Alfred William “Billy” Rachinger

Recently I wrote of a former director of the Department of Repatriation who courted controversy by suggesting that the war had not had a significant impact on the health of those who fought through those years. He maintained that hard work would overcome most problems, and that war service did little to change the aging process of the men and women involved. The problem, of course, was that this was a blanket concept, filled with implied generalisations, and, on the whole, it was incorrect. A good example was local lad, Billy Rachinger.

As the name suggests, and like so many other families from around Ballarat, Billy’s family was of German origin. His paternal grandparents, Eugene Guillaume Rachinger and Anna Margaretha Elizabetha Bender, were both from the German state of Bavaria – Eugene from Ellingen outside Nuremburg and Anna from Nassau, northwest of Frankfurt.

Billy’s father, James Auguste Rachinger, was born at Yandoit, on the outer edge of the area covered by Ballarat and district. He married Alice Hetherington, who was from Cambrian Hill on the outskirts of Sebastopol, in 1884. Her ancestry was English, and her father, John Hetherington, was to have a strong impact on the extended family.

Alfred William “Billy” Rachinger was born at Broomfield, near Creswick, on 21 August 1893. He was the youngest of four children and their third son.

Broomfield of the 1890’s was very different to the rural area we know today. Immediately north of the Creswick State Forest, it was once a thriving gold-field, producing one of the world’s richest deep alluvial veins. The town had a population that reached over 1,200 people, and it supported three churches, a railway station, three hotels and multiple stores providing the necessities of life. Included in those stores was a butcher shop conducted by John Hetherington, Billy’s maternal grandfather.

James Rachinger worked closely alongside his father-in-law, and the business throve, providing meat for the miners and their families. There was also a State School at Broomfield. Opened in 1879, it was originally known as Broomfield Gully and housed a considerable 150 students.

By the time Billy reached school age, the school had amalgamated with the Allendale State School, although the two schools maintained separate campuses.

Following the annual examinations by school’s inspector, Mr Shelton, in October 1899, shared his findings, which were most complimentary:‘…Of the adjunct school at Broomfield, he states:- “This school is managed in a satisfactory manner. The classes here acquit themselves creditably, and good, steady progress has been made. Copy-book and slate writing are very neat. Singing, poetry, and drill are well taught. The discipline and tone are very creditable.”…’

Billy was still just a teenager when his mother, Alice, died on 22 October 1908. Given her young age (she was just 39) it is seems likely that illness was responsible for her demise. It also appears that her husband moved her into Ballarat – perhaps to receive more intense treatment – and they lived briefly at 17 Lyons Street north.

Following Alice’s death, James returned to Broomfield and the family shop. Young Billy had already joined his father and grandfather and was training as a butcher.

The death of Billy’s grandfather, John Hetherington on 9 December 1913, left the butcher’s shop and yards without a proprietor. In January the following year, it was announced that James Rachinger had purchased the business with the intention of continuing its operation. Billy continued working alongside his father.

From an early age Billy Rachinger had received formal military training. He began with the “Old 7th Regiment” cadets before transferring to the 71st “City of Ballarat” Infantry Regiment in July 1912 following the implementation of the re-organisation scheme. Billy would eventually receive his commission as second-lieutenant in C Company.

At the special Burrumbeet Camp held in early December 1913, some 2600 young men, with troops from as far away as Hamilton and Casterton, took part. They travelled to the popular lakeside spot, where their days were spent in parades and specialised training. There was also ample time for larking around swimming in the lake. ‘…The lads were all willing to admit that they had had a good time, and although bodily tired, were able to recognise that the training and the few hardships they had had to undergo were making men of them…’ The 71st Infantry did particularly well during the camp, with Billy being singled out for special mention. ‘…Lieutenant-Colonel G. E. Morton stated that Lieutenant Filmer and his company (to which Lieutenant W. Rachinger, senior subaltern, and Lieutenant R. Benson, junior subaltern, both of Ballarat, were attached during camp) had done excellent work…’

In 1914, Billy joined the Kingston branch of the Australian Natives’ Association. It was a common process for young men of the era to be admitted to the mutual benefit society. In its early years, the association was limited to white males, but in later years the only requirement was that they were born in Australia.

Billy was also a talented Australian Rules footballer. During the 1914 season he represented the Broomfield and Allendale Club and was mentioned almost every game as either one of his team’s best players or scorers.

