Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Irwin war diary, February 1916-January 1918, 1919
[Pages 1-2 cover and flyleaf]
Experiences in A.I.F. Feb 1916 –Sept 1917
Enlisted Feb. 1916, embarked in July. Voyage training, at Salisbury in France in Nov. gives experiences in the line, digging trenches, carrying ammunition etc..up to the line, vivid description of attack on Hindenburg line in May 1917-pp. 32-5, acting as runner- shell shock-invalided and returned to Australia in Sept(?)
Good but brief- gives very few dates
Another letter sent 11/3/20
Original returned. Typewritten copy donated 6/4/20
59 Sycamore Grove
East St Kilda
Mr H. Wright
Under separate cover I am sending my war diary by registered packet post, which I hope you shall receive in good order.
You will note that I have had my manuscript typewritten and that it now comprised 41 pages.
Hoping to receive a favourable reply from you in due course.
Yours in anticipation
(Typewritten document follows)
MY EXPERIENCE IN THE A.I.F
I must first of all describe how I came to join the A.I.F. Well I had often thought of "joining up", but the fact that I had two brothers there before me kept me back for a time until I was granted my annual holidays from the City, and came up to the country where I came in contact with a pal of mine, when we both decided to go to the City and enlist. We went down to Prahran to the enlisting depot and passed the necessary tests to enable us to join the forces.
We then applied for three weeks leave of absence, which we had granted to us for the purpose of settling our personal affairs before going to camp. On 10th February, 1916, we arrived at Royal Park Camp, where we had a great reception by the other boys who would call out to us" how do you like your eggs done?" Of course we were new sheep coming into the fold, and felt it beyond our power to answer back to those old soldiers who had been in camp only 24 hours before us. Noon came and we were served with stew which we did not appreciate very much after dining at home in comfort the day previously.
The next day we were formed up in order and marched to the Quartermaster’s store where we were issued with clothing, boots, and equipment necessary for carrying out of our drill. I might say the bed was rather uncomfortable for a few nights as we were lying on bare, hard boards which take a lot of getting used to.
While staying at Royal Park we had a rough preliminary course of drill which lasted for two weeks, after which we were shifted to a country camp at Seymour. When we arrived at Seymour we had the pleasure of erecting our own tents at about seven o’clock in the evening. The next morning we were drafted into the 14th Light Horse Regiment (which was later disbanded).
After we had completed two weeks training at Seymour we were issued with our khaki uniforms which we were very anxious to obtain so that we might get leave to visit our homes once more. As we did route marches and other drills, also rifle firing and bombing practice, time wore on in the camp, until it was the 3rd May and we got word to shift to Broadmeadows, where we were drafted into an
Infantry Reinforcements which was the 13th reinforcements of the 21st Battalion. We went through the same camp routine in Broadmeadows for 8 weeks, expecting every day from the beginning to receive sailing orders. At last we received our final leave passes and went home to say "Good-bye" for the last time. We said "Good-bye" two or three times previously, but on this occasion it really was the last, for we sailed on the "Ayershire",(Troopship A33), on Monday the 3rd day of July.
This was the first long sea voyage I undertook in my life, so therefore, it was very interesting to me. The life on the Troopship, I might mention, was something in likeness to camp life as regards comfort, that is say having a tendency to be on the rough side. The ship accommodated 1,300 soldiers, and was not a very large ship either. We amused ourselves in playing games, such as cards, dominoes, boxing, wrestling, and having concerts on the deck of an evening. The officers organised a boxing and wrestling tournament to determine the champion of each on the boat. The tournament lasted four or five weeks, and provided good entertainments which the troops keenly appreciated. The sleeping accommodation was built very sparingly, and consequently very inconvenient, as the hammocks were hung very closely together, and when the ship would roll the men would be knocked about and jammed between one another, disturbing their night’s rest. To relieve this inconvenience a little, some men would sleep on the mess tables and on the deck floors, but they had to depend on their good fortune as to whether the men above took a bout of sickness or not.
As regards the rations on board the vessel, I can say that we got enough to satisfy our hunger, but on account of it being served in the same "menu" day after day, we became tired of it and the result was that we had very small appetites after we had been a few weeks out on the water. The organisation for the distribution of meals was very good. Each group of 16 men would have a table on which to eat their meals, and each group would elect a mess orderly to attend the galley each meal time to draw the necessary food for his table. When the meal was over this man would wash up the dishes with the aid of volunteers from the table. It
was very easy to procure a mess orderly as he was exempt from general lectures, sometimes Church, drill, muster parades, and anything else the officers might bother the men to do. The most looked for variation in the "Menu" was plum pudding which we got served to us every alternate Sunday.
I might mention that the first week of the voyage was most memorable one for me as I was very seasick and cared little at the time if a submarine chanced to put us under the water. After I had recovered from my seasickness, I volunteered for the job as deck fatigue, which duties were to sweep a portion of the deck twice a day.
When out in the midst of the Indian Ocean a death occurred on board, a few days after which, a burial service was held. Just before the service was held the boat was stopped and turned face about, and the coffin lay in the slings hanging over the ship’s rails ready to be lowered into the sea at a certain juncture of the service. Finally, the body was lowered into the sea and we all stood to attention while a volley was fired and the "Last Post" sounded. If it were possible for any stranger to come on to the ship he would have noticed the solemn faces of the soldiers, they were a contrast from the faces that were before the funeral.
A few more days passed by, and we were nearing Capetown for we could see the lighthouses at night on all the Capes from Port Elizabeth round to Table Bay. Just before morning when it was dark and foggy the boat stopped, and when daylight came we found ourselves in Table Bay. It was the prettiest sight I had ever seen, for when the sun began to come out the fog gradually rose up the steep sides of Table Mountain, until eventually we saw the flat top of the mountain. The Table Mountain is not the only pretty feature, for there are other fresh green hills which rise abruptly from the seashore, and are dotted here and there with cosy little homes- homes of fishermen perhaps.
By lunch time we had pulled alongside the wharf, and the first sport we had was throwing coins to the black fellows who would leave their work and scramble for them, occasionally resulting in a fight, which would encourage us to throw more coins.
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon we were granted leave for the purpose of visiting the City of Capetown. We first went on a march under discipline and returned to nearly the same spot as we left, and were dismissed to go wherever we chose, in or around the outskirts of the City, excepting the blacks’ quarters which were forbidden to troops as out of bounds. We had a most interesting day as we had visited the principal gardens, the Museum, and all the important Public Buildings. I might mention that the Museum was particularly interesting in that it had a model of each of the African Black Races, in both male and female types; they were all of a different colour or shade in brown or black and had different pronounced characteristics in their physique. Then again Africa is noted for its many wild animals, and the Museum has a good collection of each species.
The gardens are very well kept there, and are worth inspection, especially to Australians, as there are a good number of plants, flowers and shrubs which are not grown here. In the gardens just opposite the end of the main street of the City is the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the great founder of the Mining industry in the Cape Colony.
The population of Cape Town consists of many races including Malays, Russians, different breeds of Blacks, Jews, Boers, and a few British, comprising mostly, Englishmen. The Jews seem to be mostly in the way of jewellers, tobacconists, drapers, and curio shops, while the coloured races do most of the rough work and unskilled labor. The Britishers hold a good social rank among the population, as they generally hold high positions in almost every sphere of occupation.
On the next three days in which we spent there, we visited some of the outer suburbs by electric tram and by train seeing all the beaches and mountains that can be seen from a tower in the City itself. One of the most interesting mountains was the Table Mountain on which we gathered silver leaves on our way to the top, which is flat as a table, hence its name. Another range of hills called the Twelve Apostles with the Lions Head at the further end from the City, was well worth visiting.
I also visited the Theatres and picture shows in various parts of the city, and found them to be so much in the Australian style that I thought at times I was in a show somewhere in Melbourne.
In the meantime our Boat had coaled and was ready to depart again, but was delayed a few hours owing to some of the Men not reporting back to the Vessel in time , and even then we had to leave a few men behind us.
Just after leaving Capetown one of our men created a sensation by jumping overboard when he was in a state of the Horrors, which had set in after a drinking bout. The ship was quickly stopped on the Alarm being given, and a lifeboat lowered and manned by the Crew that was told off by the Mate of the ship. The man was rescued after much difficulty, and eventually placed in the prison cell.
The next event of interest was the passing of the Equator, and needless to say Father Neptune on board. He created a great sensation, for he had police who were blackened up like niggers with most hideous head-dressers, scouting around the ship and finding any man who had to be tried and punished in the manner in which Father Neptune wished. The men who fell victims to the police were conspicuous characters on the ship, such as the Padre, the Orderly Officer, the Cook, some of the noted "Two-Up" players, or anyone whom they thought to have a disposition against the business. We thought it great sport to see the Padre stripped and lathered with a whitewash brush, and then to run over with a great wooden model of a razor some three or four feet in length. Of course each man who received this punishment was convicted of a certain crime. The Padre for instance was a tall lean man well over six feet; he was charged with breach of Military Regulations in that he enlisted under the height , which of course was ridiculous in reality, and in the case of a very small man, he was charged with enlisting over the height. When the day’s fun was over we all felt satisfied, as all ranks were represented in the punishments, from Officers down to Privates.
