Families discover link 17 years later
Name: Parsons and Woodhead
Unit: 51st Battalion AIF
Location: Mouquet Farm, France
Two men born on opposite sides of the world had never met when they were both killed fighting for the same battalion in the same action on the same day in France on 23 September 1916.
That's not so remarkable when you consider the thousands who fought and died in the same action. But what is remarkable is that the sister of one married the son of the other some 17 years later. Only then was the connection made.
Sgt Leslie Alfred Parsons was born at Koorelocking in Western Australia and went off to war with the 51st Battalion AIF.
Private Joseph Woodhead was born in Huddersfield in England and migrated to Australia in 1912. His wife, Martha, and three children, John, Richard and Madge, followed a year later. He, too, joined the 51st Battalion AIF.
They both fought in France and were involved in one of the many incidents surrounding Mouquet Farm, north of Pozières on the Somme.
The three divisions of 1 Anzac Corps were trying to drive a wedge behind the German lines at Thiepval by occupying Mouquet Farm.
The 4th Division began an attack on 10 August. Twice in August and again on 3 September 1916 the Australians fought their way into the farm only to be forced out again.
The Australian troops were unhappy about the action, facing as they did, an artillery barrage from the front, flank and rear. Australian casualties totalled 6300, including Sgt Parsons and Private Woodhead.
It appears that the Germans had a secret tunnel system which enabled them to produce surprise counter attacks whenever Mouquet Farm was taken by the Allies. It was left to the Canadians to discover the tunnel system after the Australians had been withdrawn and once they had blocked it off, the Allies held Mouquet Farm from then on.
An interesting point about this is that the Germans who were trapped in the tunnel system were forced to surrender to a burial party of the East Yorkshire Regiment. Joseph Woodhouse had been a member of that regiment for 9 years before moving to Australia.
Leslie Parsons was a brave man who died in a brave manner. Despite having had a premonition of his death in which he had volunteered for a dangerous mission running messages to the front line troops and that he would not be returning, he had delivered messages to his Lieutenant in no-man's land but was wounded in both legs on his way back to the Australian lines. He lay in one of the many shell craters and realising he was in a bad way, used his own blood to write a note pointing out where his officer and various mates were in the area. He then tried to crawl back to his own lines but died on the way. The note was found on his body and the men were later rescued from no-man's-land.
For his part, Les was Mentioned in Despatches and General Birdwood was moved to write a letter to the Parsons family advising them of Les' death and stating that he would recommend him for a Victoria Cross, though this was never awarded.
Just a few days before his death, Les had written a postcard to his sister Amy thanking her for her letter:
We have just come out of the firing line, it was absolutely the worst experience I have been in. In fact I would sooner be on Gallipoli for another six months than spend a week more where we have just come from in the Big Push.
Meanwhile, Martha Woodhead knew nothing of her husband's death until about a year later. She wondered why her letters were being returned and must have resigned herself to his death but it was still a shock when the news arrived. But her troubles were not yet over. It took 7 years before the authorities began to pay her a War Widow's Pension.
One reason for the delay in notification of his death lies in the fact that like many others John was probably blown to pieces by enemy artillery shells and nobody knew of his death. His name is recorded on the memorial at Villers-Brettonneux along with thousands of others who have no known grave.
Les Parsons is buried at Serre Road Cemetery No 2, Somme, France.
15 years after the end of the war, Jessie Lavina Kathleen Parsons, sister of Leslie Parsons, married John Ramsden Woodhead, the oldest son of Joseph Woodhead and the two families were finally united.
The material for this article was researched by Derek Woodhead and supplied by Allan Ellam, both of Western Australia. Mr Ellam and his late wife, Raye, put together a huge collection of memorabilia featuring Western Australian battalions from World War I at their home.