A while ago I put together a thread on Twitter that explored the remarkable life of Tom Freemantle Perry, a Southampton boy who fought with the ANZACs during the First World War. I first stumbled across Tom by chance when I encountered a newspaper article about him and as I began to look into his life, I soon discovered that he had led quite an extraordinary one.
Tom Freemantle Perry was born in Shirley, a suburb of Southampton, in 1897. He was named after his father, Tom, who was originally from the Isle of Wight. Tom senior had married Rose Ellen Freemantle at St James’ Church in Shirley in 1894 and by the time Tom junior was born, the couple were running the Kings Arms pub on Shirley’s Church Street. This is where Tom grew up before going on to become a farm labourer in his teens.
When Tom was around sixteen years old, he decided to set off on his own and on 27 February 1913, he boarded SS Marathon in London, bound for Australia. Perhaps Tom was seeking a better life in Australia. Perhaps he was seeking adventure. Tom would have soon settled into his new life down under, but around eighteen months after his arrival, Britain declared war on Germany. One month later, in September 1914, Tom joined the Australian Imperial Force in Sydney. He must have lied about his age because his enlistment record states that he was twenty-one years old. In reality, he’d have been just seventeen.
Tom joined A Squadron, 2nd Light Brigade, 6th Light Horse Regiment. They embarked for war on 21 December 1914, leaving Sydney on board HMAT A29 Suevic. Seven years earlier, this ship had run aground off the coast of Cornwall. The wreck was then cut in two and the stern was towed to Southampton. Tom, aged ten, may have been aware of this event, since the salvage operation received national news coverage and many photographers made the journey to Southampton to capture the image. A new bow was made by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and it was then towed to Southampton where, in the Trafalgar Dry Dock, workers from both Harland & Wolff and the John I. Thornycroft shipyard in Woolston joined the two halves together.
SS Suevic returned to service in January 1908, just ten months after running aground. Six years later, SS Suevic was requisitioned and turned into a troopship, and it was in this capacity that she took Tom’s regiment to Egypt.
Tom was not the only local man in A Squadron. Walter Herbert Eddison had been born in Norfolk but by the time he was three years old, his family had moved to Christchurch, which at that time was part of Hampshire. He married Marion Mills in Romsey in 1911 and by 1912 they were running Abbey Farm in nearby Mottisfont. In July 1914, Eddison left his family at home in Hampshire as he ventured alone to Australia to set up a new life for them. They would have joined him out there but war interrupted their plans. He enlisted in the AIF in October 1914, just as Tom had done during the previous month. The two men found themselves in the same squadron and they travelled together to Egypt on HMAT Suevic.
Walter Eddison survived the First World War and returned to Australia, where his family now lived. Tragically, Walter and Marion’s three sons would die during the Second World War.
Frank Leslie Herbert ‘Tom’ Eddison was born in Mottisfont in 1911. He left Australia in 1934 and in 1937 he joined the Royal Air Force. He had taken part in a bombing raid over Germany in a Wellington bomber on 9 May 1941, but sadly he was shot down over Holland and killed on his way home.
Jack Eddison was born in Southampton in 1914, just before his father had set off for Australia to set up his family’s new life. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1940 and by February 1941 he found himself in Singapore. When the British garrison surrendered to the Japanese a year later, Jack was taken prisoner, along with around 80,000 other British, Indian, and Australian troops. Jack died of pneumonia in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on 7 June 1943.
Edward Dalkeith ‘Keith’ Eddison was born in Southampton in 1918, which means his father may have been on leave in England. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1939 and on 27 May 1943, his Beaufighter was hit by anti-aircraft fire over New Guinea. He was killed as his aircraft crashed into the jungle. In an even more heart-breaking twist of fate, his death came just eleven days before his brother Jack died in the prisoner of war camp.
One cannot comprehend the grief that Walter and Marion Eddison would have faced back home in Australia.
Tom Perry, Walter Eddison, and the rest of the regiment landed at Gallipoli as reinforcements on 20 May 1915, around one month after the infamous initial assault. Attached to the 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force, Tom and Walter would have seen action as they defended a sector on the right of the ANZAC line. The regiment left Gallipoli on 20 December 1915, seven months after their arrival.
The regiment then took part in the Sinai and Palestine campaign during the following year. Tom was still a teenager when he saw action in the Battle of Romani near the Suez Canal on 4 August 1916, two years to the day after Britain had declared war on Germany. The war raged on in Europe with thousands lying dead in the French and Belgian mud but Tom, a Briton by birth, found himself in Egypt, fighting for Australia against the Ottomans.
