The 28th Battalion in the Battle of Menin Road – 20 September 1917

After almost four months of constant training the 28th Battalion were finally in action once more in the Battle of Menin Road which started on 20 September 1917. The objective was to take and hold the high ground of the ridge that crossed the Menin Road to the south east of Ypres. The Australian 1st and 2nd Divisions would attack side by side from Westhoek Ridge towards Polygon Wood – see below map (click to enlarge). But due to the bombardments in preparation for the attack, very little if anything remained of the original woods. “Westhoek, on the second spur, was marked only by the line of pillboxes which the Germans had built in its ruins. On the main ridge the woods had been shredded to stubble, and the slight depressions of the Polygon Wood plateau on the crest, as well as the hollows on either side, had been turned into bog.” (Official History, p 739)

A desolate scene on Westhoek Ridge, in the Ypres sector, looking towards Glencorse Wood and Nonne Bosschen. The view includes Polygon Wood on the extreme left and Clapham Junction on the extreme right and shows the state of the area which the 1st Division attacked over on 20 September 1917, twenty four hours prior to the taking of the photograph.

Map showing the objectives for the three waves of attack for the Australian Divisions – the red line was the objective for the first wave, the blue line for the second wave, and the green line the final objective for the third wave. The pill-boxes known as Anzac, Iron Cross Redoubt and Albert Redoubt are highlighted.

The tactics were different from before with three waves of successive attacks deploying the new ‘bite and hold’ tactics – the first battalion in the first wave to take their objective and hold it, whilst the second battalion who had been lying in wait behind them leapfrogged their position, took their objective and held it, whilst a third battalion leapfrogged the second position on their way to take the third and final objective. The battalions being leapfrogged would then act as reserves for the next battalion. The artillery would provide a creeping barrage but the difference being that the barrage would be much deeper than before, move on and then come back, for each successive wave of the attack, and then continue as a standing barrage just in front of the final objective for several hours to deal with the expected counter attacks from the enemy. The 28th Battalion would form the third and last wave of the attack in their allocated sector. The force in the earlier waves might be lighter, and the advance there deeper and quicker, than in the later stages. The last stage must be the shortest and slowest, and carried out by the strongest force, which must be prepared to meet immediate counter-attack.

The tactics demanded careful and precise planning. But after months of preparation, with refreshed troops, the attack went according to plan.

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A dump of 18 pounder shell cases at Birr Cross Roads, in the Ypres Sector, where positions were occupied by the 2nd Divisional Artillery, 20 September 1917

It helped that the successive objectives were each relatively modest distances – This was another ‘new’ tactic to “preserve physical freshness and good organisation”. And the weather was favourable – the threatened rain, which could have seen a recurrence of the hellish mud at Gueudecourt, held off. Drier weather made it much easier for the attackers to move vast amounts of supplies forward and for the infantry to move quickly to the next objective. There was a ground fog around dawn, which helped conceal the Australian infantry during the attack, before clearing up later in the morning to expose German troop movements to observation and attack.

Another difference to previous battles was that the Germans held no definite, readily distinguishable trench lines. Instead the front line consisted of scattered reinforced posts (‘pill-boxes’), with machine-guns distributed chequer-wise over a wide area behind it.  The pill-boxes gave excellent protection to the machine gunners inside who could shelter from the shell fire and, as the barrage eased, quickly emerge to mount the machine guns against the attacking infantry. The real line of resistance lay in rear of all this, with supports, reserves, and more machine-guns distributed in great depth.

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A pillbox known as Anzac, captured by the 2nd Australian Division, on 20 September 1917, and on which they hoisted an Australian flag

The tactics to overcome the pill-boxes had been practiced by the Australians. While a section fired at the loopholes to deny observation to the occupiers, another section would creep around the flanks to fling bombs (grenades) through the apertures and entrance door at the rear. It was also crucial for the attacking troops to closely follow the creeping barrage and not to allow the German machine gunners time to emerge from the pill-boxes to set up the machine guns.

Unidentified soldiers with a British male Mark IV tank, temporarily out of action, near Westhoek Ridge in September 1917. (From the collection of 704 Driver Ernest Charles Barnes who served with the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, 21st Howitzer Brigade and 2nd Field Artillery Brigade.)

Scattered in the zone of attack were the remains of a number of tanks which had been wrecked in earlier actions. Though the Australians had decided to attack without tank support, two tanks were fitted out as wireless stations to be placed in Glencourse Wood.

