The Incredible Luck of Private Clarrie Francis. First A.I.F.

Private Clarrie Francis. Picture: SUPPLIED

By John Telfer, History Writer

Many stories emanating from World War 1, tell of the terrible casualty figures suffered by Australian forces from 1914 – 1918. During this period, 416,809 men and women enlisted. It resulted in 60,000 of the First Australian Imperial Force died, and 160,000 were wounded, or were taken prisoner. From these alarming statistics emerged a man from Killarney, Clarence James Francis, who not only survived the war but had two very close shaves and was able to return home in 1918, physically damaged, but went on to a successful life.

Clarrie, as he liked to be called, was born in Killarney, Queensland, on the 21st July, 1893, the son of Edwin and Sarah Ann Francis, a shopkeeper at Tannymorel. (Edwin had migrated to the colony at an earlier date and took up residence there). They raised a family of two boys and 4 girls, but managed to give the large family a decent living at the small village of Tannymorel. It is unclear where Clarrie received his early education, possibly at Killarney school, then later at Farm Creek School, which was situated on the Tannymorel/Mt. Colliery road, commencing in 1903.

On leaving school at the early age of 14, Clarrie was offered the opportunity to learn a trade as his father Edwin encouraged him in this, perhaps remembering the unfortunate life of he and his siblings, who ended up in an English workhouse in Bristol. So, when a position came up at the local newspaper, the Killarney Advocate, Clarrie trained there as a compositor from 1906 until 1912. He later resigned from that newspaper, moved to Brisbane and gained a position as a compositor at Brisbane’s Catholic Advocate from 1912 until 1916.

With the very high casualty figures on the Western Front and Prime Minister William Hughes fully committed to supporting Britain in World War 1, recruiting was in full swing to support the First AIF. With a bitterly divided country on Conscription for overseas service, it was in this social climate that Clarrie, at the age of 23, enlisted on 23rd September 1916 in Brisbane. Sent to Seymour for training, Clarrie was allocated to the 7/11th, 7th Reinforcements, 4th Machine Gun Company. After his initial training Clarrie embarked on the troopship HMAT A70 “Ballarat”, which left for the United Kingdom on 19th February 1917, and it was here that he encountered his first ‘battle’ when the Ballarat was torpedoed by a Germain U-boat in the English Channel on 25th April 1917.

This was Clarrie’s first taste of battle and his first lucky escape, as the Ballarat, carrying 1752 troops was successfully evacuated without any casualties, owing to a disciplined process from the sinking ship. The ship, after all were safely rescued, finally sank off Lizard Point, Cornwall, where it now lies under 80 feet of water.

On 26th April, after his close call in the English Channel, Clarrie arrived at the Machine Gun Training Depot No 3 Camp at Parkhouse, before being posted to France to join the 4th Brigade on the 3rd October, 1917. Clarrie was soon in the thick or battles with the Anzacs Divisions at Amiens. Messines and Broodseinde Ridge where his second brush with death occurred on 13th October, when he and his machine gun crew were hit with a heavy German artillery barrage on Anzac positions, that actually entombed the crew. Clarrie was the only survivor after being buried under the earth for two days. He suffered back injuries and was repatriated back to England with a bout of pneumonia and hospitalised at the military hospital at Shorncliffe on 24th January.

Clarrie’s war was over. He had faced the foe with extreme bravery in the heaviest battles of World War 1 but would suffer for the rest of his life, with the constant after effects of his wounds. Before embarking back to Australia, Clarrie had spent a total of 82 days in various military hospitals at Camiers, Havre and Wimereux before returning to England. Clarrie never returned to active service and was eventually discharged as medically unfit for further service. On 23rd August 1918, Clarrie re turned to Australia on board the MT “Medic” and discharged on 28th November 1918.

When Clarrie returned to Australia, like many young men who had experienced the horrors of war, he was admitted to the Rosemount Repatriation Hospital in Herston where he was to spend many months there convalescing from his illnesses and injuries, sustained in the artillery blast that buried him with his machine gun crew in 1917. He was there so often that he eventually became an orderly until he met a young Telephonist named Edith who worked for the Post Master General. Her name was Edith, who came from Emerald, in Queensland.

Despite necessary ongoing treatment as an outpatient, Clarrie and Edith were married at Emerald on 11th September 1922, then moved to Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast well before it became famous as a holiday resort. They eventually raised three children in Arthur, Gladys and Shirley, in a small cottage in James Street for a short period, before moving to a house they called “Albion”. The house was situated opposite the Burleigh Heads State School, where the family spent many happy years.

Although Clarrie was never trained in mechanics, he soon learnt the trade and decided to purchase an old T model Ford with solid tyres, no windscreen, but room for 24 passengers. As there were no garages in Burleigh, Clarrie did all his own repairs and stored petrol for his bus in fuel cans. Clarrie was an enterprising man and soon began a business as the very first passenger bus service at Burleigh Heads, where he would meet the train every morning to convey holiday makers to a boarding house named “Burleigh Lodge”. It also became a daily bus service from central Burleigh to West Burleigh and when the road was opened for traffic to Southport, he was part of the Red Bus Service. So, for the next 40 years, Clarrie ran his bus service until he retired in 1960.

Clarrie was also a very community – minded man and was involved in many community projects as Burleigh grew into a holiday destination. One of his crowning achievements was his input into the establishment of the Soldiers Memorial Park to commemorate all those who died in the Great War. This park is situated in the middle of Burleigh Heads beside the Bowling Green. Such was his standing in the community, and a Nerang Shire Councillor for 10 years, Clarrie was honoured by having the park in central Burleigh Heads named, the Clarrie Francis Park.

Clarrie’s service in World War 1 and the injuries he suffered was always his greatest health problem, so much so, that Clarrie was admitted to the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital where he passed on in July, 1970. A brave heart at rest.