Another few days steaming and we arrived at St. Vincent, a town on the island of St. Vincent in the group of Cape Verde Islands, which lies off Cape Verde the most westerly point of the African
continent. We called at this port for the purpose of coaling the ship, and the coal which was loaded by the natives, was brought out in lighters so that the ship might stop out in the Stream, preventing the soldiers from visiting the Town. The natives at St. Vincent are principally occupied in coaling vessels as there seems to be no vegetation on the Island. The necessary water, and beans (which is their staple food), is brought from adjacent islands. These islands are owned by Portugal, and the natives have adopted the Portuguese language with a little English thrown in, (especially swear words). I must not forget to mention the natives who came to the ship’s side in small boats selling port cards, beads and tropical fruit. The sea was running a fast current where we were anchored and the natives very skilfully used their oars to keep their boats alongside the ship. It was very interesting to watch the natives diving into the sea for money which the troops threw in liberally.
After being two days at St. Vincent we sailed to our next port which was our port of landing, viz. Plymouth. On entering Plymouth we passed the Eddystone Lighthouse which of course was interesting to us, as most of us had read of it in our school papers when we went to School. We are now in Plymouth Harbour and are disembarked from the ship after 9 weeks’ and 2 days’ life on it, and embarked on two small vessels which carried us right up to the wharf where a train was in waiting for us to take us to Salisbury Plains; the place in which we would camp and do our training.
It was about 1.30 a.m. in the morning and very dark when we got into the train and moved off. On our way we passed through a town called Exeter, the Mayoress of which gave us Coffee and Buns, gratis. on the Station. I might say we appreciated this kind deed very much and I have to this day a card which is a souvenir of the occasion wishing me good luck and a safe return.
We, however, reached Salisbury plains (Aynesbury Station) at about 5o’clock the same morning, when we were confronted with the thought of a 5 mile march from the station to the camp. Those marching thoughts became very real in about 30 minutes for we were on the move. After our long idleness on the ship, we boys were very
soft and in nowhere near a fit state to march such a distance before breakfast, and at the same time carry our heavy kits which included the extra sea-kit. However we arrived at the camp in time for breakfast, every face looking as white as chalk with exhaustion after the march. Although the march was hard, it was interesting because it was the first walk in the English Daylight that I ever had in my life. The first thing I noticed was the smooth asphalt roads with a grove of trees on each side and the treetops meeting, forming a long green cave. This made the air very fresh and cool and it mainly accounts for the fact that we accomplished our first hard march.
Salisbury Plains was one mass of military Camps, and it accommodated thousands and thousands of troops, mostly troops from Australia, Canada and the southern counties of England. After having breakfast the morning we landed, we were allotted to the section of the huge Salisbury Camp known as Rollastone Camp. Rollastone was the farthest part of the Camp from the Railway Station but it was near a nice little village called Shrewton.
I visited many of the neighbouring villages which are all very old fashioned and behind modern times. For instance many of the houses have thatched straw or reed roofs, with the eves neatly cut and trimmed at the edges, and then again when you visit a church you see the graveyard which, in almost every case, is in front of the Church. "Stonehenge" which is of historical import, was within the camp boundary, and I visited it a few times.
In our Camp there was a good deal of horse and wagon traffic, and of course the roads had to be kept in repair, this being done by the German prisoners of war under British Sentries, who were armed with loaded rifles. The prisoners were a curiosity to we boys who had not been in the trenches to see them, and we used to go over to their compound every Sunday afternoon, when they were resting and lying about the grounds inside the enclosure, and talk to them through the wires of the fence. We could not get close to the fence as the sentry would move us back.
The prisoners all looked well and in good condition and I hoped the Germans would treat the British prisoners the same.
There were also 400 wounded Germans being cared for in the Fargo Hospital which was in the vicinity.
After we had been at Salisbury Plains a few weeks, we were notified that we were to attend a review by His Majesty the King. The day came, and we were called up in the morning a little earlier than usual, to prepare ourselves, in that we had to clean all the brasswork of our equipment, clean our rifles extra well, and make ourselves look smart generally. The review was to take place at Bulford Camp Training grounds and necessitated our marching 4 miles to reach there. It was a lovely sharp morning; just ideal for marching, and we wended our way over grassy hills and down valleys until we reached a nice country road, which bore us to the Camp grounds on which the review was to be held.
The review was a grand spectacle, for it comprised, roughly speaking, 60,000 soldiers in the march past, with a massed band of 400 to 500 instruments playing continuously while the march was in progress. The troops marching represented every branch of the Australian Army, from the infantry up to the highly technical units, and the bands which composed the massed bands were all Australian Brigade bands. The time occupied passing the Flag base was about 11/2 hours, and when we had finished the march-past we all formed up in a huge close mass formation, when the King rode through tracks that we cleared in the mass so that he might have another look at us. As the King rode through the mass on this occasion there was a roaring din of cheering the whole time, and hats were waved on the tips of bayonets fixed to the rifles.
The Review being over, we had to march home to our respective camps again, and I regret to say the weather took a turn for the worse and it rained all the way back, consequently we were all wet through.
Another few weeks hard training went on and we were due for our London leave which was 4 days. It was called London leave but it did not stipulate that we had to visit London, as we were allowed concession fares all over the United Kingdom and Ireland; the men going to Ireland and some parts of the North of Scotland getting a day extra.
We formed up on the parade ground in the morning and were inspected; then marched to the Station where most of us took the train to London.
When I got to London I got a good glimpse of it by getting on different trams and going circular trips. The same evening I took a train from London and travelled to Woking, (the chief town of Surrey) where an aunt lived and spent the remainder of my leave there. I had a very good time at Woking and went several long bicycle rides into the neighbouring country, visiting one place of particular interest, Guildford Castle. On the two evenings I spent at Woking I went roller skating, and had an enjoyable time. The evening my leave expired my cousins came to the Railway station to see me off, and wished me good luck for the last time. I arrived back at camp at midnight and felt very sorry to think I had to settle down to camp life again after having had such an interesting and enjoyable holiday. Some of the men gave way to temptation of taking extra leave, and of course, they were duly punished for doing so.
We had now been on the Plains about 10 weeks, and were informed that we were to go to France in two Weeks time, and from this on we were doing extra hard training to prepare for our harder life. We did bayonet exercises and bombing practice for hours at a time, and took a keen interest in it all, as we knew at this stage the better knowledge we possessed, the better we would fare if circumstances warranted good hand to hand fighting when we were in the trenches. The training system was perfect, as it was divided into groups, each group having a special instructor from the best military schools in England. In the Bayonet practice we used to have suspended dummies with the vital spots of a man’s body marked on them. At these marks we would have to thrust the bayonet in any particular method the instructor required of us.
In the bombing classes we would be shown how to take the bomb to pieces safely and how to test it. We were also instructed in the mechanism appertaining to the detonating of the bomb, so that we thoroughly understood what we were handling, and how to use a bomb with best results. There is a good deal of skill in throwing a bomb effectively as the fuses are timed for a couple of seconds in some cases
and for as much as five seconds in others. If a bomb is timed for 5 seconds a man must throw a good distance and a fair height, so that the bomb bursts just before, or on touching the ground. We also had good practice with the rifle on the range, each man having from 500 to 700 shots before he had completed his course and was qualified. The qualified men were graded into three classes, viz. first, second and third. There was also a special class of qualified men called "Marks men" and only two men in our company won the badge, which is two rifles crossed on the cuff of the tunic. I might also mention that the winners of the badges receive a cash bonus from the Government, because it induced the troops to take a keener interest in the work. These marksmen are generally put to sniping work when they reach the front line.
We left Salisbury Plains on the 10th November 1916, for Folkestone, which is the port from which most troops sail for France across the Channel. We travelled to Folkestone by train leaving our Camp at 10 o’clock in the night and travelled all night in the train, arriving at Folkstone early the next morning, when we were billeted in terraces which were along the beach promenade, and which were used in peace times as boarding houses for visitors. After we had been allotted to our respective quarters, we were allowed leave to the City. I had a good look round the City, and at night I went to a play in one of the theatres and enjoyed it very much, but for the misfortune of running into the course of the Military Police on the way home, as I was beyond the limits of my leave pass as regards time. They took charge of me together with a few men they already had captured, and marched further round the City in search of more defaulters. They got more defaulters and more defaulters until they had more than they could manage, with the result that most of us broke away down a dark street and reached billets before the police. When we got to the gates of the barrier in which the terraces were enclosed, we made a mob rush and cleared the guard, getting to our billets safely.
The next morning we were to sail for France, but owing to the presence of u-boats in the vicinity of the pier and a heavy fog on the sea, we spent another day in Folkstone. The morning after we were embarked on a small vessel, together with other troops who came from all parts of Great Britain, (the troops
were all reinforcements) and sailed for Bologne across the English Channel, the journey of which lasted only 1 1/2 hours.
