In many ways the records of the two brothers, Christian and Leonard Miller, are unique in the knowledge we have of the part that Winkleigh played in the Great War. They represent for us, and for the surviving families, the descendants of those who a hundred or so years ago who lived in the village, a link with the wider British Empire, whose young men and women who responded throughout the war to the call from the 'Mother Country' to come to her aid. Derek and Margaret Miller, so loved and admired in Winkleigh, are truly one of the very last links that we have to those far off times and we can all be proud that they have both given their wholehearted support to the research into their family's war records. We have taken the two stories together, in a joint account, because of their common early start, and because the two brothers were inseparable. They travelled to Australia together, enlisted together, and have congruent army numbers. However, while Christian served correctly under his name, Miller, Leonard chose to identify himself under the name Millar, no doubt a sensible precaution that ensured, in a situation where volunteer recruits were enlisting in large numbers, no confusion in their records would result.
Christian (christened Albert Christian J) was the younger of the two, born in 1894, the fourth child of Josiah and Lillie Miller, a Winkleigh farmer at Grays Bridge farm, Lillie coming from Zeal Monachorum. After the war, Christian married in 1926 to Ethel Dart, who was born in South Molton,. They had two children, Hazel and Derek. Derek and Margaret were married in 1964, Derek farming the original land that was once farmed by his grandparents and his parents. In retirement, they have a daughter, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Leonard, the elder brother, was born in 1893. He was married in the same year as his brother, 1926, The family tree of the Miller brothers and their descendants is added to this site.
The brothers were seeking adventure and a new life when they decided to emigrate to Australia. We do not know what led them to take the decision to leave Winkleigh and venture overseas, but there are clues. Later information reveals that there were difficulties at home: their mother struggled to keep the farm going while Josiah is described as 'intemperate', and obviously making life very difficult for the two sons on whom a great deal of responsibility must have fallen, along with their two elder sisters. All we know is that aged 18 and 19 the brothers left Liverpool on the SS Belgic and arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia, in July 1913. We know little of the brothers' farm work but Derek Miller has reported that his dad told him that when in Australia he did fencing work on a huge farm and also drove a combine harvester that was pulled by a team of eight horses. About 19 months after arriving in Australia the brothers decided to enlist together in the Australian Light Horse, the elite of the Australian army. In February of 1916, both brothers enlisted in the Australian Imperial Military Force at Blackboy Hill army camp, not far from the state capital, Perth. Blackboy Hill acquired its strange name from an indigenous plant, Xanthorrhoea, based on the purported similarity in appearance of the trunked species to an Aboriginal man holding his upright spear, called Blackboys by early white settlers.
We are indeed fortunate that the Australian individual war records have been preserved intact and are now fully on line, in contrast to the British individual war records, some seventy percent of which were destroyed in the London blitz. As a result, we can build up a complete record of the fortunes that awaited the brothers when they enlisted into the Australian Light Horse on 2nd February 1916. We look first at the story of Christian Miller, who following enlistment and a clear medical examination was posted to the 15th Battalion of the 10th Australian Light Horse, a reserve training battalion. He was posted from the Blackboys Camp to be taken on strength with the 15th Light Horse then stationed at Tel El Kebir, Egypt, about 110 kilometres north-east of Cairo.He arrived on 24th June 1916. (Interestingly, Tel El Kebir was once the site of a British victory over Egyptian rebels in 1882.) No sooner had he arrived, however, than Christian was taken into hospital at Tel El Kebir with suspected venereal disease, gonorrhoea, symptoms of which were recorded on Troopship SS Surada and presumably contracted before embarkation for foreign service. He was transferred on 27th June to the base hospital at Suez for treatment. Successful, Christian returned to duty at Tel El Kebir and we hear no further of the problem: a lesson had obviously been learned.
The Australian Light Horse was the elite regiment of the Australian army: they were equipped as mounted infantry, mounted on light hard-working ponies, and intended to be able to take up positions with great speed to surprise the enemy. Christian had worked with horses all his life, but this was perhaps a different experience, riding at very fast speeds. An accident followed. On 5th August 1916 Christian was sent to the base hospital at the Abbassia district of Cairo suffering from contusion of the hip resulting from a fall. Bones were not broken but he would have suffered bruising, swelling and much pain, and he has to rest for about three weeks. On 21st August he returned to the 15th Battalion at Tel El Kebir, but was judged unfit for further rigorous training and on 26th August was posted to the 3rd Battalion of the Light Horse stationed at Abbassia, a district of Cairo to join the Imperial Australian Camel Corps reserve battalion, to begin training for an entirely different mode of warfare. Here he remained for some months until 27th May 1917 when he was sent to the hospital at Abbassia with a fever, diagnosed as pyrexia on 2nd June, and confirmed as . malaria. On 4th July he was transferred to hospital at Montazar, a district of Alexandria overlooking the Mediterranean some three hours drive from Cairo and renowned for its healthy environment - an ideal location, in fact, for a convalescent programme. Recovering, he was moved back to Cairo on 16th July, and then back to Abbassia on 21st.
In his weakened state, Christian was now unsuited to service with a front line Camel Corps battalion, and instead was posted on 28th July 1917 to the 14th Brigade headquarters probably to serve as a batman. Certainly, he was detached from the headquarters on 8th September with his young officer, presumably to join one of the four battalions in the brigade for a short time, but was back at brigade headquarters on 7th December. The next posting was on 27th January 1918 to the brigade headquarters of the 233rd Infantry Brigade, where it is recorded he became batman to a Lt. Hall. Here he stayed until 9th March 1918 when he re-joined the Camel Corps brigade headquarters.
