Finding Tom Morris

April 25, 2018

John Harrington with memorabilia given to him by World War I veteran Tom Morris.

Memorial pins given to John Harrington by World War I veteran Tom Morris.

Thomas Morris’ Australian Imperial Force enlistment record, 1916. Source: The National Archives of Australia

Shepparton RSL member John Harrington has a childhood memory of a gentle giant of a man, his boyhood neighbour — Tom Morris, returned soldier and World War I veteran.

Mr Morris was a middle-aged, hard-working man, who rode his bicycle to the local Shell depot where he worked.

The devoted husband was also custodian of many military artefacts from the Boer and Great wars.

An early love of war memorabilia saw a young Mr Harrington often staring at the old Great War artefacts Mr Morris had collected as souvenirs during his service.

One day, much to Mr Harrington’s surprise, Mr Morris gave him some of those precious objects: a German bayonet, a German water bottle and some keepsake medallions from the Western Front.

‘‘I think he might have just been trying to get rid of me,’’ Mr Harrington said.

Like many of his generation, Mr Morris rarely spoke of the war in which he’d served.

Eventually Mr Morris and his wife Lillian moved to Daylesford and Mr Harrington lost touch with the man who had been like a second father to him.

Mr Morris’ gifts and a love of military history stuck with Mr Harrington and today he is one of a few history and memorabilia buffs who can be found at the Shepparton RSL — the perfect contact for a journalist in search of a World War I story.

When The News approached Mr Harrington for tales about local veterans, Mr Morris and his small trove of bequeathed artefacts was the first to come to mind.

But there was a problem.

Mr Morris’ reluctance to speak about the war left a gap in Mr Harrington’s knowledge. He could only supply a name and a few scant details of Mr Morris’ early life.

Those were the only threads linking Mr Morris’ history to the war in which he fought; a war from which, unlike so many, he was fortunate enough to return.

Who was Tom Morris?

Thanks to the digital revolution and the work of the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia there are thousands of documents available online.

But The News quickly came up against a dead-end.

In the 1910s, Tom and Thomas Morris were popular names, with 62 men with the name serving in the Australian forces, but none from Strathmerton where Mr Harrington believed Mr Morris was raised.

Calls to Mr Harrington for more details were unfruitful. There was little more to help with the search.

The trail went cold.

Until a chance conversation on an unrelated story.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ Jacqui Donegan, a historian and journalist, was helping The News source other material.

With nothing to go on but a common name and the town of Strathmerton, Dr Donegan took on the case and solved it.

‘‘Thomas Morris, Service no. 4735 ... (24th Battalion) came from the Roslyn property, near Yarroweyah, 10 minutes from Strathmerton, Victoria,’’ Dr Donegan said.

‘‘He ‘progressed well’ ... but received a severe case of ‘trench foot’ that then caused health issues for the rest of his life, back in Australia.’’

Documents followed — Mr Morris’ enlistment form, his debarkation record — all filled with small details to help paint a larger picture of the man.

Details Mr Harrington was also grateful to learn.

Mr Morris was born in 1889, signing up aged 27. On February 28, 1916, the unmarried Mr Morris enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and nominated his father, Thomas Morris Sr, as next-of-kin.

Mr Morris was a farmer, although Mr Harrington recalled him saying he was a fruit grower.

Less than six weeks after enlisting, Mr Morris marched on to the HMAT Euripides with the 24th Infantry Battalion to begin a journey which would take him to the other side of the planet to fight.

The tale of Mr Morris is just one incomplete story and any readers who happen to know other details are encouraged to come forward.

There are thousands of such stories hidden in government-held records and the memories of those who knew them.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is running a campaign to connect families and friends of veterans with their history.

The ‘Just Ask’ campaign encourages people to log onto the Australian War Memorial, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia and Commonwealth War Graves Commission websites. A wealth of detail potentially lies in waiting.


Anzac Day

The blazing heat rising from gunfire,

Emotions stretched trying to inspire,

Drawing strength from delivered letters of home,

Hoping and wishing never to leave them all alone.

Young men drafted age illegal yet not seen,

Are they forgettable I couldn’t be so mean,

Trapped and isolated in the ravages of war,

Stop the heartless killing of us all.

The wives and children left behind waiting,

Running to check the mail in anticipation,

Needing to know if loved ones survived,

Knowing that neighbour’s heartbreaking cry.

So with Anzac Day drawing near,

We remember the ones we held so dear,

My grandfather who I loved so much,

Thinking about him and his gentle touch.

The end was hard for us all to bear,

His mind echoed with voices we can’t hear,

The harrowing hours trembling hiding from bombers,

Not knowing if the day is to be his last.

Darkness is reaching out to him so fast,

And so these words of remembrance,

And my privilege of having met,

My grandfather George Wiley.

Lest We Forget.

— Mooroopna’s Karina Seddon wrote this poem about her grandfather, George Edward Wiley who served in World War II.

My Anzac Digger

To my darling Anzac digger,

It has been long since I have kissed you.

And so I have been quite eager,

To hear your sweet voice ring true.

It must be cold where you stand.

Dearest I hope you aren’t ill.

As I want you back home as planned,

To thou it would be a thrill.

Anzac Cove engraved forever,

With soldiers who have shed blood.

Where survivors and families gather,

On soil with falling tears turned to mud.

Remember my dearest Willie,

As kids we used to play soldiers.

You vowed to keep me safe William,

And as the years grow older,

My dearest William Turner,

I never forgot my very own Anzac Digger.

— Rechelle Zammit is in Year 12 at Wanganui Park Secondary College.

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