As soon as we pulled alongside the wharf at Bologna, we were impressed with the beautiful sight the City presented with its magnificent buildings, which could be seen from the vessel we were on.
In a few hours we were disembarked from the ship, and lined up in one of the streets near at hand, to prepare ourselves to march through the town, the other end of which our camp lay. This day was a Sunday, and many people passed us on their way to Church. We noticed that everybody was dressed well, but dressed in black; this made us think hard as it was a signal that we were really getting near to the root of the world’s troubles.
As we marched through one portion of the City we were besieged by women and children and kissed by them; the children at times carrying our packs and rifles to show their gratitude and appreciation of our coming into their land to fight the enemy with their own fathers who were already in the trenches.
After we had reached the Camp, called St. Martin’s, (or nicknamed One Blanket Hill) and had tea and were issued with our one blanket, we broke camp in spite of orders to the contrary, and went back to the City, where we rambled round.
This was the first time I had seen dogs in harness to pull carts, and we saw quite a number on this evening. The dogs seemed to be well trained to do their work, and obeyed the commands of their drivers, who walked at the back or alongside the carts, with exactness. Another incident of interest was a fishing boat that came alongside the docks, where it discharged a large cargo of fish which was taken to different parts of the town by women with hand trucks, with perhaps a dog or two roped to the trucks to help them along.
We walked further round the town until we found ourselves near the main railway station, and on finding this we decided to go onto the platforms and see all we could. We had not been on the platforms very long when a red cross train came in from the Somme Front. As soon as it arrived a long stream of motor ambulances pulled in on the opposite side of the platform to receive and take away the stretcher cases as they were discharged, or unloaded from the train. This was the first time I had seen wounded men coming straight from the front line with
Their wounds freshly dressed, and some of them looking as though they were enduring great pain, and others looking as though they were very much relieved to be beyond the range of the guns, which they had faced only a few hours previously. It was now getting near 9 o’clock in the evening, and we decided to wander back to the end of town nearest our Camp.
On our way we called upon one of the many wine-estanimets in the City, and had a few "refreshers" each. If we had taken the road home that we took to come into the city, we should have arrived home fairly early, but we took another road thinking it would serve us the same, but it turned out to be very much out of the way as we landed in camp at 3.30 a.m. next morning.
The night was dark, and I remember we met a policeman doing his section of a beat which was around a high walled jail overgrown with ivy. We tried every possible means to convey to the policeman the position and circumstances we were in, but it was of no avail, so we trudged on not knowing for certain how far we were from the camp.
Anyway before we went far we met four Frenchmen in uniform who gave us to understand they were on leave, home from the trenches, and who were having a good time with plentiful supply of brandy, and not forgetting their Australian comrades they invited us to have a nip or two. This we did and it did not go amiss, for the night was very cold and the fog was settling very thickly. After we had walked for another hour or so, we quite accidently took the right road into the camp, and then found our tents with difficulty, after which we had about 2 hours rest and were rallied out on to parade to prepare to move off to the railway station.
We of course marched back to the station the way we had marched into the camp. After a good deal of waiting about, we entrained for a place called Etaples, which was at the time, a base depot for Australian soldiers. We stayed here about 2 weeks and did some training, including sham fights and charges up sand hills with full packs and equipment on. Only for the severely cold weather I do not think I would have withstood it. We also had a course in the "Gas School" , and went through various kinds of gasses in tunnels, with our helmets on, in order to make us confident as far as the safety was concerned, with the reliability of our helmets.
We were also issued with air-tight goggles and went through tear-gas,(sometimes called pineapple gas owing to its likeness in odour)through an open trench. There was a Y.M.C.A. hut at the end of our row of tents, and we used to spend most of our leisure time there at the fire as it was bitterly cold outdoors. We visited the town of Etaples on two occasions, and generally speaking it was a filthy town, giving off some very nasty odour especially in the narrow streets. The people have no modesty apparently, as post cards and pictures are displayed in windows that would shock any ordinary person’s modesty in Australia or England.
It was now the beginning of November, and we moved off to the railway siding to embark into trucks for Albert, which is one of the headquarters on the Somme front. I shall never forget the journey which lasted from 6 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock the same evening. As we drew up near Albert in the train we could hear the rumbling of the heavy guns in the distance, and we all sat reserved, talking little, but thinking a good deal. In the vicinity of Albert we could see the marking of old trenches over the hills and here and there a huge shell hole, the result of a projectile from a heavy German battery. And when we entered the town, we found that it had been severely knocked about by German shell-fire.
In the centre of the town there is the ruins of what was once, a very magnificent Church, with its great tower still standing in spite of the fact that it is full of huge gaps caused by shelling. At the top of the tower is a bronze monument of the Virgin Mary with a baby in her arms overhanging the street. This monument was considered unsafe in this position, so the engineers went up and fastened it securely in the same overhanging attitude. We stayed in Albert overnight, spending a very cold night, and marched next day to Dernancourt, where we joined our unit, the 21st Battalion. We spent 5 days in this village of Dernancourt, which was a low lying muddy and uncomfortable place, doing drill and getting organised for the Battalions next turn in the trenches. Our accommodation there was of a very rough and crowded nature, as we were lining in stables, cowsheds or pigsties, and some men were even in cart sheds which were fairly open to the snow floating in on them whenever
the wind was unfavourable. We used to sit in our apartments at night, crowded round a small coal fire; some were writing letters on a pad on their knee, while others would be talking of their experiences in the trenches, and letting us new reinforcements know what we were going into in a few days.
A few days passed by and we got orders to move; to where we did not know at the time. We packed up our kits and marched to the railway station at Albert, a distance of about 4 miles, and embarked into a train which took us to Flesselles, a place about 15 miles from Amiens. Flesselles was a village something after the same style as Dernancourt with its muddy roads, snow everywhere, and troops crowded into billets. While I was in this village I had an opportunity of seeing how the French peasants lived and the methods in which they did their farm work.
The people were clothed in very old and shabby attire during the week days, and when Sunday came they were to be seen in their best clothes going to Church, immediately after which, they would change back into their ordinary attire for the purpose of setting to again with their farm work. They had very primitive methods of farming compared with Colonial ideas for doing farm work, as they still use a treadmill worked by a horse for cutting chaff or root crops, and threshing and winnowing. One thing about the Frenchman is, that he cultivates very intensely and gets very good results.
While staying at Flesselles we had the good fortune to get leave for the purpose of visiting Amiens, a large city from a military point of view, as it was the headquarters from which ammunition and food were supplied to all the troops operating on the Somme area.
Apart from the city being of military importance, it was interesting in that it had a large Cathedral which ranked as being amongst the largest cathedrals in France. After we had wandered round the City and saw other minor things of interest, we visited the Cathedral. On entering the building from the front entrance, which is a portico exhibiting some fine examples of French masonry, I came to a wide hall which led into the main hall of the Church. As soon as I entered the main hall I was amazed at the wonderfully high arches in the construction of the building, and also the massiveness of the columns which supported them. Around the main
Hall were numerous bays, each of which would accommodate a small congregation, with an altar, and lighted candles on either side of the altar. Other things of interest were the massive organ, and the beautiful windows at the head of the Church.
After a few more days’ stay at Fleselles, we marched onto Ribemont, the marching to which, taking a good day. At Ribemont we prepared for the trenches and left for Fricourt Wood, marching by road and arriving at Fricourt Wood the same evening.
It was snowing very heavily all the time we were marching, with the consequence we spent a most miserable night camping. Though I felt very miserable and tired out, I could not resist visiting an old mate of mine, whom I knew had a dug out on the crossroad. This mate of mine was at this particular time, corporal of police on point duty in Fricourt Wood, and he was possessed of plenty of cigarettes and good food; needless to say I came away from him full of gladness and cigarettes. I had a sleep for the remainder of the night and next morning we marched, at times knee deep in snow and mud, to Ginchy where Australians were in action.
We took up our position in the Needle Trench (in reserve), and stayed there two days. All the while it was raining heavily and we were standing in water, and even had to sleep in soft vet mud as there were no shelters of any kind in the trench. While in this place we only had a few casualties and one killed. I was picked one dark night, among a party of others to go back a little further to a camp, from where we did fatigues with the engineers and pioneers up in the front trench. We used to tramp along duckboards in the teeming rain a good five miles up to the front line, where we used to help repair the front of the trench and make shelters if possible, with sheets of iron, for the men who manned the trench.
On one particular night we went up to the line for the purpose of digging a trench in No-Man’s Land. After wading through mud waist deep in unused trenches, we arrived at the spot where we were to go over the top and creep along in the wet mud, until we reached the exact spot where each one had to entrench. Each man had a certain measurement allotted to him to dig, and if everybody dug his part successfully the trench would become joined and finished.
When we were at first out in the open ground, the Germans had their suspicions that we were there, and they kept constantly sniping and using their machine guns at random, in the hope that they would clear us away. When we had dug enough earth to shield our heads from Bullets we felt a sense of comfort and worked steadily, but if our heads peeped over the mound of earth we had already made and the German flarelights were up in the sky, they would have a few rounds at us. We had to work silently and talk in very low whispers as we were close enough to hear the Germans talking at their posts at times. We got the trench dug and had to wait until the engineers’ Officer crept along and inspected it.
