My last few blog entries focused on Coburg volunteers who died before they ever got a chance to fight. The shock for their families must have been immense. Having reconciled themselves to their boys going to war, they could not even console themselves with the knowledge that the boys (two of the three were only 18) had died fighting for their country.
3320 Private Charles Bruce Laugher, 5th Infantry Battalion, C Company.
Image courtesy AWM. Image H06466.
Another 18 year old who died accidentally was Charles Bruce Laugher, known as Bruce. The son of William James Laugher, bookseller and stationer of Kyneton and his wife Esther (nee Roff), Bruce Laugher was a clerk who had come to Melbourne to work. I cannot find any direct reference to him in Coburg, but he is remembered at the Memorial Avenue of Trees in Lake Reserve (his was tree number 142), so perhaps he worked somewhere in Coburg. His older brother Stanley William, also a clerk, lived in Cooraminta Street, Brunswick at the outbreak of war, so perhaps Bruce came down to join his brother. Stanley also joined up, served as a sergeant with the 5th Battalion, was wounded in action twice and returned to Australia in January 1919.
Yesterday I sat in the Heritage Room at the State Library of Victoria and read Bruce Laugher’s diaries and the last two letters he wrote home. His letters were written in a vivid, conversational manner and as I read, I could believe that I was right there with him. He wrote about some souvenirs he was sending home – a German helmet cover and some buttons. He’d picked the buttons up in a hurry, he said. Then went on to add
It’s not as if a chap is on a tour where he could pick up souvenirs etc. One does not have time for anything like that until the last minute before he comes out of the line that is providing he is lucky enough to be amongst the ones that come out after it is all over. Well, Good Luck was with me in our “hop out” and I managed to come out of the line with the other lucky ones.
This must have been one of the last letters his parents read and in all probability they read it after they’d heard the news of his death, when his good luck had run out.
His last letter home, written on 18 September 1916, just 8 days before he died, says that it was getting cool at night and they’d soon be having frosts. He says they’ll need their scarves and gloves etc. One of those etcs, a balaclava, proved to be Bruce Laugher’s downfall. He was shot at Ypres while coming off patrol by a fellow member of his Company, Private R.H. Armstrong, who was on sentry duty. An eye witness reported that
Laugher had been out on a listening patrol, he returning over the parpapet at a place where he was evidently unexpected. On being charged by sentry he made no audible reply. He was again challenged and again failed to reply. The place was very lightly held and risky and the sentry fired and shot him through the head.
An Inquiry was held and the following findings were made: They were all aware of the password, but Laugher did not give it. 'No blame is attributable to anyone, but it seems possible that owing to the deceased having his balaclava wrapped round his ears he did not hear the challenge.' It transpires he was wearing a cap and not a steel helmet.
It may be, of course, that he did hear the challenge and did give the password but his voice was muffled by the balaclava and was not heard by the sentry. We'll never know.
So, as predicted, the night was cool enough for Bruce Laugher to wrap up warmly, putting on a balaclava under his cap and it was this act of comfort that inadvertently led to his death.
I find it hard to image how his family coped with his death, not killed as a result of combat, but by a comrade who could not have seen who it was, given that the balaclava would have covered Bruce's face and it was 4 am and barely light yet.
The local newspaper gave an account of Bruce Laugher’s death in which they claimed that he was ‘killed in action’. A more palatable version of the truth, or perhaps the full circumstances had not yet come to light?
Kyneton Guardian, Saturday 14 October 1916, page 2.
Kyneton Guardian, 16 May 1916; Kyneton Guardian, 14 Oct 1916; Alpine Observer and North-Eastern Herald, 22 Dec 1916, p.1; Victorian electoral rolls, accessed via Ancestry; Victorian indexes to births, deaths and marriages, accessed via Ancestry; State Library of Victoria Manuscript Collection, MS 9607; Attestation papers of Charles Bruce Laugher and Stanley William Laugher; Australian War Memorial Red Cross Files; Coburg Historical Society collection; Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Circular.