Hal portrait

Hal Winters' War

1914 - 1919

Margaret's Blog - Introduction
Hal profile


Margaret's Blog

When I read my brother Keith’s transcription of Hal Winters’ first two diaries I realized that I needed to have a lot more background knowledge in order to understand the significance of many of the references in the diaries and to set them in context.

I started doing some research simply in order to satisfy my own curiosity, but in case what I discovered might be of interest to anyone reading the diaries, I decided to start this blog.  I must stress that what I will be writing does not attempt to be a scholarly thesis – it’s just my own personal take on “Hal Winters War” which took place a hundred years ago.

There was also the problem of the occasional diary passages which were in code.  What did they mean?  Some of them were easy – for instance a person’s name in Morse code, but others were more complicated.  I love puzzles and (easy) cryptic crosswords, so I thought I could at least try to make sense of them – shades of Bletchley Park.  There turned out to be two types of coded entry.  Some are Hal simply practising his coding, but others are of a more ‘sensitive’ nature, bearing in mind that he intended sending each diary back to his mother for safe-keeping, and he would not have wanted to shock her.

For anyone interested in the technicalities of the de-coding I will explain it in a completely separate blog, but suffice it to say here that although I haven’t always been able to provide an accurate de-coding, I hope that I’ve managed to capture the general sense of nearly all the entries.

My blog is an on-going project, and I expect it to be subject to change as our understanding grows.  Your comments, corrections or alternative interpretations would be most welcome, and I won’t be in the least upset if you point out I’ve missed something, or got something wrong.

Hal’s Background

Henry Fermin Winters (Hal) was born in Hawthorn, Victoria, on 1st August 1893, the only son of Henry George Winters, picture framer, and Margaret Deacon.  He had two older sisters, Laura born c.1884, and Beatrice (Trixie) born c. 1889.  Hal got his unusual middle name, Fermin, from his maternal grandfather, Fermin Deacon, who was also a picture framer.

Hal’s father was 20 years older than his mother, and died in1911 when Hal was aged 18.  His two sisters had both recently married, and Hal appears to have supported his mother financially from then on, although sister Laura largely took over the ‘carer’ role.

I do not know about Hal’s education, but I imagine he attended the local state school and, as was usual at the time, left school at 14.  I have a memory of him saying once that he had won a scholarship to Wesley College, but the family couldn’t afford for him to take it up.

We knew him as a gentle, well-spoken, courteous, intelligent man.  He was well-read and absolutely fascinated by words, good with his hands, but a bit of a perfectionist.  And he was brave – after all, he was a 46 year old bachelor who took on a widow with four children aged from 7 to 14.  Family life must have been a complete culture shock, but he and our mother loved each other dearly, they both dealt with the situation sensitively, and before we knew it we found ourselves calling him ‘Dad’.

Thinking back I realize he was actually quite good-looking, really lean but well–built, with clean–cut facial features.  At the time of his enlistment in August 1914 he was officially described as 5 ft 10 1/2 inches (179 cm.), weighing 171 lbs (77kgs), and chest measurement 38 inches (97cm), with a dark complexion, grey eyes, and black hair.  He was listed as Baptist (although I think he was simply a Non-conformist) and was working as a Bookseller.  His mother, Margaret Winters, was listed as next-of–kin, and her address was given as 72 Burwood Rd., Hawthorn.

We have been to see 72 Burwood Rd, and it still exists much as it must have been over a hundred years ago.  It is the end premises in a small terrace of shops, with living accommodation above, typical of late Victorian architecture, with a false ornate gable fašade to make it look more imposing.  Probably co-incidentally, it is now a picture-framers shop.

In his Attestation Papers Hal is shown as having enlisted on the 18th August 1914, but this date is probably slightly misleading, as he would probably have actually volunteered a day or two earlier and then had an interview and a medical examination.  Following this he would have been formally enlisted and allocated to a particular unit – in fact , nearly  all of Hal’s unit were formally ‘enlisted’ on the same day, the 18th August 1914.

Second Field Ambulance

Hal was allocated to the 2nd Field Ambulance, a unit of 243 men within the Australian Army Medical Corp, all recruited in Victoria.  There were two other similar units – the 1st Field Ambulance recruited in N S W, and the 3rd Field Ambulance recruited in the other states or territories.

Three sources have been particularly useful to me in understanding the set-up within which Hal lived and worked for his first year or so in the Army.  They are:

  1. “Australian Army Medical Service in the war of 1914-18” by Arthur G. Butler, 1938.   Particularly Vol. 1 – the Gallipoli Campaign.  This book helped to explain to me what at first sight appeared to be mismanagement of much of the medical care of Australian forces at Gallipoli – explain, but not necessarily excuse. Available online at www.awm.gov.au.
  2. “Wounds and Scars.  From Gallipoli to France.  The History of the 2nd Field Ambulance, 1914-1919.” By Ron Austin.  A Slouch Hat Publication.  2012.  This book provided the detailed background to the daily events recorded in the first two of Hal’s diaries.  In “Wounds and Scars”  Ron Austin describes the role of the field Ambulance as the ‘collection, professional care and treatment of the sick and wounded’ and their ‘swift evacuation away from the battlefield’.
  3. “A Short History of the 2nd Field Ambulance 1914-16” by R. Goode and G. F. Green. A manuscript held by the Australian War Memorial, and available in their Reading Room.