In the meantime the Germans must have felt that there was a number of us in this newly dug trench, and consequently they directed their artillery on us and made things too warm to bear; so we received orders to get out as best we could and as quickly as possible. In this confusion I was with a party of four who were cut off from the main crowd. We made a dash back into our own front line and were fired at and challenged by our own sentries, who immediately ceased firing when we cried out that we were "D" Coy. 21st.
We got into the trench safely, and enquired from our men which direction we should take to get back to our camp. After being directed we started on our way which was pitch dark, save for the occasional firelights sent up by the Germans, and so muddy that we would occasionally get bogged and have to be pulled out by our mates who happened to be more fortunate to have a more solid footing.
We were best part of two hours battling through this mud, when we were relieved to find a party of Scotchmen excavating a dugout at the bottom of which they had a roaring coal fire. With the Scotties’ permission we went down the stairs of the dug out to the fire, and stood in our wet clothes until we were dry; and after this I lay down on the foot of the stairway and went to sleep. Just as it was breaking day I was roused up from my sleep by one of the Scotchmen, and he directed me to the nearest and best duckboard road to take out. On reaching the duckboard track, I could see in the distance, in front and behind me, chaps that were with us the night before; before we were split up in the confusion. I
noticed the men on the duckboard in front of me stop and give a glance to the side at a certain point, and it made me curious, but when I got there I was sorry to see a man from our Battalion lying dead on a stretcher. He was shot the night before and I believe the stretcher bearers had so much difficulty in travelling through the mud with him when he was wounded that he lost heart and died. The reason I mention this sad incident is, that this man was the first man in our Battalion I saw lying dead in the mud, and it will never leave my memory, especially the circumstance attending it. At last we came to a soup kitchen and had some soup, which was very stimulating to us and was the means of getting us to us camp a short while after.
As soon as we got into our huts, which were in a sea of mud, we were met by the sergeant and told to go inside and have a sleep as we would be wanted again in a few hours. I went to sleep in my wet clothes on the floor like the others did, and when I was called up again I was hardly fit to stand on my feet. The sergeant took me and a few others that were sick to the doctor, who examined us, and sent some back to the lines with medicine while he sent others to the hospital.
I was fortunate enough, to be bad enough to go into Hospital, and I was taken away in a motor ambulance to the Field Hospital. While I was waiting in the Hospital a few large shells came over and one hit a store tent with the result that it was blown to pieces with its contents. We were put into railway trucks on stretchers, and taken to Becordel, where we were loaded into another train which took us right to Rouen.
The train in which we were taken to Rouen was an up to date hospital train, fitted with every convenience, and with rows of beds on each side, being three high. On arriving at Rouen Railway Station we were met by motor ambulances and conveyed to Hospitals. I was conveyed to No8 Hospital where I was in bed a few days and then sent to convalescent camp. While in the hospital it was Xmas, and most of the boys who were out of bed decorated the ward with the aid of the Sister. The orderlies and the sisters provided a good concert in the evening, which was very much appreciated by the patients in the ward.
I was in the convalescent camp only a few days when I
was marched to the Railway Station at Rouen with a batch of other fit men, for the purpose of travelling back to the base camp, which was at Etaples. After waiting at the Railway Station for nearly four hours, we were entrained in iron covered trucks which would have been very cold had we not had coal fires upon the centres of the floors. With the coal fires burning and the doors kept closed as much as possible to keep the cold out, we arrived at Etaples with our clothes and faces black with coal dust.
Having been in the front line I was not required to do any training at Etaples Camp, but to wait until the next draft of men was ready to be despatched to the front line when I could go with them.
I had my teeth attended by the Dentist in the camp and by the time a few days had elapsed, before he had finished, a draft was formed and I was included. I was very pleased that I was going into the front this time, as it was bitterly cold in the camp, and I thought anywhere would be better than staying at Etaples. That the town was very near the edge of the sea, and that there was a very sharp wind, and it was winter, accounts for the fact that the weather was the coldest I had ever experienced in my life. We marched from the camp to the railway station and entrained to Albert.
On the way to Albert we passed through lovely cultivation on islands which were formed in the swamp. They used to reach the cultivated islands by means of flat bottomed boats, which, when the farmers returned from their work, were used to convey the products back to the mainland. The products were mainly vegetables and flowers.
We arrived in Albert and spent a very cold night in the camp there, as there were icicles hanging in the inside of the tents next morning. From Albert we marched to Ribemont, where we received a mail from our respective quartermasters of our own different companies. I had two mates who were in my company ("D" Coy) with me, when we were detailed to go on a fatigue party to a village maned Contay. This village was about 12 miles from Ribemont, the village we were in, and we had to march the distance on foot. We had no idea of the nature of the work we were going to, or how long
it was to last, so we brought all the contents of the parcels we received in the mail. After we trudged a mile or two along the road, we came to a motor transport depot, where we obtained some boiling water with which we made tea, and ate some of the luxuries from our parcels. When we had finished this good meal we set on our journey again until we came to a village named Puchvilliers, and in this village we had another good meal which consisted on champagne and lobsters.
It was a little after midday when we finished this meal, so we decided to have a few hours in the village despite the fact that we were very tired. We went into a few more wine establishments, and needless to say, we did not feel disposed to continue our journey to Contay, but as good fortune came our way we had a ride in a motor lorry which put us on a couple of miles further on our journey.
Continuing our walk after getting out of the lorry we came across some French children skating on the ice. After having so much Champagne a few hours before, we felt like children ourselves and joined in with the skating, with the result that, before we had been at it very long one of my mates fell very heavily on his face, causing a deep gash on his cheek. There was an army hospital near, and we had our mate attended to, after which we proceeded again on our journey and arrived at Contay, our destination, at about 10 0’clock that night.
We had difficulty in finding our Officer to whom we were to report, but found him eventually, and he directed us to our billet. The next morning when we turned out to roll call, we learnt that we were there for the purpose of unloading shells from railway trucks, and sorting them in great canvas covered sheds, and at times to load motor lorries from these sheds.
Sometimes as many as 200 lorries would come down from the firing line in one batch to be loaded. With the aid of the two motor drivers on each lorry, and our party of about 30 men, we would despatch them all in, sometimes less than 4 hours. The life in the village other than our work was very good considering the circumstances, and we used to buy some good food from the neighbouring stores. We used to sleep in a barn which had plenty of hay straw stored in it, and we made good use of the hay; and as far as sleeping was concerned, it was alright providing the boys were not intoxicated and left their mates alone who were asleep.
One day when we least expected it, a motor lorry came with a relief party, and after depositing the men, took our party to Pioneer Camp, a Camp near Contalmaison Circus, where we joined our Battalion again. From this camp we did fatigues up to the front line at night, and resting during the day. By this time the snow had been falling for almost a month, and the ground was very uncertain to walk upon, especially at night when we were carrying burdens up to the front line.
The Burdens we carried were either rations, planks for revetting trenches, duckboards, sheets of iron or barbed wire or wire netting. Besides losing men in snow covered shell holes, we lost a few through being bombarded at certain crossings, and a few through being sniped.
Sniping was an easy matter for the Germans as our dark forms presented a good target on the white background of snow.
A party of us had the good fortune not to go on fatigue duty one night, and consequently we felt good enough to go for a few miles walk next day, over to Posieres, and La Boiselle. I had not been in the Posieres battle and it was very interesting to be shown over it by men who had been through the fighting. Certain parts of it were strewn with bones and skulls of fallen heroes, so much in number that, had I not seen them, I could not have believed it. The battered trenches and mangled barbed wire, together with mounds of earth heaved up, and the remains of buildings, were evidence of the hard struggle that went on between the Australians and the Germans for weeks.
We then came back across the Bapaume road and visited the crater at La Boiselle. This Crater is a marked feature of the Great War, and was brought into being on July 1st 1916,- after a huge mine had been exploded; the explosion being a signal for the British to attack along the whole Somme front- line. The Crater has huge dimensions of which I should say were approximately 250 feet deep, and 500 feet in diameter, and presents a true basin shape without any irregularities in it. Walking back towards our Camp we came through Sausage Gully, and inspected many groups of graves of dead soldiers, some groups of which, looked very neat in appearance, although some troops, who were in the vicinity had very little time to attend to them.
We did a few more night’s fatigue up to the front line from this camp (Pioneer Camp), and then marched back further from the trenches
to Scotts Redoubt, where I joined my Battalion Signallers. I took a keen interest in the Signallers work and took every opportunity to study it, with the result that I soon became efficient to take my shift on the phone in the trenches. After being in this camp, Scotts Redoubt, for a few days, we were marched towards the trenches again to another camp named Acid-drop Camp, where we did fatigues up to the front line for a week, and then moved up to the Le Sars front.