 

 

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Detailed map showing the zone of attach of the Australian Divisions – the 28th Bn are to the right hand side of the 2nd Division’s zone – shown in green starting at the rear (far left), and ending at the final objective, the green line (far right)

The attack was a great success along its entire front. Zero hour for the attack was 5.40am when the heavy barrage opened. By 6.30am the 25th Battalion had taken its objective of the Red Line, running along a sunken road with its northern edge at Glencourse Wood and its southern edge at Hannebeke Swamp in None Bosschen. Small pockets of resistance were encountered, particularly from the zealous German machine gunners, who almost inevitably fought to the death, although most of the dazed enemy garrison surrendered. At 7am the 27th Battalion leap-frogged the 25th and by 7.30am had taken their objective of the Blue Line, extending from Iron Cross Redoubt to Polygon Wood. The majority of the enemy surrendered with token resistance. At 8.10am the 28th moved forward from its position at Westhoek Ridge to take up its place just behind the artillery barrage in front of the Blue Line (see map above).

The 28th Battalion’s attack commenced with the re-opening of the barrage at 9.53am, and then the four companies A, B, C and D spread out in order from left to right, each composed of four waves moving steadily forward behind the creeping barrage in good order. German artillery and machine gun fire caused many casualties. When all the officers of D Company became casualties, Sergeant Albert.W. Clark took command of the Company and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This N.C.O. led his platoon with great dash, and set a splendid example to all. When all his company officers had become casualties, he took command of his company, and handled his men in grand style under very trying circumstances. His conduct was most gallant and inspiring.

A platoon from A company moved too far to the left during the advance and was corrected by Corporal Reuben Arnold, who was awarded the Military Medal, Arnold, a farm hand from Perth, WA was killed barely a month later, of gas poisioning in the Battle of Passchendaele .

The Green Line objective was quickly reached in just a few minutes. The enemy troops offered token resistance and their positions were quickly cleared, with prisoners escorted back to the support lines. The success signal of two green Very lights (flares) fired in quick succession, was made at 10am. “The battle of September 20th (Menin Road), like those that succeeded it, is easily described in as much as it went almost precisely in accordance with plan.” (Official History, p. 761)

The 28th then took immediate action to consolidate the position by furiously digging a trench line under constant enemy shell fire and attack from enemy airplanes. The 28th moved the line forward in places, beyond the Green Line, a few yards down the slope of the ridge out of the line of the enemy barrage and commenced consolidation. Lance Corporal Ernest Jack Johnson, formerly a clerk from East Perth, WA, led his men forward and selected posts for a motley collection of 17th and 28th Battalion men. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel, but refused to be evacuated until his men were deployed. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct MedalFor conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When his officers had become casualties, he took charge of two platoons of his battalion and a number of men of another battalion, showing excellent judgment in selecting positions and consolidating. The position was rendered safe by the good dispositions which he made for its defence and by his personal example and leadership. Though wounded, he carried on until the battalion was relieved, displaying an utter disregard for personal safety.’.

studio portrait of George Meysey Hammond taken before his departure for Egypt, inscribed “Australia will be there”

At 1.48, as no counter-attack appeared to be imminent anywhere, the barrage came to an end on the Anzac front after having run its course for eight hours and eight minutes. Carrying parties from the 26th battalion in support brought up coils of barbed wire which was strung out in front of the new front line. The 28th Battalion Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant George Meysey Hammond (see previous post on the Battle of Guedecourt), patrolled Polygon Wood with a revolver clutched in his one good hand and his pockets stuffed with Mills bombs (grenades). Hammond attacked an enemy party and returned with twenty German prisoners, for which he was awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on 20/9/17 at Westhoek. Lieut. Hammond went forward with the Advanced Brigade party as Intelligence Officer. he secured much valuable matter. Although only have the use of one arm, he captured 20 prisoners by himself. His example to the men was wonderful. He was fearless in the extreme, and cheered everyone on.  He volunteered for any dangerous work and made a number of reconnaissance of the front line, securing much valuable information.

By 4pm a continuous trench some 5 to 6 feet deep had been dug, contact had been made with the 17th battalion on their left and the 9th Battalion on their right, weapons had been cleaned and the troops prepared for the inevitable counter attacks. The German artillery and snipers constantly inflicted casualties throughout the day.  Corporal Alfred Frederick Hitchcock crawled out in front of the Battalion’s line and waited until a sniper fired another shot, thus revealing his position. Hitchcock promptly killed the sniper and returned to the trench and was later awarded the Military Medal.

Several times during the afternoon and evening, groups of enemy troops launched repeated desperate counter-attacks but were kept back by the Australian artillery fire. A number of ‘drop-shorts’ by the Australian artillery caused casualties in the battalion’s ranks.  A platoon post under the command of Corporal Ernest Reedy Walsh was attacked by an enemy bombing party, but Walsh dispersed the attack, and was awarded the Military Medal.

