The Polkinghornes of Silverton

Josiah George Polkinghorne – 27th and 48th Battalions

In 1867 teamsters bringing wool from the Barrier Ranges to Port Adelaide reported a gold reef along the track. The discovery was not substantiated but throughout the 1870’s odd parties of prospectors found their way to the Barrier Ranges in the far west of NSW. They found silver not gold. Several deposits were mined. They were extremely rich but small. They had their day, were exhausted and died. For a while the ranges were dotted with tent towns. Silverton made the transition to a sizable settlement with hotels and even a stock exchange.

Josiah Polkinghorne came to make his fortune from the new silver mines of the Barrier Ranges. Josiah was the son of John Polkinghorne a tin miner from Germoe in Cornwall. Many Cornish miners migrated to Australia to mine copper in South Australia and gold in Victoria and NSW. John Polkinghorne arrived in Victoria in 1856 and rushed to Linton south west of Ballarat, where alluvial gold that had been discovered the previous year. He married in 1861 and raised a family of six children. Josiah was the fourth born and the first son. By the 1870’s the alluvial gold at Linton was depleted the family moved to Sebastopol an outer suburb of Ballarat. Sebastopol was home for those who toiled in the Ballarat gold mines. In the late 1870’s the Polkinghorne family moved to South Australia. Alluvial gold had been discovered at Humbug Scrub near the Barossa Valley in 1868. A few years’ later mining companies began exploiting the Humbug Scrub gold reefs. A town was established near the Lady Alice mine, the most successful mine in the field. It was here that John Polkinghorne and his family settled and it was here that Josiah Polkinghorne learnt the mining trade. Like his father he moved from place to place in search of the golden egg. He met fellow prospector Richard Cornish and in 1886 they managed several mines for the Etheridge Company in Queensland. Josiah Polkinghorne married Mary Ann Davis in 1888. Their first daughter was born at Lady Alice in 1890. Richard Cornish moved to Thackaringa in the Barrier Ranges. In 1891 Josiah Polkinghorne and his young family followed him there.

Josiah settled in Silverton, shunning the big mines at nearby Broken Hill. He spent the remainder of his life earning a living from the small silver deposits at Thackaringa. In 1896 first son, Josiah George was born.

Unlike the rich mines of Broken Hill, eking a living from the smaller deposits of the Barrier Ranges sometimes needed to be supplemented. Josiah Polkinghorne took on various jobs including building a section of the Umberumberka pipeline. The lack of water had been a problem in the barrier ranger from the early days. The Broken Hill mines needed a regular supply to operate. During the drought of the late 1890’s mines closed and residents had to buy water transported from South Australia. The NSW government began construction of a concrete weir across Umberumberka Creek in 1911. Up to 500 men worked on the construction of the reservoir and the approximately 35km pipeline to Silverton and Broken Hill. Josiah Polkinghorne had a contract for the construction of a section of the pipeline. He employed men to work on the project. His son, Josiah George, a pipe fitter, was no doubt one of them.

The Umberumberka pipeline was completed by 1915, in time for Josiah George to enlist in the Australian Army. He was nineteen years old when he enlisted in April 1915. He was assigned to reinforce the 27th Battalion in Gallipoli. The 27th Battalion was part of the 7th Brigade of the 2nd Division.   Private Polkinghorne arrived in Egypt in December, just as the Australian forces were being evacuated from Gallipoli. After some training in Egypt, he embarked for France in March 1916.

The 27th Battalion was posted to the Armentieres in Northern France. It was here that Private Polkinghorne had his first encounter with the Germans. On the night of 28th June, fifty-eight soldiers and four officers undertook a raid on a German trench. They crossed no-man’s-land, entered a trench, killed up to nine Germans and took two prisoners. This was one of a series of raids in the Armentieres area designed to harass the Germans. In July, Josiah was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal.

The raid near Armentieres was a mere skirmish in comparison to the baptism of fire that occurred at Pozieres in August 1916.

