The cost of survival

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The image of his best mate, Bertie Hill, being killed before his eyes during the frighteningly futile Charge at the Nek continued to haunt Arthur Woodbridge for the remainder of his life. He refused to ever talk about Gallipoli and the pain of that all too vivid memory was such that he could not bring himself to speak Bertie’s name after the war.

Woodbridge and Hill had grown up as childhood neighbours. They attended the same state school in East Brunswick and remained close friends well into their adulthood.

The two men were in their early 30s when they enlisted to the AIF together on September 9, 1914, as part of the 8th Light Horse Regiment and they left Melbourne in February 1915. Woodbridge had previously enlisted in the 1st Infantry Battalion at just 16 years of age and had served in the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles during the Boer war shortly afterwards. He received a Queen’s South Africa Medal decoration with four clasps for his service.

Losing a friend who had been such a meaningful and accustomed part of his life truly affected him.

Woodbridge became a chronic alcoholic, as many soldiers did after the war, downing the booze as a coping mechanism to deal with the numbing shell shock he had endured.

Arthur Woodbridge was raised in a family of 15 by Alfred and Ellen Woodbridge, a couple who informally adopted him a few months after his birth in 1882 to a Catherine McDonald. He married Annie McPherson at age 21 and went on to have 15 children of his own, with a 27 year age gap between the youngest and eldest child. Woodbridge left his wife with seven children when he set off to war and perhaps saw it as a way of providing for his large family who were often under financial stress.

Woodbridge’s grandson Beau Simpson said that his father, one of Arthur’s 15 children – William Woodbridge – had always resented Woodbridge’s drinking problem as well as a minor assault charge from 1937 involving his brother, Albert’s, hand catching a knife in Arthur’s possession. So much so that William eventually changed his surname to distance his family from being associated to the incident which made headlines in the local paper at the time.

Despite establishing a reputation for being generally inebriated, Woodbridge has been described as a loving, caring father and husband, not to mention a funny man who on one occasion came home with a puppy in the pocket of his army coat to surprise his children.

On the rare event that he was sober, Woodbridge acted as quite the sergeant major, asserting his patriarchal role of being in charge of the household. When his son, Wally, joined the army, the senior war veteran kept him in line, often marching the boy around the kitchen.

Relative Beau Simpson has just one memory of his grandfather, Arthur, from his parents having taken him as a child to visit an old man at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. During his extensive research into Arthur Woodbridge’s history, Beau noticed that while in England he had been absent without leave from October 28, 1915, until January 4, 1916, which coincided with the period of time the war hero Albert Ronald McDonald – “Squizzy’s Soldier” – spent on the run near London. Beau has concluded that the timing along with the shared biological surname, McDonald, was all too much of a coincidence and strongly believes the two men may have been brothers, reunited years later.

Woodbridge witnessed horrific events at Gallipoli. Having landed at Anzac Cove on May 21, he was wounded and sent to England in September of 1915 to recover in hospital. During his service, Woodbridge was promoted to corporal and he later attained the honourable rank of sergeant major.

He returned to Australia in August 1916, reunited with his loving wife and children as one of just 49 men from his squadron of 150 to survive the Charge at the Nek on August 7, 1915. But not without having been scarred from the great loss of his best friend, Bertie, who had not been so lucky.

Woodbridge lived until the age of 67, dying of a widespread cancer in 1949.

Originally published at 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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