The first Australian to land?
Joe Stratford’s story suggests how much remains to be told of the story of the Lost Boys. Joe was born in 1883 at Coffee Camp, between Nimbin and Lismore in New South Wales. Like many of the Lost Boys, he left home as a young man, working in the cane fields of north Queensland, particularly at the sugar mill at Japoon. In October 1914 he made his way to Townsville to volunteer, and went ashore on 25 April 1915 as a corporal in the 9th Battalion. He had served as a citizen soldier, and comrades remarked on his military bearing. Who was the first man out of the boats at the landing? Perhaps Joe Stratford, though few now realise it. Several survivors told Red Cross searchers that he had been the first man ashore. Others remembered him for his heroic self-sacrifice. A comrade remembered that ‘he threw himself on a machine gun and was riddled with bullets’. Indeed, men of Stratford’s battalion believed he’d been recommended for the Victoria Cross as ‘the first man to land on the peninsula’. But these reports lay on Joseph’s Red Cross file, and the official historian Charles Bean never saw it. He named Lieutenant Duncan Chapman as the first man ashore. Stratford’s body was never found. In Lismore his mother, Alice, took some consolation that he had been ‘stated by eye witnesses to be first Australian ashore on Gallipoli’. The most durable single memorial to any of the Lost Boys may well be that (for a time) a place was named after one of them. In 1916 the Queensland education department opened a small state school in a timber settlement called Japoonvale, described as situated ‘via Silkwood inland from Innisfail’. The school was named ‘Stratvell’ – a combination of the names of Joe Stratford and Edith Cavell, the British nurse famous the world over for having been executed by the Germans in Belgium in October 1915. This sounds improbable, but correspondence in the Richmond River Historical Society shows that local parents petitioned the manager of the sugar mill, who lobbied the Department of Public Instruction. Though the official history had denied Joe Stratford the palm, his fame locally lasted many years. The Stratvell State School closed in 2002, but now Lost Boys of Anzac will tell the story more widely.
Professor Peter Stanley has written 25 books, many on Australian military history. A recent work,Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, $29.95), was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2011.
Lost Boys of Anzac was published by NewSouth in 2014.