Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
John McGregor - 'A short history of the 18th Batt. 1st A.I.F. 1914-1919'
This is a short history of the 18th.Batt. 1st A.I.F. written In 1914 by my father who from 1914 till 1919 was No. 612 Sgt. John McGregor of B Coy. 18th Batt. He was 83 years old when he wrote this.It is based on his own memory of events & by referral to all the original letters he wrote from 1915 to 1919 from Egypt, Gallipoli, The Somme and England.These letters are all intact and are mainly written in indelible pencil.They are easily readable and in good condition even though they are over 75 years old.
"To the best of my memory & referring to letters I wrote home between 1915 & 1919 I will attempt to describe some of my experiences serving as an infantryman dating back to the year 1910.
In that particular year all men 16 years of age were called up to serve 5 years (by Law) in the Citizens Military Forces (C.M.F.). This was, of course, part-time Military Service.
When war was declared on 4th August 1914 we were called up and our duties were to protect the fully equipped coastal shore batteries at various points. I was included in a section which did duty behind Casemate Battery which was situated between Georges Heights and Clifton Gardens. Due to the nearby hotel at Clifton Gardens we considered we were conveniently placed as we were able during our hours off duty to enjoy a beer at 4d. a pint.
Together with a number of other lads we decided to transfer from the C.M.F, and go overseas with the A.I.F.
After our training at Liverpool Camp-during which I nearly drowned in a waterhole whilst swimming-we left for Gallipoli.
Apart from rifle practice on the shooting range our training there was of little use.
Our ship, the "Ceramic" took exactly one month from Sydney through the Suez Canal to Alexandria. Thence we went by train from Alexandria to Heliopolis.Here we trained a further fortnight in the desert then returned by train to Alexandria where we Joined the Cunard Liner "Allaunia", transhipped at Lemnos to the HMS "Partridge" which landed us close to shore into barges which were then towed to the beach.
We landed at about midnight and spent the next day , Saturday, sheltered in a gully. At dusk we were ordered to dump all our. surplus gear, packs and all our personal belongings and set off in battle order towards Suvla Bay. Dawn was breaking when we arrived and were ordered to advance towards the enemy. The intended objective, Hill 60 was not only gained but passed against fierce enemy opposition. The Turks counter-attacked almost immediately causing heavy casualties- our attack failed. Five days later we were again prepared to attack which we did at 4pm. In spite of valuable assistance given by the British warships our casualties were terrific.Our total losses for both stunts were 750 killed, missing or wounded. The missing were never accounted for as at that time the Turks did not follow Red Cross principles or the Geneva Convention and consequently made short work of prisoners.
We were temporarily attached to the British 29th Division during the Suvla Bay landing and we were mixed up with New Zealanders, the Lancashire Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Ghurkas and Seiks.
The Connaught Rangers recaptured Hill 60 but were driven back and finished up in the support line we were holding. The landing at Suvla Bay had failed and we returned to our main Australian position at ANZAC.
Our Battalion was stricken with dysentry and with that and casualties within 4 weeks our total strength was reduced to less than 50.
The weather was extremely hot at that time and although we captured a well from the Turks and there was another on the beach with water filtered through from the Agean.Sea. Neither was fit to drink.Our water issue was half a water bottle every 24 hours.
This water was brought by ship from Egypt.
The handful of men left in our battalion were unable to take over any position of the front line. We were used as servants to the rest of the Brigade of 3 Battalions as well as digging and repair of trenches and the digging of mine shafts for the few Engineer Units.During the day we would bring up water from the beach - 2 petrol cans at a time with a strap over the shoulder- and then at night return to the beach. There Indian troops with two mules and a truck would be loaded up with rations for the Brigade. We would guard the truck and contents and guide the driver to Brigade Headquarters. Later we were employed digging secret trenches or working on a mine shaft at Russels Top. This shaft was destroyed by explosives prior to the evacuation in December.
Later 4 lots of reinforcements were sent to Brigade and they were all posted to our Battalion. We were then strong enough to take over the front line at Courtneys Post where the Battalion remained until the evacuation.
Rumours were that we were going to Salonika but we finally finished up In Egypt. I believe It was planned to keep the Aussie boys away from the flesh pots of Cairo. We were sent to Hoascar near the Suez Canal. Later we crossed the Canal on a pontoon bridge and finished up at an outpost in Slnal. Here there were no Turks although we did find some of their equipment left behind following their attack on the Suez Canal many months before.
