No.780 Private Thomas St Albans Sewell
Thomas St Albans Sewell was born around 1870 at St Albans, Hertfordshire in England. Available records show different years of birth, but it was probably a conscious decision by Thomas to make himself at least three years younger when he enlisted on 13 February 1915 in Melbourne.
Thomas and his wife Naomi had married in Islington, London in 1895. In 1901, the family were living at Edmonton in Middlesex. Thomas declares his age as 30 and was working as a horse collar maker. His wife was 29 and looking after their three young children - two boys and a girl, all born in Hackney, a suburb of London.
In 1911, the family – now with seven children - left England aboard the SS Marathon and sailed for Brisbane. It is not known when they travelled to Melbourne and decided to settle in Werribee.
His attestation papers say he was born in August 1873 and was around 42 years of age when he volunteered. According to a number of English census documents, he was born in 1870.
He was just one of many boys and men who changed their age for the chance to serve their country – especially during the early months of the war when it was expected that the conflict would be over fairly quickly.
Even so, it would appear that the recruiting officer was prepared to overlook Thomas' age because the standard of the day said that recruits had to be between 19 and 38 years of age. This wasn't to officially change until June 1915 when the age limit was lifted to 45 and the minimum height requirement dropped to 5’2” from 5’6”.
At the time of his enlistment, Thomas declared his occupation as a saddler, which at the time was a trade perfectly suited to rural Werribee, as they were still heavily dependent on real horsepower.
Training for volunteers was very brief in those early days of the war. Although he had only enlisted in February, by May he was on board the HMAT Euripedes bound for Egypt as part of C Company, 24th Infantry Battalion.
Although the battalion landed in the Dardanelles on 4 September 1915, there’s no mention of Private Sewell serving in the Dardanelles. According to the battalion history, a small contingent from the battalion stayed behind and served as packhorse handlers with the British in Salonika, Greece.
After the retreat from the Dardanelles in December 1915, the battalion returned to Egypt where its numbers were brought up to strength and was re-equipped. Following a period of intense training, it was sent to France in March 1916.
In July and August, the battalion was embroiled in the deadly battles around Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. During this period, Private Thomas Sewell was wounded twice – the first, a bullet wound to his back that was treated and saw him return to C Company and then a severe gunshot wound to his left hand that saw him evacuated to England for treatment and recuperation.
His army record also notes that he was suffering from deafness – probably a by-product of the constant shelling that Australian troops experienced at both Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. In fact, at Pozieres, it was said that the German bombardment of Australian troops far surpassed the worst shelling endured by Australians to that point of the war.
After treatment and recuperation, Private Sewell, infantryman, became Sapper Sewell with the Australian Corps Signalling Company. The Australian Corps of Signallers was formed in 1906 although its origins date back to 1869 with the formation of a torpedo and signal corps in the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria. The signallers became part of the Australian Corps of Engineering in 1911 and didn't regain their autonomy until 1925.
It was the connection with the engineers that resulted in servicemen in these units being designated as sappers.
For the rest of 1916 and up until March 1918, Sapper Sewell spent much of his time at four training camps on the Salisbury Plains in Wiltshire – Lark Hill, Bulford, Park House and Perham Downs, as well as Shelford in Cambridgeshire.
His time in France was brief and he was sent back to England. He was then sent back to Australia in September 1918 for ‘personal reasons’ and was discharged from service in February 1919. There is no mention in his papers as to why he received this special dispensation.
In the 1919 Electoral Roll, Thomas Sewell was living at Werribee and working as a market gardener. It is known from his file that he owned land in Werribee (allotment 17, Section E, Parish of Deutgam), but this was sold in the early 1920s. By 1925, he had moved to Dalby, Queensland where he was described as a farmer and in the mid-1930s to a farm at Beerburrum on the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.
Medals and Entitlements:
- 1914/15 Star
- Victory Medal
- British War Medal
NAA: B2455 SEWELL THOMAS
24th Infantry Battalion history; engineers/signal corps history: Australian War Memorial