As a delegate for the club, Billy took part in meetings of the Creswick and Allendale District Association. He was a keen supporter of securing umpires from Ballarat to improve the quality of the onfield play. When the idea of presenting gold medals to premiership players was proposed (with the financial support of £5/5 from the Premier of Victoria, Sir Alexander Peacock, of Creswick), Billy also added a voice of approval. He believed that ‘it would be the means of creating more enthusiasm into the sport.’ He added that if the other clubs in the association were prepared to ‘put in their share’ towards the 22 medals, the Broomfield and Allendale Club was willing to contribute. It was immediately agreed that all teams would add a further £3 each to purchase the medals. This was a show of community awareness, involvement and proactivity that paved the way for future footballing generations.

However, before Billy could really enjoy a full season of footy, another duty became more imperative –the clarion call for volunteers. During February 1915, with the world already at war, Billy had attended a school of instruction held at Broadmeadows Camp along with several other officers from the 71st Infantry. It was clear that the military was preparing the road ahead, but at that early stage there could have been little concept of the staggering casualty rate would be suffered during the conflict.

Billy began the process of enlisting at Kingston on 8 July 1915, where his medical was conducted. The local doctor, William Parker, was responsible for recording the basic information required by the military – he noted that Billy, who was just six weeks shy of his 21st birthday, was 5-feet 7½-inches tall, weighed 146-pounds and could expand his chest to 34½-inches. He noted that Billy also had scars on both his right elbow and left wrist – not unusual for a footballer or a butcher!

Added to these details was a full description of Billy’s appearance: he had a fair complexion, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He was also a practicing member of the Methodist faith.

When word spread around the community that several of the local lads had enlisted, a social, which had been planned to welcome a new missionary to the Creswick circuit, was extended to include a special farewell for the young soldiers. The event was held at the Broomfield Methodist Sunday School on Wednesday evening the 14 July.

‘…Mr R. Sanderson, superintendent of the school, occupied the chair in a very pleasing manner. He extended a very hearty welcome to Mr Watton and had no doubt but that he would have a successful ministry in the district. Others joined in the welcome, and Mr Watton suitably responded, trusting to get on well with the people, and promising to put into his work as much energy as possible.

The chairman spoke of the presence of a number of volunteers, all of whom had passed through the school. They were Messrs A W. Rachinger, F. and J. Redman. C. H. and E W. Miskin, J. Packham, . J. A. V. L. Cover dale, W. Hobill and Alf Thompson all but the latter being present. Mr Sanderson gave good advice to the young men, and congratulated them on the step they had taken. The Germans had shown no signs of manliness, but he hoped the volunteers would conduct themselves as men.

Mr W. Merrett said he had known the young men since childhood, for they were boys together, and he knew their worth. He hoped for their safe and victorious return. Mr H. Connell also spoke in support, and said it was splendid for the young men to go to the Dardanelles and reinforce their comrades. He hoped to see all of them return again.

Mr E. H. Trott in his remarks, said the soldiers were being called heroes, but the mothers, fathers and sisters were all heroes for letting them volunteer. Mr. D. Lyon said he was glad to see the young men going to help to keep the flag flying.

Dr. W. P. H. Parker said that he had examined more recruits during the past few days than he had since the start of the war, and men coming forward were of a stamp worthy of any country. Mr L. Mitchell said he hoped the volunteers would follow the advice of the chairman and act like men. They would all be there to welcome them back again.

The volunteers each responded, and thanked the speakers for their nice remarks and good wishes. They had to undergo final examination in Melbourne, but all believed they would pass. Before going to the front, they would return to say farewell.

During the proceedings Miss Jory effectively sang “The Widow Who Gives Her Son,” an item highly appreciated. Refreshments were handed around by the ladies, after which games, etc., were indulged in, and a most enjoyable time was spent by all…’

It is easy to imagine the multitude of emotions that were experienced that night…On 16 July, Billy returned all his equipment to the 71st Infantry Drill Hall in Ballarat. He then took the train to Melbourne, where he reported for his re-examination by an army medical officer. When his fitness was confirmed, Billy signed his oath to serve King and country, which was then backdated to 8 July.

Billy immediately went into camp at Broadmeadows, which he would have been very familiar with following the course of instruction he’d attended earlier in the year. He was assigned to the 10th reinforcements appointed to join the 6th Infantry Battalion on 22 September.

Just a week later, Billy embarked from Melbourne onboard the RMS Osterley, a large ocean liner owned by the Orient Steam Navigation Company. The ship made its way across the Indian Ocean heading to Egypt.

Although Billy arrived in the Middle East before the end of the Gallipoli Campaign, he was not destined to join the 6th Battalion at ANZAC. Instead, he was kept in camp outside Cairo, where he continued training waiting for the next stage in the AIF’s involvement in the war. He was finally taken on strength of the 6th Battalion at Serapeum on 22 February 1916. The next day he was promoted to the rank of corporal.

