Motor mechanics’ mateship

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The above photograph of a group of Australian drivers and motor mechanics from World War I is believed to have been taken in England between December 29, 1917, and May 25, 1918. The men depicted in the photo were in England together shortly before the Australian Mechanical Transport Company disembarked for France to deliver reinforcements and supplies to the Army Service Corps units.

An outbreak of influenza impeded the unit’s progress in 1918 where as many as 870 men were admitted to hospital for periods of up to 10 days, with about 18 men incapacitated at any one time. With half the unit affected, the Australian Comforts Fund was instrumental in providing additional comforts to the ailing and those men in recovery.

WWI gave rise to the Australian Army’s first ever mechanical transport unit in September of 1914. These were replaced by mechanical transport companies in 1918 for more efficient use of mechanical transport for moving ammunition and supplies.

Driver Norman Copeland: Regimental No. 12419

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In the late 1800s before the war, Norman Copeland’s family of Dutch descent owned a large two-storey furniture emporium on the corner of Gertrude and Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Each of their sons were great craftsmen in all aspects of the family business, and Copeland became an upholsterer and driver.

He was the youngest of seven children and four of the five brothers went to war. Charles Louis served in Egypt (22nd Infantry Battalion) while George went to France (6th Infantry Battalion), and Norman served in both England and France.

Young Copeland enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at age 22 in January 1915 and left for World War I service the following year on September 7, 1916. He served as a motor driver and mechanic in England before departing for France in June 1918 as part of the 3rd Mechanical Transport Company (M. T. Coy) of the 26th Army Service Corps.

After the war, he spent a couple of years living with relatives in England before returning to Fitzroy in September 1919. He did not marry until he was 34 years old when he met a 19-year-old Florence Sawyer at the roller skating rink in town where the Arts Centre now stands. They had two daughters, Joyce and Jean, before moving to a property in Kew.

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Copeland was a private chauffeur and had his own cartage business before being appointed as a driver for the PMG and was later transferred to the sorting room at the GPO.

The Copelands were a highly musical and talented family of entertainers. They performed together at volunteer concerts, orphanages and at Pentridge Prison, as well as concert parties during the second world war.

Norman’s daughter Joyce imparted that music is a memorable part of her life. Her father enjoyed taking her and her sister to see musical theatre shows, and they would sing their favourite numbers together as they washed the dishes.

Copeland retired relatively early due to lung problems. Not until after his retirement had he been able to buy a car of his own. In 1951, he proudly drove his whole family all the way up to Cairns in his little rickety two cylinder-engined Bradford.

In his late 50s, Copeland developed lung problems and resigned himself to the reality of a lengthy hospital stay. He spent much time in occupational therapy making floor rugs for family members. While a “wonder drug” allowed him to return home after two years in hospital, he died at age 76 from lung cancer in a Heidelberg Repatriation ward in 1969.

Copeland has been described as a social, friendly, easy-going man with a great sense of humour. He always remained positive despite his illness and lived a full contented life.

Driver Charles Holdway: Regimental No. 13401

Charles Holdway was a British-born motor mechanic from Auchenflower, Queensland. He enlisted in Brisbane as a 21-year-old in September 1916 and embarked for military service from Melbourne on December 22. He served in England and France alongside Copeland in the 3rd M. T. Coy before being later transferred to the 2nd M. T. Coy in July 1918. His father George Holdway died on April 5, 1918, while Holdway and his brother remained on active service abroad.

Partially deaf prior to his enlistment in the AIF, Holdway’s condition gradually worsened throughout the duration of his service. He was hospitalised for 39 days in late 1917 and was declared temporarily unfit for service for some time. After then being struck with influenza in early 1919, he returned to Brisbane in June. He had lost weight and continued to suffer from headaches.

After an unfortunate accident involving a horse and cart two months after discharge, Holdway died on November 26, 1919, at the young age of 24.

Private Curtis Edward Smith: Regimental No. 39

British born Curtis Smith, 21, had been a mechanic’s apprentice for three years before enlisting for the AIF in Holsworthy, NSW, in October 1914. He left Sydney the following June and served at the Gallipoli Peninsula as a trooper of the 12th Light Horse Regiment in late 1915. Smith was later transferred to England to join the 3rd M. T. Company of the Australian Mechanical Transport Service (A. M. T. S.) in September 1916 where he served as a motor mechanic together with Copeland and Holdway. The unit made way to France on June 5, 1918.

Smith returned to Australia in January 1920 and was discharged from service on May 29 that year.

Private Clive Olive Reginald Avern: Regimental No. 15365

Clive Avern was born in Binda, NSW. The fair 20-year-old enlisted as a motor driver and mechanic in Sydney on May 30, 1917, and set off from Melbourne in October 1917.

While Avern served in the 1st M. T. Coy, he met the other gentlemen in England prior to embarking for France in May 1918. He was formally discharged from service on December 27, 1919.

Please contact alanamitchelson@gmail.com with any further information concerning the remaining men depicted in the photo: Driver George O’Brien (H. Q. M. T.), Private H. Roberts (26th Coy A. A. S. C.), Driver Jansen and E. Lionel Ralson (A. M. E. S.).

Originally written for the Herald Sun.

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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