The lush, tropical landscape of south-eastern Queensland must have seemed a world away from her homeland for 28 year old Ernestine Julianne Schwarz when she arrived in Australia in April 1886.
Born in Rendsburg, in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, Ernestine married Poul Christensen, a Danish migrant, one month after arriving in Australia. The couple set up home in the small timber town of Tiaro in Queensland, where Poul worked as a carpenter.
Within eight years the family had seen the birth of two daughters and three sons. After they left school, sons Andreas (known as Andrew), Poul (known as Dan) and Victor took up jobs in the local agricultural and sawmilling industries, and eldest daughter Victoria left home to train as a nurse in Brisbane. She worked in the Children’s Hospital for five years, eventually becoming a matron.
After the First World War broke out, Victoria aged 28, was the first in the family to volunteer to serve, enlisting in the Australian Army Nursing service in 1915. She was one of more than 3,000 Australian nurses who enlisted during the war. Nursing was then a profession just for women, and provided a way for them to directly participate in the war effort. Many of the women also saw it as a way to be closer to loved ones serving overseas.
The Christensens were a close-knit family. In the next 12 months all three sons had also enlisted. Eldest son Andrew left Australia with reinforcements for the 15th Battalion. He served in France and Belgium until he was wounded in the leg by an exploding artillery shell during an action in August 1917. Andrew was evacuated to a hospital in England before returning to Australia in December 1917. For the rest of his life he had only limited use of his damaged leg.
Middle son Dan was living in Bundaberg with Margaret, his wife of just two months, when he left Brisbane with Andrew in October 1916. Like Andrew, he also served with the 15th Battalion, but worked as a stretcher bearer. Life in the trenches on the Western Front was hard, the men often knee-deep in cold, wet mud. Dan suffered from trench fever for much of 1917, but went on to serve with his unit for the remainder of the war. He returned home to his family in Queensland in mid-1919.
Youngest son Victor enlisted in September 1915, just three months after Victoria. Tall and fair haired, Victor was only 20 years old at the time, and working in the local saw mill. He left for Egypt in March 1916 and spent some time training before joining the 42nd Battalion and embarking for service on the Western Front.
Sickness dogged Victor for much of his time overseas. He was hospitalised several times with pneumonia, prompting his mother Ernestine to enquire after his condition in March 1917:
A little more than a month ago, I had a telegram from you advising me that my son Corporal Victor Christensen was seriously ill with bronchitis, pneumonia…since then I have heard no news. Please can you tell me anything, or what may be likely to be the reason?
By June Victor was serving on the front line at Messines in Belgium. Just before dawn on 7 June 1917, the allies detonated 19 enormous mines under the German trenches. The explosions could be heard kilometres away. British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers eventually recaptured the area. A few weeks later, on 31 July, while carrying out further attacks on concrete pillboxes in nearby Warneton, Victor was killed.
News of Victor’s death was reported back home in Queensland in the local paper:
The news that Private Victor Christensen had been reported killed in action somewhere in France was received at Tiaro with many expressions of regret. Private Christensen was a native of Tiaro and was well known and respected by the residents of the district.
Victor and Victoria seem to have had a strong bond. In June 1917 Victor had nominated Victoria as the recipient of his personal belongings should he die. A package was later sent to her at No. 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Southall, England. Among its contents were photos, a mirror, a scarf, a balaclava, and mittens. In august Victoria wrote to a friend, “My baby brother was killed just a month ago, and I can hardly realise it yet.”
Victor has no known grave, but his name is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium and on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.