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Private David Kerr

Private David Kerr, D company, 18th Battalion AIF, service number 4641, was the very definition of a digger. A labourer from Surrey Hills he joined at the end of 1915 and spent his war in the trenches of the Western Front. He suffered from trench foot, went AWL, and ended with a gun shot wound to his left arm and blinded by shrapnel in his left eye. He returned to Australia in October 1918 just before the Armistice. 2 He then fell victim to the influenza epidemic sweeping the world, dying in May 1919.  

David Kerr was born on Christmas Eve 1892 at the mining settlement of Joadja Creek near Bowral in NSW.  In 1897 his parents, David Kerr and Mary McCulloch, left five year old David and his brother and sister in Sydney with Mary’s brother and sister-in-law while they went to Western Australia, presumably to chase gold. Both David’s parents died from unrelated illnesses within weeks of each other soon after arriving in Fremantle.  

At the outbreak of the war David was a labourer living at 19 Clarence Street, Sydney. He enlisted on 22 November 1915 when the initial height restrictions of 1914 were lifted.  At first a height restriction of 5 foot 6 inches had been imposed but by mid 1915 this was lowered to 5 foot 2 inches  - and David was 5 foot 3 inches.

We have no letters from David to show why he enlisted. I imagine the lure of a regular pay and patriotic duty all played a part in his decision. Neither his older brother nor his brother-in-law enlisted so perhaps David felt duty bound to be the family’s representative and join.

Unmarried, he weighed 95 pounds, had a florid complexion, brown eyes, good vision in both, and brown hair. In line with his Scottish background, he was a Presbyterian.  Placed with the 11th reinforcements of the 18th Battalion of the AIF, he trained at the Liverpool camp.

David left Sydney on the 9th April 1916 on board HMAT Nestor for England and France where David and his fellow soldiers underwent more training, before joining the 18th Battalion at Ypres Salient on the Western Front on 9th September.  The conditions greeting the new soldiers were grim. The Battalion diary describes the trenches as being “in a very bad state, very boggy and in parts fallen in".

For David's first week the diary talks about intermittent shelling accompanied by heavy rain. On 15th September, they were relieved and moved to Zillebeke Bund where they worked with Canadian mining companies to dig trenches at night and carry engineering supplies to the front line.

By October 29 they were in Ribemont. Word may have reached David they were about to return to the Front as he went AWL. Originally fined 28 days forfeiture of pay for being “Neglect to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that he failed to carry out the duties of mess orderly AWL from 9pm 29.10.16 to 4pm 31.10.16”, the fine was reduced to 14 days forfeiture of pay.  

At Montauban they found the front line trenches to be in an appalling condition. The Battalion diary description was of “mud and mud and more mud”. The men couldn’t stand in one place for long, before they sank to their knees.  David and D Company were sent to fill a gap of 150 yards between the right flank and the 17th Battalion. They experienced heavy artillery fire and the men retaliated with their own firepower.  

The 18th were relieved at the end of November 1916. The diary makes numerous mentions of the hardships and that even getting rations to the men was impossible. The rain continued for the entire month. The stench of the men in the trench, dead bodies decomposing around them, rotting fabrics from their uniforms, the smell of gas being dropped on them, would’ve been extremely hard to manage.  

December was again spent in a support role but the soldiers were digging trenches under horrific conditions. Often snowing, the ground was frozen and the men exhausted. By the end of the month, David had trench foot from continued exposure to wet, cold grounds. Admitted first to the field hospital, on 20th January he was evacuated to the 3rd London General Hospital in England. 23 A telegram was sent to his brother Jack in Australia24 but Jack had died on 5th January 1917. It’s not known if David knew of his brother’s death. Mary, their sister, wrote to the Army stating she was the only one left of the family so was now David’s next of kin.

David stayed in England until late March recuperating in the South Downs region before rejoining his unit in France.

April, May and June 1917 saw more training at Fricourt Camp with April's rain and sleet brightening to sunshine by June. In May 1917 the 18th Battalion was involved in the battle to regain the village of Bullecourt that had been lost to the Germans in early April.

The men moved to the Front for a week to ten days at a time before being relieved. Their time was then spent training, marching to a new billet (usually described in the diary as being in “very poor condition”), supporting the front line troops or playing cricket against the 19th Battalion!  

On 21st June, David was charged with the following offence: “Conduct to the prejudice of good order and Military Discipline. Improper use of a pass to wit, handing same to Pte Hurstwaite”. His punishment was the loss of 7 days pay.  

Private Hurstwaite lost 21 days pay for drunkenness and improper use of a comrade's pass.  

The next major battle for the Battalion was the Battle for Menin Road. The Australians attacked the German stronghold at Ypres. At 5.30am on 20th  September D Company attacked the German lines.  David was wounded that same day receiving a gun shot wound to his left arm and shrapnel in his left eye.  

Stretcher-bearers took him to a makeshift hospital on the battlefield. From there he was taken to the 2nd London General Hospital in Chelsea in England where he stayed until 10th October.  He convalesced at the No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield Middlesex.  However even in a convalescence hospital David managed to go AWL. He was fined two days pay being AWL from 7.30pm on 18th October to 8.45pm on 19th October.  

He was discharged to Weymouth base on 31st October to await a return to Australia. He was unfit for active service because of the loss of sight in his left eye.  On 10th January 1918, David boarded the HMAT Corinthic to return to Australia.  Arriving home on 7th March 1918 he attended a medical board in Sydney on 5th April. He was discharged on medical grounds and awarded a pension of £2-5-0 per fortnight.

David went to live at 114 Campbell Street, Surry Hills.

On 10th May 1919, David was admitted to the Coast Hospital in Little Bay suffering from influenza. His war wounds, the injury to his eye and arm, and his long battle with trench foot in 1916/17, contributed to his inability to fight the disease. He died at the Coast Hospital on 14th May 1919 aged 26.

Private David Kerr of the 18th Battalion saw action on the Western Front. He was a digger in the tradition of the Australian soldier. He loved a drink, his soldier mates, and his country. He didn’t die on the battlefield but died because his body had been abused on the fields of France and Belgium for two years before incurring the injury that sent him home for good.