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St Michael’s First ANZACs – Syd Duchesne

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William Sydney Duchesne is one of 55 names listed on the Honour Board memorial in St Michael’s Wollongong, of those who gave their lives during World War One.

Syd Duchesne died on the very first day of the Gallipoli landing, April 25, 1915.

His parents lived in Crown St, Wollongong. His brother, George, also served during the war, enlisting on 2 February 1916, the year after Syd’s death. One of George’s sons, David, went on to become an Anglican Minister, who served at Dapto parish, among other postings.

One of the daughters, Joan, subsequently born to Syd’s sister, Annie, still attends St Michael’s today. So there continues to be a personal connection to our church family. 

This is something of Syd Duchesne’s story, mainly drawn from the superb work at Illawarra Remembers, supplemented by The Spirits of Gallipoli.

William Sydney Duchesne was born on 25 May 1894 to Edwin James and Edith Rachael Duchesne in Waverley, Sydney. He was known as Syd to the family. He spent his early years in Summer Hill and was educated at Fort Street Model School. Syd played breakaway for the Manly Juniors Rugby Union team. 

He’d trained with the Waverley Cadets, and when war broke out in August 1914, he was studying military science. With this experience, Syd immediately applied for a commission with the A.I.F and was appointed as 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion (1 Brigade, 1 Division) on 3 September 1914. There was a short training period in Sydney’s west until mid-October. Duchesne’s unit then sailed from Sydney to Egypt.

Daily training was carried out from 7.30am to 4.30pm in Egypt. During this time, Syd wrote letters to his family. A moving extract of the transcript of what appears to be his last letter home is supplied at the end of this article.

The ANZAC contingent was transported to Lemnos Island after leaving Egypt in early April. There they joined other elements of the assembled Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (army and naval) in final preparations for the assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The evening before the landing, General Birdwood addressed the unit and gave assurance of success in the coming campaign. Three days rations and three-hundred rounds of ammunition were distributed to each soldier and they went to bed at 10pm.

 On 25 April, at early dawn, the attack commenced. The 1st Battalion were in the third wave, landing at Hell Spit without a loss at 7:40am.

The Battalion waited on the beach and received orders to reinforce those already engaged in a desperate struggle for the strategically vital high ground known as Baby 700.

Starting at 11:00am, Duchesne with the Australian troops attacked the heights. Five times the hill was taken and five times the Australians were pushed back. It was during this battle that Syd fell. He was killed at the age of 20, one month before his 21st birthday on 25 April, 1915.

The letter to his parents (signed ‘Alex R McQueen, 1st Batt’) regretting the loss of their dear son, “such a promising officer”, also explained, “I regret to that I can give you no information as to his last moments only he was too game and went on in front shouting to his men to come on, all at once word was passed along the line that Lieut Duchesne was down”. McQueen reports one witness suggesting Syd died instantly when he was shot, which if so, he considered a blessing.  

The hill, which Syd Duchesne fought for and died to win, remained with the Turks for the rest of the campaign. His body was never identified. However, Duchesne’s identity disc was recovered and returned to Syd’s father in 1920.

After the end of the war, the unburied bodies on the battlefields behind Turkish lines were recovered and buried. The inscription at Baby 700 Cemetery, Gallipoli, Turkey reads:

“Duchesne. Lt William Sydney 1st Bn Australian Inf. Killed in action 25th April 1915. Son of Edwin James and Edith Rachael Duchesne of Crown St, Wollongong, New South Wales. Native of Sydney.”

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