Sargeant George Abraham- Gas, Guts & Gonorrhoea

George Abraham- 1st Battalion

There is a saying that every dog has its day. For many, World War I provided the environment for that single moment of glory. Near the end of the War, George Abraham had such a moment.

He was part of a small attack on a machine gun nest south of Strazeele, near the Belgium border. As night was falling he led his platoon with stealth and determination. Despite enemy machine-gun fire, he moved towards the enemy post. He chose his ground wisely, leading his men right up to the German position, so close in fact that they could lob bombs directly into the enemy trench. The cover his platoon provided allowed other members of the raiding party to close in and rush the post. They captured eight Germans and a machine-gun. For his courage and devotion to duty, George Abraham was awarded the Military Medal.

George was born on 4th October 1884 in Hexthorpe, Yorkshire, England. Hexthorpe is a small village adjacent to Doncaster. The city was blessed with a large coal deposit and, in the nineteenth century, with a workforce expert in metal work. These factors encouraged the Great Northern Railway Company to establish the Locomotive and Carriage Building Works in Doncaster in 1853. George’s father and his older brother were railway coach builders. George was employed as a brass finisher. His time was spent filling, burnishing and polishing the various brass fillings used in the construction of railway carriages. In his early twenties George decided to migrate to Australia. He left England in 1907 and sailed to Brisbane. There his life was unspectacular. He was a blue collar worker, an unmarried labourer who rented a room in a house in St Ann Street, Brisbane.

George did not rush to enlist when war was declared. Maybe he thought it would all be over by Christmas. He enlisted on 25th January 1915. He was 29 years old, of average height, dark completion, brown eyes and hair that was already greying. He was posted to the 1st Battalion, destined to reinforce the battalion at Gallipoli. George sailed 25th June 1915 and landed in Gallipoli on 5th August. He was just in time for the Lone Pine offensive.

The battle began at 5.30pm on the following day. The 1st Battalion was not involved in the initial onslaught. By the time it was deployed, the Australians had already gained control of the Turkish trenches. Nevertheless, as the men of the 1st Battalion charged across open ground towards the trench line, they were peppered by artillery and machine-gun fire. George was wounded by bomb splinters and had to be evacuated. He was not seriously injured and returned to his unit three days later. By then the fighting, which had been fierce, had subsided. Nevertheless skirmishes continued and, on 14th August, George was shot in the head and arm. Once again he was lucky. The injury was not serious and he was able to return to his unit two weeks after medical treatment.

The Australians defended their position at Lone Pine until they retreated and withdrew from the Gallipoli peninsular in December 1915.

On 1st January 1916 Private George Abraham disembarked at Alexandria in Egypt.   No doubt all those who returned to Egypt would have had a special reason for celebrating the New Year. They had survived their first encounter with war. Many of their comrades had not. George certainly celebrated. He over-stayed his leave from 10pm on 27th January until 1pm the following day. For his sin he was confined to barracks for seven days and fined two days pay.

In March 1916 the 1st Battalion sailed to France. The horror of the western front awaited. On 28th March they disembarked in Marseille and were sent to the Somme Valley. George had his first major confrontation with the Germans at the village of Pozieres on 23rd July. In preparation for the battle, the German positions were bombarded with Phosgene and Tear Gas. Using the bombardment as cover, the Australian troops crept across no-man’s land towards the German trenches. It was a dangerous tactic. George discovered that Phosgene is a highly poisonous gas. The Australians took the German trenches but George Abraham was not part of the battle. He was evacuated with serious gas poisoning.

He was sent by train to a hospital at Camiers, near the coast. Although housed in tents, the hospital welcomed its patients with clean white sheets and a comfortable bed. By the time he arrived, his throat and eyes were burning and he was gasping for breath. He was a very sick man.

Camiers was a clearing station. The medical staff decided whether you would recover and be able to return to your battalion or if your war was at an end. George was not evacuated to England; but rather he was sent to a hospital at Étaples to recuperate. By 8th September he had recovered and returned to the Somme. The following week he was promoted to Lance Corporal.

With each promotion, a soldier needs to learn new skills. Thus Lance Corporal Abraham was sent to Grenade School. At the beginning of the war hand bombs with wicks were used.   By 1916, the Mills Bomb, pineapple shaped with a pin for detonation, was the hand-grenade of choice. George spent five days from the 19th September learning all about the new grenade.

During the remainder of 1916 George survived the fighting and continued to impress his superiors. At the end of November he was send to the Division School of Instruction to learn how to command troops. Then, on 10th December he was promoted to Corporal.

Once again George got himself into a little trouble after Christmas. This time, a visit to a brothel saw him contract Gonorrhoea. Venereal Disease was a major problem amongst troops during the war. Antibiotics were yet to be discovered, and the treatments available were painful and often not successful. On 23rd January 1917, George was sent back to the hospital at Étaples. He was placed in isolation with many other soldiers who had contracted Gonorrhoea or Syphilis. For seventy-nine days he endured various tortures designed to cure his condition. On his return to the front, he was given a temporary promotion of Sargent for a month.

He led a platoon of men into battle at Bullecourt during the first week of May 1917. He fought well and impressed his officers. They considered him worthy of further training.

On 18th July he was sent to England to join the 1st Training Battalion. In December he attended a course at the School of Musketry and qualified with a first class working knowledge of the Lewis Gun. He rejoined his battalion in France at the end of January 1918.

Why did he visit a prostitute again? Once again Gonorrhoea saw him hospitalised. This time he was sick for more than a month. He returned to his battalion on the 9th April 1918, just in time to rejoin his fight against the Germans at Hazebrouck. This town was a supply centre for allied troops in the Somme. The Germans attacked on 12th April and advanced four kilometres towards the town before they were stopped by the Australians. George came through the battle unscathed and was permanently promoted to the rank of Sergeant at the end of June. By then he was stationed at Strazeele near the Belgium border. In the late afternoon on 11th July he led his platoon against a German machine-gun nest and won his military medal.

His was war almost over. He was sent back to England for more instruction. This time he trained to be an instructor. By the time he returned to France in November, the War was over.

Sergeant George Abraham remained in France during December and January, assigned to escort duties. He left France for England at the end of January and returned to Australia on 23rd February 1919. He was given a medical and found to be fit to work in his previous employment. In other words, despite all the training, the Australian Army considered him fit only to be a labourer.

The War effected many diggers. George was one of them. At age 35, he had no desire to start all over again in Australia. He needed his family. His sister, Edith had settled in the United States, so shortly after returning to Australia, he boarded another ship and sailed to America. He settled in the town on Yakima to the east of the Rocky Mountains. He rented an apartment and obtained employment in a warehouse. In February 1925, when he was 40 years old, George became an American citizen. He remained unmarried. Towards the end of his life he moved to Tacoma where his sister and her husband lived. He died there in 1937, aged 53 years.

His moment of glory followed nearly four years of devotion, hard work and hell. It was these four years, not the one glorious moment that defined the remainder of his life.