Enemy barrages of the front line continued into the night but as the intensity decreased patrols were sent out on both flanks into Polygon Wood and Albania Wood. At dawn (4.30 a.m.) on the 21st a great barrage, machine-gun fire and all, came down again as prearranged, and swept forward for 2,000 yards.  Sporadic shelling, artillery duels and German aircraft continued to harass the Australians throughout the day – with the inevitable continuous casualties. The Battalion was relieved by the 23rd Battalion at around 1am on 22nd September.

On 23rd September the 28th Battalion moved further back to bivouacs near Reninghelst, where they consolidated and hot baths were organised.The Battalion was well satisfied with its success, although the casualties at first count numbered 51 killed and 189 wounded.

So ended, with complete success, the first step in Haig’s trial of true step-by-step tactics. The British Army did this day precisely what it was intended to do, and did it even more cleanly than at Messines.” However “Lord Bertie, British Ambassador in Paris, noted in his diary: “ We have done a good offensive which is much appreciated. But will it lead to anything really important ?” (Official History) 

Sources:
Henry K. Kahan, The 28th Battalion Australian Imperial Force : a record of war service, pp 40-41
Neville Browning, The Blue & White Diamond : the History of the 28th Battalion 1915-1919, pp 226-233
CEW Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917 (11th edition, 1941), Chapter XVIII – Step by Step. (1) The Menin Road, pp 735 – 790

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A scene on the Menin Road near Hooge, looking towards Birr Cross Roads, during the battle on 20 September 1917. The wounded on the stretchers are waiting to be taken to the clearing stations;

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Members of the 24th Battalion resting in a mine crater, just behind Albert Redoubt, during the battle of 20 September 1917

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Captured German trenches strewn with dead after the battle of 20 September 1917.

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A scene at Garter Point. Two unidentified soldiers walk toward a pillbox, captured some days earlier by the Australian 2nd Division. It commanded an excellent view over the surrounding country including Tokio Ridge (mid background, to the right of the tree).

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A copy of a colour printed post card of 1917, titled; “The Battle of Polygon Wood From Original Drawing by A. Pearse, War Artist.” The following description was printed on the reverse of the card; “One of the most inspiring and historic events during the Battle of Polygon Wood (Belgium), was the planting of the Australian Flag on Anzac Redoubt (German Pill-box), at 7.15 a.m., on September 20th, 1917, by Lieutenant A V L Hull, 18th Battalion. He was killed in action three weeks later.” This postcard was produced for sale and all profits were directed to the Australian Comforts Funds.

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RHG’s final letter – 8 September 1917

                                            “C” Coy

September 8th 1917.               28th Btn A.I.F.

 

Dearest Mum & Dad.

                                    I haven’t heard from
you for a little while, the last letter I wrote
you was 9 days ago[1] about the motor cycle I
want to buy, so I might hear any day now
from you. This is the last letter I shall be able
to write you for some days as we are going
into a big stunt in a day or two and I am
leading my Company into it[2]. I pray to God I
shall do well, no one knows what one will do
until it comes to the actual thing, but you may
be sure I shall do my best whatever comes, &
hope to be going strong at the end of it, perhaps
you will be able to guess where it is[3]. I may get
a Blighty wound if I am lucky and then
I shall be able to see you all again. Will
send you a Field Post card as often as possible,
although as I hear there are no trenches left
and they are all living in shell holes it
will upset the postal arrangements somewhat.
Write me as often as you can, I often think
of the dear old home and wish this awful
War was well over so that the world could
live at peace again. From the papers I see
the swine have been having extensive bombing
raids again over England. I can’t think
what the Authorities at home are dreaming
about not to try and cope with them better.
I had a letter from Aunty Maud today
they seem very well & happy & have had
both Theo & Baish stopping with them, they
are very lucky having them at home so often,
Baish can’t have seen very much of the war
I should think[4]. How are you both keeping,
well I hope, as for me, I am “in the pink”,
have never felt better. We had a cinema picture
taken of our battalion to-day, we were specially
picked out from the Division as being the
best battalion, the photographer was Capt Hurley
who was photographer to the Scott & Mawson
Antarctic Expeditions, so is the best of his class[5].
Good bye dears for the present, I may be
seeing you again shortly, Believe me

            Ever your affectionate son.

                                                Reg.

Love to everybody.

(IWM: Documents.14424)

 

[1] See here for Reg’s previous letter. It was only 7 days previously, not 9, which may indicate Reg’s state of mind at the time, anticipating the coming battle.

[2] the 28th were soon to engage in the Battle of Menin Road and had been training hard since June for this, adopting new techniques.

