St Helena Soldier, Warder and Husband

There weren’t many families living permanently on St Helena Island during the World War I years, so the Aebli family with their 3 daughters were an exception. For returning soldier Edmund Burr Durling Knight, St Helena Penal Establishment was the first place to provide an occupation as Warder once he returned back from 3 1/2 long years of war in 1919. It was possibly the last place he imagined that he would find himself a wife.

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The Aebli family outside their home on St Helena Island. Johannes Aebli (Centre rear) was both a Warder and later Storekeeper at the St Helena Penal Establishment. His wife and two of his daughters surround him. Source: Desni Wilkins (nee Knight)

Our last post The Warders of Queensland’s 9th Battalion revealed the number of 9th Battalion soldiers that were also prison warders at St Helena Island Penal Establishment. Ernest Webb, mentioned in the newspaper clipping below, was a temporary warder only appearing for a short time on St Helena as a Probationary warder and who looks to have continued to work in other prisons from 1917.

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Edmund Burr Knight was yet another of Queensland’s own 9th Battalion soldiers who enlisted early at the outbreak of war and hence found himself embarking soon after on the 24th September 1914, (1) exactly the same day as Frederick Windibank, another St Helena Soldier/ Warder featured in our last blog post focussed on the story of 9th battalion. Despite embarking together, they went on to have vastly different war experiences.

Royal Marines service record
Edmund was part of the UK Royal Marine Service for just over 4 years before going AWOL in Australia. Edmund’s name appears on various documents as either ‘Burr Durling’ or ‘Burr Durland’ Knight.

Like many others, Edmund had military experience back in his home country of England as on 27 March, 1907 he enlisted in the UK Royal Marine Light Infantry Portsmouth Division (2). This military service did him no favours for his attempt to join in the A.I.F. in 1914 as his enlistment papers in Australia state that he ‘deserted 3 years ago.’ In fact, Edmund jumped ship in Sydney in 1912 to remain in Australia, (3) so it’s rather ironic that he was now enlisting to head back to England as a soldier once again. 

Along with the rest of the 9th battalion, he headed to Gallipoli, where he was made a Lance Corporal in January before succumbing to Diarrhoea in June 1915 and heading to Lemnos. By July he was Admitted to hospital in Alexandria with Gastro Enteritis and vomiting and by August 1915 was invalided to London Greater Hospital. By the time he was ready to rejoin his unit, the war had moved from the shores of Gallipoli to the Western Front, hence heading to the base camp at Etaples in France. By this time it was August 1916.

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Image of the 3rd Australian General Hospital in Lemnos gives an indication of the facilities utilised by Edmund Knight and the other soldiers fighting in Gallipoli. Source: Australian War memorial.

The 9th battalion had already sailed for France in March 1916 where the battalion’s first major action in the Western Front was at Pozieres in the Somme valley.  It was a place of desperate fighting between July and September 1916, and Poziers ridge was described by Australian official historian Charles Bean as a place “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” (4) Over the next 2 years, the 9th Battalion was involved in some major offensives in Ypres in Belgium, along the HIndenberg Line and finally Amiens in 1918.   

Edmund shared his time over these 2 1/2 years between hospital and the French battlefield. By November 1915, he was in hospital in the field at Amiens and Rouen with Gastritis, and despite briefly rejoining the battalion was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital, England with ‘Severe Dilation of the stomach’ on the 3rd December. Rejoining the unit in northern France in March 1917, he next found himself in hospital with ‘Trench Fever’ just after Christmas in 1917. Trench fever was a major issue along the trenches of the First World War, where body lice were an ongoing issue. A louse harbouring the bacterium Rochalimaea quintana would be the cause of a serious bout of fever, headache, sore muscles and bones and outbreaks of skin lesions.

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Members of the Australian 6th battalion in the trenches at Amiens, France in 1918. Trench living came with a great risk of disease, lice, and food issues through cold temperatures and wet mud. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It wasn’t until 13 May 1918 that Edmund returned to the field and his battalion for 4 days, before being back in hospital with Septic feet. This occurred again in July and August, despite having a break for leave in the UK in July at which time he overstayed his leave and had to forfeit 5 days pay. Luckily the war was by this time drawing to a close and Edmund was able to return to Australia on the 13/10/18. (1) He was finally discharged from the AIF on the 24/2/19 at which point he was taken on as a Probationary Warder at St Helena Island, the last of the 9th Battalion to arrive there.

St Helena Rifle Club 1920

If I look a the image of the Warders of the St Helena Rifle Club in 1920, I see so many returned ‘Digger’ soldiers: Edmund Knight, Frederick Windibank, Frank Hills and Daniel Dwyer.  How many of these men met on the battlefields, in trenches or in hospitals is not known. I can only guess that some of them would have come into contact, in a world turned upside down, with foreign soil and foreign tongues, so unlike the peaceful expanses of St Helena Island and Moreton Bay. It must have been an incredible leap to physically feel warmth, shelter and comforts. To emotionally feel calm and supported. To psychologically lose the awful fear of death for yourself and your fellow soldiers at every turn. St Helena Island shows how many soldiers were able rebuild their lives again on return home from the war.

Edmund
Edmund Burr Knight around 1921.

