Lest we forget

Riverview alumnus Lieutenant-Colonel Ignatius Bertram Norris was among almost 2,000 Australian soldiers killed during the Battle of Fromelles in 1916. But his alma mater has never forgotten him.

By James Rodgers, Old Boy and teacher at Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview

Shortly after I started as a schoolboy at Riverview, I heard the name Ignatius Bertram Norris for the first time. It was 1966 and it was half a century since he had been killed at the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. Each Anzac Day, the list of names of former students who served and were killed in the Great War used to be read aloud at the solemn annual commemoration. There were other reminders too: the prize for senior debating was awarded each year in Norris’ memory.

On the Riverview war memorial, the name “IB Norris” is inscribed in gold lettering, signifying that he died in World War I. In the college chapel, there is a stained-glass window erected in his memory by his son, John Richard Bertram Norris (1916-1994), who also went to Riverview. The window, in the Blessed Sacrament transept of the Dalton Chapel, depicts Saint Ignatius laying down his sword and includes the words, “I serve loyally”. However, it is not the only stained-glass window commemorating him: there is another at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

In 1978, I became a teacher at Riverview and Norris’ name was – as it still is – read out each Anzac Day.

If any of these mentions of Norris’ name ever sank in, they were reinforced when the journalist and television presenter Ray Martin visited Riverview in 2007. I showed him around, as he particularly wanted to see where Norris’ name was recorded at the college, especially as he was to interview Patrick Lindsay after the publication of his book ‘Fromelles’, in which Norris’ part in the infamous battle was described.

Then, in 2009, I was writing Norris’ story in ‘To Give And Not To Count The Cost’, biographies of the 62 Old Ignatians killed in the Great War. It was a compelling story but there was to be a sequel, although I did not know it at the time. Norris’ remains were actually entombed in a mass grave and may have been lost forever were it not for the efforts of Lambis Englezos, a Melbourne art teacher with a keen interest in military history.

Englezos was astounded when he first realised that hundreds of Australian bodies had been left behind German lines in what was essentially a futile assault intended to draw attention away from the Battle of the Somme. He realised that many bodies remained there, undiscovered, ever since. This excellent ABC story by Bill Brown in 2015 details Englezos’ determination to find what had to be a mass burial site that had never been identified. One of the key sentences in the ABC story is a quote from Englezos: “I went back to Fromelles in 2002. And I went there with the question: where are the missing from the Battle of Fromelles?”

To give that battle its full context, this Australian War Memorial article offers a brilliant summary: “The battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916 was a bloody initiation for Australian soldiers to warfare on the Western Front. Soldiers of the newly arrived 5th Australian Division, together with the British 61st Division, were ordered to attack strongly fortified German front line positions near the Aubers Ridge in French Flanders. The attack was intended as a feint to hold German reserves from moving south to the Somme where a large Allied offensive had begun on 1 July.

“The feint was a disastrous failure. Australian and British soldiers assaulted over open ground in broad daylight and under direct observation and heavy fire from the German lines. Over 5,500 Australians became casualties. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and some 400 were captured. This is believed to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War. Some consider Fromelles the most tragic event in Australia’s history.

“Over two years after the battle, on the day of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 when the guns of the Western Front finally ceased firing, Australian official war correspondent, Charles Bean, wandered over the battlefield of Fromelles and observed the grisly aftermath of the battle: “We found the old No Man’s Land simply full of our dead”, he recorded, “the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere”. Soon after the war these remains were gathered to construct VC Corner Cemetery, the only solely Australian war cemetery in France. It is also the only cemetery without headstones. There are no epitaphs to individual soldiers, simply a stone wall inscribed with the names of 1,299 Australians who died in battle nearby and who have no known graves. The unidentified remains of 410 are buried in mass graves under two grass plots in the cemetery.”

A year after I researched and wrote Norris’ story as part of the biographies of the 62 Old Ignatians killed in the First World War, his remains – seemingly against all odds – were identified and formally reburied in France in Fromelles on 19 July 2010, with some of his descendants present. The date was not a coincidence. It was the 94th anniversary of the battle. Subsequently, some of his descendants, including Tony Norris, his grandson who had also been at Riverview, joined us on one of our Anzac Day commemorations. The family has always expressed deep gratitude for the way in which Riverview has honoured the memory of Ignatius Bertram Norris.

