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Faith on the frontline

Memories from war

Life of prayer: The prayer book, saints’ medals and war medals of Australian Private Edmond William Carmody Bourke.

By Emilie Ng

ACROSS the sea, a young Australian venerates his finger-worn St Benedict’s medal, praying with reasonable doubt if he will ever return home from war-torn France.

He rubs the medal with his left hand, all too aware that it will be the hand he depends on for the rest of his life.

Private Edmond William Carmody Bourke enlisted in the 49th Battalion on September 24, 1915, a scapular and a medal for St Joseph and guardian angels cuddling his neck and the powerful St Benedict medal in a canvas sack.

A devout Catholic, he also carried with him simple palm-sized, prayer cards with instructions on morning prayers, night prayers, and a short prayer in preparation for death.

The cards were given to Catholics in active service during the First World War.

The medals and garments survived the war, as did their owner, and returned to Australia, worn and frayed.

The precious religious items are still in Private Bourke’s canvas sack, now safe with his twin daughters, Betty and Jessie Bourke, of St Luke’s parish, Buranda.

Loving daugthers

Faithful family: Twin sisters Betty and Jessie Bourke hold the diary and military medals belonging to their beloved father, Private Edmond William Carmody Bourke, and (left) one of the last Bourke family photos before Private Bourke died in 1979.

“It was the prayers and medals that actually saved him,” Jessie said, her father’s scapula in hand.

In 1915, Private Bourke was 24, unmarried and on his second enlistment in the war, his first service to Papua New Guinea aboard the SS Kanown made immovable due to “mechanical failures”.

The handsome soldier was among thousands of young Queensland men who signed up for the treacherous battles of the war, not knowing if they would live or die.

Private Bourke volunteered to learn Morse code in Cairo, Egypt, and after his short training, was a signaller for the Queenslander troops in France.

Signallers were responsible for placing and repairing cables for delivering or dispatching messages through the trenches.

According to Private Bourke, the signaller was “the branch of service who send the ack ack ack”, who dodged artillery shells, thanking “their stars” they hadn’t joined the fallen.

Private Bourke’s first escape from death was while trying to send his first message at Pozieres.

He likened the attacks at Pozieres to being “mowed down like wheat”; it was the “scene of bitter and costly fighting” that suffered thousands of Australians casualties.

Between praying for safety and a nod from the captain to send messages, Private Bourke turned to a thin, leather-bound notebook.

There he penned poems describing the “duress” of the “deadly risk” of being a signaller, the pain of watching “decent blokes” being “blown up”, and heart-wrenching wishes for “the game” to end.

So far they treated us ‘trés bon’

As far shells are concerned

Though we went in 900 strong

600 men returned

I said we lost 300 men

300 lives so cheap

There should be a law for shepherds

Who waste the lives of sheep

His poems are a rare snapshot of the bloodshed, the lone suffering, and the hardship of the war, and a glimpse into the sensitive soul.

“I’ve never read every bit of it because it gets too much,” Betty said, wiping a tear from her eye.

“They weren’t supposed to keep diaries either; it was against the law,” Jessie said.

The skilled poet didn’t just pen his rhymes, but often versed them aloud as a rare form of entertainment for the troops.

“When they were sort of lying in the trenches, Dad used to entertain them, because someone would say something and Dad would say, ‘Just a moment,’ and he’d make a poem out of what that man said, just straight like that,” Jessie said.

He stayed a poet even to his death, offering verses for the local Camp Hill Church’s parish newsletter for Pentecost and other Church seasons.

Private Bourke spent his last day in France, walking from Corby to Villers-Brettoneux to set up a telephone line.

It would take the Private and another signaller five kilometers, and the plan was to Morse code a message once at Villers-Brettoneux.

It was a cool day, a layer of fog floating on the steep ground.

He went three quarters up the hill, the next trench in site, when a German plane flew overhead, but as it went out of the site, the signallers pressed on.


British troops heard the blast, and led Private Bourke back to their trenches.

The shrapnel from the bomb had ricocheted through the air, tearing through Private Bourke’s right arm.

“His arm was still attached, but badly, just hanging off, apparently,” Betty said.

He was given first aid and taken to an on-site hospital under the American military forces in Etretat, and received opium and laudanum to mask the pain.

The doctors forced a hand up Private Bourke’s shoulder to stop a bleeding artery.

He was transferred to a hospital in Bristol where his arm was amputated on May 29, 1918.

Private Bourke

Life after battle: The Australian military signaller embraced life with just one arm, becoming a great sportsmen and successful photographer.

Months later, while lying in his bed, and fumbling on his Catholic medals praying for a return home, a doctor came round “to select the worse” and send them home.

“Dad was praying, of course, and the doctor passed him and went to the door, but he came back and said, ‘I’ll take that man,’,” Betty said.

“Otherwise, he’d be dead.”

And so the prayers of this handsome signaller, hit by a brutal bomb attack, eventually made it back across the sea, despite his doubts, in 1919, after a long recuperation period in England.

On home soil, Private Bourke bought a farm and learnt to carry watermelons with his left hand pushing on the back of his neck.

He also learnt to catch a cricket ball the same fashion, details of his epic skills making the local newspaper.

“He excelled at sports,” Jessie said.

“He played golf, cricket, everything.

“He played bowls championships once, and won.”

The veteran married Emma Ann Cambage in Cooroy, in 1924, and had six children, Irene, Grace, Edmond, Herbert, and Betty and Jessie.

Betty and Jessie said he was “tremendous” and “a very handsome man”.

Edmond Bourke sold the farm in 1938 and started his own photography service, despite not knowing “a thing about cameras”.

He had two photography studios and dark rooms in Toowoomba.

He died on June 21, 1979 from stomach cancer.

He never returned to Villers-Brettoneux after the war, a missed trip daughter Jessie, who has travelled with many Anzac veterans over the years as a nurse, regrets never doing.

“The saddest thing is, I never ever took Dad back,” Jessie said.

At least his daughters have faith that he is now in a better place.

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