Malaria struck again and on 7th July 1918 Christian was back in hospital at Abbassia for ten days, followed by a convalescent hospital at Abbassia where he stayed until 30th July before returning to duty at the 5th Brigade of the 14th Infantry Regiment at Moascar. Again, he fell ill on 3rd August, this time for only 7 days, returning to the 14th on 10th August. The next attack was more serious - into hospital on 27th October for three weeks and returning on 24th November. And so the story goes on with ever increasing attacks, which must have really depressed Christian and made him feel that now the war was over life in the army was hardly worth continuing. Letters from home must have been depressing too, with his mother recounting the difficulties she was under. But a discharge was far from easy to secure as demobilisation was as slow a process in Australia as it was in Britain.
Meanwhile Christian was in hospital again from 8th to the 27th of February, and was moved from batman duties to work in the company stores on 22nd March: officers were of course being demobilised in increasing numbers. But now Christian saw his chance: on 29th March he was posted from the 14th Infantry Regiment at Moascar to the Australian Egyptian Headquarters in Cairo. Christian managed to obtain leave documents which secured him a passage back to England, possibly adding his name to a group already authorised. He embarked at Port Said on the M.S. Caledonia on 12th April 1919. The Caledonia was built 1894 by Caird and Co. Greenock for the UK India passenger and mail service. The largest P and O ship to date, the ship could accommodate 365 first class passengers and 175 second class. Between 1914 and 1917 she carried troops to and from India. From December 1917, defensively armed and commissioned as a troop transport, the Caledonia carried 140,000 troops without loss.
On 23rd April Christian reported to the Orderly Room of the Australian Infantry Forces in London and was granted leave to 24 June. As he did not report for duty on that day he was duly reported as ‘Absent Without Leave’ one of the most serious crimes it was possible to commit. To understand just how serious, it is well known that 'going AWL' in a front line combat situation could, and did, merit the death penalty. There was no risk of that of course now that the war was over, but he still risked a military prison sentence, which in the British Army would almost certainly have applied, no matter what the circumstances. Happily, a more relaxed disciplinary structure existed in the Australian army, and Christian took advantage of this.
Realising what had happened, and probably with some sympathy for his difficulties, the authorities awarded him a period of leave to cover his absence from 26th May, initially until 3rd June giving time to sort things out. His punishment was merely to stop his pay for 21 days previous to this date. On his way now to Britain, the leave period was officially extended until 5th June and then periodially on the 9th, 11th and 13th June. Finally, having arrived in England on 21st June he was formally arrested by the military police on Paddington Station on the last stage of his journey back to Winkleigh, but was not taken into custody. Instead he was merely ordered to report to the Australian Headquarters at 130 Horseferry Road, Westminster, on 25th June. His appearance in England was not accepted as a 'fait accompli', but it became a matter of whether or not it was worth the authorities sending him back to Australia: as far as Christian was concerned it was time for his war service to end, but the Australian Headquarters did not necessarily agree. On 12th September he was in fact ordered to return to Australia, and at that point it was necessary to present further evidence to support his case.
The general instructions with regard to an application for discharge explain the letters written by Dr. Glover, Christian's mother and Christian himself. A rather rushed letter from a busy Dr. Glover dated 24th September 1919 is documented:
Dr. W.K.Glover desires to say that Mrs. Miller has indifferent health and her husband intemperate which renders the management of her farm very precarious. She is most anxious to obtain the release of her son Chris Miller from the A.I.F. so that they may retain possession of their farm. Dr. Glover wishes to add his testimony on the merits of this case having kown the family for the past six years.
Lillie herself wrote rather poignantly about her situation:
I have a farm situated at the above address and my husband is an intemperate which naturally renders himself utterly useless as being of any assistance carrying on any business and unless you grant me this favour I shall be reluctantly compelled to dispose of same as personally I am unable to do the work necessary. I may say that during the past 4 years I have struggled to keep things going for the interests of my children....
Christian's application for a discharge was made on 25th September, and a decision was made at the Headquarters in London, the document marked 'Local ruling will apply'. All was well. Having been granted leave to remain in England until 20th September, Christian received further extensions until 20th October. On 11th October 1919 Christian, identified as belonging to the 15th Light Horse on leave from Egypt, obtained his discharge from the A.I.F. Headquarters in London with effect from 3rd November. He had served for 3 years and 275 days, and was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, which he finally received in September 1924. In spite of the recurrent bouts of malaria he was still graded medical category A, which seems a good sign for his future in Winkleigh. He received back pay amounting to twenty-two pounds and ten shillings, a considerable sum. At the time of his discharge Christian signed an indemnity form on 27th January 1920, accepting that he would not be eligible for a free passage if at any time he wished to return to Australia. Besides the Victory and British medals, his Discharge Badge (a uniquely Australian army award), which after some delay Christian requested on 27th January 1920, was forwarded to Winkleigh. Curiously, Christian asks as a postscript to this document whether he was eligible for a reduced passage back to Australia: perhaps the pressures and difficulties of his life on the farm led him sometimes to wonder whether he might do better returning.
Whatever his reason was, Christian did indeed return to Australia - sailing on the SS Wiltshire from Liverpool on 5th February 1921, landing in Freemantle in March. What he did in Australia is not known by his family, but he returned to England from Freemantle on thte SS Ormonde, arriving in Plymouth on 11th December 1922. His marriage in 1926 obviously sealed his future life in Winkleigh, the security of the farm and of course established the family line that exists to this day.
We are grateful to Margaret & Derek Miller for their cooperation and information and to Alan Mulcahy for research.
28th February 2018