The small village of Pozieres lay on the Western Front near the Somme River in Northern France. Behind the village, which was held by the Germans, was a ridge with a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. It was decided to attack the village and drive the Germans from the Pozieres Heights. The battle was a bloody one. The 1st Division of the AIF led the attack. The 2nd Division relieved the 1st and attacked on 29th July. Their advance was due to start just after midnight but the 7th Brigade was late in taking up its positions and was detected by the Germans. Subjected to a hail of machine gun fire and despite many casualties, the 7th Brigade pushed forward. They reached the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. It was still intact. The fierce allied artillery bombardment that had preceded the battle, had failed to cut the wire. The brigade suffered horrific losses and had to be withdrawn from the battle. Josiah Polkinghorne was lucky. The 27th battalion had been held in reserve and had taken no part in the fighting. Their turn came on the 4th August.

The 7th Brigade was ordered to attack the German positions around Bapaume. They were part of allied push to capture the Pozieres Heights. On top of the Heights were the ruins of a 17th century windmill. This was the target of the 7th Brigade’s attack. Under cover of an intense artillery barrage two companies of the 27th Battalion moved forward and managed to capture the front line of German trenches. Although the second wave of the attack became lost in smoke, the 27th Battalion consolidated their position and fought off a German counter attack early the next morning.   Under heavy German shell-fire the Battalion sent patrols into no-man’s-land to hunt any Germans hiding in shell holes. They succeeded in clearing the area and taking the next line of trenches. Success came at a cost. The battalion lost 40 men killed, 289 wounded and 67 missing. Corporal Polkinghorne came through the battle unscathed.

After the Battalion was relieved by the 48th Battalion, it was transferred to Belgium for a rest in a quiet sector. Josiah was admitted to hospital in Belgium with influenza. This was a common ailment on the front, a place where men existed in rain, mud, fear and corpses. He remained in hospital until late October when he was pronounced fit, well and ready to rejoin his battalion.

While in hospital, Josiah had been transferred to the 48th Battalion which was based in Étaples.  On 12th November, the battalion moved to the front at Flers. The Australians were involved in heavy fighting near this village. It had been raining and the battle field was a muddy quagmire. On 19th the 48th Battalion relived the 47th battalion at the front. Getting to the front line was the first difficulty because the mud was so deep and sticky. It was very cold and snowed during the night. Josiah and his mates were subjected to German artillery and gas. German planes were active over-head. Mud had to be cleaned out of trenches and communication trenches had to be dug. At night patrols were taken into No-Man’s-Land. Many men developed trench foot, a type of frost bite cause by feet being continuously soaking in mud and icy water.

On 3rd December the battalion moved into billets near Dernancourt.   Two days later Josiah was promoted to Corporal.

In March 1917 he was promoted to Lance Sargent. That year he was then involved in several horrific battles. The first was the battle of Bullecourt on 11th April. The 4th and 12th brigades advanced on German trenches near the village of Bullecourt. Normally such advances were preceded by an artillery barrage and a creeping barrage in front of the attacking troops. On this occasion the artillery support was missing so that the attack would take place with an element of surprise. The troops would be led by tanks. They moved off before dawn. Tanks led the charge but they stopped at the first jumping off trench and began firing at the German line from there. The 4th Brigade advanced first and reached the German trenches. The 12th Brigade did not move for another 25 minutes. They attracted the attention of the Germans and were subjected to a barrage of artillery, mortar and machine gun. There were many casualties. Despite their losses, the 46th and 48th Battalions took two German trenches and were able to secure their position alongside of the 4th Brigade. The Australians held the position on the Hindenburg Line for six hours despite being out numbered and without artillery support. Under a heavy German counter- attack the 4th Brigade was decimated. The 46th Battalion withdrew. Josiah and his mates of the 48th Battalion held their positions for another hour before they were ordered to retreat. The 12th Brigade lost over 900 men during the attack. Josiah was uninjured. He was promoted to Sargent on 24th May.

The 12th Brigade took part in the attack against the Germans on the ridge behind the village of Messines on 7th June 1917. The 48th Battalion were in reserve and took no part in the attack. However, when scouting in the Support Trench the following morning, Sargent Polkinghorne came across a group of Germans. He opened fire on them causing casualties and was able to bring back useful information. He was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He was awarded a Military Medal.

Shortly after this act of bravery Josiah became sick and was admitted to hospital. He was found to have caught gonorrhoea. He was treated in Hospital for the next two months returning to his unit on 15th August. At the time the 48th Battalion was near Wytschaete in Belgium south of Ypres.

