20 September 2017

Casualties of Passchendaele: the Seabrook brothers

The impact of the Third Battle of Ypres was felt in communities across Britain and the Empire. Many families mourned the loss of their husbands, fathers and sons. For one Australian family, the fighting would prove especially traumatic, as three brothers lost their lives within hours of each other.

Private George Ross Seabrook (right)

17th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force

Died: 20 September 1917

Aged: 25

Private Theo Leslie Seabrook (left)

17th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force

Died: 20 September 1917

Aged: 24

2nd Lieutenant William Keith Seabrook (centre)

17th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force

Died: 21 September 1917

Aged: 21

Theo, George and William were the sons of William and Fanny Seabrook, of Five Dock in Sydney, Australia. Theo was a fireman at a locomotive works, George a master painter, and William had worked as a telephonist before briefly entering military service in 1915.

In August 1916, all three brothers signed up together. Not long afterwards, they left Sydney to join the 17th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force.

The brothers arrived in Belgium in June 1917. After the capture of Messines Ridge, British Empire forces were preparing for a major offensive which would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

After an intense artillery bombardment, the British Army began to attack German lines on 31 July 1917. After some initial success, the advance soon became mired in the rain and mud of the low-lying battlefield beneath the Passchendaele Ridge.

After a change of command, the offensive was relaunched on 20 September 1917, with Australian troops brought into the attack along the Menin Road and near Polygon Wood.

With huge artillery support, Australian soldiers – along with others from the British Army – managed to fight their way through the German defences and hold their positions in the face of fierce German counter-attacks.

For the Seabrook brothers, this first taste of action would also prove their last.

The attack was planned for 5.40am, but as William was leading his men to their starting positions near Hellfire Corner, he was severely wounded in an explosion. He was taken back behind the lines for medical treatment, but died of his injuries the following day.

George and Theo were waiting for the attack to begin when a shell landed nearby, killing both men.

Their mother and father received notification of William’s death a few weeks later, but never knew for certain what had become of their other two sons.

In reporting the story, the Sydney Morning Herald described ‘an unusually sad war tragedy’.

George and Theo’s bodies were never found or identified, and their names are inscribed on the CWGC Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, along with 6,000 other Australian missing of the Ypres Salient.

William, the youngest brother, is buried in CWGC Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

His family requested an inscription for this grave:

‘A WILLING SACRIFICE FOR THE WORLD’S PEACE’