We camped in Gun Pit Alley, which runs through the "had been" village of Martinpuich, and worked on a light railway that ran up to the front line. This railway was much used at night, and we had to keep the line in order as far as possible. The Germans constantly shelled the line and tore it up in places, and we had to keep pace with the repairing as well as possible. Sometimes there would be a dozen trucks waiting to pass on the line when we were working, and the unhealthy oaths that were shouted out by the truck-pushers, made us who were mending the line, understand that they did not want to be held up longer than could be avoided, in such a dangerously shelled place.
Some nights when we had finished our strenuous work on the line we would go back to our dugouts only to be called up in half an hour by the Sergeant Major and sent up to the front line with plum pudding bombs for the trench mortars. These bombs were nearly 80 lbs weight, and by the time we had walked three miles to the front line in mud and snow we felt very fatigued. After we had discharged our burden we would sit for a while, and then go back empty handed to our dugout in Gun Pit Alley, where we would arrive just at daylight. When we did sleep we slept soundly, as this was evidenced by our not waking when a shell blew our sandbag entrance of the dugout, down. We only found out what had happened when one of our party had occasion to go and see the sergeant who was living further down the Alley.
While in Martinpuich we inspected the ruins of the village, and it was a good sample of German destruction. Everywhere was to be seen, broken carts, harnesses, ploughs, household furniture, and the remains of demolished houses. I must make mention of a very large German dud-shell which stood near a dug-out; it was about 5 feet high and about 15 inches in diameter, and I believe, came from a range of 25 mile.
A dud shell of which I make mention is a shell which does not explode, but arrives intact when it reaches its object or target.
We were now taken off the railway fatigue, and were at the disposal of head-quarters to be sent on any sector as carrying parties. We were working on two sectors, each of which was entered by a different route. On one of the routes, after we had travelled about a mile from our dugout in the mud, we would enter a trench called" William Alley".
This trench was built perfectly by the British, and it was about 2 miles long in zigzag formation, reaching up to the front line. The walls were riveted with wire mesh and the duckboards were supported on "A" frames; the water running 2 feet below in the bottom of the trench, and parts of the trench were camouflaged with the ordinary material which was used for the same purpose in the artillery.
The camouflaged material is made up of wire netting with an artificial covering of leaves and boughs. When we were on our way back to our dugout after being up to the line, we would call into the soup kitchen and have a short rest and some soup, after which we would feel quite repaired. We used to travel on the upper side of a dark gully on the way out, and in the dark hollow we would hear men pushing trucks, on the light railway up to the front line, laden with timber and ammunition, and the trucks returning would have wounded on them. When a shell would come hissing over into the dark valley, we would stop with a feeling of awe, and listen with expectation of hearing someone call "Stretcher bearers".
One night in the vicinity of this valley, a shell landed about 4 feet from the duckboards on which we were travelling, and blew myself and four others off the duckboards into the mud. On account of the mud being so soft as to allow the shell to penetrate deeply into the ground, we were fortunate enough to escape being killed or wounded, as the fragments of the shell could not escape above the surface of the ground.
I must mention that there was an obsolete tank in Gun Pit Alley, and for novelty’s sake, my mate and myself spent a night in it, for it was really better than a damp dug out.
One night we retired in our dugouts for a rest, and on being assured by the sergeant major that we were "Right for the night" we took our boots and puttees off, and snuggled up to one another
comfortably and went to sleep, when in half an hour or thereabouts, we were wakened by the Sergeant Major and ordered to fall in ready to move up to the line. We were rather surprised at being called out, but of course, we dared not ask the question why, and if we did we would not be told.
We soon got in readiness in the dark, as we were forbidden to light matches, and trudged up to the front line in file. When we were halfway on the road in, we were given extra supplies of cartridges and bombs. When this was done, we had a fair idea that we were badly wanted in the front line, and all the time we were being served with ammunition we were shelled by the enemy, but as good fortune saved us, no one was hit.
We arrived in the front line at about 3o’clock in the morning, and were shown to our dugouts. The dugout in which I was accommodated held over 100 men, and it had two entrances which were stairways going down into the ground 40 or 50 feet deep.
A raiding party of our Battalion had already been over the top for the purpose of giving "Fritz" a shake up, when they discovered that he had departed in a hurry, and left lots of his kit and ammunition behind. On learning this, they immediately manned the trench, and sent word back to our headquarters that the enemy had retreated and that it would be wise to follow him up until he offered resistance. Being a Signaller, I was engaged in helping to run a wire out from headquarters to the new trench we had manned.
In the morning when daylight came we walked in the open, above the trenches under the cover of a heavy fog, but when the fog began to clear away we realised we were in an open position, which was proved by the fact that a few men got shot dead by a few snipers who had hidden themselves in the hill forest opposite us. For the rest of the day we kept low in the trenches and the enemy aeroplanes kept swooping past and machine gunning us, after which we were bombarded severely and continuously. The bombardment was so intense that we were confined to our dugout for nearly two days without seeing daylight. There we sat in the bottom of a 40 feet deep dugout, listening to the shells pummelling at the surface of the earth above, sometimes sitting in darkness for hours, and occasionally lighting a butt of a candle so that we might play a game of cards.
When the bombardment subsided we found ourselves without food and consequently we had to find headquarters and obtain some. To another man and myself, it fell our lot to go for the rations, and what we did get was the leavings of the biscuit tin, which was of course better than having nothing.
In the meantime the Australian and British Artillery had come to a position where they could effectively bombard the Germans, who had settled in Loupart Wood with the intention of resisting our attack and stemming our advance. Loupart Wood was on the crest of a high rise some 2,000 yards in front of us and we could plainly see each shell which our guns sent over, burst and send up a cloud of earth and other debris.
By evening our guns drove the Germans over the crest of the Hill, and we – in the Infantry followed up closely on the enemy’s retreating out- posts with the gratifying result the we consolidated our position just before we reached the crest of the Hill. At about midnight, when we felt that we were secure in our trench which we had won, we were relieved by the 7th Brigade (N.S.W.) and we marched back to our original front line, which was then support line, and had some hot stew, some hot tea and a good rest.
It was a couple of hours before daybreak by the time we had a little rest after our hot meal, and in order to be out of the sight of the German gunners before daylight, we had to muster up quickly and move off. Although it was dark and foggy we scrambled our way back through shell holes and mud until we reached the duckboard track just as dawn was breaking.
Once on the duckboard track we made good progress, and were back at camp having a hot breakfast at 10.30 a.m. This camp was Scotts Redoubt of which I have already made mention, and while there we saw several air- fights. I saw four or five British planes brought to the ground on one afternoon by the Germans, and the Germans suffered no loss whatever. This was at the particular time when it was admitted by the British, that their airforce was inadequate to cope with the Germans’. On another occasion I saw a German plane drop an incendiary bomb on to a balloon which was up in the air for observation purposes and bring it to the ground in flames.
Another interesting occurrence that took place was an air fight between a British and a German plane, when the gunner in the
German Plane shot the pilot of the British Plane in the wrist, the consequence of which forced the British Airman to descend. When the plane came near the surface of the ground it turned a somersault and landed upside down. Crowds of soldiers, who were camped nearby, rushed to the assistance of the men and soon extricated them, and stopped the engine which was still driving the broken propeller.
After we had been in Scotts Redoubt about a week, we moved on to Cinque Ports Camp which was situated about one mile nearer the trenches again. This camp was adjacent to a railway siding where a large quantities of war material was stored, and consequently we were shelled fairly frequently during our stay of about 5 days. The whole Brigade was in this camp and although we were shelled frequently, we had only a few casualties.
By day we would do some practice in our respective classes, such as signalling, bombing, shooting, and machine gunning, and by night we would do fatigue up to the front line, sometimes with rations and sometimes with duckboards with which to repair the shell broken track.
We moved from this camp to the front line trench which was in front of the Butte de Warlencourt. The "Butte" as we called it, was a hill in the form of a high round mound of chalk, and it stood only a hundred yards from wrecked Le Sars Railway Station. On top of the "Butte" there was a sniper’s post and the German who had been stationed there did good work for his Country, for we found evidence of his accuracy of shooting in finding dozens of dead Scotchmen and Tommies lying around in the vicinity of the front of the Butte.
By the time we had walked to this front line trench in front of the "Butte" the Germans had retreated fully and another 1000 yards on to the next rise, and consequently some of our men had occasion to examine he Butte, after which they learned that the sniper on the top of the hill had, perhaps a few days before, fallen a victim to a fragment of shell, as he lay hanging over his machine gun which was mounted on a post.
After putting in a few more days on signal duty and in burying dead Tommies, whenever we got the opportunity, I was summoned
to headquarters, and told that I was to be sent to a Signalling School at Fleselless for a month’s training. This came as a surprise to me, and it was at the same time very acceptable, as it meant a month of comparative comfort to trench life. I was included in a party of four men going to the school, and while we were waiting at the top of the Headquarter’s dug out for one of the men to join us, we saw a great airfight going on overhead in which about 8 aeroplanes from each side were engaged. The British drove the Germans off, but two British Machines were forced to descend, and fortunately they landed on our ground allowing the airmen to escape. The Germans got the correct range and later, battered the planes to pieces.
