Westgarthtown & WWI





William Frederick Field Hehr



Cpl W. F. F. Hehr. Photo: Robert Wuchatsch.
William Frederick Field Hehr (1896-1916) was born at Brunswick on 9 May 1896, the son of Christian and Amelia Maria (née Spriggs) Hehr who married at Melbourne on 16 January 1894. He attended the Devenish West and Campbellfield State Schools, then the Working Mans College in Melbourne, where he trained as a sheet metal worker.

Christian Hehr was born at Württemburg and arrived in Australia as an infant with his family aboard the Electric in 1856. His father, also named Christian, purchased 76 acres at Wollert in 1866 and he and his descendants farmed there until the 1970s. Amelia was born at Carlton in 1865, the daughter of John and Amelia (née Potzsch) Spriggs who married in 1859. The Spriggs family lived on a farm opposite the Hehr’s at Wollert until they moved to Devenish in northern Victoria during the 1870s. The Spriggs family came from Leicestershire, England in 1857 and the Potzsch family from Saxony in 1854. Several members of the Potzsch family, including Johanna Christiana (née Potzsch) Berger, lived at Westgarthtown from the mid 1850s to the early 1860s. Amelia Spriggs’ brother Moritz Potzsch married Christian’s sister Catherine and Jacob Hehr, one of Christian’s brother’s, married Magdelene Wuchatsch of Westgarthtown.

William’s parents separated soon after the birth of his younger brother Thomas in 1898. Amelia was living at Glenroy when he enlisted in 1914 and Christian at Epping. Christian died in 1920 and Amelia in 1952.

William first enlisted in Melbourne on 28 October 1914 aged 18. He gave his occupation as labourer, age as 22 and religion as Church of England. He was allocated to the 1st Reinforcements, 8th Light Horse Regiment, but on 6 January 1915, the Officer in Charge of the 8th Light Regiment, Major White, recommended William and another man be discharged from the AIF. In his report he wrote:

Private Hehr W.        

18/12/14 fined 5/- & 14 days C. B. for being absent without leave.                                    
28/12/14 fined £4 & 6 days P. D. (4 hours) for being absent without leave whilst undergoing 14 days C. B.
6/1/15 Drunkenness fined £1 & recommended for discharge.

I do not desire this type of men in the Light Horse & therefore request that you will approve their discharge.

William was discharged from the AIF but immediately re-enlisted on 21 January 1915 under an assumed name – James Anderson. This time he gave his religion as Presbyterian. He was assigned to Depot until 28 March 1915, when he was allocated to the C Troop, B Squadron, 13th Light Horse Regiment, Trooper, No. 92 and embarked at Melbourne for Egypt aboard the Persic on 28 May 1915.

On 1 August 1915, while training in Egypt, William was admitted to hospital with venereal disease. Two days later he was sent back to Australia from Suez aboard the Port Lincoln which arrived at Melbourne on 2 September 1915. After leave, he returned to duty at Broadmeadows on 14 October 1915 and was transferred to the 7th Reinforcements, 24th Battalion, Private, No. 3379, 6th Infantry Brigade. He embarked overseas again aboard the Commonwealth on 20 November 1915 and was taken on strength of the 8th Battalion at Serapeum on 24 February 1916, then transferred to the 1st Pioneer Battalion on 13 March 1916.

William left Alexandria for France on 26 March and arrived at Marseilles on 2 April. On 18 June he received a bullet wound to the shoulder, then on 19 June a bomb wound to the chest. He died at the 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station at 9.15 pm that evening and was buried on 20 June 1916 at the Estaires Communal Cemetery. Estaires is located 11 kilometres west of Armentieres.

Despite his larrikin nature, William had proved himself on the battlefield. Although barely 20, he had been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), for bravery three weeks before. As a result of that recommendation, he was awarded the Military Medal (MM), two days after his death. His citation read:

On night 30/31 May near CORDONNERIE FARM. For conspicuous gallantry. During an attack by a hostile raiding party under cover of a fierce artillery bombardment, he went to the assistance of a machine gun man who had been knocked over by a bomb, helped to save the gun from capture and, though inexperienced in the use of machine guns, brought it into action. Although knocked down himself by a second bomb he assisted in removing the gun into a more forward position.

