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Frank (John) Crommelin

Dates: 1896 - 1916

Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918, the battle of the Somme (Jul-Nov 1916) and the (predominantly Australian) battle of Pozieres (23 July–7 August 1916)

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This is the story of Frank Crommelin (known under the name John), 4th son of Frederick Crommelin and Margaret Rohen from Grenfell, NSW. At age 19 he joined the army and was sent to the Western Front in Pozieres, Somme, France as gunner in the Australian Field Artillery. Details and family photos are in our possession and were provided by Margaret Clarke, daughter of Annie (who was elder sister of John).

It’s a sad story, at the same time a tribute to all these courageous young Australians enlisting to help fight for people’s freedom on the other side of the world. This sums it up well: on Remembrance Day, 11 Nov 1993, Hon Paul Keating, the then Prime Minister spoke at the funeral of the Unknown Soldier:

… We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those we have honored. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front, one of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in World War I … and one of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us.

As Australia’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in the Hall of Memory, the late Robert Comb, a World War I veteran, who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil from Pozieres, France, over the coffin and said, “Now you’re home, mate”.

The Battle of the Somme

(Extract of the Battle of the Somme war with agreement of the © 2012 Department of Veterans' Affairs, Australia)

This battle took place during the First World War between 1 July and 14 November 1916 in the Somme department of France, on both banks of the river of the same name. The battle consisted of an offensive by the British and French armies against the German Army, which, since invading France in August 1914, had occupied large areas of the country. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War; by the time fighting had petered out in late autumn 1916 the forces involved had suffered more than 1 million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded. At the end of the battle, British and French forces had penetrated a total of 10 km into German occupied territory. The Germans were still occupying partially entrenched positions and were not as demoralized as the British High Command had anticipated.

The Battle of Pozieres was a two week struggle for the French village of Pozieres during the middle stages of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Though British divisions were involved in most phases of the fighting, Pozieres is primarily remembered as an Australian battle. The fighting ended with the Allied forces in possession of the plateau north and east of the village, and in a position to menace the German bastion of Thiepval from the rear. However, the cost had been enormous, and in the words of Australian official historian Charles Bean, the Pozieres ridge "is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth."

Thousands of Australian soldiers were involved in the fighting at Pozieres. They came to know the place well as they marched up out of Albert and took one of two well–worn routes to the front. The first came out of La Boisselle and along the road (now the D20) past ‘Gordon Dump’ to ‘Casualty Corner’ where a track led off left to Pozieres. ‘Gordon Dump’, as the name implies, was a supply depot at the head of a little trench tramway from Albert. ‘Casualty Corner’ was an area heavily shelled by German batteries. Another route lay out of Albert and then further south skirting Becourt Wood (in the valley behind ‘La Grande Mine’) and the crater and then heading up a broad valley, ‘Sausage Valley’, to meet with the road (the D20) just short of ‘Casualty Corner’.

In July and August 1916 the whole area was alive with activity. Supply wagons were constantly moving up ‘Sausage Valley’; bivouacs and camping areas lined the valley slopes; and everywhere there were the guns of the field artillery blasting away at the enemy. Down the valley came a flood of wounded, either in horse–drawn field ambulances from the collecting post at ‘Casualty Corner’ or struggling along as best they could.

A few of those buried where they fell are in “Gordon Dump Cemetery”, a short walk across the fields from the D20 between La Boisselle and Contalmaison. This was a battlefield cemetery although after the war it was used to bring in isolated burials from all over the area.

Plot 1 contains many of the original battlefield burials and it is full of Australians. Grave 32 is Gunner Frank Crommelin, from Grenfell, New South Wales. The date on his grave, 7 August 1916, points to a battlefield tragedy for his unit, the 106th Howitzer Battery, 6th Australian Field Artillery Brigade AIF. The battery was stationed near Gordon Dump in Sausage Valley (often known as Sausage Gully by the Australians) when it was hit by a German shell which exploded 35 rounds of howitzer ammunition. Frank Crommelin and five others were killed. All of them lie buried in Plot 1, Row A in Gordon Dump.