The 6th Battalion was amongst the earliest troops to transfer from Egypt to France. On 26 March, the men boarded the appropriately named troopship Ballarat at Alexandria. One of Billy’s comrades, Ballarat’s Ted Cannon, wrote the most descriptive and detailed account of what they experienced during those days.

‘…We are well away from Egypt now – away from it for a good while, I do hope, for of all the disagreeable places one could think of it’s the limit. Taking it all round though, and looking back with the philosophical eye that it’s easy to regard the hard past with – especially if a brighter future looms ahead – I can say that I did not have a bad time after all. The place was always interesting, and its inhabitants – well, I’d call them interesting too.

We had an enjoyable trip from Egypt. At about 4pm one nice afternoon we left Serapeum and marched across the Canal to the Serapeum siding, where we bivouacked, and entrained at 3.15 next morning on specially-reserved open-air cattle trucks. The first few hours of the journey I slept through in spite of being tossed about like a pea on a shovel, but the remainder of the long ride I was very attentive to the interesting country we were passing through.

None of the surroundings seemed very strange to me. All the time I was seeing quaint Bible pictures over and over again. The prints of Moses driving the pigs to market and all the other pictures I remember seeing in our big Family Bible, I seemed to see them all again, but in real life this time. Nothing seems to change much there. The old stock properties artists always use when commissioned to make a picture of the Holy Lands or of Egypt are real enough. The swarthy Egyptian ‘cocky’ working his one cow-power wooden plough – palm trees in foreground – ruins in the distance showing up against a gory sunset – all are there right enough in nearly every direction.

At the different stations we passed through the natives sold ‘eggs ee cook’ as they called them (boiled eggs) for three per piastre and ‘oringas’ at about the same price. They did a good business, as we needed all we could afford to buy, for the ration is a tin of bully beef and three biscuits for 24 hours.

We reached Alexandria at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and embarked at once on the Ballarat; the train taking us on to the wharf and right opposite the boat. We waved farewell to Egypt before tea and shortly after we were well out on the Mediterranean.

It was a Sunday when we embarked and the following Sunday we disembarked at Marseilles [on 2 April] – after a trip that shook us up a bit towards the latter end. I was one of a small minority that managed to keep our ballast down.

No sooner had the boat arrived than we were marched straight to the train, and off again from one end of France to the other. And here we are – Somewhere in France – feeling well satisfied with ourselves and things in general.

The French people are a kind race and seem remarkably like our own people. At the stations we passed through on our way from Marseilles the people gave us a good reception, and provided us with oranges, apples, cakes, and a cup of tea as well. The boys were delighted with the splendid treatment they received.

I will be able to tell you more about the place next time I write, but for the present the censorship is fairly strict. This much I can say – we are billeted on a nice little farm, where it is mighty cold, and the din of battle can be distinctly heard. We marched into the village this morning to hear Mass in the Cathedral, which is a beautiful old church with magnificent decorations in it. The people here are very devout, and at intervals along the roads and at cross-roads big Shrines and Crucifixes are set up. Over the doors and on the side walls of most houses (wayside pubs included) little shrines of the Blessed Virgin are built in. What a silent rebuke these life-sized figures of Christ on the Cross must have been to the Germans as they passed them on their fiendish, woman-killing march to Calais!

Our train journey occupied 56 hours, so I had plenty of time hanging on my hands, which I filled in by writing to old friends, but as we are only allowed a certain amount of correspondence per man I was unable to get them through. If I can’t post them soon I will have to boil the billy with them, for they take up room, and every ounce of weight tells…’

During his first few months on the Western Front, Billy was in an out of the line in the far north of France around Armentières. On 13 June, he was wounded in action, but the wound was only slight – it didn’t even warrant full documentation – and, following first aid, he remained on duty. As next-of-kin, his father, however, was informed that Billy had been wounded and was provided with just enough information to cause distress.

The 6th Battalion’s first major action on the Western Front was at Pozieres. They arrived in Albert on 21 July and moved into the Old British Front Line when darkness fell the following day. The majority of the battalion then moved forward to trenches on the northeast side of the shattered village.

After five days facing persistent intense bombardment from the German artillery, the 6th Battalion was relieved at 3am on 27 July and they retired back to Bonneville for a well-earned rest.

It was clear that Billy Rachinger had performed in an exceptional manner under these alarming conditions. On 31 July he was promoted to sergeant.