His gallant action not only saved the gun from capture but permitted of it being effectively used against the enemy.

The 1st Pioneer Battalion’s Commanding Officer wrote to William’s mother on 4 December 1916, elaborating on her son’s bravery and death. He stated:

My dear Mrs Hehr,   

I have great pleasure in sending you under registered cover a MILITARY MEDAL gained by your son No. 3379 Corporal W. F. F. Hehr.

As showing what a conscientious soldier he was, after he joined my Battalion he showed conspicuous gallantry on 30th May last, in connection with a raid made by the Germans into our trenches, for this I recommended him for the MILITARY MEDAL, not knowing that he had already been recommended by his original Battalion for previous gallantry, and on my recommending him for the second fine piece of work, he was gazetted as being granted it.

Consequently, he won the Medal twice over, and I shall now endeavor to arrange for a Bar to be granted to be attached to the original Medal, which I am sending herewith.

Later, as you are aware, this very gallant soldier was killed, the circumstances being, that although not his work his keenness led him to expose himself while firing into the German lines and he was hit by a German bullet while so doing.

At the time he was detached from his Battalion for work with a Tunnelling Company, consequently the matter did not come before my immediate notice, and I did not write you personally. I now however, want to tender to you my sincere condolence for the loss of so brave a son, and I trust that the honour he gained, and example he set will in a great measure alleviate your grief at his loss and that you will feel proud to have such a son, and rest in the knowledge that he did his duty beyond ordinary extent.

Yours very sincerely
G. H. NICHOLSON Lieut-Col.
Commanding 1st Aust. Pioneer Battalion.

Although William’s Commanding Officer referred to a previous recommendation for the Military Medal, this statement appears incorrect, as the AIF has no record of it. William joined the 1st Pioneer Battalion in Egypt, before he had reached the Western Front. There is also no record in his file of him having been promoted to Corporal, but that was probably an administrative oversight.

In a Statutory Declaration made by his mother on 11 October 1916, several months after William’s death, she provided further background details about his enlistment under an assumed name.

I Amelia Maria Hehr of Glenroy in the state of Victoria solemnly and sincerely swear:                     

  1. That I am the mother of Private James Anderson, No 3379 of the 1st Australian Pioneer Battalion, A. I. F.
  2. The true name of the said James Anderson was William Frederick Field Hehr.
  3. My said son one day said to me that he would no longer have the name he had and wasn’t going to be called after the old Kaiser and that he would change his name.
  4. I told him not to be foolish. The Kaiser had nothing whatever to do with his name and to change his name would only lead to trouble. But he was a high spirited boy and very enthusiastic to go to the war and finally he did enlist under the name of James Anderson.
  5. He showed me his papers under the name of James Anderson and I corresponded with him regularly while he was at the front under that name.
  6. Produced and shown to me at the time of making this declaration and marked A. is a letter (with relevant envelope) dated June 28th 1916 which I received from R. Harris, Chaplain, 1st Australian Pioneer Battalion 1st A. I. F, Abroad, announcing the death of my said son. I draw attention to the words of the Chaplain “He was a particularly plucky young fellow and his courage was rewarded by the fact that the Military Medal was awarded to him”.
  7. Produced and shown to me at the time of making this declaration and marked B. is a card with the address signed by my said son Jim Anderson announcing the change of his address.
  8. Produced and shown to me at the time of this declaration and marked C. is a letter received by me from my said son signed “Jim’ No 3379 C Coy 1st Pioneer Btn, 1st Aust. Div. Hdqrs.
  9. I received many other letters from my said son which I can produce if necessary.
  10. I ask that the records be altered to show the true name of my said son, and I ask that the letters herewith produced be handed back to me.
  11. I also ask that the fact as to the award of the Military Medal mentioned in Chaplain Harris’ letter be enquired into. It is of great importance to me as a memorial of my son.

Amelia Hehr was granted a war pension of 12/6 per fortnight from 2 September 1916.

As well as at Estaires, William is also commemorated on Panel 171 at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra and on the Benalla War memorial. His photo also once hung in the now defunct Devenish West State School.