Reg says he will be leading his company. He had only just expressed his disappointment, in his letter a week before to Laura, at being relegated to second in command due to the return to the Battalion of officers more senior to him. I don’t know what occurred in the previous week to lead to this change.

[3] RHG has underlined individual letters in the text to spell the name of the planned offensive – P O L Y G O N  W O O D.

1917.09.08 - RHG letter to Mum & Dad - underlined P and O      1917.09.08 - RHG letter to Mum & Dad - underlined L        1917.09.08 - RHG letter to Mum & Dad - underlined Y         1917.09.08 - RHG letter to Mum & Dad - underlined G, O and N

It seems the 28th Battalion’s zone of attack for the Battle of Menin Road was outside the northern border of Polygon Wood itself.

[4] Aunt Maud was the wife of Reg’s Uncle Cliff, G.C.Bower, Their
two sons Theo and Baish were Capt. Theodore Clifford Bower MC serving in the 2nd Battalion the Honourable Artillery Regiment (2 HAC) and Lieutenant Alfred George Bower with the London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) – see here for the previous post with details of the Bower family.

[2] Captain James Francis (Frank) Hurley, OBE, the official photographer for the AIF Mentions visiting the “28th Brigade” [sic] in his diary:

“8th September – Saturday
All day with the 28th Brigade, 2nd division, near Renescue. Col. Reid gave me every assistance in his power and arranged routine drill for the camera and cine. The men are practically all W. Australians, – their training reflects credit on their commanding officer, – the men are well disciplined, their evolutions resembling a great machine. they performed exercises with the bayonet, Physical drill, Lewis gun exercise and Signal Exercise etc. with a perfectness only attained by continued training and rigid discipline. the men are in fine fettle and will give a good account of themselves in the very near future. Wintry conditions are beginning. The leaves are turning Autumn tints and the atmosphere is assuming typical fogginess of winter. The Hay is being stacked and the ground refilled. The country looks beautiful.”

(source: NLA)

A number of these photos survive and are available online, as well as the cine film.

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See here for the film: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C188273

RHG – Letter to his step-mother, 1 September 1917

 

“C” Coy

                                    28th Battalion

1st September 1917                A.I.F.

 

Dearest Mum

                        Thanks very much indeed
for your letter & the [?] magazine which
I got to-day. I have been up to my eyes in
work lately, we are all tightened & polished
up ready for the fray, but so far we have
had nothing allotted to us, but expect big things
very shortly. There are all sorts of wild
rumours flying about over here, re the termination
etc, but I’m afraid it is too good to be true,
[?] time will tell.[1] Am writing to Theo
very soon, he seems awfully busy one way
& another, but is getting jolly well paid for
it by all accounts. [2] I was awfully pleased to
get all those letters from Laura at last, mails
for the month all at once, she seems O.K. from
her letters, she didn’t know what to make of the
Flying Corps stunt but seems quite worrying
about it, I had told her all about it in my
letters, (so don’t you worry Mum dear) but
evidently at that time she had not my letter
Saying it was all off & that I was back in
France once more.[3]

I have definitely decided to purchase a
James 4 ¼ H.P. motor bike an sell dear old
‘Jane’[4]. I wonder if dad could manage to
arrange the sale for me, I should like if
possible to get £30/./. for her (minus the speedometer)
as I really think she is worth that amount.

I am saving up [?] & already have about
£30/./. in my pay book! Strange to say. If Dad
could manage to get £30/./., & my £30 added
(the bike costs £69/10/.) I should soon be able to
buy one, and he could ride it about for me
until I could get home, they are magnificent
machines. Will you ask him to write me on
the subject. I enclose a letter I received from
the James people. We are all having a tremendous
lot of rain here & I hear they have had
disastrous floods in dear old Blighty, lots
of crops ruined. Will you please enclose a
registered envelope in your next letter & I will
at once post Dad the 100 francs he so kindly
says is remaining to complete the purchase of
‘Jane’ of happy memories. Dearest love to you both
            Ever your affectionate son.

                                                            Reg.

My moustache is again in a flowing condition[5]

IWM: Documents.14424

[1] It was not to be. “The Third Battle of Ypres was the major British offensive in Flanders in 1917. It was planned to break through the strongly fortified and in-depth German defences enclosing the Ypres salient, a protruding bulge in the British front line, with the intention of sweeping through to the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The battle comprised of a series of limited and costly offensives, often undertaken in the most difficult of waterlogged conditions – a consequence of frequent periods of rain and the destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands drainage systems by intense artillery bombardment. As the opportunity for breakthrough receded, Haig still saw virtue in maintaining the offensives, hoping in the process to drain German manpower through attrition.” AWM

[2] Theo, Reg’s brother GT Gill was currently an instructor at the Young Officers’ School at Sabathu in the Simla Hills 

[3] Flying Corps – no other information survives but maybe Reg had applied to join the Australian Flying Corps whilst recovering from his wounds in England earlier in 1917, just as his mate from Perth and former member of the 28th battalion, Maj Roy Philipps, MC & Bar, DFC, had done after recovering from his own wounding at Guedecourt and return to service in March 2017. If so, it seems that Reg’s step-mother may be concerned that she has accidentally revealed this information to Reg’s wife Laura. In any event, it seems that any such application was turned down. The difference with Roy Philipps is that his leg was partially paralysed and he was incapacitated from any further infantry service.

