On the Somme Where I Have Found You
contributed by Michael Hall
Percy Douglas was the kind of man every community needs, particularly a growing community like the young national capital.
He arrived from Melbourne in 1914 when he was appointed as Canberra’s first fire officer and immediately threw himself into the sporting and social life of his new home. He formed the city’s volunteer fire brigade and throughout his life was heavily involved in cricket, tennis, rugby league, Australian Rules, swimming, gymnastics and boxing clubs as well as the RSL, Legacy and the St. John Ambulance Association.
A new man in town might struggle to find friends, but in Percy Douglas’ case he quickly found a good mate amongst many in Malcolm ‘Mack’ Southwell. Mack lived at Fern Hill (a property stretching from Downer across Southwell Park and Lyneham to the Australian Institute of Sport) and worked in forestry planting pines on the slopes of Mt. Stromlo. Percy later wrote of Mack in verse;
On the night we happened to meet
We palled up, it seemed, that evening
And together we rode and we walked
And together we sat round the fire
Where we laughed and joked and we talked. *
Mack enlisted in October 1915 and joined the 20th Battalion in France in October 1916. Around this time Percy himself finally managed to enlist, having been rejected several times because of defective eyesight. He had served for five years as a gunner with the Royal Australian Artillery after he left school and, in desperation, contacted an officer friend from those days who arranged his enlistment. Percy arrived in France in May 1917 and served in the artillery with a siege battery. He found Mack nine months later.
On the Somme is where I have found you
With a white wooden cross at your head
Which tells me that while I was coming
The Boys laid you down: you were dead. *
Mack Southwell had been in the trenches in front of Flers on 15 November 1916 when he walked out apparently to fill his water bottle. He was killed by shell fragments from a German bomb and was later buried in Grass Lane Cemetery near Bapaume.
Percy Douglas fought at Passchendaele, Cambrai and in the desperate battles near Mt. Kemmel during the German offensive of early 1918. He returned to Canberra in 1919 and eventually became Chief Officer of the Canberra Fire Brigade. In 1922 he married Una Southwell, Mack’s sister. Percy Douglas died on 25 April 1955 while listening to the Anzac Day dawn service on the radio. He is commemorated by a street in the Kingston foreshores and by the Perce Douglas Playing Fields in the Gungahlin suburb of Nicholls.
*from Gillespie, Lyall L., Early Verse in the Canberra Region, p. 109.
ACTHL LOCATION: H 821.008 GILL