In June 2013 I posted a photograph of a member of the AIF in a group of patients from the Horton War Hospital, Epsom, City of London. The photograph was dated 4 April 1917. Close examination of this image shows that the soldier’s legs were amputated below the knee. Although his identity was at that stage unknown, recent research by Christine Cramer has identified him as Thomas Rountree.
Identification has been guided by details in his service record which describe his injuries and the locations and dates of his treatment – in particular his presence in 1917 at Horton War Hospital during the period the photograph was taken. Images of Thomas Rountree on public trees of the genealogy website Ancestry.com show the older Thomas Rountree, now equipped with artificial legs.
Thomas Rountree was 18 when he volunteered in 1916 and living in the Ballina area of New South Wales. He served with the 30th Battalion in France before being pronounced seriously ill with trench feet. His amputations, which took place in two stages – the second and more drastic operation in August 1917 – were originally the result of complications, probably gangrene. This was the family story a grandson remembers hearing as a child .
He returned to Australia in late 1917 and was discharged in February 1918 to resume civilian life. This could have presented overwhelming difficulties to men with similar injuries. However in Thomas Rountree’s case he seems not to have been unduly held back by his disability. In 1923 he was commended for his bravery by a judge for giving chase on artificial legs to three thieves. He had successfully captured one who assaulted and robbed his mate. He later married and in June 1941 was called up for the militia. Despite his lack of legs he served in the army in a salvage and recovery unit until 1944 when he was medically discharged after developing a cyst on one of his stumps. At the time of enlistment he was living in Sydney, aged 43 with four children. He stated he was a blacksmith when he joined the first AIF but in 1941 gave his occupation as war pensioner.
The photograph taken at the Horton hospital is uncompromising about the injuries and medical procedures Thomas Rountree had suffered: no hospital blanket or rug is draped across his white bandaged remnant legs which stand out in consequence. Perhaps it is a measure of his bravery, unwillingness to compromise and strength of character that he allowed himself to be photographed so starkly. What is known about his later life supports his possession of these qualities.
6 December 2015