However, we who were going to school, started on our way just before dusk. When we arrived back as far as Cinque Ports Camp we were given rations for two days use, and a new set of clothes throughout. Getting the new clothes was a relief in itself for we were instantly free of vermin again, and that meant comfort when we were to go to sleep. We marched through all the next day and we came to Albert where we stayed the night in tents which were very comfortable in comparison to the trenches, in spite of the fact that it was so cold that icicles were hanging from the inside of the tents. Next morning, (this was Sunday,) a motor lorry arrived at 9 o’clock and conveyed us to Fleselles, landing us there at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were shown to our billets and we deposited our kits in them, then went in search of a good wine estaminet, where we had wine and a plate of fried eggs each.
Next morning we were called out on a special parade by the Colonel of the School, and given instructions as to what we had to do and how we had to do it. We had to shine our buttons and badges, and clean our boots with dubbin every morning and be always cleanly shaved. After being so long in the trenches it was a pleasure to be clean and fresh again, and we took every interest in our work to show our appreciation of it. During the month I was at the School, I studied hard, and got good results at the end of the term when we had an examination. On one occasion we had a "Mock Stunt" which was carried out by the whole of the School in Fleselles. We employed signalling apparatus from division to
outpost in the front line, which necessitated hundreds of yards of wire being reeled out. The Colonel would cut the wires in any part of the field, and our job was to maintain communication with any other post he desired. I might say we did the work very well, and he complimented us upon it. We also had an aeroplane working in conjunction with us, and the mode in which the plane signalled was with a tooter, and if we signalled to the plane we would use a ground sheet. The ground sheet is something like a venetian blind and is worked by a spring which turns the slats of the sheet up in either black or white. On keeping the spring taunt the white surface is presented and on loosing the spring the black surface is presented. In this way the sheet can be used to convey Morse code signals.
While at this village I visited another village named Naours, a distance of about 4 miles away. In this village there were some famous caves which were well worth visiting, as they were of historical import owing to the fact that they were excavated to accommodate refugees of one of France’s recent wars with Germany.
These caves were excavated in chalky subsoil in the form of a maze of passages with small passages leading off them again into rooms. There were over 300 rooms carved out in this underground place, and there were also two large rooms carved out which were used for the purpose of churches, with the altars and other necessary furniture carved from chalk. In one spot from where several passages radiated there was a chalk pedestal which was about 20 feet in height within the enclosure of a small ornamental fence, and on the pedestal numerous names were scratched; some I recognised as Melbourne citizens who must have been visiting the caves.
A girl who conducted us through the caves by a lighted candle seemed to be the caretaker of the caves, and charged 5 francs for a party of 10 of us. Another way the girl made money was by selling picture postcards of the caves. After we had seen all that was to be seen at the caves, we sauntered to the other end of the village, where we listened to a British Artillery Band for an hour or so, and then went onto our billets, arriving in time for tea in an estaminet.
On the following Sunday I was granted a leave pass to Amiens, and while there I visited the Cathedral while the Church service was in progress.
It was high church on this Sunday as the service was held within a beautifully decorated enclosure in the middle of the main hall. The Choir sung in French, and there was also a solo sung by a young man, after which the choir knelt down and chanted a prayer.
When the choir stood again the priests were ushered in by a Gentleman wearing a garb something in resemblance to an admiral’s uniform, and carrying in his hand in and upright position a long spear. The whole scene appeared very ceremonial; the two highest priests wore crowns on their heads, one of the priests who numbered 50 in all, had the ordinary clothes on. The choir boys wore white surplices with crimson skull caps. We looked on in deep interest at the ceremony although we could not understand it.
After we had left the Cathedral we walked along the banks of the Somme Canal where we saw pontoon boats used as hospital transports for wounded soldiers. By the time we were ready to leave the town it was 7 o’clock and we had 18 miles to travel back to Fleselles where we were billeted. We set out on foot and in the fact that we were "slightly intoxicated" we had to lie down on the roadside after we had gone about 2miles. After having a sleep and waking at about 11p.m. we heard a motor lorry coming through the darkness along the road, and when it came up to us we cried out and the driver stopped. We had to argue a good deal before he consented to give us a ride, when we jumped in at the back of the lorry and rode as far as Villiers-Bocage, which was only one mile from where we billeted.
We arrived at our Billets at 5 o’clock in the morning, and sat up until it was time to go to School.
During the month I was at the Signalling school at Fleselles a few deaths occurred among the French, and it seemed very strange to us as we watched the manner in which the funerals were conducted. After the service was performed in the Church, over the dead, the coffin would be borne out on a stretcher-like arrangement to the Cemetery; the priest walking in front holding an open bible before him, and the mourners, and choir boys who wore white robes, walked behind the coffin chanting prayers as they walked along.
Now a month had passed and we were to go back to our respective units again, and we were relieved by another batch of men who were to go a course at the School. On account of the Germans still retreating beyond Bapaume, the motor lorries which were engaged in transport work, were very busy and consequently we had to march back to our units on foot. We marched to Coutay, a distance of about 15 miles, on the first day and put up in a farmer’s hayloft for the night. I shall never forget this particular night as we were constantly disturbed by big rats that kept rustling through the hay and occasionally scrambling across our bodies. In the morning we had a good wash and a good feed and started again on our journey.
We marched through several Villages until we came to Albert when each batch of men broke away in the direction of their respective units. Our Battalion was only 3 miles from Albert and we arrived there in time for tea and to get our mail which had accumulated for the month while we were away.
While at this camp, called Cecourt Camp, we saw what was left of the 4th division returning after having had a very heavy loss of men in the consequence of trying to reach the Hindenburg line in daylight. Out of the whole division there were only a few hundred men returning, and they looked very much dead-beaten, with their clothes all jagged with the results of scrambling through barbed wire.
From this camp we were ordered up to the trenches, which were 15 miles distant. We left on one wet morning marching across the muddy fields until we came to Bapaume Road, and on reaching Bapaume we had a rest and something to eat, after which we marched a few miles further to reserve trench line where we took up a position for three days. While in this reserve line we had a commanding view of areas that were being shelled heavily, but we were not troubled much in that respect. The Battalion for which we were standing in reserve had great success, and they despatched batches of prisoners back to the cages the whole three days we were there.
The prisoners were a study to look at, and they looked as though they had had enough of war, some were wounded and some were very exhausted looking.
The wounded men were helped along by their comrades.
We shifted further towards the line to a village called Caulx and we did not camp in the village itself for a few nights, but out on an open field where it was raining nearly all the time.
Later on we explored the village and found quarters in an old chateau which the Germans evidently had not time to wreck, as they systematically wrecked all standing property in the villages as they retreated. They even left the remains of a dead horse in the yard of the place we camped in, and by the way the animal was cut about, we could see that they (the Germans) must have been short of meat for their rations.
From this place we did fatigues up to the front line for about a week and took up outpost duty in front of a village called Longat. The food had to be carried to us in this out-post near Longat, and the consequence was that the Germans observed the position in which we had the post. From the time the Germans observed this we were shelled very heavily at intervals for the remainder of the time in which we stayed there, which was about 10 days. From the position we were in, we could see a tank to the right of Bullecourt, and we came to the conclusion that a sniper was hidden in it. We of course informed the artillery information Officer who directed his battery on to the correct range, the consequence of which, the tank was blown to pieces after several direct hits. We saw the whole village of Bullecourt, which was occupied by the Germans, razed to the ground by the artillery fire in the course of 5 days continuous bombarding. It was a marvellous sight to see great clouds of bricks and sheets of iron roofing bursting up into the air continually.
We moved back from this out-post in front of Bullecourt to a village named Faverail, and where we camped in tents, the scarcity of tents being so great as to warrant our Colonel putting as many as 22 in each tent. It was raining heavily and the ground was sodden and in spite of the fact that we were sitting up all night on our waterproof sheets, we were wet through. The reason we marched back to this Camp was that we were to prepare for a stunt which was to come off in a few weeks hence;
We were called out one morning at about 1.30 in the pitch darkness and when it was raining and scrambled over rough paddocks and through a couple of ruined villages until we reached the ground on which we were to have a mock "Stunt". It was about 4 a.m. when we were arranged in 8 long rows, one in front of the other and the signal went for us to advance. The light horse went on in front acting as an artillery barrage, and at the front line on which we had to attack away in the distance were flarelights going up the same as though it were a real "stunt". I was in the signalling section, and we kept up communication with headquarters, notwithstanding the wires were cut several times by the Officer to test us. When the "stunt" was over we had some miles of wires to reel up again. We came back to our camp at Faverail in time for breakfast and had the remainder of the day off, when we visited the aerodrome and some German soldiers’ graves nearby. Among the German graves was one of an Australian airman with whom they seemed to treat with respect, as his (the airman’s) grave was in appearance prettier than lots of the German’s graves.