Little is known of Edmund’s time at St Helena Penal Establishment, except one important fact: he met his future wife Olga. Olga Aebli was unusual in that her parents Johnannes and Anna Petrea were from Switzerland and Denmark respectively, and also that the entire family, including 2 sisters Stella and Veronica, was living on St Helena Island from 1912 till 1920. ( 5) Johannes Aebli was working as the Prison’s Post Office and Storekeeper, which allowed him a married cottage at a time when very few were made available to families wishing to live on the Island. Suffice to say that in the one short year that their paths crossed on St Helena Island, Edmund and Olga fell in love.

Edmund and Olga wedding
Edmund Burr Durling Knight and Olga Aebli on their wedding day in 1921 in Brisbane.

Johannes Aebli retired on the 24th June 1920 and the family moved to New Farm. (5) Edmund was one of the many ‘Digger Warders’ (above) transferred to Boggo Rd Gaol on the 14th September 1921 when the decision was made to downgrade the Penal Establishment. (6) This would have suited him perfectly as he and Olga were married on the 30th September 1921. (7)

WW1 Dismissed Digger Warders

With the next 2 years, son Douglas arrived and the family seemed to be living in Cairns for a short time. (8) But by 1924 the family was back in Brisbane and Edmund was back at Boggo Road and it wasn’t until a decade later that it all changed again. Edmund was said by some to be man who was decent and fair, yet somewhere between 1934 and 1939, Olga and Edmund separated. (9) Not all marriages are easy and history shows us sides we would rather not acknowledge, though it is important to do so to pave a new path for the future. The reasons for their separation were hinted at within Edmund Knight’s trial in 1937, when he was dismissed from Boggo Road Gaol and the Prison Service. 

GAOL WARDERS APPEAL AGAINST DISMISSAL

Sequel to Report on Locking of Prison Cells

WARDERS’ ACCOUNT 

…On the morning of September 2 both Edmund Knight and Thomas Talty went to open various cells in A wing. Knight was the senior of the two. Knight had the keys for cells one, three, and five on the lower floor. It appeared that Talty had gone about 40 to 50 feet away when Knight called him back, saying: “Have a look here. There are some cells unlocked.” Talty said they were numbers one and three. In an original report he had said they were one and two, but subsequently he amended this. Talty then said he himself saw number five and drew Knight’s attention to it. Talty alleged that Knight said he would report the matter. 

Evidence would be given to show that the cells had been locked on September 1, and the locks had been tested by the deputy superintendent; that the cells were locked during the night, and also at 6.30 a.m. on September 2. They were not known to be opened until Knight went in there about 25 minutes to seven. 

Mr. James Francis Whitney, Comptroller-General of Prisons, said in evidence that he received a report from Knight about 9 a.m. on September 2 that said he had found three cells unlocked in A wing. He asked Knight: “Didn’t you regard this as a serious matter which should have been reported at the time”? Knight said he did not think of that…

”TRIED TO GET RID OF ME” 

Mr. Whitney said he had called for reports from the different officers concerned, and they had been sent to the Under-Secretary. 

Knight: Is it not a well known fact that you have tried to get rid of me for years? 

Witness (Whitney): I think I have been particularly good to you. Your language has been of a violent nature, and you insulted me— So far as you are personally concerned, I do not think you are altogether responsible. 

Mr. Simpson, P.M.— What do you mean by that? 

Witness (Whitney): I do not think he is altogether normal. He was bound over to keep the peace for assaulting his wife. 

Knight: I have never knocked my wife down. You have. 

Mr. Simpson told Knight he was not keeping to the charge, and should have a legal adviser. 

Knight: I was merely trying to point out that Mr. Whitney has done his utmost to get me out of the service. 

Witness (Whitney): I did not report this matter at all. That is the amusing part of it. (10)

APPEAL DISMISSED 

Patrick Joseph Kinneally, a warder on probation, said that the first time he spoke to Knight was on the morning of September 2. Witness was on D tower, when Warder McCarthy asked him if he had locked three cells on the previous afternoon. 

Witness said he replied, “My oath I did.” 

McCarthy said, “There has been a dirty trick played over at number one. Eddie Knight has put in a blue against you.”  

Following this conversation witness left the tower for the office. On the way he passed Knight, who said, “When you go to the office, tell them it was through inexperience. Everybody has to learn.” At the time witness did not know it was Knight who had spoken…

An appeal by Thomas Lawrence Talty, a warder at the Annerley Road prison, against his proposed dismissal, was upheld yesterday by a Public Service Appeal Board. The board dismissed the appeal of Edmund Burr Durling Knight, whose dismissal also had been recommended. (11)

 

 

  1. Australian War Memorial records, accessed via Ancestry
  2. NSW Police Gazette, 1912, 17 July p. 288
  3. Royal Marines Register of Service, ADM159/187/14744
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Pozières 
  5. Personal information from Desni Wilkins (nee Knight)
  6. Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Thursday 8 September 1921, page 6 
  7. Qld Births Deaths Marriages Index, Marriage No 1921/B/28671 
  8. Trove,1924’Advertising’,CairnsPost(Qld.:1909-1954),22January,  
  9. Australia Electoral Rolls,1939 Queensland. 
  10. (10) Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), Friday 12 November 1937, page 13
  11. (11) Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), Saturday 13 November 1937, page 15

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