We left this outpost position In March 1916 and marched for many miles through desert sand to Tel El Keblr which was an old British battle ground of past years. On St. Patricks Day 1916 we boarded a train there which consisted of iron freight trucks and headed for Alexandria. The hot trucks we boarded during the day turned into refrigerators at night.
At Alexandria we boarded the Cunard liner "Ascanius" and sailed through the Mediterranean to Marseilles. Here we were paraded through the city, obviously for propaganda purposes, before boarding a train for a 3 day Journey to Northern France.
The nearest we got to Paris was to be able to see the Eiffel Tower in the far distance. We got off the train at Thlennes and drank champagne at 5 francs a bottle (about 4/8d).
Towards the end of March we relieved the Northumberland Fusiliers at Bois Grenier- from burning sands to a sloppy winter. We occupied the salient there, a swamp, where it was impossible to dig trenches, sandbag barricade being our only protection.I believe we were the first Brigade of Aussles to take over the line. The enemy hung a note on their wire saying " Advance Australia Fair-Advance Australia if you can."
Our Battalion called their bluff and organised a raid which brought back 2 enemy prisoners. We had to leave a big chap of ours behind who Was wounded. He was captured but survived the war. He was given the Job as boss of a farm, women galore, so he was lucky after all, even though he was a P.O.W.
The enemy retaliated a few nights later and belted our sandbag defences to bits and not only captured some men but also valuable war equipment. Luckily our battalion was in the support line at the time and when we arrived it was all over and the enemy had gone. We spent the rest of the night repairing the damage. Some months later we were relieved by a British Battalion and we set off on a 3 day march to the Somme area. We marched 15 to 20 kilometers a day, full pack and blankets 60 odd pounds in weight. We passed Contay, EffIngham (slc), Worloy (sic) & Balvel.
We had a few days rest and then moved towards Albert in battle order. We saw the offensive commence from a place we named Brickfield Hill. We saw the huge mine explosion which started the
offensive. Passing through Albert we saw much damage caused by shell fire, a church steeple was still standing with a statue leaning head down at an angle of 45 deg. The boys soon had a name for it - irreligiously- .Australia had a famous woman swimmer who had won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics called Fanny Durack.
That was the name the statue got and it was continued to be called that for the rest of the war. The statue eventually topple after the war.
We were halted at "Sausage Gully" so called because of the large number of balloons operating there directing our artillery. Our guns were assembled wheel to wheel and we were ordered to relieve the 1st Division unit which made the initial attack. They had cleared the enemy from Pozieres but left no trenches to take over. One of our units looking for some sort of trench stumbled into an enemy filled trench. The terrific shelling eased for a few hours and we were able to dig a line of sheltered trenches.
The enemy shelled intensively before dawn and this continued for many days. During that time we dug and dug to gain more protection. We had a line almost complete but the main road between Albert and Bapaume was wide and cobbled, built by Napoleon.To connect our trenches across this wide road was a problem. Hen worked from both sides removing the blue metal cubes 10 minutes at a time. Each man was often interrupted by enemy machine gun fire spraying the cobbled road. Eventually the connection was made after many casualties. We held the line for 14 days and during that time the enemy shelling hardly ceased.The decision was then made to send the remainder of us who were left over the bags to capture the Windmill trench which was occupied by the enemy.
On 22nd August 1916 we followed our own atlllery’s creeping barrage slowly and gained our objective.
Leaving our trench at 9.00pm - zero hour - we climbed over the top, each man carrying his rifle in one hand and either a spade, a pick or a roll of barbed wire in the other. I had almost reached the enemy trench when I received a wound in the left an above the elbow. Hy left arm became useless. I dropped both my rifle and shovel pulled a Hills bomb from my tunic pocket and reached the trench. Luckily I had no occasion to use the bomb as the artillery had disposed of any opposition from the enemy. Usually, at night, to inform our people that we had gained our objective, a phosphorous bomb was thrown into the air to give off a fiery glare and white smoke. Whoever was responsible to do this on this occasslon allowed the bomb to fall back into the trench. This resulted in the fiery contents of the bomb falling like hall onto our clothing. I had great difficulty, only having the use of one hand, to brush the burning stuff from my clothing to prevent further injury. I was unable to help transfer the sandbag parapet to the other side of the trench. The Platoon officer seeing that I couldn’t help told me to find my way back to the Regimental aid post. It was almost dawn when I reached there due to hostile shelling and was lucky to make it at all. After receiving first aid I was transferred to a four wheel springless wagon which took myself and others to the Becordel Chateau Divisional clearing station. Here I was given an anti tetanus injection. This treatment was not available on Gallipoli and many wounded soldiers lives would have been saved . Wounds there turned septic and gangrene set In. I believe that the volcanic nature of the soil caused this as the slightest scratch would turn septic in 12 hours or so.