[4] Jane, Reg’s motorcycle.

[5] No photos survive of Reg’s ‘flowing’ moustache!

RHG – review of the 2nd Division by Sir Douglas Haig, 30 Aug 1917

Reg’s next letter home to Laura on 30 August 1917 is the only other surviving letter in Reg’s file at the Australian War Memorial (Ref: 1DRL/0314).

Flanders                         “C” Coy
30.8.17

 

Dearest Kiddie,

As promised I am beginning
another letter to you in answer to some of
the six I received from you in a heap.

We are still in the same old position[1] and have
been here for quite a long time but expect
we shall very shortly be moving forward into
the scrap again. To-day the whole 2nd Division
was reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig and
we marched past him after, the 28th Btn
was especially mentioned & praised & our
Divisional Commander told us that the
28th Btn was by far the best in the Division
for smartness & appearance, which as you
may imagine has really bucked us up,
all our tails are well up in the air now.[2]

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Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief, reviewing the 2nd Australian Division. Field Marshal Haig (left); Major General Neville Maskeline Smyth VC, Commanding the 2nd Australian Division (extreme right). Marching past is the 17th Battalion.

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Campagne, France. The 2nd Australian Division formed up en masse for inspection by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. It was an impressive sight which elicited favourable comments from the Field Marshal.

This is quite nice paper, I got the block
in St. Omer, it is rather large though! My
favourite paper is small! I have the pip
to write properly, am fed up with everything,
sometimes one gets quite despairing of the
War ever ending, things seem so hopeless, I
don’t think it ever will be won by force
of arms, the economical position in Germany
will eventually put an end to it, war is too
mechanical these days, if only they would
stop artillery & gas & burning oil flames etc
and let us finish up in the good old style
with the bayonet, it wouldn’t take long.

I see you contemplate changing round things
in the house[3]. I’m sure whatever you do will
be very nice and should imagine you would be
quite competent to do without any help from
W.J.   Fancy Maggie Young getting married, I
reckon she is pretty lucky, in these hard
times. I am very nearly 35 by now, shall be
in a very few days and am getting as grey
as a badger, I wonder if you will remember
my birthday in your next letter, if you do
I’ll bet you are the only one.[4] The Mater is
very good in writing me every week and
often sends me vegetables from their garden
etc. The garden at Malt House is beautiful
and it is really all their own hard work,
it is quite true, they are both always working
hard at it, my visit came in handy
when I was stopping there! I couldn’t dig
in any case I have had enough digging
in France to last me all my lifetime
though most of that digging has been done
at mighty high pressure[5]. The new bicycle
I’m thinking of getting is a 4 ¼ H.P. model
capable of taking a side car, so I could take
you out. I wonder if you would go with me.[6]
What a damnable shame docking Rs £15/./.
for blankets. I will remember the argument
we had before leaving the ship in Egypt about
the beastly blankets, but I’m absolutely sure
we didn’t use £15/./. worth. I can foresee plenty
of trouble with our deferred pay when we
get back (mine must amount to about £100)
but I’ll fight like a tiger for mine as I consider
every farthing of it has been well earned.

I got two more letters from you forwarded
from Newquay[7] containing enclosures, letters
from one man re pyjamas & Ru’s. What a
clever little beggar he is, it was a beautifully
composed epistle and quite like him, I can
imagine I see him writing it. You will be
more than surprised dear when I tell you
I am second in command of “C” Coy now.
Jack Roydhouse came back and as he
is senior to me of course I had to hand
over to him, the reason of it is this. Montgomery
came back after being away from the
Battalion for 12 months or so & he is the
senior Captain by many months, B Coy Major Brown
has “D” Coy, Capt Glyde has “A” & so of
course Jack had to take “C”. He has had
none or very little experience as a Coy Commdr[8]
while I have had a Coy for over 12 months.
It was a very bitter pill to swallow but I
gulped it down, and as Col Reed[9] says “the
next stunt there will be plenty of vacancies”
so I don’t suppose it will be long before I
get a Coy again. We are having heaps of
rain here & there have been disastrous
floods in England, destroying valuable &
much needed crops. Fate seems against us,
One can’t fight in the awful Flanders mud,
already it is thigh deep, God knows what
the winter will be like, we’ll have to have
land submarines! However, the Germans are
getting hell alright. How are dear Mum & Dad
going now, I do long to see them again, perhaps
I may be back by June next year, anyway
they will send Australians back first on
account of the pay. Give my love to everyone
Ever your loving hubby,   Reg.