The Battle of Romani began just before midnight on 3 August 1916. The Ottomans, Germans, and Austrians had hoped to capture Romani in order to establish a position from which they could fire artillery upon the Suez Canal. The enemy attacked and succeeded in pushing the defenders back. However, the forces of the British Empire launched a successful counterattack and the Ottoman forces eventually collapsed and retreated. Tom would have experienced the heat of the battle but his battle was cut short when he was shot in the chest. The bullet became lodged in his lung, close to his heart. Another bullet passed through his arm. He was evacuated to a hospital and was very lucky to survive. Others were not so lucky. It is estimated that 104 Australians, 39 New Zealanders, and 79 Britons were killed in the battle.
Tom recovered at the No. 1 Australian General Hospital in Cairo before returning to Australia in September 1916. He carried with him some new scars, permanent reminders of his brush with death.
His injury led to his discharge from the Australian Imperial Force in November 1916 but in April 1917 he re-enlisted, joining the 30th Infantry Battalion. The battalion left Australia for England on HMAT Marathon in May 1917, and Tom would have been somewhat familiar with his surroundings on the long journey across the globe. It was a great coincidence that the very ship that had taken him to Australia in 1913 at the start of his adventure was now taking him back to England.
Tom struggled with strenuous activity as a result of the bullet that was now lodged in his lung and he spent some time at Hurdcott Camp in Wiltshire, a convalescent camp which had been taken over by the Australian Imperial Force in 1917. In early 1917, some soldiers created a huge chalk outline of Australia, carved across one-hundred and fifty feet of the Wiltshire hillside. In the middle of the outline was the word ‘AUSTRALIA’, with each letter measuring 18 feet in height. It was recently restored by a group of volunteers (The Map of Australia Trust) and thanks to their efforts the chalk badge can be seen again over a century after its creation. Tom would have seen it when it was brand new.
Back home in Shirley, Tom’s father and brother had both enlisted to help with the war effort. Tom senior left Rose in charge of the Kings Arms as he joined the Army Service Corps as a lorry driver, later serving in France. Robert Edwin Perry, who had been born in 1900, joined the 53rd (Young Soldier) Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, when he was seventeen.
Without seeing any further action during the war, Tom Freemantle Perry returned to Australia in January 1918 and was then discharged for good in the April of that year. He had nobly served Australia and the British Empire and he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal for his efforts. Not long after being discharged, he decided to return home to Southampton, where he joined the Merchant Navy and went to sea.
Perhaps it was during his new life at sea that Tom met an American woman called Rhoda Annie Oppy, a native of Butte, Montana, who was almost nine-and-a-half years older than him. He sailed to New York on board RMS Mauretania and arrived on 1 July 1919. On 22 September 1919, the pair tied the knot in Rhoda’s hometown of Butte. The newlyweds were living in Detroit, Michigan by 6 November 1919 and it was on this date that Tom applied to become a citizen of the United States of America. It’s easy to forget just how young Tom still was at this time. He had emigrated to Australia, been shot in Egypt, returned to England and then got married in America, yet when he applied to become an American citizen in 1919, he was still just twenty-two years old. Tom and Rhoda were living at 53 Buena Vista Avenue in Detroit when he signed the papers that would allow him to become an American citizen. He confirmed that he was born in Southampton, that he had scars on his chest and his left arm, and that he would renounce his allegiance to King George V.
‘I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein: SO HELP ME GOD.’
However, by 1920, Tom and Rhoda Perry were back in Tom’s hometown of Southampton. In the third quarter of that year, the newlyweds welcomed their first child into the world, a son named Edward Ford Perry. A second son, Tom Franklin Perry, was born in Southampton in 1923, and the two brothers would have been introduced to their baby sister, Joan, in 1926.
By 1921, Tom and his family had returned to the Kings Arms on Church Street in Shirley, his childhood home and the pub in which he had grown up. That year, Rhoda took their baby, Edward, on a trip to the United States on board the White Star Line ship RMS Adriatic which sailed from Southampton to New York.
