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the lAst worD
always vowed that one day I
would return to France and fulfil a
promise I made but failed to keep,
that of honouring a young digger
who had a profound impact on
my family decades ago.
those wild partying bus tours around Europe for
the 18-to-35 age group. Before leaving Australia
my grandmother asked me to place an Australian
flag on the grave of Private David John Morgan
who died in the Somme in 1918. She wanted
me to pay respects to young David on her behalf
before she died.
My grandmother was only 12-years-old
when David was killed. After many decades
she still remembered him as the fresh-faced
young man who’d promised to marry her older
sister, Nessie, on his return from a great
However, my tour bus wouldn’t stop. It
continued through the Somme on its way to
Paris. I was left sitting on the bus staring out the
window to the rolling, treeless hills and the green
fields pock-marked with what looked like craters
from old battles. In the distance I could see a hill
covered in white headstones.
Twenty-seven years later and it felt like
history was repeating itself. This time my wife
Lynda and I were sitting on the early morning
high-speed train service from Paris direct to
Amiens, or so we thought.
I was assured the journey would take about
one hour and 15 minutes and that we would
arrive by 9.30am. However, for some unknown
reason we had stopped at Creil, just north of
Paris. From my broken French and the guard’s
broken English I managed to determine that there
had been a fire in the main engine and we were
going nowhere, and that was so for the next
to meet Private
David John morgan
Our situation was beginning to look bleak.
I felt frustrated and at the same time depressed.
I had come all this way and again I was not going
to fulfil the promise I made all those years ago.
“We should have hired a car in Paris and
taken our chances driving on the wrong side of
the road and the footpath (as they do in Paris),”
I thought to myself.
Finally we began to move, although very
slowly and only a further 15 km or so up the track,
we stopped again. The hours had ticked by and it
was almost midday. If we made it to Amiens, we
still had to get to the village of Halloy les Pernois
and there was now no hope of getting to
The train began moving again and was
gradually gaining speed, faster and faster and
things were finally looking up. It sped past
station after station and at long last we arrived in
Amiens, although it was almost four hours late.
Lynda and I ran to the nearest taxi stand and
jumped into the first cab we found.
“Bonjour monsieur, prenez-moi s'il vous plaît
à Halloy le Pernois,” I blurted out, pointing to a
map and photos of the British War Cemetery.
The taxi driver looked puzzled. Again I tried
the French I had been learning for the past six
months listening to a language CD in my car as I
drove around Canberra. (Although I had received
some strange looks from other Canberra motorists
as I rehearsed my French, it had come in very
handy on this trip.)
In crude French I explained that we came
from Australia. We could only speak a little
French and that we wanted to visit a grave in the
British War Cemetery at Halloy les Pernois. He
understood, but from what I gathered he was not
aware that the cemetery even existed.
We drove through the city of Amiens, through
an industrial park and into the French countryside
past fields of dried corn and barley and finally into
the small village of Halloy les Pernois. We were
now well off the beaten track.
After seeking directions from locals,
we found a sign to the war cemetery that pointed
to a narrow road leading us up a hill through
more fields and past dilapidated farm buildings.
There, nestled on the side of the hill, was a small
cemetery filled with rows of white headstones
surrounded by a waist-high stone wall.
This was not a grand war cemetery, nor was
it famous. It did not feature in battlefield tourist
brochures nor was it on the regular tourist path.
However, it had its own special significance
and its isolation meant it had an air of peace
about it. As I walked around the well-manicured
lawns I also realised that its location among the
golden brown fields of dried corn and barley was
somewhat appropriate in that this is where the
young men from both sides fought and died and
now rested. I sat for a while and reflected.
On the morning of the 27th April, 1918, David
and his mates were assembled in a trench. They
were about to go over the top in another attack
on the enemy when he was shot in the head.
His wound was serious. He was stretchered
to Battalion Headquarters and later taken by
ambulance to the 4th Casualty Clearing Station
near Pernois. Despite the efforts of doctors and
nurses with the best medicines and equipment of
the time, David died early the following morning.
David was buried in the British Cemetery.
A small cross bearing a plate with his details
marked his grave.
On May 31, 1918, the Hurstville Propeller
newspaper reported on its front page that Pte
DJ Morgan of Hurstville had died of wounds in
the field. His name appeared amongst a long list
of other local boys killed in action, wounded,
missing and gassed.
David’s family was devastated, no one more
than his father, Thomas, who became angry and
bitter. Nessie was heart-broken and never really
recovered from her loss.
David was later posthumously awarded the
1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the
Victory Medal. The medals were sent to
In 1923, Thomas and his wife Gwendoline
made the long journey to France to visit their son's
final resting-place. The cross had been replaced
by a white marble headstone with a small tribute
from his family: “We have lost, heaven has gained,
one of the best the world contained”.
As I reflected I also realised that I was
not the only Australian to have made the long
journey to this small out-of-the-way cemetery in
the French countryside. Like them I had come to
pay my respects to a young soldier I never met
but feel I have come to know. It was a humbling
experience as I placed the Australian flag
beside David’s headstone. Despite all the
difficulties and the delays, overall it was a
journey well worth making and one that I will
remember for a long time.
Visiting the World War One battlefields in France is a humbling
experience. Standing in the French countryside surrounded
by hundreds of small white headstones to pay respects to one
special digger was emotionally overwhelming for Department
of Defence employee Darryl Johnston, particularly when the
only link was a promise made many years ago to his elderly
relatives who had lived through the Great War and knew the
young man he had come to honour. Below, Darryl recounts the
journey and a significant payment of respects.
Off the beaten track amongst the hills
of dried corn and barley where Private
David John Morgan and his mates
fought in World War One.
Mission accomplished: Darryl Johnston
kneels beside the resting place of a relative
he never met, but feels he had come to know.
Rows of white headstones at the British
War Cemetary at Halloy les Pernois.
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