This house in Melbourne stands testimony to the love and strength of one woman who kept her family home together after her husband was killed at Villers-Bretonneux.
Like many women widowed during the First World War, Theresa George had to find the courage to fight on, long after the war had ended.
Her husband, Private Reg George, was blown up on his first day in the trenches, but it took months for his true fate to be uncovered.
First he was listed as ‘died of wounds received in action’; then the Red Cross revealed he had been hit by an Allied shell. The explosion reverberated in many ways through his family and community.
Before the war, Reg, 29, had been working as a butcher in Brunswick, a bustling and spirited manufacturing district north of Melbourne.
At the butcher shop on the main thoroughfare of Sydney Road, he was part of a traditional craft that was proud of its authority and position in the community.
Brunswick – with its brickworks, textile factories, trams and trains – was his world, and when he died, his wife’s world collapsed – almost.
Theresa George, and her two children, Ernie, 5, and Reg Junior, 2, had to leave the family home in Brunswick.
They moved from place to place, staying with friends and family and in share houses. From five addresses, Theresa corresponded with the army’s Base Records Office, seeking details of her husband’s death.
Later, inquiries by the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau revealed that Reg had been severely wounded in the chest and thighs by an Allied shell. He died soon afterwards at the 10th Australian Field Ambulance.
Reg was just an ordinary bloke, a little Aussie battler serving his country, but that’s what so many of them were, ordinary Australians doing their bit. – Descendant Bill George
Another soldier in the 37th Battalion, Frank Higgins, testified: ‘I have seen his grave on the right edge of the Wood at the back of the Monastery 2½ miles behind and to the right of Villers-Bretonneux. I understand he died of shock from a wound received during a daylight raid in front of Villers-Bretonneux. He came with me with the 8th [Reinforcements].’
Reg George was buried in the Longueau British Cemetery, south of Amiens.
In Brunswick, Sydney Road became the site of war commemorations and patriotism, with private and public memorials lining the road.
After the war, in January 1919, Theresa received her late husband’s effects from the field: two wallets, photos, cards, receipts, seaman’s service books, a penholder, a holdall, a pair of scissors and a toothbrush.
Base Records also sent a brochure, titled “Where the Australians Rest”, describing overseas war cemeteries.
The grief would have crippled many, but Theresa was a strong woman who had worked as a domestic servant from the age of 13. She had a warm heart and always reached out to her broader family, with practical and meaningful gestures.
She raised her two sons in rented properties and she sublet rooms to survive. Then she purchased her own house with a Service Widow Loan and took in boarders. Modest comforts included a three-penny gas meter.
Her two sons, Ernie and Reg Junior served in the Second World War. Further grief came when Reg was accidentally killed by an aeroplane propeller in Papua New Guinea.
Both Reg and Theresa George – and their two servicemen sons – were remembered in Villers-Bretonneux this year by their grandson Bill who lives in Brunswick.
‘Reg was just an ordinary bloke, a little Aussie battler serving his country, but that’s what so many of them were, ordinary Australians doing their bit,’ Bill said.
‘Theresa was a strong war-widow type. She looked after things well. Once she even sent a piano across the Nullarbor for my sister. She was very generous.
‘A hundred years later, our family still lives in the Brunswick area – my daughter bought the house across the road – and Brunswick – the home that she created – remains the centre of our universe.’