- Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery
- Plot: XXIII
- Row: B
- Grave: 5
Distinctions and medals
The story of the Seabrook brothers is among of the most moving of the First World War. Three brothers from one family died almost at the same time during the Third Battle of Ypres: a heart-breaking and irreparable loss for their parents and siblings. The story has much in common with that of the film Saving Private Ryan, but this was no screenplay, it was harsh reality.
When the war broke out the Seabrooks were a typical Australian family. William George Seabrook, born in 1869, married Fanny Isabel Ross, three years his senior, on 21 April 1891. William earned his living on the railways; his wife was a seamstress who also gave piano lessons. The family had a strong faith and belonged to the Methodist Church, which stresses the importance of biblical teachings. They lived in various places in New South Wales before eventually settling in Five Dock, a village some ten kilometres west of Sydney. Fanny gave birth to eight children: George Ross (b. 1892), Theo Leslie (b. 1893), Beatrice Isabel (b. 1895, d. 1896), William Keith (b. 1896), Florence May (b. 1901), Eric James (b. 1902), Edward Clarence (b. 1906) and Jean Isabel (b. 1908).
George Ross, the oldest of the eight children, went to school in Armidale and took up painting and decorating as a trade. In 1913 he married Winifred Kean from Sydney, but in January 1916 she died from the effects of acute appendicitis. She was just twenty-two years old. It is thought that Winifred was pregnant with twins and that she went into labour too soon, although this cannot be confirmed with any certainty. The appendicitis may have been a complication. It is clear that the couple remained childless, so if Winifred was indeed pregnant, the twins did not survive. Before the war Theo Leslie worked on the railways like his father, at first building the line and later as a stoker on the steam trains. William Keith, the youngest of the three brothers, joined the Australian army in 1915. Before that he was a telephonist. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant to train troops, but because he was too young to fight overseas as a lieutenant, he could not be sent to Europe with his men. He decided to give up his rank so that he could serve alongside his brothers. Because of his military experience he was soon promoted again.
In August 1916 the three brothers, like many other Australian young men, volunteered for the army together. In October 1916 they left for Europe, embarking from Sydney on the troop transport Ascanius and arriving in Devonport, England, two months later. They then began their five months of training on Salisbury Plain. As well as a great deal of exercises, manoeuvres, target practice and parades, they had time to take in some European culture. For many young men the war was an adventure. It gave them a chance to leave the limited environment of their village and see a little more of the world. The many postcards the brothers sent home attest to this. A visit to London prompted many picture postcards to their parents, and their brothers and sisters were given a glimpse of their adventures as well. There were a few truly special moments. They took part in a snowball fight (although not for long, since the cold was unpleasant) and had the honour of being inspected by King George V himself. On 29 May 1917 their training ended and the three brothers were inducted into the 17th Battalion AIF. The battalion was quartered in northern France, where the men took part in several weeks of specific training for trench warfare. So the Seabrooks’ baptism of fire was postponed until after the summer, but in September 1917 their battalion moved to Flanders. On 20 September they were deployed during the Battle of the Menin Road.
It was one of the battles that made up what became known as the Third Battle of Ypres. The aim of the attack as a whole was to break through the Albrecht-Stellung and the Wilhelm-Stellung to the south of the Ypres-Roulers railway in order to acquire a good jumping off position on high ground near Gheluvelt. The axis along which the fighting developed was the Menin Road, through a landscape of shell holes created by continual artillery bombardment and the destruction of the centuries-old drainage system. Mud and treacherous swamps were the dominant features of the battlefield. The 2nd Australian Division was deployed to the north of the Menin Road. It included the 7th and 5th Australian Brigades, and the Seabrooks’ 17th Battalion belonged to the latter. It was allocated the sector to the north-west of Polygon Wood.
William Keith Seabrook, the youngest of the three brothers and a lieutenant in charge of the 11th platoon, was under the weather both physically and mentally. This is clear, for example, from a postcard George wrote to his parents on 2 September 1917: ‘We are all well excepting Keith, he has got a touch of trench fever.’ A good friend of the three brothers, Private Tom Bowman (see below) later attested: ‘Sept 19. Keith very pale and anxious took my equipment; final handshake very spontaneous and affectionate.’ William Keith would never reach the front line. He was on his way to the battalion’s jumping off point when, at Hellfire Corner just after midnight, a phosphorus grenade hit C-Company. The effects were considerable: at least six dead and several more wounded. William Keith was seriously wounded in that strike. A witness later noted: ‘I personally dressed his wounds but they were of such a nature that I do not think it is advisable to let his people know what they were.’ William Keith was carried to the 10th Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Siding (now called Lyssenthoek) near Poperinge. He died of his wounds the next day and now lies buried at Lyssenthoek Military Cemetery.
