ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO.
ALBERT MATSEN 1894 to 29 July 1916.
The stretcher bearer asked about the odour in the air. The French answered ”Beaucoup Australie. Fini Pozières.”1 One of these was Private Albert Matsen from Cooktown.. Albert was born in Cooktown in1894, one of eight children to Mats Matsen and Emily Chandler.His father was a Danish seaman who was employed as the Grassy Hill lighthouse keeper for a period leading up to his death from a spinal disease in 1910. This left Emily with a young family to raise so when Albert was 16 years old he enrolled in the Thursday Island Naval Reserve.
After war had been declared with Germany he enlisted in ‘D” company of 25th Battalion of the A.I.F. on the 19 January 1915 and was described as being a well built and stocky young man with a fair complexion, grey eyes and numerable tattoos on his forearms. He embarked on HMAT Aenus on the 29 June 1915. His service record available at the National Archives tells you very little. However it is possible to get a better picture of his short time in the army if one reads the 25th Battalion’s history.
The Battalion left Australia at the end of June 1915, trained in Egypt during August and by early September was manning trenches at Gallipoli. The 25th Battalion had a relatively quiet time because the last major Allied offensive had been launched, and turned back in the previous month. It left the peninsular on 18 December 1915. Albert disembarked from the troop ship Mudros at Alexandria, Egypt on 9 January 1916. After further training in Egypt, the battalion proceeded to France. Landing on 19 March 1916, it was the first A.I.F. battalion to arrive there. Now fighting as part of the 2nd Division, it took part in its first major battle at Pozieres between 25 July and 7 August in the course of which it suffered 785 casualties, one being the young man from Cooktown.
He was at first declared missing and the probability of his being taken a prisoner of war was investigated and found to be incorrect. A formal enquiry into his disappearance was held in London on 20 August 1917. Various members of the battalion were asked for their views. One comment came from a Sergeant Pollock: “He was killed out in No Man’s Land. His pal W. Martin, better known as Paddy, saw him dead. He came and told me as both men were in my platoon”. From a letter from a Corporal Martin “I have had several enquiries from our headquarters about Matsen. The last I saw of him was when we were about half way between the German trenches and our own. We were alongside each other going across. The first thing I did when we came out was to look around to see if I could find anything concerning him. As far as I can gather he has been missing since the 29 July 1916.”
Charles Patching, the notable Cooktown lawyer was still negotiating in late 1917 for the return of his effects, the payment of his outstanding wages and the settlement of a pension for his mother. The War Department moved slowly. A pension was finally granted to his mother Emily Matsen, of the Pilot Reserve, the Esplanade, Cooktown from 12 September 1917
The 4th Division was next into the line at Pozieres. It too endured a massive artillery bombardment and defeated a German counter-attack on 7 August; this was the last attempt by the Germans to retake Pozieres.
The following statement illustrates well the hellhole of that military manoeuvre.
“We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils.” Lieutenant John Raws, 23rd Battalion. 4 August 1916.
Albert’s sacrifice is remembered at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France and on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
At this moment in Canberra, the French flag is flying at the front of the War Memorial building and will remain until 4 August, which marks the day Australians captured the ridge at Pozieres in 1916.
- Translation- = Many Australians. Finished at Pozieres.
Pozieres was a small village in the Somme valley in France and it was the scene of bitter and costly fighting for the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions in mid-1916.
Compiled by Marge Scully from documents held at the Cooktown Historical Society, the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial at Canberra.