UPON the outbreak of World War I, two brothers each planted a pine sapling on a hill overlooking the Nile River property where they worked.
One of the trees flourished and the other died and the same was true of the young farmhands who planted them.
More than 100 years on, the surviving tree draws a crowd each ANZAC Day and has come to symbolise the lost potential of those boys who made the ultimate sacrifice in their prime.
Mere months after my great-grandfather Roy Pinner, 21, and his brother Percy, 23, clambered up that rocky hill in Deddington and dug those saplings in, they found themselves dug in, on the Western Front.
It was December 1916 and during the bitter winter months that followed, shocking conditions in the Somme trenches saw both boys hospitalised.
They returned to the 12th battalion on February 7, in time for the spring offensive but two weeks later, Roy was conveyed back to hospital with tonsillitis. When he returned 10 days on, his older brother was dead.
Percy, who was by all accounts quieter and more reserved than his jovial younger sibling, was shot while the battalion were capturing the French village of Le Barque, near Bapaume on February 27, 1917.
A single bullet pierced the Bible in his chest pocket and then his heart. Percy saw less than three months active service with the AIF, who he had enlisted with in Claremont, the previous May.
He was one of 272 12th battalion soldiers who lost their lives that day. It took more than a fortnight for news of Percy’s death to filter home to Tasmania.
It must have been in devastating contrast to the boys’ light-hearted correspondence to that point, which included an, “All’s well,” message in a bottle.
It was thrown overboard by Roy, while aboard the Ballarat, en route to training in England. Amazingly, the message was picked up in Noarlunga on the South Australian coast and delivered to the boys’ mother Janette in September 1916.
Letters between the boys’ father David and the war office, show some of the sad struggles faced by mourning families trying to find closure.
Three years after the war ended David wrote, “Do you think it would be possible for you to get me a photo of my son’s grave for his poor mother?”
The photograph of Percy’s final resting place in Warlencourt British Cemetery was promised but never forthcoming.
Roy was eventually promoted to corporal and spent a further 19 months at war, surely grappling with the reality that if he survived, he must journey home alone.
A snippet from the July 17, 1918 edition of The Examiner suggests returning home was never far from his mind.
Roy sent a letter to the paper from the front. In it he wrote to the ladies who worked at Ludbrook’s, ‘The Beehive’ dress store in Launceston, seeking to find the “sweetheart” of a comrade who had died.
This mate’s final wish was for Roy to return a photograph to the woman, who worked at the store, but he did not know her name.
Of Launceston Roy wrote, “As it was once my own little town, in which I spent many a bonza time, I am looking forward to the day I set foot on old Launceston wharf again, to see the old home up on the Sandhill. It is the best little spot I have found on the map so far”.
Roy finally returned upon the Ormonde in August 1919.
Although he undoubtedly heard witness accounts of his brother’s death, he never shared them and unsurprisingly, rarely spoke of the war.
A small insight was revealed years later, when Roy advertised a cow for sale in the paper. Upon seeing the notice Albert Prentice wrote to him, “Would you be the Roy Pinner who carried me out wounded?”
Roy recounted the battle of Broodseinde Ridge in Belgium to Allan Mathewson, the son of his wartime mate Bill.
According to Roy’s account, while troops were under heavy enemy fire, two men were sent to relay a message about their position but failed to come back, so Roy was sent in.
He found the first man dead and the second, Albert Prentice, with his legs smashed by an artillery shell. Roy carried him to safety and until receiving his reply to the advertisement, assumed he had died of blood loss.
Instead, Albert Prentice went on to become a New Norfolk legend who drove a makeshift motorbike and car, played football and was a renowned wicket keeper.
While in a London hospital recovering from his double amputation, he requested to meet a pretty girl he saw visiting the ward.
He later brought that girl, Carrie, home to the Derwent Valley where they ran a corner store and had seven children.
So much life was created because Roy lived and so much lost because Percy died. This contrast is especially clear at ANZAC Day services on the hill where Roy affixed a plaque in Percy’s honour, 50 years ago.
Many of those who stand upon the roots of that family tree at dawn would not be there if Roy had not gone on to marry my great-grandmother May and have three sons of his own, Max, Ken and my grandfather Rod.
Rod died in 2004. His eldest daughter, Anne Colgrave, carefully treasures Percy’s Bible, which she hopes will be displayed at a Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery World War I exhibition, scheduled to open in July.
The exhibition is still in the planning stages but the hope is that the Bible will sit alongside artwork inspired by Roy, Percy and Bill’s experiences, by Tasmanian artist Patrick Binks.
Anne said this year’s ANZAC Day congregation would be particularly special because Max and Ken will make the trip.
“Ken got it going and both brothers are going up together this year for 100 years of the tree, so that is pretty special,” she said.
Acknowledgement: Mary Binks, of Evandale, and her family contributed an astounding amount of research to this story. Thank you for helping ensure Percy and Roy’s efforts are always remembered.