Peer deep into the soul of even the least-noticeable person in the room, and you’ll discover a remarkable story. So it was with old Tom Peacock, whose life was filled with extraordinary events that belied his quiet demeanour. One hundred years ago today he was admitted to hospital in England, thereby ending his fight in the First World War. But that was only part of a remarkable journey in which Tom always insisted, “God has treated me well”.
Can you tell which one is Tom in this photo? He’s the old man sitting quietly on the left. He was just eighteen-months-old when his father died in 1874, having accidentally shot himself in the leg while climbing through a fence. Tom was orphaned four years later when his mother died from tuberculosis.
Tom was raised by his maternal aunts and uncles at the Rose & Crown Inn to the west of Melbourne. He left school when he was seven-years-old, at a time when some of his siblings ran away from home after complaining about not being treated well. Tom, however, was apprenticed by a cousin to be a butcher. While at work when he was nineteen, Tom suffered a fit and severely cut his head.
Tom proved to be a gifted athlete, and on the Queen’s Birthday in 1894 when he was 21-years-old, he placed second in the Melton Shire Sheffield Handicap over 130 yards. Family lore says Tom was also a talented high jumper. Twelve months later he married Elizabeth, and two weeks after that, Tom opened his first butchers shop in Werribee. Children followed, and life was good at last.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Tom then aged 42, tried to enlist, but was rejected. In 1916 as Australian casualties mounted, Tom tried again two days after prime minister Billy Hughes’ first failed conscription referendum. This time he was accepted. At 44-years-old Tom was really too old, but he wanted to go to stop his only son Harold from signing up. After all, one of Harold’s cousins had served in Gallipoli, another had won a Military Medal, another had lied about his age and enlisted when he was just seventeen, and yet another, who was living with the Peacocks at the time, also lied and enlisted when he was just sixteen. So old Tom went to war, keeping his son at home.
On the way over, Tom’s ship the HMAT Ballarat was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. Tom survived unscathed. His 23rd Infantry Battalion was enjoying a swimming carnival on the day that he joined them in the north of France. Nineteen days later, however, at 5.40am on the 20th of September 1917, the Battle of Menin Road at Ypres, Belgium, began. Tom’s battalion moved forward to a railway embankment and waited in reserve. It was then that the Germans attacked with mustard gas, and Tom got the worst of it. With severe gas blisters, he was taken first to a field ambulance, then by ambulance train to Rouen, France, where fittingly given Tom’s burning condition, 500 years earlier Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake.
Tom didn’t recover, so on the 19th of October he embarked for England, and the next day – a century ago today – he arrived at a Georgian house built in 1750, but then it was the 1st Southern General Hospital in Monyhull Hall, Birmingham. That was the end of Tom’s war.
He returned home and was welcomed as a hero, overage and with gas poisoning. Tom was presented with an engraved gold medallion by Senator William Plain, a close supporter of prime minister Billy Hughes and his conscription campaign. Tom is my great-grandfather, and I have his gold medal today. Tom was later awarded the Victory Medal and British War Medal, which are now held by a grandson who was a commander in the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Wing, and he still holds the record for most hours as a test pilot.
But the biggest reward that Tom received was that when the war ended on the 11th of November 1918, his son Harold was on the boat still waiting to depart. Tom had saved his son from going to war. “God has treated me well,” Tom said until the day he died.