In addition I have frequently referred to individual Service Records, available on-line from the National Archives at www.naa.gov.au.

Lt –Col Alfred Sturdee (1863-1939) was put in command of the 2nd Field Ambulance.  He had served as a doctor with the Australian forces during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the century, and his signature appears on several papers in Hal’s official Service Record.  The unit consisted of a Headquarters staff, and a Transport Group who were responsible for the horse-drawn covered ambulances.  The remainder were divided into three Sections-A.B. &C.  Each of these Sections was divided into two Sub-sections- a ‘Tent Subdivision’ of doctor(s) and nursing orderlies, and a ‘’Bearer Subdivision’ of doctor(s) and stretcher bearers.

To quote ‘Wounds and Scars’-

“Apparently, when it came to selecting men for what was a specialist unit, previous experience was an important factor in deciding whether a man should go into the Field Ambulance or to an Infantry battalion.”  “There was a wide variety of occupations within the unit with a significant number being involved in the medical field in one capacity or another, and preference was given to men who held a St John Certificate or had hospital experience, and it was these men whom were allocated to the Tent Subdivision.”  They included dentists, medical students and chemists as well as a broad range of non-medical occupations.

Hal was allocated to B. Section, and although he doesn’t specify it in his diaries, it is clear he ended up in the Tent Sub-division, rather than the Bearer Sub-division.  We can only presume he held a St John Ambulance Certificate, or had possibly had some relevant experience in his 3 years Cadet Training.  (As an irrelevant aside, I myself held a St John Ambulance Certificate for a few years in the 1980’s, and found the theoretical and practical training quite tough.  My certificate eventually lapsed when as I grew older, I failed to attend a Refresher Course, and take another exam.)

Each of the three Tent Subdivisions was capable of setting up small dressing stations, and treating up to 50 minor sick or wounded men.  They could also combine to form ‘Advanced’ or ‘Main’ Dressing Stations, where the doctors could carry out life-saving surgery in the Field.

Apart from his designation as a member of the 2nd Field Ambulance, B Section, Hal also had a ‘Personal Service Number’ -  240.  At first I assumed that it meant he was the 240th person enlisting in the A I F in Victoria, but it soon became clear this was not the case.  ‘Wounds and Scars’ includes a nominal roll of the known members of the 2nd Field Ambulance with their numbers, and it identifies those who were a part of the original unit.  These original men all had similarly low numbers, and it didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t find anything about the numbering system on the Official Internet Sites (although it’s probably there somewhere), but eventually I found what I wanted at www.samraine.org “What’s in a number?  The Personal Numbering system of the Australian Army.”  In 1914 there was no Central Numbering System in the Australian Army.  Instead there were “A.I.F. Regimental Numbers” and the original 2nd Field Ambulance unit all had Regimental Numbers between 1-243, starting with the Officers and the NCOs’, and then the Privates in alphabetic order, with ‘Winters’ at 240 out of 243.  So number 240 only identified him if ‘2nd Field Ambulance’ was attached to the number.

As the war progressed the system became increasingly unwieldy.  Men transferred from one unit to another – mostly they retained their original number, but sometimes they were given new ones.  New recruits were mostly given new numbers, but sometimes old numbers were re-used, possibly annotated as ‘A’ or ‘B’.  It was a recipe for chaos, and it is no wonder that authorities in Australia often had little idea where a particular soldier was currently.  It was not until late 1917 that a Central System of ‘Unique Numbers’ was introduced for new recruits, but Hal retained his original ‘Regimental Number’ of 240 2nd Field Ambulance throughout the war, irrespective of which branch of the A I F he was serving with at the time.  New recruits and transfers meant that by the end of the war the numbers within the 2nd Field Ambulance were a complete hodge–podge.

On the 19th August the members of the new 2nd Field Ambulance Unit formed part of the  2000 troops who marched through the centre of Melbourne, and out to the new training camp at Broadmeadows.  In the following weeks the troops were issued with uniforms, given the necessary preliminary inoculations, drilled, marched, exercised, learnt and practised their first–aid skills, pitched tents, became familiar with horse-drawn ambulances and equipment carts- all designed to start their transformation from civilians to soldiers.

Finally, on 18 October 1914 the men of the 2nd Field Ambulance travelled by train to the Town Pier at Port Melbourne where they boarded the troop ships which would carry them away from home and Australia.  The unit Transport and horses joined the S.S. Karoo, a 6127 ton vessel, but all the rest of the Unit, including Hal, joined the S.S. Wiltshire, a larger ship of 10,390 tons, built in 1912.

They shared the Wiltshire with the men and horses of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.   The commander of the 2nd Field Ambulance, Lt Col Sturdee, travelled on the Wiltshire, but the Commanding Officer of the whole ship was Lt Col Long of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.

Once on board the Wiltshire Hal made his first entry in his first war Diary.  He must have had mixed feelings, leaving his home and family, but it must also have been the start of a great adventure – he was young, he was fit, he’d never been abroad before, he’d answered the call of King and Country and was on his way to Europe to fight the Germans, and he’d probably be home again in a year or eighteen months or so.