I still love plenty you know, in case you forgot.

 

[1] Renescure, behind the lines in France. The 28th Battalion had been there since the end of July.

[2] “Training was carried out in earnest and route marches were conducted in the request downpours, which taxed the morale of the troops. Leave was issued to St Omer, six miles distant and a cinema at the Y.M.C.A hut at Abbaye de Woestine was a welcome distraction. On August 23rd the 2nd Division was reviewed by Lt General Birdwood, on the southwest bank of the Canal de Nerf Fosse, near Campagne. On August 27th the officer commanding the 2nd Division, Major General N.M. Smyth, inspected the 28th Battalion and selected it to represent the 7th Brigade in a march past Sir Douglas Haig, at a review of the 2nd Division held two days later near the Arquesaire road. The Diggers (the term ‘Digger’ came into general use around this time) arched past with fixed bayonets, in slouch hats with heads held high.Browning, p 224

[3] 16 Essex St., Fremantle

[4] Reg’s Birthday was 2 September – the very day that I am typing this post. Reg would certainly have been surprised that his birthday would be remembered 100 years later!

[5] Digging! see 2 above.

[6] Reg’s motorcycle, ‘Jane’.

[7] Newquay was the house of Reg’s Uncle Cliff and family.

[8] Jack Roydhouse had been attached to the hq staff of 6th Brigade during the Battle of Poziers in July?August the previous year. He had returned to the 28th Battalion at the beginning of the year and was a company commander during the battle of Bullecourt where he won the MC, during Reg’s absence recovering from his wounds received at  the battle of Gueudecourt. Jack must have just returned from his own absence, suffering with trench foot (see Reg’s letter of June 1917 here).

[9] Col. Read, Lieutenant Colonel George Arthur Read DSO .

Investiture at Buckingham Palace – November 1916

Reg was still recovering at the 3rd LGH in Wandsworth from his wound at Gueudecourt when attended the investiture at Buckingham Palace on 22th November 1916 to receive his MC from King George V for his action in the Raid at Armentières.

No letters from Reg survive of this occasion. We don’t know how much freedom he was allowed out of hospital, or if he was joined by his father and step-mother or members of the Bower family. But there is an account written by Vera Brittain‘s brother, Edward,  receiving his MC shortly afterwards on 17th December 1916 which gives an interesting insight into the proceedings:

“I came up to town on Tuesday the 16th, went to Buckingham Palace on the 17th at 10.30 am. Mother came with me in the taxi from home and I dropped her just outside the gates and drove in alone; I ascended a wide staircase and deposited my hat and stick in a sort of cloak room, keeping my gloves (your gloves), went up more stairs, was asked by an old boy in a frock coat what I was to receive, was then directed to another old boy who verified my name etc and told me to stand on one side of the room – a large room with portraits of royal personages round the walls. There were 3 C.M.G.’s, about 12 D.S.O.’s and about 30 M.C.’s so it was a fairly small investiture.

“We were instructed what to do by a Colonel who I believe is the King’s special private secretary and then the show started. One by one we walked into an adjoining room about 6 paces – halt – left turn – bow – 2 paces forward – King pins on cross – shake hands – pace back – bow – right turn and slope off by another door. The various acts were not read out, but the Colonel just called out ‘Receive the C.M.G.’ etc. Colonel so-and-so.

“The King spoke to a few of us including me; he said “I hope you have quite recovered from your wound”, to which I replied “Very nearly thank you, Sir”, and then went out with the cross in my pocket in a case. I met Mother just outside and we went off towards Victoria thinking we had quite escaped all the photographers, but unfortunately one beast from the Daily Mirror saw us and took us, but luckily it does not seem to have come out well as it is rather bad form to have your photo in a ½ d rag if avoidable.”

source: Great War London

Although Reg’s casualty form only mentions a GSW (gun shot wound) to his left wrist, he is seen in the photograph walking with a stick. I can only assume the stick is merely part of his uniform or just for fashion, rather than a medical necessity.

Surviving the Battle of Pozières, 29 July – 6 August 1916

After his special leave in England granted for the successful trench raid in Armentieres, Reg returned to the 28th Battalion on 30 June 1916 and was soon to experience the full horrors of the Western Front in the Battle of Poizieres of July/August 1916.

