The tale of two brothers Marty & Vin and how oral & family histories can be notoriously inaccurate.
Since the very first time I visited the grave of my mother’s favourite Uncle Marty, I tended to focus exclusively on his story with his younger brother Vin, being on the sidelines. It was always said that Martin only enlisted because of his younger brother’s desire to go to war. The family story had always said that Vin was underage and it was finally Martin who convinced their mother to allow the younger sibling to enlist. This is where the contradictions begin: Vin’s service record says he was 21 years and 8 months…he could have enlisted without his mother’s consent so what the real story was we will never know. Vin was said to have been with Marty in the field during 1917 and he was gassed during that time. Vin’s service records clearly debunk that. There is no specific reference to him being gassed but he was indeed sick and was wounded on several occasions: he contracted mumps in his first month in France, was shot twice with wounds to his leg and shoulder and sickness also plagued the younger brother which quite possibly was the result of being gassed. But the real tragedy for the brothers becomes apparent when their service records are read in tandem. Here the Neagle brothers’ wartime experiences take on another level of sadness and loss. In recounting Marty’s story again for the 2019 Connecting Spirits Community Tour, I have a deeper understanding of this family tragedy by linking the two brothers in the narrative.
JAMES MARTIN CLEMENT NEAGLE (known as Martin)
Service Number: 2233
Unit Served: 50th Battalion
Personal Details: Martin Neagle born in 1880 at Port Pirie was the son of Edward Joseph and Susan Neagle of William Street Norwood.
Enlistment Details: He enlisted with his younger brother Vin on May 11th, 1916. They had consecutive numbers (2233 and 2234).
Details of his role in the War: Both brothers served in the 50th Battalion and departed from Adelaide on the “A 70 Ballarat” on the 12th of August of 1916. The deadly Battle of the Somme was in full force and the brothers avoided this battlefront being placed in the training camps on the Salisbury Plains at arriving at Codford in the UK on 30/9/16. During their time at Codford, they experienced one of the coldest winters on record. Prior to leaving for France, Martin sent several postcards one of them to my mother Catherine Royal (nee MacFarlane). Martin was her favourite uncle and remembered him all her life until she died in 1995. The postcard to my mother read:
November 21st 1916
My dear Cathy,
Just a line from ‘Uncle Marty’ before I go to France on Saturday and fight for you, Mary and Jim. Don’t forget to pray for Uncle Vin and Mart and we’ll be home again soon. This (view on the postcard) is something like the country looked like last Saturday and Sunday when we had snow here. Be a good girl for mummy and daddy. With love and kisses,
Both brothers proceeded to France on the 2nd of December, 1916 leaving from the port of Folkestone and Martin’s casualty form states he went to Etaples. This is NOT written on Vin’s however I am assuming they were at the same camp. On December 8th, 1916 Martin arrived at the notorious British training camp at Etaples. Its reputation amongst the troops was one of harsh cruelty and awful treatment of the troops by the officers. On the 23rd of December, the reality of the front line hit Martin Neagle as he joined the unit for battle. At the same time however, his younger brother Vin was struck down with mumps and didn’t re-join his unit until the 20th of January 1917. Martin’s records don’t show his movements until the following year when his battalion was involved in the horrific Battle of Messines. In June of 1917, 19 British mines that had been prepared for two years exploded in the largest underground detonation in military history. The impact was devastating killing many Germans and changing the landscape of the Messines region forever. Massive craters were created and it was reported that the blast was felt in London. Previously family history had said that both brothers were at Messines however the casualty records of Vin show that was not the case. Vin had already been wounded at the start of April 1917 with a gunshot wound to his left leg and in the following months spent significant periods in UK hospitals recovering. He even returned to Sutton Veny on the Salisbury Plains where both brothers began their journey together the previous year.
Because of the Messines battle, Martin suffered shell shock and was hospitalised from June 9th for two months. While recuperating he spent time at Le Havre and a collection of his postcards written in early August show many of the local sites. They were all filled in ready to be posted however they were not sent and are part of the memorabilia our family have from this man’s war experiences. One of the most poignant messages was “Battered but not beaten”.
Martin re-joined his unit after a period of leave in the UK and once again postcards reveal his brief time as tourist going to Scotland and seeing the sites in London such as the Tower of London. Once again it is possible the brothers’ paths MAY have crossed as they were both recuperating in the UK at the same time. Vin in fact spent time on the Salisbury Plains including Sutton Veny during October 1917. His older brother Martin returned to the Western Front and prepared to re-join his unit.
On the 4th of October 1917 Martin sent a beautifully embroidered Xmas card to his sister and brother in law, my grandparents.
“To Cis and Mac, a happy Christmas and bright New year. Your loving brother Mart.”
On October 18th, 1917 while his brother Vin remained on the Salisbury Plains the same location the brothers had shared their time together, Martin Neagle was killed in action in the Battle of Passchendaele and was buried in Polygon Wood. Vin did not return to the front lines until January 1918, and by that time would have known the fate of his older brother. More bouts of sickness and another gunshot wound to his shoulder, Vin saw out the end of the war in the field. It wasn’t until April 1919 that Vincent Neagle, younger brother of Martin, returned home to Australia without his adored sibling who lay in Flanders Fields.
The Buttes New British Cemetery is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the former killing fields of Flanders. He lies in peace with many other Australians who fought in some of the most horrific battles of the war. My mother never forgot her favourite uncle and if Cathy was alive today I am sure her grief and loss would be lessened by the fact that this man was the inspiration for the commemorative tours I have taken students on since 2001. He and his mates have NOT been forgotten. In 2013, I wrote a book dedicated to James Martin Clement Neagle called ‘Jimmy’s Anzac Pilgrimage’ and I hope it serves to honour the memory of this man and his younger brother. My only regret is that my Cathy never saw the impact her favourite Uncle Marty has had on so many who have learned his story. This is for you Mum.
Written by Julie Reece daughter of Cathy and great niece of Marty and Vin Neagle.
Age at Death: 28
Date of Death: 18th October 1917
Cemetery Details: Buttes New British Cemetery Plot XXVIII, Row A, Grave 2
Postscript: A wonderful development occurred during 2018 where locals from the Ypres and Zonnebeke region contacted me re Marty's story. Frank Mahieu and Gregory Verfaillie live close to Polygon Wood and have followed the cards left at Martin's grave over the years. Greg contacted me via social media to let me know about the Polygon Wood of Peace project where 500 relatives of those killed in the Passchendaele battles, could apply for a memorial oak tree to be planted and named in their relative's honour. In October 2018, I met these fine people and visited the living memorial now growing in the Polygon Wood with the name plate 'J.M.C Neagle' attached to a young oak sapling. Great Uncle Marty will now live on through this evocative memorial dedicated to his memory and those of his peers. Thank you seems an inadequate response to such a beautiful act of commemoration."
LEST WE FORGET Uncle Martie