Newcastle dentist’s lost WW1 letters revealed

A book about the World War One experiences of Newcastle dentist Ben Champion, who returned from Europe an amputee, will be launched at Newcastle Library on Tuesday 30 April.

Ben and his Mates The war diaries, letters and photographs of Lieutenant Ben Champion 1st AIF, 1915 – 1920 is a comprehensive and moving wartime account of the adopted Novocastrian, who wrote devotedly to his sweetheart Francis Julia Niland (Frank) from Tarro.

Written by his granddaughter Penny Ferguson, it includes Champion’s diary entries, letters and photographs documenting his time in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 7th Reinforcements of the 1st Battalion.

Ben-and-his-mates-1.jpg“We are honoured to launch this book at Newcastle Library to add to the local history of World One,” City Manager of Libraries and Learning Suzie Gately said.

“It’s difficult today to even imagine the carnage that Dr Champion witnessed in Gallipoli and the Western Front, so it’s edifying to be able to reflect on it all through the eyes of someone who was there in Egypt, in Gallipoli, at Pozieres and the Somme.”

When he returned from the war, the Sydney-born Champion studied dentistry at Sydney University, despite having his leg amputated following a severe shrapnel injury on the Western front (read below extract), before moving to Newcastle in 1924 to set up practice in the AMP Building on Hunter Street.

He’s still remembered today by patients he helped over 50 years and is also well known as an avid historian who recorded Newcastle’s early history.

Still referenced today, Champion’s collections are held at the Newcastle Library and the University of Newcastle.

Ferguson’s book contains invaluable social commentary of the war and subsequent years as veterans returned home and assimilated back into society.

She hopes it will help preserve Australia’s wartime heritage, as readers experience the enormity and insanity of World War One through the voice of an 18-year-old soldier.

Left: Ben Champion

“The book is different to many books written on WW1,” Ferguson said. “The story is written in the first person by a young, middle-class boy brought up in a close-knit family.

“It references life and attitudes of the time, his relationships with his peers, his experiences as he embarks to Egypt, life in the trenches and then life back home, learning to assimilate back into society.

“Ben also wrote about the seasons, the songs they were singing and the books he was reading in the trenches.”

Ben-and-his-mates-inside2.jpgBen’s great granddaughter Claudia Liebenberg and granddaughter Penny Ferguson with a copy of Ben and His Mates 

Diary extract from the day Champion’s leg was amputated:

15.4.18

At 4pm on this day I finished my Cooks tour of the war. 

Stobo and I were looking around seeing out platoons were comfortable. We had been resting around the hedges of Pradelles all the morning which were occasionally being shelled when I was hit on the left leg at the shin and knocked over and turned me the other way… Four stretcher bearers took me at once to Borre dressing station and an ambulance from there took me immediately to Ebbingham, the orderly watching the tourniquet on my thigh all the time. The only thing I remember is an argument between chaps as to which station owned the tourniquet on my leg and I ventured to hope they would not take it away while I was needing it. I was operated on and in bed at 6pm. My next waking thoughts were in the clearing station ward, where I found out that my leg had been amputated.

The book will be launched at Newcastle Library on Tuesday 30 April at 10.30am.

Claudia Liebenberg, Penny Ferguson’s daughter, can be contacted on 0405 766 875 or ckliebenberg@gmail.com

Ben-and-his-mates-inside.jpg

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