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Charles SHIELDS


Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Pte 646 25y4m 21 Sep 1914 18 Jul 1917 DW 2 & 7

Private Charles Shields (1888 - 1917)

Shields Brothers Booklet

The Shields Family.

Charles and Donald Shields were sons of Alfred Henderson Shields, a carpenter, and his wife Harriet née Dunn.  Their parents had married in 1885 in a house in Amelia Street, Fortitude Valley after emigrating when they were children, Alfred from Scotland and Harriet from Cornwall.  To earn a living during the early twentieth century it had been necessary for Alfred and Harriet Shields to move with their young, growing family to Albion, Nanango and Woody Point before returning to Fortitude Valley and later settling at Sargeant Road (now Sargent Street) New Farm.  Three of their ten children died in infancy; their youngest child was Dorothy Jean, their only surviving daughter.

Charles and Donald were nearly seven years apart in age. Both attended Fortitude Valley State School where Mr Hardcastle was the Head Teacher.  Both went off to the war but did not return.

In 1925 Alfred and Harriet Shields moved to Bribie Island where Alfred continued his carpentry trade and played bowls at Bongaree in the days before a bridge connected the island to the mainland. Mrs Shields died there in 1934. Alfred Shields was 90 years old when he died in 1953. His grave is in Toowong Cemetery.

Early Life and Enlistment.

Charles Shields was born in Brisbane on 5 June 1889 and spent most of his boyhood in the suburb of Fortitude Valley.  He was employed as a steward on the steamer Emerald and at the age of 25 was one of the first to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the Great War.  He enlisted in Brisbane on 21 September 1914, nominating his mother as next-of-kin and naming his religious denomination as Presbyterian.  He was small in stature, standing to a height of 155cm.  Given regimental number 646 and allotted to 15th Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade, Private Charles Shields commenced training at Enoggera Camp.  In those early days he was ‘admonished’ for hesitating to obey an order and insolence to a non-commissioned officer – signs of a recruit’s difficulty in accepting the conditions of army life.  At Enoggera he played the role of bugler before his unit travelled to Melbourne for embarkation on board HMAT1 Ceramic on 22 December 1914, bound for the Suez Canal and Alexandria.

Gallipoli.

The 15th moved into camp at Heliopolis where it was assigned to Major General Alexander Godley's New Zealand and Australian Division. An extensive period of training in the desert followed throughout February and March.  Finally, on 10 April, the 15th Battalion was moved by train to Alexandria then by troopship to Mudros where the Allied force assembled prior to the assault on Gallipoli.  Assigned to the follow-up waves, the 15th Battalion landed at Anzac Cove on the afternoon of 25 April 1915.

As the Ottoman defenders checked the Allied advance inland, on arrival the 15th Battalion was rushed into the line on the left flank of the beachhead.  The advance inland stalled, the battalion became isolated and threatened with destruction until Cannan2 withdrew his force to a more tenable position.  Later, they helped shore up the line before occupying positions around Pope's Hill and Russell's Top where they joined an attack on 1 May.  After that, they occupied Quinn's Post and defended it against a strong Ottoman counterattack on 19 May.  Further fighting occurred around the battalion's position as the Ottoman troops began tunnelling under the no man's land that divided the two lines.  Counter-mining actions were undertaken but on 29 May a significant attack was put in against the 15th Battalion's position and they were briefly forced back before restoring the situation with a strong counterattack.

After this a period of stalemate fell across the peninsula. In early June, the 15th Battalion, its strength having fallen to below 600 men, was withdrawn from Quinn's Post to recuperate in a quiet sector known as Rest Gully.  Over the next two months, due to illness and exhaustion, the battalion's personnel including Private Charles Shields were almost completely replaced.  He was transported in July from the peninsula to hospital at Mudros where he remained till the evacuation from Gallipoli in December and returned to Alexandria but again sickness troubled him.

At Heliopolis he entered hospital suffering from influenza and other diseases.  During rehabilitation on Lemnos he had been guilty of absence without leave and this happened again at Ismailia.  His recovery was sufficient to enable him to join the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in May 1916 but in July he entered hospital in Boulogne then Colchester and other hospitals in England with rheumatic fever.  After furlough he reported to the Perham Downs Command Depot for rehabilitation.  There followed a series of more absences without leave for which Private Shields was strictly admonished and fined, each time more severely.  On 14 May 1917 he was ready again for overseas service and rejoined 15th Battalion at Étaples in France.

At this stage, the 4th Brigade of which the 15th Battalion was a part, had withdrawn from battles around Bullecourt following very heavy casualties.  In one attack, 2339 soldiers from the 4th Brigade lay dead or wounded out of 3000 including 400 from the 15th; by the end of the attack, only 52 men from the battalion's assault force remained uninjured.  When Charles Shields rejoined his platoon, soldiers of the 15th Battalion had withdrawn from the line back to farmland around the village of Doulien where the battalion was rebuilding.

