AS PART of the final year of the 100-year commemoration of the tragedy of World War 1, a contingent of Wonthaggi Fire Brigade members, in full dress uniform, will make a pilgrimage to the small village of Contalmaison, near Pozieres, in northern France.
It is here, at the Sunken Road war cemetery, that one of their own, John Sparks, a 23 year old corporal in the 8th Battalion AIF, and a former wheeler in State Coal Mine, lies in his final resting place.
For years a portrait depicting this fresh-faced young man in his fire brigade uniform, complete with shiny silver helmet, has had pride of place in the fire station.
But until recently, his name and little else was known of his life and the ultimate sacrifice he made.
Not any longer.
At the initiative of fire captain Kim O’Connor, and under the direction of former captain, Bill Watson, with the help of the Wonthaggi Historical Society and Wonthaggi RSL, his story has finally been told in full.
John Sparks was born in May 1893 at Joadja Creek in New South Wales, an area south west of Woollongong. His mother Hannah Sparks later married William Lamb from Dollar via Stony Creek, and the couple had two children Maggie and William. Hannah Lamb passed away on August 7, 1907 aged 33 years. John’s father is unknown but his grandfather, also John Sparks, took care of John and he regarded him as his father. John’s three aunts Mrs Wilson, Mary Brown and Frances Wardle cared for young John with Frances being credited with raising John after his mum’s passing, moving into her home. John worked at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine as a wheeler, although the family is not sure when he started but he would have worked with Frances’ husband and his uncle Anthony Wardle who was also a wheeler. John also became a volunteer fire fighter with the Wonthaggi Fire Brigade at about the age of 14.
John enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces on the 18th of August 1914 at Broadmeadows, Melbourne and was in the 8th Battalion AIF which embarked for Alexandra and the Gallipoli campaign on April 5, 1915. The 8th Battalion was part of the second wave. On landing at Gallipoli John was wounded in action, in the foot, and left for France on March 31, 1916. During this time he was made a lance corporal on April 19, 1916 and then promoted to corporal on August 5, 1916. John was reported as wounded on August 18, 1916 and later passed away. He was only 23 years of age but already a veteran of two of the worse theatres of war in history.
During John’s time in England he met Miss Lucy E A Lockett and they had a son John William Lockett.
According to Mick Wardle, a local relative of John Sparks, the family has not been able to locate the family of John Lockett but they hope to do so when they travel to France and England next year, to join the local fire brigade members pilgrimage to the area around Pozieres in northern France.
John’s original war medals, which were later stolen, came to Frances Wardle who paid for their replacement and her surviving daughter, Myrtle Hunter (née Wardle) has held them in safe keeping since Frances’ passing.
Mrs Hunter, aged 94, was the honoured guest at a special commemoration ceremony at the Wonthaggi Fire Station last Sunday and recalled her mother speaking very fondly of her late cousin John, whom she regarded as a son.
“I never met him, of course. He died before I was born, but mum raised him like her own son and really felt the loss, even years later,” Mrs Hunter said.
Speaking at the commemoration, Captain Kim O’Connor said the memory of John Sparks was a very important part of the 107-year history of the brigade.
“Our purpose this morning is to honour our former fireman John Sparks as the first step of a long journey that will be completed when we pay our respects with a fireman’s graveside service in France next year,” Captain O’Connor said.
Captain O’Connor will lead the Wonthaggi Fire Brigade group.
“A contingent of Wonthaggi Fire Brigade Members and also members of John’s family will be travelling to France next August and we intend to link up for local French fire fighters during our stay.
“The brigade will stay in the town of Albert and I’m sure we will see, as John himself saw, the golden statue of the Madonna on top of the Basilica.”
Later in the morning, Mrs Hunter presented the fire brigade with John Sparks’ original war medals, together with the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ presented by King George V. The brigade previously had a replica set of Sparks’ medals.
The quest to reclaim John Sparks begins