicious anemia and was heading west in the hope of finding a warmer, more comfortable climate. Completing his shopping, he left town and journeyed on for a mile or two before striking camp at the foot of Whipcord Hill just to the east of Medlow Bath.
On the following day, Friday, travellers on the road noticed his camp still there, his horse tied to a tree. He must have decided to rest a little longer they thought. When nothing had changed on Saturday, however, and no human activity was apparent, it was reported to the police. The local sergeant and his two constables motored out to investigate and found a hurricane lamp still burning in the cart and the body of a man in a sitting position, his head bent forward onto his chest. There were no signs of struggle and a local doctor (Dr. Eric Dark) summoned to the scene pronounced that death was due to natural causes. Among the man's few possessions army discharge papers identified him as John Parker, a veteran of the Great War.2
John Parker, it seems, had always been a bit of a wanderer.3 He was born in Kent Town, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, in 1876 and when he came of age was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Adelaide. By the time he enlisted in the AIF, at the rather advanced age of 41, he was in NSW and gave his employment as "boundary rider". He was 5 feet 8 3/4 inches tall, weighed 154 lbs, had blue eyes, dark hair (that was "turning grey" on his discharge three years later) and was of medium complexion. He had a wart near his navel and a tattoo on the under side of his upper left arm, was unmarried and a lady friend in Mudgee, Florence Sills, was recorded as his next of kin. She was the beneficiary of the will he wrote before departing Australia.
Parker enlisted in Sydney on the 29th March 1917 and embarked for Europe as a member of the 10th Reinforcement, 45th Battalion (part of the 12th Brigade, 4th Australian Division) aboard HMAT Marathon on the 10th May 1917. On arrival in England he was "marched into" the large training and transfer camp that had been established near the small Wiltshire village of Codford, not far from Stonehenge, to handle the thousands of Anzac troops preparing to move to France.
In 1917 soldiers at Codford left an unusual memento that has become a lasting reminder of their presence there. Using the glass bases of beer bottles they sculpted a large (53 x 45 metres) Rising Sun badge on the side of a nearby hill. Polishing the glass, the story goes, became a punishment duty and the slope, Lamb Down, became known as 'Misery Hill'. The badge was covered with turf during World War II but its outline has since been restored by scouring it into the chalk of the hillside. Though the military camps have long gone, the villagers of Codford maintain their Australasian connection by holding a memorial service on Anzac Day every year.4
On 23rd October Parker proceeded across the Channel to France where he joined the 45th Battalion on 3rd November 1917. It is not known if he saw action immediately but, like most of the AIF battalions, the 45th was being rotated in and out of the front line during the 1917-18 winter months. Then came the German 'Spring Offensive'! Freed from commitments on the Eastern Front following the Russian Revolution, the Germans poured huge numbers of troops into a major offensive against the Allied armies in the West during March, April and May 1918.
On 5th April the 45th Battalion, part of the 4th Australian Division, found itself caught up in the intense and chaotic fighting that took place along the River Ancre, a tributary of the Somme. It was here that Private Parker got sucked into the maelstrom. The morning that day dawned in rain and mist and the Germans, using the poor visibility and supported by heavy shell-fire, advanced against the Australian positions. The sustained bombardment took its toll and when the Germans broke through, desperate fighting continued well into the afternoon until an Australian counter-attack stabilized the situation. All along the line, against the British as well as the Australian positions, the Germans took heavy casualties, slowing their advance on Amiens.5
The Allies too suffered casualties and Parker was evacuated to the Fort Pitt Military Hospital at Chatham, Kent, on 7th April with chest wounds. Now a Girls' Grammar School, Fort Pitt had been a military hospital since Victorian times and was where Florence Nightingale established the first Army medical school in 1860.6 He remained here for over a month before being sent again to Wiltshire on 24th May, to the Administrative Headquarters of No.4 Command Depot and Clearing (Convalescent) Hospital at Hurdcott. In a similar way to the Australians at Codford, those at Hurdcott also left a lasting reminder of their presence. In 1918 a giant map of Australia, cast in cement, was laid across a hillside that became known as 'Australia Hill'.7