John Crommelin by Margaret Clarke

Margaret Clarke, Frank’s niece who lives in Manly, NSW Australia wrote us the following:

Frank was my mother’s (Annie Crommelin) brother, who, we were told as children, was killed at the war in France. To attest to this there were many photographs of a good looking young man in uniform. In hindsight I realize that my mother was careful to convey nothing to us of the effect this tragedy had on

her or her family. Frank (known to his family as John) was born in 1896 in Grenfell, NSW, the youngest of 10 children of Frederick Crommelin and his wife Margaret, nee Rohen. Frederick was a solicitor in Grenfell in the days when Grenfell was a flourishing town. Their home, known as “Liberty Hall” was more than adequate for a family that size and they were comfortably off without being wealthy. They were well known in the town and district and seemed to have a constant flow of guests. The family, or so family lore would have it, was content, self-sufficient and perhaps even complacent. By the time stories of life at “Liberty Hall” had come down to the next generation myth had perhaps blurred the edges.

John was sent to the Riverview College, North Sydney, his older brothers to St. Stanislaus and his sisters to Loreto Normanhurst, as was usual then, as boarders. After matriculation John returned to Grenfell and became articled to his father. He had just passed his first year Law exam when, on 15th November 1915 he enlisted with the A.F.F. At nineteen years of age his father’s consent was required and given, one imagines with mixed feelings. His older brother, Victor, had already enlisted and was to serve in Gallipoli and Palestine. There is some indication that Victor tried to dissuade John from enlisting.

John embarked in Sydney on the “Osterley” 16th January 1916. He and his contingent arrived at Zeitoun in Egypt where they remained until 10th March presumably in training. From Alexandria they sailed to Marseilles, arriving on 25th March and from there traveled by train to the Somme area.

Service records obtained from the Australian Archives show that from 13th May John was at the Front. Conditions were so horrific and casualty rates so high it might be some consolation in knowing his time there was not to be for long. He was killed at Pozieres on 7th August 1916. From sparse details on the back of a photograph it seems that he and others, while “at rest” in a trench, were killed by an exploding shell. A paternal uncle of ours, in the area at the time, saw the explosion and only later discovered that John was amongst those killed. It was not until the 13th September, about five weeks after John’s death, that his father was handed a telegram by the Catholic priest in Grenfell with the news of John’s death.

His death, tragic as it was, became the forerunner of more loss in the family. His sister Kathleen (Bertie) was to die in childbirth in Rabaul in 1918, and his eldest brother, Arthur, died of appendicitis in 1919. My mother (Annie) never really conveyed to us as children any hint of what must have been a period of enormous sadness in the Crommelin family.

John’s grave is to be found at the “Gordon Dump Cemetery”, Ovillers-la-Boisselle, about three kilometers outside the town of Albert. In the horror of fighting John would not have cared, had he known, that his Crommelin ancestors had lived and thrived as producers of linen in that area, before fleeing, as Huguenots, from Saint Quentin.

John's Last Letter

Sad to see is this letter that John to his folks on 3rd August, just a few days before he was killed. It’s a frightening account of the horror of the trench war, the incessant pounding of artillery, the noise, the shell shock, the crying, the madness, the rough time they are giving the Germans (“Fritz is beginning to feel the pinch somehow”), the lack of sleep (“we are not overburdened with sleep”!), the difficulty in receiving personal letters and the censor regulations that letters must be kept short:

Nellie's Letter

Also sad, on the 20th October of that year, a half 1st cousin of John, Nellie Weston Crommelin (they were both grandchildren of Thomas Lake, Nellie via his 1st marriage with Harriet Ann Minard and John via his 2nd marriage with Annie Byles) wrote a letter to “My dear unknown Cousin”, not knowing John was already killed by that time. Nellie had received that day a letter from John’s mother dated 3rd July and which took three and a half months to reach her, and requesting her to see or contact John and send back home some news, probably because of the lack of direct news. Sister Nellie was a nurse at the Australian Red Cross, and was stationed at the moment of her letter at the l’Hopital Auxiliaire Les Andelys, 27 Eure, France.

In her letter, a poor copy of the first page is shown above (the 2nd page is much worse), she advises that she was earlier stationed in London, where she met a “dear old cousin, one of the quaintest sweet women she ever met, quaint because she was not the ordinary type of woman at all. (Note: This must most likely been have Maria Henrietta de la Cherois Crommelin, known under the pen-name May Crommelin (1849-1930), a novelist and travel writer born in Northern Ireland at Carrowdore Castle in County Down). Nellie ends her letter in saying “Above all let me know if you want anything & are you prepared for winter?- this is most necessary! Most sincere affection and wishes, Your cousin, N.W. Crommelin.


Nellie Weston Crommelin - one of the 'Bluebirds' of the Australian Red Cross Society - a ‘gift’ to the French Government during WWI for whom nurses were in short supply. (See also:)


Archive of Nellie's letters