Norman PRIESTLY #2786

Norman Priestly

Indigenous Australian, Norman (Val.) Priestly, 15th & 47th Infantry Battalion.

Lance Corporal Norman (Val) PRIESTLY was born at Gordon Brook Station, NSW to William and Mary Priestly in 1896. He had been working as a labourer at Southgate, near Grafton but in August 1915, age just 19, he volunteered to serve for the first AIF.

When Priestly enlisted in Brisbane, he named his friend W. Pearson of Southgate as his next of kin, he knew of no living relatives. Priestly trained at the Enoggera Army camp before embarking from Sydney with the 9th Reinforcements for the 15th Infantry Battalion on board the troopship Ayrshire, bound for Egypt and the ill-fated operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

These recruits who had volunteered from Queensland, Northern NSW and Tasmania joined their battalion at Gallipoli in November 1915 and served at ANZAC until the evacuation in December.  Back in Egypt the battalion was split and experienced soldiers like Priestly were assigned to the newly formed 47th Infantry Battalion.

They sailed for France and the Western Front in June 1916, landing at the port of Marseilles, then were transported by train, northwards under the command of Tasmanian Lieut. Colonel (later Sir) Robert Snowden. Having arrived at Bailleul they were marched to their billets at Outtersteene and Merris. In August they engaged in their first major operation at Pozieres.

Priestly was promoted to Lance Corporal ‘in the field’ in November 1916 – just prior to going into the front lines at Bernafay Wood. He remained with his unit until being evacuated with Trench Fever (P.U.O) in May 1917, which is now known to have been spread by the lice soldiers inevitably carried in their clothing. Priestly spent two weeks recovering at the 7th Australian Field Ambulance, before rejoining his battalion at Steenwerck.

12 days later, on 7 June 1917 the battalion moved out of camp, to carry out their orders of attack on Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, and while under intense fire in the trenches Lance Corporal Priestly was killed in action.

The day before the battalion moved into the front lines, the commanding officer recorded in the Unit Diary the following:

Never before in the history of the Btn was so much preliminary work bestowed on a btn and never was it more fitter for a venture such as this.”

They were successful in achieving their objectives but the casualties from the 47th Battalion during this operation were tremendous – 76 men killed, 326 wounded, 2 gassed, and 37 missing.

It was not until 1920 that the story of Priestly’s heritage was illuminated, when the Army wrote to his named ‘next of kin’ W. Pearson. Pearson’s son Clarrie responded from the ‘Aborigines Station, Grafton’ indicating that his father had passed away. They then contacted the person named as his ‘sole beneficiary’ in a will made in 1917 by Priestly whilst overseas. Richard Randall responded and was able to confirm that he did indeed know the late soldier. Priestly was a cousin of his own late wife Lottie Jackson, who too had been born at Gordon Brook. Lottie sadly had died days after giving birth to their 8th child, in 1916.

Priestly had resided with him and his family for many years, and to his knowledge had no living relatives. The Department offered him Priestly’s service medals ‘as a memento of his supreme sacrifice’, which he gladly accepted ‘under bond’ meaning that he would agree to surrender them if further claim by kin be forthcoming.

Randall received the late soldiers’ small consignment of personal effects, as well as the Memorial Scroll and Plaque (also known as the Dead Man’s Penny) issued to next of kin. He also completed the details of the Roll of Honour circular [pdf] … which further describes Priestly’s history, where he went to school, his actual place of birth, and that Randall was considered his guardian.

Sadly much of Norman Val Priestly’s story remains untold, but his service to his country does not. It was initially recorded that Lance Corporal Norman Priestly was buried ‘750 yds east of Messines’ but it is understood that he has no known recognizable grave; he is however commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium. Here soldiers are commemorated, ‘where graves cannot be individually marked, or where the grave site has become inaccessible and unmaintainable.’

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Marg Powell & Des Crump | QANZAC100, State Library of Queensland