A common practice when writing home during the war was to include the names of friends and neighbours so that their families would receive news of how they were fairing. Sapper Joe Fox, from Black Hill, in writing to his mother, included the following, ‘…Billy Rachinger is keeping well, and wished to be remembered to all. It was only a rumour that he had fever…’

(Now, for those who are interested in synchronicity, Joe Fox was my great-uncle – and I posted a photograph on Facebook of him attending an English wedding during the war last Sunday. I received a message from a member of Billy Rachinger’s family the next day; the two incidents had no relation and I have no idea how the pair knew one another).

A second of tour of Pozieres followed, before the 6th was moved to the Ypres Sector, which was at its quietest since the beginning of the war. Whilst there, further evidence of Billy’s value to his unit became apparent when he was selected to attend an officer training course in England. On 5 November 1916, he joined the No2 Officer Cadet Battalion at Pembroke College in Cambridge.

The course was thorough and lasted into the New Year. Billy finally received his commission as second-lieutenant on 1 March 1917.

Two weeks later he returned to France. When news of his commission was received in Broomfield, there was considerable pride expressed in the local newspapers. ‘…The many friends of Sergeant Wm. Rachinger, son of Mr Jas. Rachinger, of Broomfield, will be pleased to hear that he recently passed, with honours, for lieutenant at the Military College in England…’

Billy passed through the reinforcements camp at the Base Depot outside Étaples, before rejoining the 6th Battalion at Mametz Camp on 18 March.

On 7 May, the 6th Battalion relieved the 1st Battalion at the Railway Embankment south of Bullecourt. Both the First and Second Battles of Bullecourt were to cause substantial casualties for the AIF. Fortunately, for the 6th Battalion losses were, what the military termed, “acceptable.”

Those months continued to cement Billy Rachinger’s position in his unit. On 11 July, he received his second pip when he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He was also seconded for further training in England. He joined the 2nd Training Battalion at Sutton Veny on 31 August, from there he attended a course of instruction at the Southern Command Gas School held at Porton in Wiltshire. From 2 to 9 September, Billy studied the intricacies of the use of gas, by which time he was fully qualified as an instructor.

From Porton, Billy moved to Lyndhurst, a village in the centre of the Hampshire New Forest. He was On Command at the Bombing School there from 28 November until the 15 December. At the end of the course he was also qualified as a bombing instructor.

The remainder of 1917 and the first two months of 1918, Billy spent with the 2nd Training Battalion, presumably putting his new instructing skills into action training the new recruits.

On 1 March 1918, Billy returned to France via Southampton. He passed through the French port of Le Havre and marched out to his battalion. When he reached them on 6 March, the men were busy cutting wood at Bois-Carré south of Vimy Ridge.

During the night of 9/10 July, the 6th Battalion was deployed at Merris (not far from Hazebrouck on the border with Belgium) when Billy Rachinger performed a conspicuous act of ‘gallantry and devotion to duty.’

‘…In the course of an attack by a company on his right Lieut Rachinger noticed a section on the left of the attack had lost direction – his own post being safe he went out to the section and set it moving in the correct direction and having visited his own post and seen it was correct he went out again, caught up to the section and advised the section commander as to the siting and construction of his post. His initiative undoubtedly assisted materially in making the attack a complete success, by the establishment of this left post as otherwise a considerable gap would have existed. It required exceptional courage to fearlessly make two return trips across the seized ground with the enemy engaged on his left…’

His actions led to Billy being recommended for the Military Cross by Captains H. P. Smith and A. C. Carne. Inexplicably, the decoration was not awarded.

On 23 August, the 6th Battalion was set the task of attacking Herleville Wood near Foucaucourt. At 3am the men moved to the forming up line; by 3:45 the companies were ready on the tape line to begin the attack. They were faced with an accurate enemy barrage and the failure of tanks to arrive. Eventually, with tank support, the companies were able to push through Herleville Wood. The enemy machine-gunners were particularly strong along Foucaucourt Ridge and were entrenched in St Martin’s Wood.

Billy Rachinger was leading his men near this German stronghold when he was wounded in action. He was admitted to the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance suffering a severe gunshot wound to the back that had penetrated into his chest.

Realising the serious nature of the wound, he was immediately transferred back to the 53rd (North Midland) Casualty Clearing Station at Vecquemont. It took several days to stabilise Billy’s condition before he could be transferred through to Rouen. He was admitted to the 8th General Hospital on 2 September.

After nearly two weeks in Rouen, Billy was prepared for evacuation to England. He sailed on 15 September on the Hospital Ship Panama. Early on 16 September, Billy was admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth.

