One family's sacrifice during the Great War remembered at Hurstville 100 years on

Wednesday, September 20, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Private Walter Edward Peake of Peakhurst at Windhoek Ridge near Hooges on the Menin Road,  Western Front. He was the great-grandson of John Robert Peake, after whom Peakhurst is named.

Exactly a fortnight later on October 4, 1917,  WE Peake’s uncle, Walter Leslie Peake, grandson of JR Peake, was killed a few miles to the north-east at Zonnebeke Ridge. Also on that day Walter Leslie’s cousin, George Herbert Peake, was dangerously wounded, also just a few miles away.

Walter Leslie and George Herbert Peake had lived as boys on adjoining farms owned by their fathers along the line of present day Stoney Creek Road.

To commemorate the anniversary, Wayne Leonard Peake (the great nephew of Walter Edward Peake) yesterday laid wreathes at Hurstville War Memorial - sanctioned by Georges River Council and Oatley RSL sub-branch. 

Mr Peake has also written the following account of their war experiences and deaths. 

Every Anzac Day and Armistice Day, when I was young, my father would retell the story of how his Uncle Wally Peake of Peakhurst had been killed by a stray German shell on the Western Front, several hours after the armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1917.

Wally and his cobbers, the story went, were gathering to leave the Front and move to the rear, when the shell landed among them and blew them all to eternity.  

Tears would well in Dad’s eyes, and we boys’ too, as we reflected on the story’s intrinsic poignancy, and the sheer rotten luck of it all.

It was only in recent years, when AIF service histories and Red Cross enquiries about the war dead and missing became available on the Internet, and well after my father’s own death, that I learnt that this family history, which I and my brothers had already memorised as ritual and passed on, was a myth (or 'furphy' in the Australian idiom of the time).

Like most myths however, there was something to it. Uncle Wally –  or Private Walter Edward Peake – had died not on the first Armistice Day, but more than a year earlier, on September 20, 1917. And he had been killed by a German shell.

He had been among a party of men bringing stretchers back from the front line when one landed in the midst of them. However, he had not been blown in an instant into the next world, but rather succumbed to the wounds inflicted on him sometime later; at least that was one version of his death.

So, the family’s story tellers have reluctantly abandoned the gothic plot-twist provided by Walter’s supposed post-armistice death – the tale was so depressing it gave me a sort of ‘Samuel Beckett’ feeling of hopelessness.

It  impressed on me the appalling consequences a few hours’ ‘either way’ can bring, in the same way that Burke and Wills arrival back at Cooper’s Creek, just after the departure of their base camp south, did.

Nevertheless, September 20, 1917, is itself an extremely significant date in the history of the first AIF and its Western Front campaigns of World War I.

It was the first day of the Battle of the Menin Road on the Passchendaele sector of the front. Here General Haig launched what proved to be a disastrous, ultimately bogged push against the German lines. 

Following Fromelles, Pozières, and Bullecourt, Passchendaele was the fourth of those advances that proved the most costly in terms of Australians killed and wounded.

However, while the Armistice Day embellishment of the story has perforce been written out, another almost equally quirky footnote has emerged, or rather re-emerged, some 100 years later to replace it.

Walter Edward Peake’s uncle, Walter Leslie Peake, the brother of his father George, was also fighting with the AIF on the Western Front, just a few miles away on the Passchendaele sector of the line.

I had heard much less about Walter Leslie Peake than of his nephew. However the sight of his name - WL Peake – on the Hurstville cenotaph had disturbed me even more as a boy, because it exactly matched my own abbreviated form.

In fact he had enlisted before his nephew, in February 1916 at the comparatively advanced age of 35. Just a fortnight after WE Peake’s death, on October 4 at 8am WL Peake strayed into the direct fire of a German machine gun and was instantly killed.

Given they shared the surname ‘Peake’ and very similar Christian names, were both natives of an obscure location called Peakhurst somewhere near Sydney, and died within a few weeks of one another at locations just miles apart, it is not entirely surprising that the AIF bureaucracy  got them mixed up in their post-war tidying up.

Some of the post-mortem documentation for Walter Edward, now deposited at the National Archives of Australia, was originally annotated ‘WL Peake’ and bore his regimental number (5772). And in 1920 George Peake was advised by the Military that three photographs of his son’s second gravesite at Birrs Cross Cemetery (he had originally been buried in the field near Anzac House – a pillbox captured by the 18th Battalion on September 20 had been mistakenly sent to the father of WL Peake – George’s own father, Isaac.

The letter advised him that the original recipient had been asked to pass them on to him, as it was noted they shared an address: ‘Forest Road Peakhurst’.