The college maintains its links with the memory of Norris, our fallen alumnus. The Riverview History students’ tour of the battlefields of France some years later included a visit to Norris’ grave. In a poignant gesture of respect, a student on one of these tours actually placed a college blazer and tie on the gravestone before photographing it for posterity.

The grave of Lieutenant-Colonel Ignatius Bertram Norris with the Riverview jacket and tie.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ignatius Bertram (“Bertie”) Norris was the highest ranking Old Ignatian to die in action during the First World War. Born on 31 July 1880, the Feast of St Ignatius, he was a fortnight shy of his 36th birthday when he died at Fromelles.

He was the youngest son of Richard Augustine Norris and Marianne Norris (nee Fennessy). His father was a Sydney banker and treasurer of St Mary’s Cathedral. His family lived at Hunters Hill and in 1890, they sent him to Riverview, where he was to spend seven happy and successful years. Two episodes almost ended his life during these years. He almost drowned in the College pool, in the Lane Cove River, in 1890 but a fellow student, Charley Lennon of Brisbane, saved him and Father Edward Pigot SJ revived him.

Then came another escape from serious injury when he was run over by a dray at the Lime Street Wharf, Darling Harbour, in 1893. His survival was attributed to his wearing the scapula of the Sacred Heart, over which the dray passed. His parents were devout Catholics and Bertie was always strong in his faith.

Showing early academic promise, winning prizes for Latin and English in 1894 and in 1895, he was first in aggregate in the Easter exams. He was a fearless Rugby forward who “dribbled and heeled out well” and a hard-hitting batsman in the 1896 1st XI. He often “swung with the tide”, favouring the leg side with his shots. He was in all the Division Competitions debating, handball and tennis and was a Cadet in the College Corps from 1894.

Graduating with Honours in 1896, Norris practised Law and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in May 1908. In 1910, he was appointed to the position of secretary to the Vice President of the New South Wales Executive Council. His interest in sport broadened and his ability in hockey (he captained the Corinthian Club’s first grade side in Sydney) led to his selection for New South Wales against Victoria in 1909. His tennis was honed at Sydney Tennis Club; his cricket with the I Zingari club and golf with the Rose Bay Golf Club.

His devotion to his old school was expressed through his diligent service to the Old Ignatians’ Union (then called the Old Boys’ Union). He served as the Honorary Secretary of the OBU in 1904, the eighth year of the Union’s existence, and was regarded as an eloquent after-dinner speaker at the Union’s functions. At Easter 1908, he proposed the toast to the Patron of the Union, Fr Thomas Gartlan SJ, with particular flourish. He had been an average debater at school, reading his speeches which he had prepared diligently, but his name was to live on in debating at Riverview. From 1916 until 1981, the gold medal for Senior Debating was named in his honour.

Norris was a soldier in the Commonwealth Military District Orders as a member of the Irish Rifles. In 1910, he took command of his old college’s Cadets as they formed the guard of honour during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi. In 1912 he was promoted to the rank of Major with the 34th Regiment Commonwealth Forces. In March 1915, he married Jane Elizabeth (Bessie) Lane-Mullins, the sister of Brendan Lane-Mullins, who had been at Riverview in 1907 and 1908 and who was killed at Arras, France, in June 1917, where he was buried. He lost his life just 11 months after Norris.

Charles Bean himself wrote about the awful details of 19 July 1916, the night of Norris’ death. “In both the 53rd and 54th Battalions, the loss of officers during the first 20 minutes of the advance had been extraordinarily heavy. In the 53rd, the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Norris, and his staff crossed no man’s land with the fourth wave but as the party moved forward from that trench towards the enemy support line, a (German) machine gun was turned upon it and Norris, his adjutant, and several others were killed…”

After Norris was fatally wounded, a signaller, Lance Corporal Fred Leslie Croft, endeavoured to get him to the shelter of a trench, but failed and his last words were, “Here, I’m done. Will somebody take my papers?”

More details about Norris came from his father-in-law, John Lane-Mullins, in an article published in 1916 and reprinted in the 1916 Our Alma Mater: “‘In Heliopolis, Egypt, he was appointed to command the 6th Infantry Training Battalion, AIF. This previous legal training and practice at the Bar eminently fitted him to act as Judge Advocate on Court Martials . . . His capacity for organisation and control found responsibility gravitating towards him . . . In due course, he was gazetted Lieutenant-Colonel, to command the 22nd Battalion AIF . . . In June 1916, he left Egypt and arrived in France with the 53rd Battalion.’