Tom took a huge risk in 1925 when he decided to undergo some major surgery in order to remove the bullet that had been lodged in his lung since 1916. The newspapers back in Australia took a keen interest in the operation and on 9 January 1926, The Port Macquarie News reported:
‘As a result of a remarkable surgical operation, Mr. Tom Freemantle Perry, of Church Street, Shirley, Southampton, formerly a trooper in the 6th New South Wales Light Horse, has had a Turkish bullet extracted from the centre of his left lung after nearly nine years. Perry was shot by a Turk in the battle of Romani, in the Sinai Peninsula, in 1916, and was discharged. He re-enlisted in an infantry regiment and was drafted to England, but the strenuous training proved too much and he was again discharged. Meanwhile he had consulted numerous surgeons and medical men, but all advised against an operation for the removal of the bullet, regarding it as a thousand to one chance against his survival. A few months ago Perry entered St. Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton and, accepting the risk, was operated on by Dr. Roberts, the chest specialist, the operation proving completely successful. To get at the lung it was necessary to remove a portion of two ribs, and when the lung was exposed it had to be cut in two in order to abstract the bullet. “I feel better now than at any time since that unforgettable day when I stopped one,” Perry has stated. A few days later, in the same hospital, Dr. Roberts removed a German bullet from the heart of ex-Private Michael Reilly, of the Connaught Rangers. The bullet had been there since the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915.’
The bullet had been in Tom’s lung for nine years, and fourteen years after it was removed, in 1939, Tom was living with his family at 21 Warren Avenue in Southampton. He listed his occupation as ‘Australian Army Pensioner’ and their home was less than a mile from where he had grown up, the Kings Arms on Church Street. By now, his mother had given up the pub and she was living at 4 Cardigan Terrace, which is no longer there but is now the site of Solent University, behind East Park Terrace.
Joan Perry, Tom and Rhoda’s daughter, married Howard Eagle in Southampton in 1944. Eagle was an American soldier and Joan emigrated to the United States to live with him in April 1946. By this time, Eagle was a corporal in the United States Army and Joan left 21 Warren Avenue to live with him at 534 Sunset Drive, Salina, Kansas. On board Saturnia, the ship that took her to her new life, it appears she was just one of many English girls leaving home to join their American soldier husbands.
For reasons unknown, Tom left 21 Warren Avenue for America in May 1947. Six months later, his wife and two sons joined him. Edward and Tom, aged twenty-seven and twenty-four respectively, joined their mother on board RMS Queen Mary and sailed from Southampton to New York, arriving on Christmas Eve 1947. They then travelled across the country to join Tom, who had set up a new home for his family at 4415 Montgomery Street in Oakland, California.
Tom Franklin Perry applied for citizenship on 1 April 1948 and his brother, Edward, did the same on 5 May 1948. Their mother, Rhoda, also applied on 17 October 1949, which means that she must have previously become a British subject. By now, she was living with Tom at 433 Adams Street in Oakland but their sons had both flown the nest. Edward had joined the United States Air Force and Tom was living in Los Altos, California. I have not been able to discover what happened to the family in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Tom Freemantle Perry lived to a grand old age. He died in London in 1993, at the age of ninety-five. His life was a long and eventful one. The little boy who had grown up in the Kings Arms on Church Street could not have imagined the life that he would go on to lead. He had left the security of his home for a new life in Australia in his teens and if it was adventure that he sought, it was adventure that he found. Tom had bravely served both his adopted country and the country of his birth during the Great War and he had very nearly given his life in this service. The scars from his wounds and his surgery would have been a daily reminder of this service as the years passed, those years in which Tom went to sea, got married, and raised children. He had travelled the world but, returning to Southampton after the war and again after applying to become an American citizen, he never forgot where he came from. Tom was just one of millions whose lives were shaped by the events of the early twentieth century. He was one of the lucky ones who lived to see old age.
Birth, Marriage, Death & Parish Records, Findmypast.co.uk
Census records, Findmypast.co.uk
6th Australian Light Horse Regiment – Australian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51040
Battle of Romani – Australian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84339
Australian Imperial Force Nominal Roll, 2nd Light Horse Brigade, 6th Light Horse Regiment, “A” Squadron, page 4
Passenger Lists Leaving UK 1890-1960 & New York City Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, Findmypast.co.uk
New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924 & New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957, Familysearch.org
Montana, County Marriages, 1865-1950, Familysearch.org
Michigan, Eastern and Western Districts, Naturalization Records, 1837-1993, Familysearch.org
California County Naturalizations, 1831-1985 & California, Northern U.S. District Court Naturalization Index, 1852-1989, Familysearch.org
Eddison brothers – Australian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/salute/community/eddison-brothers