William ‘Bill’ Kearsey (Service Number 2341)
In this audio recording a family member of Bill Kearsey’s is reading from an excerpt of the 33rd Battalion Unit Diary, from October 1917; a letter from Bill to the Commissioner of War Pensions in 1921, seeking a war pension, and a letter from Bill’s wife, Verdun Kearsey to the Repatriation Department in 1964. This audio was first recorded for the Museums Victoria (2014-2018) Love and Sorrow exhibition.
Introduction spoken by Jonathan Pilbrow
“33rd Battalion Unit Diary
On night of Oct. 2nd to the 3rd, commencing at 7 p.m., the whole Battalion will dig a cable
bury 7 feet deep, probably a length of 800 yards…
2 October 1917: Quiet and fine day. Men had by this time dug themselves well into the shell
holes…. At night every available man [was] employed in burying a cable from Potsdam to
[the] Dugout…The job was completed at 5.30am [on 3 Oct.] Very wet night
33rd Battalion Unit Diary
From Farwell Message Love and Sorrow Exhibition
Really, I don’t think I deserve this kind of treatment. I feel I have been quite through enough
without worry over or having to beg for my pension to be sent along.
This letter was written by my dad, Bill Kearsey, in 1921.
He suffered so much for his country through 29 operations over a three and a half year
period. It’s remarkable that he didn’t have the modern anaesthetics.
A lot of it was experimental and that’s why they took photographs.
It just shows how he progressed from the massive disfigurement to a reasonable face.
I feel that he did a great service to Australia.
It’s hard to imagine why people would’ve rejected his pension claim.
He wasn’t bitter and he wasn’t angry but he found it hard that people couldn’t relate to
what he went through and what he saw.It was only his mates that went through it with him
that could relate to him.
But he, he got on with life. Like everybody does, I suppose.
Audio of Letter from Verdun Kearsey to the Repatriation Department, 24 June 1964,
Source – National Archives of Australia, 13033704
Verdun Kearsey 24 June 1964
…He is unable to read anything or write letters & only signs his signature because of the
many years practice. I show him where to put his pen. I have to do all car driving to do our
business in Inverell & district.
He also has to engage someone to do the more important jobs which he derived so much
pleasure in doing – for example, wool classing, selecting the right type of rams for breeding,
mustering the sheep & cattle & numerous other jobs.
He also suffers from severe headaches & antrum trouble and has to lie down during a
It is a wonder his head & eyes have lasted so long when you consider the 29 operations &
shock he received.…He has fought against Repatriation Benefits for many years & it was only
about 3 years ago when he first got medical assistance. But doctors and returned men tell
him he is a deserving case & that he is unable to work.
From Farwell Message Love and Sorrow Exhibition
Really, I don’t think I deserve this kind of treatment.”
William ‘Bill’ Kearsey (Service Number 2341) was born in 1891 in Glen Innes, New South Wales, the fifth of 12 children. Before the war he worked as a coach-builder in Inverell, fell in love and got engaged. Bill first tried to enlist in the war at age 24, but was rejected due to eye problems. His two older brothers were also rejected on medical grounds. Determined to play his part, he had eye surgery in Sydney during 1915, successfully enlisting with the 33rd Battalion in April 1916. During the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 he was badly injured in the action at Glencorse Wood when a high explosive shell detonated beside him, killing many of the men around him. Bill was hit between the eyes by artillery shrapnel, leaving a deep gash to his forehead, which ‘obliterated’ (according to his medical records) his sinuses. The wound to his face was so devastating he was initially left for dead. It was only through the efforts of a fellow soldier (and mate from Inverell), Sergeant Jack Gaukroger, who recognised him by chance, and paused amidst the chaos of battle to check for a pulse, that Bill made it to an aid post to begin his long journey of repair and recovery.
In a war that saw the rapid advancement of weapons and mass casualties, an unprecedented number of facial wounds were sustained by soldiers. Treatment of wounds such as these was still an experimental science. Bill had 29 major facial operations over 18 months while hospitalised in England.
Returning to Australia in 1919, he spent another six months in Keswick Hospital in Adelaide before returning to Inverell. He took the advice often given to badly disfigured men, to live out of town in the bush, where there would be fewer stares or difficult questions. After some early struggles, Bill built a solid reputation for himself as a hardworking wool grower. But he suffered severe sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, eye trouble and very painful headaches. Fluid often leaked from his nose and eyes, and his wounds stung and ached. He also experienced restless nights with sleep broken by terrifying dreams.
Bill never received a war pension, and struggled to get reimbursed for the regular trips he had to make into town to be treated. The Repatriation Commission, the body responsible for the welfare of returned service people decided it wasn’t necessary for him to come to Sydney for operative treatment at the repat hospital. He made do, but his condition worsened over the years, and by the 1960s he could no longer see to read and write. Bill was single for much of his life, but he got married, in 1951, aged 59, to a woman called Verdun – named for the Western Front battle in 1916, the year she was born.
Some years later, Bill and Verdun employed a 14 year-old boy, Peter on their farm. Peter had come out to Australia from an orphanage in England, as part of the Big Brother movement, and was a willing worker and the three of them developed a wonderful rapport, leading to Peter being formally adopted as Bill and Verdun’s son. Despite the enormous health and physical challenges Bill faced, he provided for his family with a strong and enduring love. Over the years Bill managed to construct a new life for himself– despite the way that the war had ravaged his body.
As Bill got older, his injuries worsened, with his ageing body struggling to cope with his wounds. Verdun became Bill’s tireless advocate, appealing decisions of the repatriation authorities that she saw as cruel or arbitrary. Verdun died in 1969. Bill died in 1971, aged 80.
(SOURCE: This audio was first recorded for the Museums Victoria ‘Love and Sorrow’ Exhibition, Source: Daybreak Films. Copyright Museums Victoria and Peter Kearsey 2014)
Studio portrait of 2341 Private (Pte) William Kearsey (1916)
Australian War Memorial AWM P10965.001, Copyright expired – public domain
Studio portrait of 2341 Private (Pte) William Kearsey (1920)
Australian War Memorial AWM P10965.002, Copyright expired – public domain
2341 Private (Pte) William Kearsey and Verdun Frances Mary on their wedding day, 1951
Australian War Memorial AWM P10965.003, Copyright expired – public domain
Armistice Centenary – World War 1 Stories is a partnership between the Alice Springs Peace Action Think Tank and 8CCC Community Radio. This project was made possible through the support of the Alice Springs Town Council Community Assistance Grants, The Australian Government Armistice Centenary Grants Program and Produced with the assistance of the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at www.cbf.org.au