The Life and Times of Ubert Victor Willis

Text and Images by Christopher Albertson

 

Bert Willis (left) and a friend


Ubert “Bert” Victor Willis was born in Bowral, NSW in 1885 to parents Jonathan and Emily May Willis (nee Tickner). He came from a large family and was the eldest of seven children, with younger brothers Harry, Charles, Joseph, Camden and Jack, and a younger sister Mary. He also had a large extended family in the district as his father Jonathan, or Jack as he was known, was one of eleven kids.
 
Interestingly, Ubert was originally to be named Hubert Victor Willis. However one of his uncles suggested that if the 'h' was dropped from his first name, his initials would read U.V.W. which his uncle thought would be nice! And so his parents did, and Bert was born as Ubert Victor Willis.
 
As a student Bert attended Bowral District School. After school he found employment as a butcher, though he had also done training as a brick maker. Brick making ran in the family as Bert’s grandfather Timothy Willis, after emigrating from England in 1839 aboard the “Cornwall,” later moved to Bowral where he established a brickworks to supply bricks for the railway tunnel between Bowral and Mittagong, which opened in 1886. Bert’s father Jonathan was also a brick maker and helped his father on the railway tunnel project. Bert too had been trained as a brick maker, although at the time of enlisting he was a butcher. This too was most likely due to his father’s influence, as Jonathan after brick making became a butcher and had a slaughter yard in Bowral. He became a successful and prosperous business man in Bowral where he built a large homestead, “Rookwood,” on Kangaloon Road. It was described as a large and beautiful terrace style two story house, decorated with much iron lacework. This was where Bert grew up and was the address used for his next of kin, his mother, in all his records during his service. Prior to enlistment Bert had been a member of the Bowral Association Band, and he often wrote letters home to his youngest brother Jack during the war.
 
Bert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on October 2nd 1916 in Goulburn NSW, aged 30 years. He was posted to the 8th Reinforcements to the 55th Battalion with the rank of Private. He embarked aboard HMAT Suevic from Sydney on November 11th, disembarking at Devonport, England on January 30th 1917. Whilst in England, he trained with the 14th Training Battalion in Hurdcott, until he proceeded overseas on May 22nd via Southampton, marching in to the 5th Australian Divisional Base Depot in Le Harve, France the next day. He marched out on June 11th to join the 55th Battalion in the field, where he was taken on strength the following day. He fought with his unit through Passchendaele in late 1917 and into 1918, where the AIF fought desperately to stop the great German advance of March 1918.
 
Tragically, Bert was mortally wounded on July 19th 1918, as the 55th Battalion held support trenches just north of the village of Sailly le Sec on the River Somme. He was the victim of a German gas attack, receiving serious phosgene gas injuries. He was evacuated to the 15th Australian Field Ambulance where he died the following day, no doubt in great pain. He was 32 years old. In an article printed in the local Bowral newspaper after his death, Bert was described as being “of a very quiet and unassuming disposition, greatly esteemed by all who knew him, and many friends in Bowral and district will mourn his death.” Bert was buried at Querrieu British Cemetery, 3˝ miles NW of Corbie on the River Somme, France.
 
In Bert's memory, the first son of each of his brothers was named Ubert.

 

 

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