Albert Gordon Burt
Born in Lichfield in Staffordshire on August 17 1893, ALBERT GORDON BURT, like his brother Frank, first attended King Edward VI School in Aston, Birmingham before becoming a boarder in School House at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon. Albert arrived in September 1908 and flourished from the start, being awarded the Geometrical Drawing prize by the Board of Education in his first term. In 1909 he passed his Junior Oxford Locals with Third Class Honours in Arithmetic, Religious Knowledge, History, English, Latin and French, and passed the Senior Oxford Locals the following year. At Speech Day held in Big School with Sir Frank Benson from the Memorial Theatre, he was awarded the Upper School Bayley Prize for History. An enthusiastic sportsman, Albert joined the Games Committee, and was a member of the 2nd XI in 1909, ‘the best forward in the pack…who pushes very hard’ in the 1909 1st XV, and was made Vice-Captain of Rugby in 1910. Leaving School in V1a aged 17, he became a Junior Master at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire.
It was whilst teaching at Kimbolton that he began to seriously consider becoming a missionary, so in July 1911 aged 19 he sailed to Australia to study and train at St. Columb’s Hall in Wangaratta, Victoria. Established in 1883, the congregation grew quickly under its first vicar, T.H. Armstrong, later Bishop of Wangaratta. Outreach through missionary service and the development of ministry through open air and town hall services became a strong feature. Albert was recognised as having ‘more than usual ability and ever striving to make this world a better place for man’s earthly dwelling. A conscientious, earnest worker, and one whose great aim in life was to promote the common good of all mankind. During his years at Wangaratta he was fully immersed in church work.’
A strong national call to arms by the Australian Prime Minister led Albert to enlist on August 7 1915, and following the usual basic training, he was posted to Egypt. His unit embarked from Melbourne on board HMAT A13 Katuna on March 9 1916 (HMAT stood for His Majesty’s Australian Transport).At this stage of the war, the Australian Imperial Force had already been evacuated to its bases there from the Dardenelles and the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign.
While a small nucleus of mainly cavalry remained in the Middle East and fought its way with other British and European forces to Palestine and the capture of Jerusalem, the main force crossed to France and immediately went into action at Fromelles on July 19 1916, almost three weeks into the Battle of the Somme, but well to the north of that offensive. Its attack had a double aim: both as a diversion and to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their positions on the Somme battlefield. It was a shocking introduction to the war in France. An assault across terrain without cover and with largely ineffective artillery preparation that partly fell on their own troops. 1708 men were killed and 4000 wounded in one day. The survivors were back in action two days later. After the Armistice in 1918, the dead were taken to VC Corner Australian Memorial and Cemetery at Fromelles. It is a very unusual graveyard because there are no headstones, and the dead are recorded on the panels of the Memorial to the Missing. The only Australian mass grave on the Western Front, bodies lay in no-man’s-land from July 1916 until August 1918 when the ground was taken by the Allied advance.
Just outside Fromelles, on the Aubers Road, is a German concrete shelter believed to have been used by Adolf Hitler during his front-line service with the Bavarian Infanterie-Regiment.
At some point, Gordon Burt received special training, was promoted to Sergeant, and on March 27 1917 was appointed to the Intelligence Department at 1 Anzac Headquarters in France. The exact nature of his duties is not clear, but his overall 16 responsibility was to acquire information about the enemy that would enable the Australians to establish the German strengths and weaknesses, their likely intentions, the movement of troops and material, and to identify potential targets. This would be achieved by close liaison with troops at the front and the Royal Flying Corps, through the interrogation of prisoners, the surveillance of the terrain and from the many trench raids. It was by no means a safe assignment, and he was regularly subject to all types of danger.
The demands on all involved in the Australian Force were very heavy, although the last three months of 1916 passed comparatively quietly. The quiet before the storm. 1917 brought intensive action, first in the area of Arras and Bapaume, and then switching to the long grinding succession of battles in Flanders that culminated in October and November with the Battle of Passchendaele. Australia paid a very high price for its loyalty to the Empire. Following the high casualties at Fromelles, by the end of 1916 the total of casualties had risen to 42, 270. In 1917, at Bullecourt, Messine and Passchendaele, a further 76, 836 casualties were sustained. From a population of five million, 300,000 Australians enlisted; 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner during the Great War.
Late in 1917, Gordon Burt was badly injured while carrying important dispatches in the trenches, and in January 1918 his health collapsed through strain and the effects of his injuries. Progress to recovery was slow. In the words of his local newspaper in Wangaratta, ‘he never fully recovered his mental equilibrium.’*
It is not clear from available records what part he was able to take in the last year of the War, when the Australians were once again fully involved in the major victories that led to final victory. It is known that he was a soldier in the Anzac Provost Police Corps, well after most soldiers had been demobilised, and ‘had an excellent record as a soldier.’
Information supplied from his records held in the Australian National Archives states that he ‘died at sea,’ although his army record (September 4) indicates ‘drowned.’* His local newspaper reported that ‘As recovery was slow, a sea voyage was advised, and he sailed on August 28. He was a general favourite with all who knew him and the sad news of his death came as a great shock, as it was hoped the voyage would prove a complete cure.’ Mrs. Burt wrote to the Department of Defence in Melbourne in an attempt to discover the manner of her son’s death. The reply to her request is not known.
Gordon Burt is commemorated on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, where on three walls faced with Portland stone are the names of 10,885 Australians who were killed in France and who have no known grave.
His name also appears on the memorial in the boys’ school in Villers- Bretonneux that is twinned with Victoria in Australia, on the Lichfield War Memorial, the memorial in St.Mary’s Church in Lichfield, the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.
* ‘he never recovered his mental equilibrium’ would suggest that Gordon suffered post- traumatic stress – ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue.’ Did he commit suicide by drowning after jumping off the ship? He had wanted to be a missionary and the horrors of the war must have been overpowering and perhaps made him question his faith.