I was taken to Rouen by Ford ambulance(the hood of the engine was about the size of a keroslne tin) driven by a lady driver.I was operated on the next morning at the Rouen Field Hospital. This field hospital consisted of two marquees in the field, one an operating theatre, the other a waiting room for patients waiting
to be called by a "whose next?". 1 waited until 3 were finished and decided to go and be fixed up.. I had no Xray and felt the knife penetrate my arm before I was properly off. Metal fragments had taken part of my tunic flannel into my arm and these were left behind during the operation. They eventually festered after a couple of months causing a funny bone sort of pain.
From Rouen I went to Barracks Hospital Aldershot in England and then to a convalescent hospital at Farnham, Surrey.
I rejoined the Battalion after the enemy had mined and left tine town of Bepaume. One of my first jobs was to try to rescue men who had been trapped in a deep enemy dugout beneath the Town hall. The rescue attempt was hopeless.We found out later that these men were members of the French Government.
The Battalion moved on to Lagnicourt in preparation to attack, at night. We moved up in battle order and halted in a sunken road.
On our way up we noticed two of our tanks; our first experience of tanks to aid our attack. From 9pm we waited for advice to advance in extended order. 10pm came and no move. By 11pm troops had taken off equipment and boots and went to sleep in holes dug in the side of the road. It was almost dawn when the alarm was given. The enemy had attacked. They had been brought forward in lorries from miles back. All clean shaven, also clean boots and uniforms. Lucky for us we were on a hill and they swarmed along a valley on our right. They had travelled some considerable distance when one of our battalions In reservevwho had been alerted, together with artillery stopped their advance causing heavy losses amongst the enemy. Our casualties were not heavy but we spent most of the day using prisoners who were captured to carry stretchers bringing in their own wounded men to the aid post.
Our next move was towards Bullecourt and the Hindenburg Line. Plans were made for the attack, we were to make to be rehearsed on similar type of country, following air observation by our planes and aerial photographs. Imaginary pill boxes, Machine gun placements and gun positions were placed in the area where we were to hold our experimental attack.I remember in moving to this area we crossed a field of green peas. We treated ourselves to them. The crop was ruined and as usual the farmer would be well compensated. They were even paid to allow us to sleep In the barns and stables. They were a hungry mob. We paid both in cash and blood. However the whole affair was a foolish mistake as we found out later that spies must have watched our rehearsal
Soon after came the attack at Bullecourt. Zero hour was 11pm.
We advanced in extended order at 9pm and were instructed to go forward until we reached a white tape, lie down and keep silent until zero hour. The result was there were many long waves ot men lying behind white tapes facing the Hindenburg Line waiting for zero hour in warm weather. Five minutes before 11pm the enemy artillery opened up on the waves of men awaiting to attack. Our own artillery then attempted to shell the enemy. However due to the poor condition of overused guns many of the shells fell short on the waves of the waiting men.The result was that when zero hour arrived very few were able to make the attack. Survivors made their way back to the shelter of the sunken road. kt 9am a further attack was made and a portion of the Hindenburg Line was occupied. This resulted in only sandbag barriers between us and the enemy as we made attempts to bomb our way along the trench. We spent 3 days m Bullecourt. Our casualties were terrific. After 14 days in Pozieres and 3 days In Bullecourt only 12 of the Company to which I belonged came out.
Moving on from Bullecourt, after receiving reinforcements from Australia, we occupied the line at Ploegstraat for a couple of months.No attacks were made. It was 14 days in the front line and
then 14 days In the support line mainly doing repair work to trenches and fatigue work. Later we moved to Ypres, Winter was on the way, "Whites Reserve", and we held the line there for some weeks.
What a pleasant shock we received when we were told that we were to be taken away from shell fire to St. Omer for 2 or 3 weeks.I believe It was the longest spell away from it all since we arrived in France in March 1916.
After our spell and with fresh reinforcements we moved to Poperinge ( Belgium) and the Ypres sector, Zomnebeke and Zillebeck Lakes.Plans were made for the Battalion to attack and take Westhoeck Ridge. The attack succeeded but as usual suffered heavy losses. The whole area, especially around the lakes, was a sea of waist high mud. After a short spell we were sent in to attack and advance as far as Broodslnde Ridge. The enemy seemed to have the wind up as they were sending up S.O.S. flares indicating that they were being attacked and that they needed artillery support. Similar flares were sent up all along their line.We gained our objective with slight losses. The vast sea of mud proved a greater obstacle than the enemy. To allow artillery and supplies to reach the forward area a road of fallen trees was laid from Hellflre Corner and was know as the Corduroy Road.
