George Forster: A soldier of two wars

George Byerley Forster, c.1916
George Byerley Forster, c.1916

WHAT makes a young man volunteer when a country goes to war?

Possibly it is adventure, but also there are reasons such as religious belief or moral values.

George Byerley Forster was born at Wardell in 1897 and he was working on his father's farm at Nashua when he enlisted in 1915 aged 18.

He came from a long line of farmers. His grandfather, Nicholas Byerley Forster had brought his family to Australia in the 1880s possibly because farming conditions in England were declining.

His family had been well-to-do farmers in Northumberland for generations, employing several labourers and servants.

However, times were changing and the colonies beckoned. It would appear that Nicholas' eldest son, Ralph Byerley Forster, emigrated to America while Nicholas brought his other four children to Australia.

They settled at Wardell. Thomas Henry was his second son and in 1896 he married Esther Lumley, daughter of a well-known Wardell family. Our soldier, George Byerley Forster was Thomas and Esther's eldest child.

Early on in his army life George showed promise of being a fine soldier. He was quickly raised from Private to Corporal and then to Sergeant. By the middle of 1918 he found himself fighting in the 42nd Infantry Battalion on the Somme.

On August 8, just east of Hamel, he led his platoon on a successful operation which cleared enemy dugouts and took prisoners. He used enemy machine guns to hold the enemy back, greatly assisting the Australian 4th Division to advance and take control of the area. For this action he was recommended for the Military Medal.

On August 12, however, before it could be awarded, he was again recommended for the Military Medal for going out several times under heavy fire to retrieve wounded men, including an officer, from No Man's Land.

Then on September 29 he volunteered on three occasions to guide men through very difficult ground covered with wire and deep shell holes so that communications could be restored with neighbouring detachments.

On at least one occasion enemy shell fire caused his men to scatter, but he skilfully reorganized them and continued. All this was done in heavy rain and darkness. His actions earned him a Bar to go with his Military Medal, and he was later promoted to Lieutenant, possibly moving to the 41st Battalion at that time.

He returned to Australia in 1919.

His family had moved to the Tweed and this is where he settled and, in 1924, he married Elsie Beatrice Strong at Burringbar. He possibly continued his life as a farmer but soon became a building contractor in Murwillumbah. Perhaps he had learnt building skills while waiting for shipment back home to Australia. Many Australian soldiers learnt skills in this way.

One would think that he would have had enough fighting for one lifetime, but, in 1940, at the age of 43, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. Possibly he had remained a member of the Army Reserve in peacetime. He was given the rank of Flying Officer and served in Victoria and New Guinea.

He was discharged in November 1945 and he resumed his work as a building contractor. His younger brother, Walter, had been killed in New Guinea.

George was an officer and preacher in the Methodist Church. He died in 1963 shortly before his 66th birthday. He was cremated in Brisbane. His wife died in 1993.

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