Belgium.

In mid-1917, the Australians were moved to Belgium as the focus of British operations shifted to the Ypres sector in an effort to draw German attention away from the French.  The first effort came around Messines on the southern flank, where a series of tunnels were dug under the German lines. On 7 June, 19 mines were detonated and in the ensuing fighting, the British captured Messines Ridge.  Assigned a support role, the 15th Battalion was held in reserve and did not take part in the attack.  The following day, it was committed to hold the gains that had been made during the attack, relieving the New Zealanders around Gooseberry Farm.  During June, Charles Shields was admitted to hospital twice.  The 15th remained in the Ypres sector and on the night of 18/19 July 1917 Charles Shields took a revolver from Lance Corporal Cochrane’s equipment under his bed and one round of ammunition and shot himself near the boundary of the camp.  His comrades identified his body next morning and a medical officer at the Court of Inquiry described the path of the bullet through his head and stated the wound was in his opinion self-inflicted.

Second Lieutenant J. T. Hynes, one of the witnesses at the Court of Enquiry conducted immediately after the incident, stated: 

“Deceased was a good soldier, enlisted November 1914 (sic) served right through Gallipoli campaign under me, was with Battalion from beginning …”

The Court’s finding expressed the opinion that Private Shields died on the night of 18/19 July 1917 from a bullet wound in the head and that:

“...the wound was self-inflicted during a moment of temporary insanity as a result of mental strain brought on by severe and prolonged active service conditions.”

On 21 July Lieutenant Colonel Brockman, commanding 4th Australian Infantry Brigade concurred with the finding.

On 22 July Brigadier General Sinclair MacLagan, commanding 4th Australian Division wrote: 

“I concur with the findings with the exception of the words, ‘as a result of mental strain brought on by severe and prolonged active service conditions’.” He continued, “There is no evidence in support of the actual mental strain suffered by the accused on account of active service.”

On 24 July Major-General Delavoye commanding 2nd Anzac Corps said: 

“The findings of the Court are concurred in.”

On 27 July Surgeon General Carter, Director of Medical Services, Second Army, signed his statement: 

“I agree with the finding of the Court that No 646 Pte Shields C. died from a bullet wound in the head self-inflicted, but there is nothing in the evidence to show that he was temporarily insane at the time.”

The differences of opinions expressed by these senior officers points to the sensitivity of the matter of suicidal deaths during the life of the AIF.  In this case, a suicide was officially recognised, medals awarded and the soldier’s name appeared on the Roll of Honour. However, David Noonan's work Those We Forget3 calls for a revision of World War 1 statistics and a fresh interpretation of their meaning.  It would appear commentators today would be better informed and less reluctant to discuss ‘shell shock’ and causes of suicidal deaths than those who earlier attempted to give opinions on these matters.  

There was a real stigma around suicide in the early twentieth century and little incentive for people to talk about it.  Records show that of the 308,000 who were hospitalized, about 62,000 were because of ‘shell shock’.  Of the soldiers that survived combat, approximately 550 took their own lives, though Noonan notes that these were mostly between 1919 and 1920 - after the end of the war.

Correspondence between army authorities and Charles’s parents in New Farm followed over the course of years.  The letters are sad to read.  A package containing testament, pocket book, knife, letter and photos was delivered in April 1918.  Having received a letter requesting preferences for inscriptions on the gravestone, Mrs Harriet Shields wrote in October 1920: 

...you may put "The Cross of the Christian Faith and Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.”

But, she was advised in a later letter the number of words exceeded the limit.

Though history does not afford us an intimate knowledge of the life of the individual soldier called Charles Shields, he is remembered with honour on a headstone in Trois Arbres Cemetery, Steenwerck in France, on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial and on the Brass Roll of Honour in memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War in the Merrington Anzac Memorial Peace Chapel in Brisbane.


Footnotes
1. His Majesty’s Australian Transport 
2. Then Lieutenant Colonel Cannan, Commanding Officer, 15th Battalion; later Major General James Harold Cannan, CB, CMG, DSO, VD (29 August 1882 – 23 May 1976), an Australian Army brigadier general in the First World War and the Quartermaster General during the Second World War.
3. David Noonan. Those We Forget: Recounting Australian Casualties of the First World War, Melbourne University Press, 2014  

References
• National Archives of Australia, World War 1 military records 
• Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour, Embarkation Rolls, Unit histories and images where cited
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission, memorial records
• Ancestry on line
• Noonan, David, Those We Forget: Recounting Australian Casualties of the First World War, Melbourne University Press, 2014
• Australian Electoral Rolls, 1905 - 1949
• Brisbane City Council, cemetery records
Brisbane Courier, 21 March, 1885, page 1
Courier-Mail, 13 April 1953, page 10

Written by Noel E. Adsett, Brisbane.  June 2017

 

 

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