Meanwhile the two other brothers reached their jumping off point at 05.05 hours. They had no doubt heard what had happened to their brother; perhaps they even witnessed it themselves. At 05.40 the attack began. The 17th Battalion, with Theo Leslie and George Ross, was in reserve. It was ordered to take the third objective, a line running from Garter Point (Grote Molenstraat) to Polygon Wood (Lange Dreve). At 07.50 it attacked from Bellewaerde Ridge. All in all, the attack was a success. The Australian divisions reached their objectives without too many problems, the troops being able to take advantage of the thick fog to surround and eliminate various pockets of resistance. Nevertheless, losses on the Allied side were no fewer than 20,255 men. Theo Leslie and George Ross were among them.
For anyone trying to work out exactly what happened to these men, the files of the Australian Red Cross Society are particularly interesting. They are in fact a record of eye-witness accounts by people who knew missing soldiers. One disadvantage of these files as a source is that the information is sometimes less than reliable, since several months went by before the witnesses were asked for information. These deficiencies are obvious in the Seabrooks’ case. Witnesses often gave incorrect information. Several, for example, say that William Keith died instantly and was buried on the spot. Nor were the locations given by many witnesses always clearly defined. Polygon Wood is often named as the place where the brothers died, but it is not within the sector allocated to their battalion. This is easy to explain: it was one of the few recognizable places in the ruined landscape. Despite the unreliability of the sources, it is possible to gain an impression of what happened from the various credible theories. One witness, L. McKinnirey, stated: ‘I saw the three brothers knocked, two killed outright and one wounded and died after, by the same shell about 1.30 a.m..’ Few other witnesses confirm this, however, so the information seems less than trustworthy. Another theory is that Theo Leslie and George Ross were killed by the same shell. It is not clear exactly when this was (before or after the signal to attack), but most witnesses say they were near Anzac House, which suggests the attack was already well underway. ‘One was going into the firing line and another was coming out, at night, when a shell burst and killed both of them.’ That is the version Private J. Crawfield gave. Some witnesses suggest the three brothers died separately. Private A. Marshall testified: ‘I saw one of the Seabrooks lying dead, killed outright by a shell, up past Anzac House on the front line. (...) It was the third brother who told me that the private lying dead was his brother.’ Sergeant Chas Troup said: ‘The Germans were putting up a very heavy barrage and we were consolidating our position. Sgt. Eric Powell helped to lift him up onto the parados. (...) The other brother was killed the same day and another brother, an officer, was wounded.’
To this day we cannot be sure which of these is the correct version of the facts. For the Seabrooks back home there was nothing but uncertainty. On 4 October 1917 Fanny Isabel Ross, their mother, received a report that William Keith had died of his wounds. Five days later she received a letter saying that her two other sons had been wounded, but that no further information about them was available. In mid-October 1917 the family received the news they feared: George Ross had been officially declared dead but nothing further was known about the fate of Theo Leslie. On 13 November the family again received a report, this time from the chaplain of the 17th Battalion. He informed them that Theo Leslie had been buried where he died. This time there was no mention of George Ross, however. Fanny hoped there had been a mix-up between the two brothers and one of them was still alive. That hope was reinforced by a letter from Private Tom Bowman to the Red Cross Society, which had asked him to supply more information about the three brothers. Tom was a close friend of all three. In that letter he wrote that he had not taken part in the battle but did know that William Keith and Theo Leslie had been killed. He had heard that George Ross was dead too, but there were others who said he was still alive. George Ross’s identity tag had not been found.14 The final message followed on 4 December 1917: All three brothers had died in the battle. Despite this message and the receipt of three Death Plaques (which can be seen in the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917), their mother remained convinced until her death in 1929 that George Ross was still alive but had lost his memory.
The Seabrook family suffered terribly as a result of the loss of three of their sons. William George, the father, was badly affected by neurasthenia, a mental illness, and this in turn caused the family financial problems. After the war, Fanny Isabel Ross became a symbol of the sufferings of mothers who had lost sons in the war, a symbolism heightened by a photograph of her that William Keith carried on him when he was wounded in the battle. There is a hole in it, said to have been made by shrapnel. After the war she was invited to lay a wreath at the Australian War Memorial. Her face says more than a thousand words. We will end with her own conclusion: ‘The blow of losing three sons in one battle is terrible and we are heartbroken.’