The next of Reg’s letters that remain was written to his brother Theo on 11 September 1916 and recounts his experiences:

1916.09.11 first page

“The Pater doesn’t look a day older and Mum is very well.

            Somewhere in Belgium

                                    11-9-16

Dearest Old Chap

I got your letter which the Pater forwarded on from Lurgashall the other day and was delighted to hear you are getting better from your attack of jaundice and fever. By Jove I would have liked to have been with you up in Darjeeling, do you remember our trip up there, leaving Manjhaul for Begusairas [1]  and the train journey to the station, losing your boy and the heat and then that wonderful trip up the hills in the little railway and how bally cold it was when we got there, 51º if I remember correctly.

If only those days could come once more, life is a very uncertain factor here old man, we have been having some terrific fighting since I last wrote you, on the Somme, the Australians made their name at Poziers which we took, also the Heights of Poziers, where desperate fighting took place, it doesn’t matter much telling you all this now as it is all over & is public property. In one charge (taking the Heights) we lost 19 Officers (14 killed & 5 wounded) and 670 men in about one hour.[2] 

Personally I was knocked down three times by the blast of shells and once buried and yet came out untouched, talk about luck or providence, our battalion came out with 67 rifles only. The trouble is when a position is captured, trying to hold on to it while the work of consolidation. trenches are absolutely obliterated and it is a hard job to find where they have been, one can only tell by a sense of position or direction and the bodies more or less [distutaled?] I pray you may never encounter a modern bombardment, it is simply hell let lose. The sights one sees are too dreadful to talk about, no chance of burial for the dead, they slowly rot on the ground, mangled and remangled by shells and the flies come in swarms, imagine trying to eat food under those conditions, also up to the knees in mud and water for 4 and 5 days at a time, I pray to God it will soon be over & this madness of slaughter come to an end. We have left the South of France now and are resting preparatory to going into the trenches at Ypres, another miserable hole, they are working the Australians for all they are worth just now, we have been fighting constantly since April 5thI don’t know how we are going to stand the winter here as our fellows are not used to the cold. I had hoped they would send us to Mesopotamia for the winter. I am now in charge of “C” Company and have been for more than a month, it is up to them to give me my Captaincy soon, as we are doing Captains work and taking responsibility for Lieutenants pay. It isn’t a  fair deal, but the military don’t care a damn as long as they can get the work done, however I suppose it will come in good time.[3] 

Did Finch take the Bulgy Snoukes up to Darjeeling or was the railway fare for one beastie too much for the pocket? I hear Simon is married! Congratulate him for me. It would be awfully nice for you to have seen all those nice people again, the Macs were awfully nice, and and the Finch tribe.[4] I would love to see them all again, besides I suppose Mac is very cocky these days as by now he ought to be a fairly decent billiard player, although he never will be a good snipe shot, tell him we’ve got good “sniping” over here. I had a splendid time at home.

I hope you don’t have to go back to Mesopotamia again, it seems such a hopeless business,[5] why not go to Australia and join up you would get a commission at
once and be sent to England to train and then we could meet again. Good bye dear old man take care of yourself, I am trying hard to do so.

                   Ever yours.

                                                Reg.”

 

[1] Manjhaul, Bihar Province, India  – where GT Gill (Theo) was working at an indigo factory in 1914. Reggie visited India for six months from 1914 to 1915 and stayed with Theo. Begusarai is nearby to Manjhaul in Bihar Province.

[2] In the first unsuccessful attack on the German trench called OG1 at The Windmill on the night of 28/29th July, the 28th BN were caught on the uncut wire and lost over 470 men. 8 of its officers were killed, including 3 of the 4 company commanders (Maj. Welch, Capt N.F. Macrae and Capt C.T. Gibbins). The fourth company commander (Capt A.S. Isaac) lost an arm and the Battalion commander (Colonel Collett) was also wounded.

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Presumably this is when Reg took over as company commander of C Coy. See the Official History, Vol III, Chap 18 for a detailed account of the action.

The second attack on 4th August was successful in taking the German trenches OG1 and OG2 but the 28th had to hold on in the face of fierce counterattacks for two more days.  This attack may have been successful in capturing its objectives, but the bombardment was so heavy that nothing of the tenches remained and the losses to the 28th Battalion and the rest of 7th Brigade were enormous.

The old ‘O.G. 1’ line [Old German 1 line] at Pozieres, France, looking north towards the Windmill from a point about 200 to 400 yards north of the junction with Pozieres trench. The photograph illustrates how completely the trench was filled up, so that only the muzzles of buried rifles are showing. This section of the trench had evidently been rebuilt at one time, as the sandbags seen in the foreground are on the German side.