This road was continuously shelled by enemy artillery and casualties were frequent. The road had to be cleared. This resulted in each side of the road being banked with dead horses, mules and wagons, together with human bodies. As well some men with pack mules carrying artillery shells tried to make It through the mud away from the road but many got firmly stuck and finally drowned in the mud. Troops moving into the forward area followed single file along miles of duck boards. From experience we learned to make a good judgement where the enemy shells were likely to land and we would often throw ourselves off the boards into the mud. The exploding shells would send down a shower of mud all over us. Due to the depth of the mud many shells failed to explode (duds).
The next Battalion move was to Pleogstraat early In 1918 where we spent quite a few Months, This was the part of the front where the enemy was predicted to make its. 1918 offensive. Gradually the back area became crammed with camouflaged artillery. Our front line consisted of a separated outpost. We were some distance from the enemy and the no-mans-land was patrolled each night. The enemy also had patrols out;very often there were clashes. There were two other outposts out in front. One was called Katherine Post but I can’t remember the name of the other one. The road to Lille was nearby and also a bridge across the river which had collapsed due to artillery fire. The enemy patrol used it to cross. Each night wiring parties would erect barbed wire in front of our line of posts. Many tons of wire was put out..
It was winter with a vengeance, snow and black frosts. Our food and supplies could not be brought up to us during daylight. The parties detailed to go on outpost would be saddled up waiting for their meal to arrive at 5pm. Then the officer In charge would be shouting "hurry up and get the tucker into your guts otherwise we will find the enemy occupying the outposts before we get there". Hen would duck into nearby dugouts and have their last smoke-the last they would have until they returned before dawn next morning. Then 6.30am "stand to " for an hour waiting for the enemy to attack. 14 days front line, then relieved and 14 days a short distance to the rear in the support line.
If a full force attack had been made, all we could have done was to kick up a.big noise and hold on as long as we could to allow the huge number of troops in reserve to move forward into prepared positions and attempt to stop the enemy advance.Our chances of survival were NIL.
The cold was so intense we were given sheepskin vests complete with straps and buckles. I think they came straight from the
sheep’s back, dried quickly In the sun and onto our backs. They still had the strong smell of the animal on them.
I had been with the Battalion after I rejoined it in 1916 after hospital due to a "Blighty" I got at Pozieres until April 1918 without leave. I made an application and was sent to the 5th Training Battalion, Fovant, England for a rest.
There were 12 N.C.O.s along with me crossing the Channel. We got news that the enemy attack had not been where we expected It but the area where we were in the Somme. The place we had been in 1916!!
On arrival at Fovant, 8 of the N.C.O.s who came over with me were sent straight back to their Battllons. 3 others and myself were kept at the camp. By remaining there I missed the Villes-Bretonneux stunt. This was the only big attack in which the Battalion was involved that I missed from beginning to end.
I rejoined my Unit at Guise after about 4 months in England. I cannot personally describe the Battalions operations at Mont St. Quentin and Villes-Brettonaux.
The enemy was continuing to fall back on prepared positions.
There were shallow trenches, machine gun emplacements and very wide, waist high barbed wire entanglements. They were very well constructed, very wide and as indicated by the rusty wire had been placed there years before. These obstacles caused our attacking troops many casualties as they were constantly under fire from machine guns spraying the entanglements. At each of their prepared fall back positions the enemy had dumps of mustard gas shells with which they pelted us for the last 3 months of the war quite indiscriminately.
Knowing they would not be holding any of the positions for very long It was risky for them to take the gas shells along with them. To prevent us from using them the contents of the shells would be spread over the ground like treacle. During winter and dull, cloudy weather with light rain the contents would lie dormant until a person sat or lay on them.Body heat would make the stuff active resulting in nasty sores, and temporary blindness.
The heat of the sun would cause fumes to be very active with the result that we could often smell them and should the concentration be dense we would use our gas mask.
On the retreat, the enemy were falling back on the Hindenburg Line at Bellecourt, Montbrehaln and Beauvoir, where they were prepared to make a stand and bring our advance to a halt. However a huge American force had been in France for many months training to challenge and overun the entrenched position. The attack was to take place in October and when the attack took place we were in a position well back in reserve and were told would probably would not be needed. However it did not turn out that way. The Americans, full of fight and rearing to go overran the Hindenburg Line by sheer mass of men but advanced too quickly passing over and leaving many enemy behind hiding underground in deep dugouts. The result was they had a fighting enemy behind as well as in front. One night at 9pm we were given orders to fall into battle order to go to their assistance. We did not reach their position until dawn. We had the job of mopping up which the Yanks had failed to do due to their inexperience. They suffered enormous casualties and we noticed much disorganisation amongst their ranks when we arrived.