Another item of interest here was a large naval battery of artillery which used to fire at a range of 25 miles, and when the guns would discharge a shell they would recoil as much as 6 feet. Sometimes the Germans would retaliate and drop a few shells in our camp, but while we were there, there were only a couple of horses wounded.
We marched from this camp in the night so as the German balloon observers would not be aware that troops were moving in great numbers to the front line, and we reached Norieul where we stayed in a trench which was formed by a sunken road; and in this trench we stayed 8 days until we had the "hop over".
During the time we were in Norieul Trench we had a few casualties and we lost among them one of our best platoon sergeants. One day a German Airman flew over our trenches at a very low altitude when he was brought down by "A" Company Machine Gunners. The observer who was shot through the abdomen was carried away on a stretcher to our dressing station where he died, and the pilot who was rather an oldish man but clean shaven was unhurt.
The pilot exclaimed in good English that the gunners were good shots, and that he regretted he did not get back to his aerodrome to advise them that we were concentrating in front of Bullecourt with the intention of pushing them ( the Germans) out of the village.
On the morning of May 3rd 1917 at 1o’clock we were warned to be in readiness to move out into no-man’s land, at a few minutes’ notice to take up our pre-planned positions. In the meantime we were issued with extra sand-bags, bombs, cartridges, and rations.
At 2o’clock we moved out into no-man’s land and arranged ourselves quietly into 8 successive rows, one behind the other. Everything was well until a few stray shells dropped between us and a few were wounded and cried out in pain, when the Germans got to know what was going on. If the Germans did not know what was doing, they had a good idea, for the artillery woke up to the occasion and bombarded our section intensely, with the result that many more were wounded and killed, and we got partially disorganised owing to the necessity of our getting into shell-holes where we could, to provide cover to a small degree. We waited in anxiety in this place for nearly two hours until it was 3-45a.m. when we went "over the top"
We went "over the top" and the consequences were more than awful. After scrambling over a railway embankment which was kept constantly razed by machine guns on the German side, and where scores of men were shot in the attempt to get over the embankment, we reached a thick belt of barbed wire entanglements which were anything from 50 yards to 100 deep in places. The artillery had played on these entanglements for days before the stunt and even then there were thick patches left which were so dense that they could not possibly be penetrated. With the occasional bursts of lights from the flares and shrapnel overhead, we could take a momentary glance at the dense barrier in front, and in places we could hear the moans of the dying and perhaps the screaming and crying of the wounded, who were at the mercy of the German machine guns that were playing thickly into the wire. I was very fortunate in this case, I struck a fair track through the entanglements and emerged to the further side with not even a scratch on my legs. It was only a matter of a few dozen yards and we were on the
first or front line of the Hindenberg trench system, and in this trench we had, very little opposition as we only had to contend with wounded Germans who were left behind by their comrades. During all this time there was as unceasing bombardment from both sides, and the noise was beyond the power of description. After going down into the dug- outs and clearing out what was in them we were ordered over the top again to reach the second trench line. I was very exhausted at this stage as I was carrying a spare coil of signalling wire all the time, which was of no use whatever now, as in the meantime the two men who were carrying the phone were killed, and the rest of our company signalling party had got lost in the confusion when we were going through the barbed wire. On discarding the wire I went into the second trench with the others who must have felt equally exhausted as I was, as they had special burdens of ammunition to carry into battle as far as possible so that we might drop back on it if it were needed.
When in this second trench we had to fight for our very lives at close quarters with the Germans, and without the least exaggeration, the bodies of the dead were so numerous as to block up the trench which was a very wide one. When the Germans were reduced to a few, they surrendered and we brought the bodies into heaps in bays in the trench so that we could pass in the trench freely.
It was just breaking dawn now, and we went further on until we got held up at a sunken road where the Germans had concentrated to offer resistance to us. While fighting hard at this position, our flanks dropped back with the result that we were nearly surrounded. At this time we were beyond Bullecourt, but had to retire back to the 2nd Hindenberg Line on account of our almost isolated position. I had to run the gauntlet in open ground against machine gun fire, with messages as I was a signaller, and of course our phone was not in use. Several of our machine gunners were lying out in shell -holes wounded, and two other men and myself went out with white bands on our arms to carry them in. The Germans observed our white armbands and we managed to get the men into comparative safety except one who was shot in the back which proved fatal. Later on, about midday, I was sent back to Brigade Headquarters
with a message on foot, and after having lots of lucky escapes I arrived there safely. I gave General Gellibrand the message and he also asked me what I observed personally when up in the advanced position. I told him where we reached and to where we retired to a settled line, by the aid of maps.
He told me not to go back to the post I came from as he wanted me to be a runner for him as his staff of runners was evidently lost early in the "stunt". I had not been in the job long when I was required to go up to the front trench again and find an officer to whom I had to deliver a message, and when I had searched for him for another hour in vain, I learnt that he was wounded and stranded in a shell-hole in no-man’s land. When he was out of action a Sergeant Major advised me to take the message to another officer, and when I had done this I hurried back as quickly as possible as the place was by no means safe.
In the vicinity of Headquarters where I was stationed, we were shelled very heavily by the Germans and the sights that were to be seen on wounded and killed men, were something awful, sometimes men were killed outright, sometimes buried under the heaved up earth, and sometimes they were wounded so badly that one was afraid to touch them in case one would aggravate their pain.
From the commanding position we were in we could see some terrible hand to hand encounters between the New South Wales brigade and the Germans, and these encounters were kept up continuously for hours, reinforcements coming to the assistance and replacing the dead and wounded on both sides. After having so many hairbreadth escapes and being so close to bursting shells, my nerves were at a fairly high pitch and when a shell came into the trench in which 7 of us were sitting and lifted us bodily into the air, I came out of it with badly shaken nerves.
The most of the party was killed as far as I could learn later, so therefore I was fortunate in getting off so lightly.
I felt that I could manage to stay on in the trenches, and I lay down in a dug out for a few hours and then came out into the trench again to go on duty. After I had been on my post about 10 minutes a big shell got 2 lieutenants and left them in a pulp on the ground. It was only a matter of a few yards from me and I would have been killed too, but for the fact that I
was behind a wall of sandbags of which the Lieutenants were just too late in reaching and getting to safety.
We shifted back from this trench to a reserve trench where we had a little less shelling, but it was bad enough to be uncomfortable, even after coming out of a veritable "Hell on earth". We stayed in this trench a few days until the remnants of our battalion drifted back to us, as they were in all other battalions owing to our disorganisation at the beginning of the battle.
While we were in reserves the Scotch came up and made a charge at Bullecourt and we were in readiness in case we were wanted to back them up. Looking through the darkness from our position in reserves, we saw great gun flashes and heard the noise of the bombardment increasing, then wild yelling and machine gun fire, and we knew the Scotties were going "over the top".
They made a success of the business which the Tommies failed to do when working in co-operation with us (Australians). When daybreak came dozens of wounded Scotties passed through our reserve trench which was really a road to the dressing station, and it was grand to see the "Aussies" giving the Scotties the only water they had from their (The Australians) water bottles. Some of the Scotties fainted with exhaustion and our battalion doctor worked hard in attending to them.
After Bullecourt was secure in our side’s hands, we moved back through Norieul, then through Vaulx on to Bapaume, then on to Le Sars which was a distance in all from Bullecourt of 15 miles.
Next morning we went on another long march which brought us, via Albert, to Mametz Wood Camp where we stayed a few days and went onto Mellincourt. While at Mellincourt I visited Amiens again and had a very enjoyable time. I also visited Henencourt and several other neighbouring villages which were very interesting.
During this time since the Battle of Bullecourt, I felt very nervy, but the relief of being away from the sound of guns kept me going until I was stricken with Trench Fever, when the shell-shock overtook my nerves. I retired to my bunk feeling as though I had influenza, and next morning I could not rise from my bed, and consequently the doctor examined me and had me sent off in an ambulance to C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station). I was at C.C.S.
for three days when I was marked by the Doctor to go on to Rouen. The C.C.S. was a siding to the railway line and we were carried by stretcher bearers to the hospital train which took a day and a half to get to Rouen where we were then conveyed to the Hospital by motor ambulances.
I was in the No.11 Hospital at Rouen for 3 weeks, and during that time, while lying in my bed in a tent I happened to be able to see out to the main road that led to the railway station. It made me wonder when I saw, day after day, thousands of troops going to the railway station on their way to the front line, and they were all singing as though they were going for a holiday trip.
At this time Rouen was the depot for all troops that came from England.
One morning a draft of us were shifted on stretchers to a convey of ambulances, and conveyed to the Hospital Ship "St. George" which was berthed in the Seine River. The boat left at 11 am and steamed 80 miles down the River to Le Havre where we stayed till dark and an escort came to take us across the Channel to Southampton. We arrived at Southampton the following morning where trains and motor ambulances were in waiting to take the patients to the different hospitals they were destined for.
I did not have to go very far, as I was taken to a hospital in the same town in an ambulance. The hospital I was taken to was the University war Hospital and it was a fine building, having been taken over by the Government for a Hospital instead of being used as a University as it was intended at first when it was finished being built.