“Thus, he was Commanding Officer of the 53rd Battalion in the catastrophic attack at Fromelles, designed as a feint to lure the Germans away from the Somme offensive. This was Norris’s first action as a soldier. One of the German soldiers also involved in this battle was Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler, a dispatch runner for one of the Bavarian units. He came under direct fire but avoided any injury.

“Of the 7,000 Australian attackers, 5,533 were killed, wounded or captured on the night of 19 July. Witnesses referred to the scene on 20 July as a ‘morning of desolation’. More than 2,000 Australians were killed there but 1,299 have no known grave. From the 53rd Battalion alone, there were 625 casualties, including their Commanding Officer, Colonel Norris. He was killed by machine gun fire about 70 yards beyond the first line, leading his men in a charge at about 6.00pm on 19 July, attempting to reach the German support line. They reached the German parapets, but were all mown down by machine guns. Most of the Australian officers were killed or wounded in this ill-considered attack and the 53rd Battalion’s leadership was taken over by Captain Charles Arblaster, aged only 21. He himself was to be killed on the next day.

“This place was retaken by the Germans on the next morning and Norris’s body was never recovered. His identity disc was later located and sent to his wife. Fr J J Kennedy, chaplain to the 53rd Battalion, wrote to Mrs Norris: ‘On the morning of the battle he knelt down before his men and received Holy Communion from me. He had successfully led his men to the second line of enemy trenches when a machine gun bullet struck him and killed him instantly . . . Oh, Mrs Norris, he died a hero’s death, and you will be able to tell your child later how brave his father was, and, above all, how noble and conscientious a Catholic.’

“Requiem Masses were said, including one at the church in Fromelles said by Fr Kennedy (who later was awarded the DSO) and another at St Mary’s Cathedral when His Grace, Michael Kelly Archbishop of Sydney, preached the panegyric. A tribute to him, written by a Private in the 53rd AMC, is indicative of his standing among the men: ‘He was a man in a million, a gentleman to speak to, and if anyone got into Crime Street, and came before him, he got sound advice and the minimum penalty. I had a chat with him on the morning of the charge, and he might have been a private, so nice and friendly he was to me’.”

The grave of Colonel Ignatius Bertram Norris and Norris as a Barrister.

Norris’ name was on the list of dead supplied to Allied forces by the Germans in November 1919, but this document only stated that he “died in the vicinity of Fromelles”. His name is among the 1,299 Australians remembered on a curved wall behind the Cross of Sacrifice in VC Corner of the Australian cemetery at Fromelles. There is also another Old Ignatian remembered there. Private John Douglass Wall, who was at Riverview from 1910 until 1913 15 years Norris’ junior, was killed the day after Norris, on 20 July 1916.

Norris’ son, John Richard Bertram Norris, was born at Cairo, Egypt, on 18 February 1916. Mrs Norris and her young son sailed to London in June. It was there that she learned of her husband’s death. John Norris also went to Riverview (from 1929 to 1934) and was there at the same time as his cousin, Bertram Lipscombe (SIC 1933-36). John Norris served in the 2nd AIF in Tobruk and Alamein, North Africa, was wounded in both battles and was promoted to the rank of Captain. Like his father, he was also a barrister but in the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court.

There is an interesting postscript to the story. In July this year, my brother Pat, Head of History at St Pius X College, Chatswood in Sydney, also made a visit to the Western Front battlefields in France. In his own words, “The tour began at Ypres and was focusing on the Australian contribution in the First World War. On our first day we travelled to Fromelles. In the section of graves where Australians had been reburied, I came across by chance the grave of Lieutenant Colonel I. B. Norris. I knew that name and thought it might well be the Riverview Old Boy whose story my brother James had researched and written. A quick check of Norris on the phone confirmed this and I was able to take a photo to send to James. How the world has changed since 1916!”

Patrick Lindsay’s book ‘Fromelles’, published by Hardie Grant Books in 2007, contains invaluable research about Norris and his part in this battle.

Photo of gravestone at Fromelles by Patrick Rodgers.

Photo of gravestone with Riverview blazer and tie by David Wales.

Feature photo by Troy Mortier on Unsplash.

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