After some days of making the area free of the enemy and cutting wires suspect of leading to hidden mines which they had left behind. We found that the dugouts were very deep.
We prepared to advance and capture the village of Jeancourt which the Yanks had failed to do.. Due to the very wide belt of wire entanglements our losses were very heavy. A couple who served with me on Gallipoli were killed. I remember the case of a
sergeant who was going on 14 days leave to England the following day. After we moved forward from reserve his leave was temporarily cancelled. He went forward with the Battalion and paid the supreme sacrifice.
After being relieved we went behind the line to a village called Vignacourt for a spell for a couple of weeks.
On November 10th 1918 routine orders were posted at night at HQ that we were to move back into the line in battle order the following night. However next morning we were instructed to fall In at the village square at 10am in fatigue dress. The colonel arrived at 11am to lnformn us that our troubles were over and that the war had finished.
At Vlgnacourt there had been a field hospital and a huge cemetry of war dead was there. After lunch we had a memorial service there accompanied by civilians for miles around. Following that we went looking for grog and unfortunately a few got drunk.
Vin Blanc was about all we could get and not much of It. We left Vignacourt and set off on a march to become the army of occupation in Germany. I remember on the way our Colonel halted the Battalion and pointed out where the Battle of Waterloo was fought.
We had almost reached Bonn in Germany When we were ordered to go back. It was said that the Prime Minister of Australia would not allow Australian troops into Germany. He wanted them all back home as soon as possible. Months ran into years before he got his wish. Not enough ships could be procured to allow that to happen. We marched back until we reached the town of Walcourt not far from Charleroi, Belgium. There we stayed until the numbers were gradually reduced as troops were sent to England and home.It was April 1919 before I left for England where they found I was medically unfit for service, "not due to misconduct" and sent me home on a hospital ship.
During our stay at Walcourt we had to march many- miles to be reviewed by King George V and also the Prince Edward of Wales. It was the first long march we had had wearing only a belt and not the usual 60 pounds of weight.
I arrived home about the middle of 1919 and was an outpatient at Randwick before discharge
Conditions at Gallipoli were appalling. The only food was tin- beef and hard biscuits. Our only pleasure was a dip in the Agean Sea. We were that homesick we marked the town, city or suburb we were from in indelible pencil on our hat bands in the hope to meet men from other units who lived near our home in Aussie.
In France when relieved from front line duty we met civilisation even though we could not speak the language. Our own food was much better than theirs but we were overrun with vermin. During the whole time we would have a bath about once every 3 or 4 months, given a change of underclothing and then back to sleep in lousy blankets In lousy barns and billets. We lived in our uniforms day and night, especially in winter for months on end.
On arrival in France in 1916 each Company had its own cooker drawn by two horses. When horses got scarce two mules were given the Job. Our Company cook named Mick was a real hard case. He drove a horse cab at Manly prior to enlistment. He would often say, "wish I was down at the village pub (Ivanhoe) on the Corso blowing froth off a pint." He was a great scout. He went out of line to the back areas to bribe the farmers family with chocolate and cigarettes for potatoes and other vegetables to add to our food supply. It all had to be done on the sly as it was a serious offence for farm products to go anywhere except to French Army authorities. He also had a way of buying whisky from
Expeditionary Force Canteens with forged chits which were only available to officers. He also had a way of making puddings out of our army biscuits. He would soak them overnight mix In some dried fruit which he managed to buy from some shops. He would use a new hesslan sandbag as a pudding cloth and even though pieces of hesslan were stuck to the pudding when he served it we considered it quite a treat.
Mick survived the war and returned to Manly and worked in the building trade. He had his wish and had many years visiting his favourite pub He passed away a few years ago.
The Battalion during its service abroad had 33 lots of reinforcements. The Brigade had 4 lots of reinforcements on Gallipoli in October 1915. Our Battalion got them all which enabled us to take over the front line at Courtney’s Post which we held till the evacuation.
612 Sgt. John McGregor B Coy. 18th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-1919
Written 18th September 1978. Compiled by J.F. McGregor
4b/37 Reynolds St. CREMORNE 2090
Tel. 908 1787.
[Document has been transcribed using OCR software and may contain typographical errors]