The battlefield near Pozieres village, in France, showing how completely the trenches dug by Australians on 23 and 24 July, just south of the Bapaume Road, had been obliterated by shellfire.

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A number of messages written by Reg during the night of 4/5th August in the file of 7th Brigade:

RHG message - 04 08 16 
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[3] Actually, Reg had just been promoted to Lieutenant on 28 August, and in less than a month after writing this letter, to Captain on 1 October 1916.

[4] ‘Finch’? E.J. Finch perhaps?

‘Bulgy Snoukes’ may be a dog or a horse – GTG’s photo album has many photos of named dogs and horses. One dog is ‘Bully also known as Boolgy’

‘The Macs’? perhaps Mr and Mrs E.G. Macpherson

‘The Mauhns’ or Munns – perhaps Ferrers and Margaret Munns?

 

[5] see GTG in Mesopatamia with the 2/6th Gurkha Rifles

Maj Roy Phillipps, MC & Bar, DFC

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Roy Cecil Phillipps was a fellow lieutenant with Reg in the 28th AIF and was also one of the six officers on the Black Anzacs Raid at Armentières on the night of 6 June 1916 – as described in Reg’s letter to his brother.

Roy had also worked as an accountant in Perth before the war and according to the records at the Australian War Memorial, Reg and Roy were mates before the war. Roy had signed up for the AIF in April 1915, a few months before Reg and departed for Egypt aboard HMAT Ascanius on 9 June 1915. Reg enlisted soon after in August 1915 and joined the 28th as they were leaving Egypt for France in February 1916.

According to the account of the raid in the Official History, Roy was in charge of the covering party, who lay outside along the edge of the German wire to provide covering fire for the raiders who went forward into the enemy trench:

“Amid the wild uproar of bursting shells and the crashes of these big bombs, the party in No-Man’s Land at once hurried forwards. Although the bombs (of which twenty-two had been fired) had made a clean sweep of the enemy’s wire, it took some two minutes to reach the parapet. Foss crept up the front slope of the breastwork and lay down upon it, the left and right trench-parties and blocking-parties following him, the men lying down to right or left of the leader as each had done in practice, while the covering party under Lieutenant Phillipps extended itself along the edge of the enemy’s wire. When the assault party was ready, the men, on a signal from their leader, leapt into the trench. As he crossed the parapet, FOSS, looking to the rear of the German lines, which were lit by the shell-flashes as if by a conflagration, saw the barrage bursting on all sides exactly as planned, completely severing the raided area from the rest of the German position.” Official History, Vol III, Chap IX, p 247.

Roy suffered a gun shot wound to the right thigh at the Battle for the Heights of Pozieres on 5 August 1916 and was hospitalised to England. He was promoted Captain and rejoined the 28th AIF in October 1916. But was wounded a second time just a month later in the Guedecourt sector, and was again hospitalised back to England until March 1917. This time his leg was partially paralysed and he was incapacitated from further infantry service.

Normally this would have meant being discharched and returning home to Australia. But instead Roy engineered a transfer to the Australian Flying Corps, apparently falsifying his age to do so. He was awarded the Military Cross in February 1918, whilst flying with 68 Sqn, with the bar added in June 1918 whilst flying for 2 Sqn. He received the latter award from the King at Buckingham Palace on 9 March 1919. In August 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in October 1918 he was promoted to Major and assumed command of 6 Sqn Training AFC at Minchinghampton in England.

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Visit of General Birdwood to 6th Training Sqn at Minchinhampton – Maj R.C.Phillipps behind in the centre.

 

By the end of the First World War, Roy had a tally of 15 confirmed victories over enemy aircraft. More detail on his service in the AFC can be read here and here.

Roy married Ellen ‘Nell’ Hillman Robinson, daughter of Mr R.T Robinson, K.C., Attorney General for Western Australia, on 8 September 1917 at St Mary Abbott’s, Kensington. It was reported at the time that the bridegroom only obtained leave for the wedding the previous day.

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Wedding party of Capt R.C. Phillipps to Miss Ellen Hillman Robinson at St Mary Abbott’s, Kensington – 8 September 1917

An album of photographs survives from this period of the couple’s time in England during Roy’s leaves from duty in France. A number of the photos were taken at the home of Reg’s father and step-mother, The Malt House in Lurgashall, West Sussex.

Roy Philips' album (AWM P08148) 1

Following the war, Roy purchased a grazing farm in NSW which he managed before being recalled to duty on the eve of the Second World War. Roy was killed on 21 May 1941 in an aircraft accident near Archerfield, Queensland, aged 45, survived by his wife, a son and three daughters.