The Battle of Polygon Woods began on 26th September. The 48th Battalion was in reserve at the beginning of the battle. In the evening of 28th they relieved the 16th Battalion on the front-line. Whilst there, they distributed ration packs to those in the forward trench, worked in salvage parties, cleared out a number of German pillar boxes, brought wounded back to dressing stations and buried Australian and German dead. They accomplished all this while being shelled and fired upon by the enemy. The Battalion was relieved in the evening of the 30th October. They then relieved the 49th Battalion on the front line. Josiah’s involvement at Polygon Woods ended in the evening of 2nd October. The 48th battalion lost eight killed and thirty-eight wounded during the operation. Again Josiah was uninjured.

Ten days later Josiah was again called to go into battle. The 48th & 47th Battalions would attack a portion on the Passchendalele Ridge on 12th October. It had been raining and the ground was a quagmire. Over eighty soldiers were killed and wounded marching to the jumping off point for the attack. Sargent Polkinghorne and his mates fought their way through the mud, shells and gunfire to reach their objective. However the 9th Brigade, which should have defeated the enemy immediately adjacent, did not succeed. Thus the 48th & 47th Battalions were ordered to withdraw at 4pm in the afternoon. The day’s fighting cost over 360 killed, wounded and missing. This was more than half of the 621 men who had gone into battle. Once again Sargent Polkinghorne came through the battle uninjured.

On 27th October, Josiah was granted a month’s leave in England. He returned to his battalion at the end of November. The battalion spent December near Peronne in the Somme. They trained, dug trenches and bomb proofed walls for artillery emplacements. There was lots of snow, often icy winds and it was very cold. In January and February the battalion was at the front. Josiah and his mates spent eight days at a time in the front trenches. It was cold often raining or snowing. There was almost no contact with the Germans. Time was spent on patrols and building and repairing trenches and other fortifications. This was the last time Josiah was at the front. In March the Battalion moved to Meteren, further north and close to the Belgium boarder. On 18th Josiah went to England for officer training. In early April he joined the Cadet Training Corp in Oxford. On 19th October he was admitted to hospital, seriously ill with Pleurisy.

Just before the end of the war, on 4th November, Josiah George Polkinghorne was appointed to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was discharged from hospital on 16th February 1919 and sailed to Australia in April. Josiah was discharged from the army on 5th July 1919.

Lieutenant Polkinghorne returned to the Barrier Ranges. He returned to his old trade as a pipe fitter and joined the Broken Hill Water Board. By the 1930’s he was a very important man in town. Although he considered himself a labourer, he was involved with the Barrier Industrial Council. He became one of those union men who ran the town, a position he retained through the 1940’s.

The Barrier Industrial Council was formed in the 1920’s. It represented all the unions in Broken Hill. Mining was always the main employment in Broken Hill. It was dangerous and unhealthy. From the town’s beginning in 1883, there had been conflicts between unions and management leading to long industrial strikes. In the early 1920’s a Royal Commission led to improvements in working conditions underground. At the same time the town’s unions united. The organisation they formed, the Barrier industrial Council (BIC), became the most influential organisation in the town. Every worker in Broken Hill was affiliated with the BIC. It became the rule of law. Those on its executive were powerful members of the community. Josiah Polkinghorne was Vice-President in 1936. He was involved in drawing up nearly all of the agreements between employer and employee. These agreements included the Shop Assistants Union, the Town employees Union and the Federated Engine Drivers Union. Ten years later he retained his influence. He was now secretary of the BIC. On several occasions Josiah nominated to be the Labour Party candidate for the State Government. He was unsuccessful.

In 1920 Josiah married Alice Dullart. They settled in Cummins Street Broken Hill where they lived for forty years. They brought up three children. Their son Alan Josiah George Polkinghorne was born in 1921. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June 1941 and rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Allan was posted to No 4 Squadron and saw service in Australia, New Guinea and Borneo. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service during the war. After leaving the air force in 1946, Allan became a commercial pilot.

Josiah and Alice retired to Cardross near Mildura, Victoria. They lived in the area until Josiah died in 1984.