WWI remembered: Campbeltown’s Private John Paterson

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By Sandy Neil

Liz MacFarlane reflected on the great-uncle, John Paterson, she never met, a soldier in the Australian infantry who was born in Campbeltown on May 21, 1885, and died aged 31 a day after suffering fatal wounds on the killing fields of France.

‘Campbeltown is a fishing town and many young men went into fishing. The call of the sea beckoned and a sailor he became – and off to Australia,’ Liz told us. ‘When the call to arms sounded, he said, “I’m ready”.

‘He embarked at Sydney on Her Majesty’s Australian Transports (HMAT) Aeneas on December 20, 1915, to Marseilles, France. Having survived Gallipoli, he was going to the Somme and Passchendaele. He died on April 10, 1917.’

The documents do not mention where Private Paterson fought his last fight, but April 9, 1917, was one of the Great War’s deadliest days, when 3,598 soldiers died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first offensive in the Battle of Arras.

The Campbeltown Courier carried his obituary: ‘Private Paterson was 31 years of age, was a sailor, and had been in Australia for eight years when the call to arms was sounded and found him ready to cast in his lot with the Empire’s gallant sons. He had been in France for 15 months when he sustained his fatal wounds.’

A letter written to his father David Paterson, of Princes Street, Dalintober, on April 11 by a hospital nurse, Sister Ida O’Dwyer, reveals a fuller story: ‘He was brought into this hospital on the night of the 9th suffering from a very bad wound in the back, right through to his chest.

‘He was immediately put straight into a warm bed and made as comfortable as possible for his last few hours, but though everything that was possible was done to save him, he had not a chance, and gradually died quite quietly next morning at nine o’clock.

‘I told him I would write to you and say he was wounded and he was quite happy, and said to give his love and he’d write himself as soon as he was well.

‘He was seen by the chaplain who buried him yesterday evening in a military cemetery. There is a cross with his name on it to show the spot, and can be found [by] anyone wishing to see the grave.’

Liz said John Paterson’s name is on the war memorial in Campbeltown and is buried in the military cemetery at Bapaune, where a headstone is erected.

Sister Ida O’Dwyer saw the full horror of wounds straight from the battlefield, and wrote a detailed report of her experiences, in the words of one historian the ‘classic statement of nursing life in a casualty clearing station’.

In her own words: ‘This is nearest nurses get to the actual fighting.

‘Wards are prepared in a great hurry, not the comfortable bed ward of the base but mostly stretchers on the ground.

‘The sisters must be prepared in a few hours to receive and nurse hundreds of wounded admitted in numbers that can be hardly realised.

‘They have not only to be admitted but are to be classified, dressed, fed and evacuated, with the same speed and still keep her ward in a state that she can pass through hundreds more.

‘There is one continuous rush between cases … during a battle everyone working a period of 16 hours a day.

‘The resuscitation ward which holds the patients who are too bad for immediate operation … is really the biggest to the sister as she has never experienced anything like it before in her career.

‘Everyone requires immediate attention and some of them die before they can be fully attended to.

‘Every man is just as he is carried out of the trenches in his wet khaki and stone cold.

‘You can see death written in most of their faces … yet … he waits his turn and never asks – that’s when a wounded soldier commands the respect and admiration of anyone in this world.’

Private John Paterson in the First World War. NO_T46_WWI_John Paterson_01