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William Joseph Robert Cheeseman (1894–1938)

by Chris Clark

This article was published:

William Joseph Robert Cheeseman (1894-1938), soldier and businessman, was born on 12 January 1894 at Wickham, New South Wales, son of Joseph Ernest Cheeseman, cab driver, and his wife Annie Amelia, née Wells, both native-born. Educated at Islington Public School and Wickham Superior Public School, he became a salesman with David Cohen & Co., merchants, of Newcastle. At 18 he joined the militia, was commissioned in the 16th Infantry Battalion in February 1913 and on the outbreak of World War I became signals officer at Newcastle Defended Port. He married Marguerite Ruperta Tracy Scott on 30 January 1915 at St Clement's Anglican Church, Marrickville.

On 18 October 1915 Cheeseman joined the Australian Imperial Force as a lieutenant, embarked for Egypt in November with the 30th Battalion, and was promoted captain in February 1916. He reached France in June and commanded his company at Fromelles and on the Somme where he took part in the battalion's raid at Fleurbaix. He was mentioned in dispatches in January 1917. In the advance on Bapaume on 17 March he organized a bombing and Stokes-mortar attack which captured a section of German trench and then, when his company was held up by machine-gun fire, dislodged the enemy by a flanking movement; six days later at Beaumetz, he launched a successful counter-attack when the outpost line he was commanding was surprised and outflanked by a strong enemy force: his gallantry earned him the Military Cross, and the Légion d'honneur, and he was promoted major in April.

Cheeseman took part in the battle of Polygon Wood in September and, when the commanding officer of the 53rd Battalion was killed, was promoted lieutenant-colonel; aged only 23, he was one of the youngest battalion commanders in the A.I.F. He was gassed at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918 but returned to his unit and saw further action at Morlancourt, Amiens, Péronne and Bellicourt. At Bellicourt, on 1 October, his unit was ordered to move up for a dawn attack; but the men lost their way and as dawn broke they came under heavy machine-gun fire. Cheeseman rallied them into columns and led them, under fire, to the start-line; later in the attack he made a dangerous reconnaissance under heavy shelling. These actions won him the Distinguished Service Order, and he was mentioned in dispatches twice in 1918-19.

Cheeseman returned to Australia in June 1919 and in July next year was promoted lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Military Forces; he commanded the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, until July 1921 when he went into business as a storekeeper. He owned stores at Comboyne and Taree, then in the early 1930s became manager of a Woolworths branch in Sydney; in 1936 he moved to Adelaide as general manager for Woolworths Ltd in South Australia. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Cheeseman died on 23 April 1938 after an operation for appendicitis. He was cremated in Adelaide and his ashes were buried in Sandgate cemetery, Newcastle.

Noted for his giant physique and genial disposition, Cheeseman was a popular A.I.F. leader who had the confidence of his superiors despite his youth. After the war he was president of the 53rd Battalion Association for many years.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Kennedy, The Whale Oil Guards: 53rd Battalion (Dublin, 1919)
  • H. Sloan (ed), The Purple and Gold: A History of the 30th Battalion (Syd, 1938)
  • London Gazette, 2 Jan, 18 June, 14 July 1917, 28 May 1918, 8 Mar, 11 July 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June, 17 July, 22 Nov 1917, 11 Mar, 21 July 1919.

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Cheeseman, William Joseph Robert (1894–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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