After I had been in bed 4 weeks I felt much better and began to walk about the Hospital grounds and sit in the sun, for it was grand weather at the time, being Summer. The remaining few weeks I was here I had a real good time, as I used to go our every afternoon either to Southampton pier or to one of the suburbs of the City. There were some very pretty tram rides that one could take around the City, and there were also some very nice parks that were worth visiting.
Our next move was to Dartford, a place about 16 miles out of London. At Dartford, I was able to get about a good deal,
and at the same time get leave passes very easily, as the Hospital was really a concentration depot where Australians were sent after they had been treated in British and other Hospitals in England. The Hospital was of a very extensive character with rows upon rows of wards each holding 50 or 60 beds. At night time we were often wakened by the air-raid alarm in the Hospital, and we would always hear a buzzing noise of engines to follow, as the planes in the aerodrome which was adjacent to the Hospital, were leaving the ground to go in search into the skies for the enemy.
The Anti air-craft guns would sometimes get busy, and when that happened, every man would sit up in bed with a feeling of anxiety, thinking that at any moment a bomb may be dropped on the Hospital. These occurrences would always have a bad effect on some of the nervous cases in the wards. Dartford itself was a fairly large city with a service of electric trams running out to its suburbs, and it had a fair population, in proof of which, there were numerous factories employing thousands of hands in each. Chemicals and munitions were the principal things manufactured there, but munitions were manufactured on the larger scale.
On the three Sunday mornings we happened to be in Dartford, we went for some lovely walks along the Thames River bank, and along the bank we saw many docks with ships in them to be repaired - the result of navigating in the Thames without lights when the air raids were about. Another interesting event at the time I was staying there was a fair which was held annually in the open ground which were adjacent to the City Park.
The Fair lasted a week and was attended largely in the evenings by crowds of young people who worked in the Factories and the amusement it provided were numerous, such as side shows, ocean-waves, merry-go-round, and other incidental affairs that are generally in vogue on such an occasion.
On the last evening of the fair there was a confetti battle which was earnestly indulged in, particularly by the soldiers that were present from the neighbouring hospitals.
My next move was to Weymouth Camp where I was examined by a medical Board and classified "C.I." that is, not fit for further active service, consequently I was among a draft to await my turn to sail back to Australia, and during my stay I had a very enjoyable time
I happened to acquire a position in the orderly-room, which afforded me ample leave from the camp, which was run on very strict lines in reference to allowing much leave.
As it was July and the holiday season at Weymouth which was a favourite seaside resort, there were always crowds of people about, and nearly all from other parts of the British Isles. There was a good promenade on the beach front and entertainments, mainly picture theatres and vaudeville shows. The places of interest were, the ruined castle which had a prominent position near the cliffs away at the end of the promenade, and the White Horse on a hill a few miles from the other end of the Promenade and right on the beach. I went with a party for a picnic to the ruined castle and while we were there we had a very interesting cruise around it, for it still revealed signs of how strongly it was built in order to repel any foe that might have attacked it in olden times.
We did not visit the White Horse, but could see it plainly from the Promenade as it was in the form of white chalk bed on a green grassy hill sloping up from the sea.
We were at Weymouth when our turn came to leave for Plymouth, the port from which, we were to sail to Australia. The night before, we were warned to be ready to move off, and in the morning we marched to the station where we embarked on the train to Plymouth, which place, we arrived at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
We detrained and were organised into special groups and then filed up the gangway on to boat which was called the "Pakeha". Not long after we were on board we were issued with our hammocks and eating utensils and allotted to our respective mess tables and sleeping places. The M.O. of the ship sought volunteers for the Hospital staff, and as a result I got an easy task to last me the whole of the voyage.
In doing this work such as this one gets lots of privileges such as better food and sleeping accommodation than the ordinary soldier gets.
After lying in the stream for two days we steamed out to the ocean on our long journey home, and for the first 2 weeks we wore our lifebelts continuously owing to the presence of submarines
near England and down towards Africa. After 10 days pleasant weather and smooth sea, we arrived at Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. We had a stay of two days at this place and took on coal, but did not get off the vessel to see the town as it was stricken with fever at the time.
While out in the harbour our boat was surrounded by black’s canoes, and the blacks did a very good trade in selling tropical fruit, curios, and postcards of views around the town. The natives at Cape Verde Islands, which we called at when going to war, had small boats made in up to date fashion, but the natives at Sierra Leone had crafts of a more primitive fashion that were made of one long solid piece of bark procured from a tree, and the paddles which they used were very well shaped and cut out of a solid piece of wood.
Although there was a very strong current running in the harbour the natives kept their craft always near our ship’s side by the skilful manipulation of their paddles in the water, and if there was any money thrown overboard they would not miss it as they were adept to diving.
Up to the time we came to Sierra Leone, we were in a convey of 9 vessels, with an auxiliary cruiser and 2 small gunboats which traversed to and fro across our track and in front of us the whole time.
When we left Sierra Leone the convey broke up, as we were comparatively safe from the submarines then, and each vessel went on its own course.
We duly arrived at Capetown, and after we had been there a couple of hours we learnt that the boat would be staying for 4 days in order to get a good supply of coal in the bunkers, as there was no likelihood of our getting coal in future when we got to Australia owing to the great industrial strike.
The idea of a 4 day stay at port was met with great approval by the boys, but the idea of going ashore without a pay day met with disapproval, so the military commander of the ship made provision for the men to be paid enough to afford them an opportunity to see a fair deal of Capetown.
As I had been in Capetown before, I did not ramble about idly wondering where I should go, but made up my mind to go and see the parents of a boy, who was with me in France and was killed at my side..
The way in which I met the boy’s mother in Capetown was a strange coincidence, for when I was walking along one of the busy streets a lady stared very hard at me; then she stopped and looked back, I stopped, and suddenly thought that the woman had a likeness to a boy whom I saw killed in France. With this impression in my mind I ventured to call the lady Mrs. Johnston, at which remark she seemed rather surprised, and asked me how I knew her name. I told her then that there was a great likeness in her face to her son’s, and that was how I happened to be correct in calling her by the right name.
The lady invited me out to her residence that evening, and told me to bring a mate which I did. When we got to the place, Mrs. Johnston and her family persuaded us, without much persuasion, to stay until we boarded the boat again.
Mrs. Johnston seemed very much relieved after I had given her an account of her son, and after we had left there, another boy from our battalion came some weeks later and said the same as I had said about her son. When the boy that visited her some weeks after I had, came home, he told me Mrs. Johnston was more pleased when he verified my story about her son. While we were staying at Johnston’s place we visited the Campe Bay and went on several enjoyable tram tours around the neighbouring hills. We also attended two theatres in the evenings and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
When our leave had expired we made our way back to the boat, and although a little late there was no heed taken by the guard on the gangway. When all were on board with the exception of a few men who became intoxicated and could not find their way back, we sailed for Australia.
After being out to sea again a few days, we were issued with plentiful supply of tobacco which was placed on board by the Cape Town Red Cross Sey. and we appreciated it very much indeed. At the end of three weeks we sighted Australia, and the troops never looked more pleased in their lives. Some even climbed the rigging to enable themselves to get a better view of the land.
Fremantle, was the first port in which we called, and while there we discharged troops for the Westralian State. There was
much disappointment among the troops on board as they were not allowed leave to go ashore, but the Red Cross ladies came on board and gave us a treat to fruit, cigarettes, and sweets. The ladies also took letters from the boys, and posted them ashore, so that our relatives would get them before we landed in the Eastern States.
We sailed from here and passed through the Australian Bight uneventfully until we reached Adelaide, where we discharged more troops. After a very brief stay of 2 hours in Adelaide port, we sailed again for Melbourne. On the same evening the weather became very threatening and the sea very rough, and at midnight our ship was battling against a heavy storm. The situation was very dangerous to the ship and all the lives on board at one period and we were wakened by the siren whistle after which we donned our lifebelts and went to the boat stations in readiness in case of emergency. Eventually the storm subsided and we retired to our bunks again, and in the morning were surprised to see the damage that was wrought by the storm. The ship would have been more able to withstand the storm had the strikers in Fremantle allowed the cargo of lead to be put aboard for ballast, as was intended.
At 5 o’clock the following morning we found ourselves waiting outside the Port Phillip Heads, waiting to be piloted up the Bay to Port Melbourne. We were piloted up the bay and drew up alongside the Port Melbourne pier at 10 o’clock. After being issued with furlough passes on board the ship, we passed down the gangway and from there took our seats in waiting motor- cars which conveyed us through the City midst cheering crowds until we reached the Victoria Barracks. I got my kit bags there after some waiting about, and then departed on my 17days leave to the country. When my leave expired I reported back to the Caulfield Military Hospital where I stayed under treatment for 3 months, after which I was discharged on 16th January 1918.
During the two years, I saw the best of life and the worst of life, and after all, when I take the rough with the smooth, I can say I have had as experience which I shall never regret.
5035, Signaller J.P. Irwin,
[Transcribed by Trish Barrett for the State Library of New South Wales]