News was slowly being relayed back to James Rachinger in Broomfield – on 24 September he was informed that Billy was ‘seriously ill.’ Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Billy was well enough to be transferred to Digswell House, home of the 5th Australian Auxiliary Hospital, at Welwyn to begin his convalescence.

Despite his recovery, it was clearly apparent that for Billy Rachinger, the war was over. He sailed for Australia on Christmas Eve 1918 onboard the transport Takada. His file was marked ‘invalid.’ Billy returned to his home in Broomfield, where, on the 15 February 1919, he and other returned men were given a rousing welcome home by the locals.

‘…A large crowd assembled at Broomfield on Saturday evening, the occasion being to welcome three returned soldiers, namely, Lieut. W. Rachinger, Private E. Williams, and Private J. Packham, who only lately arrived home. Mr W. Hetherington presided.

On account of the prevailing influenza epidemic the meeting was held in the open air in the Sunday school ground. The chairman extended a hearty welcome on behalf of the residents of the town and district visitors to the returned soldiers.

Sir Alex. Peacock also gave a stirring address on the patriotic spirit shown by the returned soldiers present. The Rev. F. lngamells and ex-Lieut. A. Hughes, who were present, made neat speeches, and endorsed the remarks of the previous speakers, stating how proud they all were in seeing the soldiers present back amongst them again.

Lady Peacock, on behalf of the residents of Broomfield, presented each soldier with a gold medal, stating how proud they all were to know they had gone and done their part, and trusted that they would live long to wear the medals handed to them.

During the evening Miss Bowley, who presided at the organ, sang two songs, which were greatly appreciated. Other musical items were rendered, and received with applause. Each of the recipients of the medals returned thanks for the kind words spoken of them, and the handsome presents made.

After refreshments had been handed round the singing of “For they are jolly good fellows,” “Keep the home fires burning,” and the National Anthem brought the proceedings to a close…’

Although still carrying the scars of his wounds, Billy eventually resumed working as a butcher. His appointment in the AIF was officially terminated on 5 April 1919 with the formal reason for termination being that he was medically unfit for active service.

On 22 September 1920, he married Selina Mary “Lina” Woods. The wedding took place at her older brother, James’ residence in Davies Street, Moreland, and was conducted by the Reverend Alexander Hardie.

The newly married couple then made their home at “Tyers” in Allendale.

During the various times Billy spent in England, he was befriended by the Cracknell family of Lower Clapton in London. They continued to correspond even after Billy returned home. However, after not receiving a reply to several letters, Miss Coo Cracknell wrote to Base Records on 22 October 1920.

‘…Dear Sir, Would you, if possible, give me any information concerning Mr A. W. Rachinger, who formally was Lieut in the 6th Battalion AIF. I wrote to “Australia House” London re same & they have referred me to you. Mr Rachinger left Eng for Australia 24.12.18, & after receiving several letters from him (the last informing me of his severe illness of appendicitis) I have not heard again so thought probably you could give me some definite news, as he was a great friend of my people’s & myself & when on Leave spent the majority of his time with us.

Naturally we are awfully anxious to hear further. I have written to him several times, since, but have not received a reply. His home address is Broomfield, Victoria, Australia.I should consider it a great favour if you would kindly do your best for me with regards to this matter as we are all deeply interested in his welfare. Thanking you in anticipation…’

She was informed that, as Billy’s appointment had been terminated, there was no recent information available. There was also a note attached to her letter that added “say not permissible” – on the whole it was not protocol for Base Records to give information to anyone who was not the legal next-of-kin. Through this letter, however, it was interesting to discover that, after all Billy had been through, he had also battled appendicitis, which could have been potentially fatal if not treated quickly during those pre-antibiotic years.

Nothing further is known of the Cracknell family…

During the early 1920’s, Billy was the local butcher in Allendale. He and Lina welcomed the birth of two daughters – Thelma Mary who was born at Nurse Surridge’s Private Hospital, Creswick, on 9 December 1921, and Dallas Ada, who was born at “Tyers” on 25 January 1925. Of course, they were to become known as “Thel and Dal.”

By 1928, Billy, Lina and their family, including Billy’s father, had moved to the Melbourne suburb of Hampton. From that time and well into the 1930’s, Billy worked as a stationer. He was also said to have tried his hand at selling cars.

However, it seems that the wounds he had suffered in 1918 had caused enough damage to contribute to the significant shortening of his life. Billy Rachinger died at the family home, 67 Littlewood Street, Sandringham, on 8 December 1942. He was buried in the Cheltenham Cemetery. He was just 49 years-old.

Sadly, despite all his pre-war promise, it seems that Billy never played football again.

Published by amandabentley62

I am a military historian focussing on Ballarat & District in the Great War

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: