The mystery of Uncle Jack finally solved

MISSING IN ACTION: A photo of Jack Parker in military uniform supplied by the Parker Family. It has been confirmed only recently that he lost his life in a battle at Fromelles, where Australian soldiers were used to distract German soldiers from the Somme.
MISSING IN ACTION: A photo of Jack Parker in military uniform supplied by the Parker Family. It has been confirmed only recently that he lost his life in a battle at Fromelles, where Australian soldiers were used to distract German soldiers from the Somme. Contributed

AFTER more than 90 years of mystery, Betty Turner finally knows what happened to her Uncle Jack during the war.

Jack Parker, a former Lismore resident, was one of 75 soldiers exhumed and formally identified from Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery, in northern France, where the Battle of Fromelles claimed the lives of almost 2000 Australians during World War I.

“It’s just not knowing that’s the hardest thing,” Mrs Turner said.

“All our relatives in Brisbane, including my seven brothers and sisters, got together when we found out.”

Excavation of the site began in late April last year, in the hope of solving some of the mystery surrounding the first Battle of the Somme.

The family received official notice that Mr Parker had been identified on March 19, after Mrs Turner’s siblings supplied DNA for testing.

“My younger brother David was the first to start looking, and he and my youngest sister Susan gave DNA,” she said.

Now the family is still matching records and official letters from a variety of sources to piece together the puzzle of Uncle Jack.

“There are things we get that don’t match,” Mrs Turner’s daughter Nerida said.

“We still don’t know exactly when he was killed, because German documents say July 19, 1916, and the English ones say the 20th.

“But his dog tags were sent back from Berlin, so somehow the Germans were the first to come across his body.”

Before the war, Jack had been a clever boy who moved to Lismore in 1902 at the age of six.

He was born in Kiama on August 21, 1896, and when the family moved to the Northern Rivers, his father owned and operated the plumbing business E A Parker where Henry’s Bakery Cafe now stands in Keen Street.

“They had a house in Parkes Street, which is still there today,” Mrs Turner said.

“It looks a bit different now though, because they raised it up after the 1954 flood which went up to the windowsills.”

While Mrs Turner’s father Frederick Parker joined the family plumbing business, her uncle Jack had inherited the family’s gift with numbers, and wanted to pursue a career in banking.

“In those days you had to move away to continue your education past 14, so he went to Sydney and studied accountancy at night,” she said.

“Then he signed up for the war in the Hunter Valley Battalion. He would have been at the peak of his career.”

When it came time to support ‘the Mother Country’, Jack would have felt obliged to enlist, Mrs Turner said.

And he proved to be a good soldier, collecting medals and ribbons for his war efforts, which Mrs Turner’s younger brother keeps on display.

“He’s not just my Uncle Jack, he belongs to the whole family,” Mrs Turner said.

“We’ve all got photos and memorabilia, and I think they should go to the Australian War Memorial.”

While Jack kept a diary, his final moments still remain a secret.

“That’s the cruellest part of missing in action. The others you know when they were buried and it’s documented.

“It’s the same whenever there’s a tragedy, but we’ve had over 90 years of this without closure,” Mrs Turner said.

“If you know it doesn’t make you feel any better, but it does make it easier to cope. It’s the not knowing that tears people apart.”

Instead, Mrs Turner and her family would simply lay a wreath each year in remembrance of Jack.

“His colour patches were purple and gold, so the wreath would have those colour flowers, and was laid there each year in his honour,” she said.

“I’d always go to the ANZAC service with Aunty Amy, which was held where NORPA is now.”

Still sifting through photographs of Jack and his family, Mrs Turner said she didn’t know all that much about her uncle.

Her grandmother and grandfather rarely spoke of Jacck Parker except to tell them when he died.

“Whenever we asked about Uncle Jack, Grandfather would just get a sad look on his face, and say ‘he died in the war’,” she said.

“He was talked about with reverence, but sadness, and we’d only get the basics. They didn’t even know what had happened to him.

“But that’s how it went. That’s what war does to families.”

Instead, Mrs Turner would hang onto snippets of information, and ‘little things Aunty Amy said about Jack’, while her daughter Miss Turner bases her thoughts of what Mr Parker was like on how his siblings were.

“If Jack was anything like the rest of the family, he would have been fairly liberal-minded and tolerant, and family would have meant everything to him,” Miss Turner said.

“It was a very ethical and moral family, and they were strong Methodists.”

Now, with some of Mr Parker’s past clearer, Mrs Turner’s brother and nephew will travel to the 94th anniversary of the Battle of the Fromelles, where the last exhumed soldier will be buried.

“We’re anxiously waiting for them to come back with photos,” she said.

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