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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Rejoining the 28th Bn, June 1917- Letter home to Laura

Upon arriving back at his battalion at Senlis in France , Reg immediately wrote a letter to his wife Laura in Fremantle, which has survived and is held at the Australian War Memorial (Ref: 1DRL/0314).

extract from letter to Laura 15 June 1917

C Coy                           France
28th Battalion              15.6.17.

Reg rejoined the battalion behind the front line at Senlis in France, during a period of rest, training and sports. He was back as company commander of C Company.

Dearest Kidds,

                        Just received three letters from you, the first for a whole month, I [?] an Australian mail was lost somewhere out at sea with all the mail hence the reason of the long wait. I got my orders for June 1st and on June 2nd at 5p.m. managed to leave Rollestone and get home on dear old ‘Jane’, which I did in 3 ½ hours (70 miles) arriving there just about 8.30 p.m. I left ‘Jane’ with Dad, he will look after her for me and went up to London on Wednesday afternoon by the 4 o’clock train, arriving at Waterloo about 6pm.

I  then booked a bed at the Royal Automobile Club and  then on to Victoria & caught the 8 pm train for Bromley, got to the house about 10 to 9 and had some dinner and then Aunty, Uncle & Daph came to the station to see me off by the 10 o’clock train for town & went to bed & in the morning was up at 5.30 and had a  swim in the swimming baths at the Club and on to Victoria to catch the boat train to Folkestone at 7.50. When we had passed through Shortlands Aunty, Uncle, Daph & the [?] were in the field at the back of their house to wave farewell so I saw them all for the last time. They have been most awfully good to me Kiddie, it has been like a home to me in England and I have always just skipped down whenever the opportunity offered.

Shortlands‘ is an area in Bromley, a suburb of south London, and which is on the route of the train to Folkestone.  “Aunty, Uncle, Daph” are Reg’s Uncle Cliff, George Clifford Bower, his wife and daughter. G.C. Bower lived with his family at a house called ‘Newquay’ on Durham Avenue in the neighbourhood. From a map of 1919, you can see a footpath behind the houses on the north side of Durham Avenue leading through a field to the railway line:

Shortlands, Bromley 1919

It’s clear from Reg’s letters that he had a very warm relationship with the extended Bower family and he was touched by their farewell ritual.

Royal Automobile Club Pall Mall.The Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, and its famous swimming pool, is still going strong. During WW1 honorary membership was offered to convalescent officers.  In 1916 the Club expanded the sleeping accommodation which was available to officers arriving or departing to the Front. And in 1917 the Club agreed to extend membership to the Royal Overseas Officers Club and so provided a base in London for officers of the Imperial forces. The Club was extremely busy. By the end of 1917, 7,000 officers of British units had been registered as Honorary members, and 4,500 officers of Imperial units.

pool-3900-x-1380-4The swimming pool was covered over at some point in 1917 (after Reg’s visit in May) and converted into a dormitory and between 20 and 30 officers resided in the Turkish baths. 800 meals were served at the Club per day. (The RAC – The Pall Mall Clubhouse during the First World War).

The letter continues:

The boat sailed about 3.30 pm and so I landed in stinking old France again about 5.0 pm. My left wrist will be permanently stiff I’m afraid but that doesn’t matter much as long as they leave me my right so I can play tennis or some game or other. I wrote to Mum before I left England, hope she gets my letter. I didn’t cable you when I was leaving because it is no earthly use your worrying about me a month or so before it is necessary, so you will have a month extra peace in fact don’t worry about me at all Kidder darling, I’m perfectly happy & contented here with the old Battalion. I am anxious to do my job & get it finished and then get home to you all and pray God no more partings in this life. I think things will be over a great deal sooner than you anticipate & that next year we will be back in dear old Australia again. What a home coming it will be for us all.

The tone of Reg’s letters has definitely changed since the previous year on his arrival in France and the ‘Black Anzacs’ Raid at Armentieres.

Your three letters were dated to April, 6th & 7th May. I actually joined up the Battalion on Saturday afternoon June 9th and for a royal welcome from those who were left, not too many old faces alas. I was away 7 months almost to the day. Jack Roydhouse has got the MC and is in England with trench foot, it is a rotten thing, a high temperature and aches and pains all over the body, and seems to crop up at any minute, like malaria.

Jack Roydhouse MC, formerly a school master from Subiaco, West Australia. Adjutant 1916-17. A brigade-major 1918-19. Wounded on two occasions. Twice mentioned in Despatches. He arrived at the 28th Battalion in France with Reg as part of the 7th Reinforcements in 1916 and was on the Brigade Staff of the 6th Brigade at Pozieres in July/August 1916.

General Gellibrand (in his hat) and his staff  having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley in the forward area near Pozieres, France. (Jack Roydhouse MC, front right)

CEW Bean gives an interesting portrait of Brigadier-General John Gellibrand CB DSO DSM in the Office History: The commander of the 6th Brigade at Poziers “was a man of exceptional personality, Brigadier-General John Gellibrand, of whom some description has already been given in these pages. A cultured soldier, staff-college graduate turned apple-grower, usually wearing an old ” Aussie ” tunic (as worn by a private) and living as simply as his men, sardonically humorous but sensitive to a degree, he was, like many sensitive men, a riddle to his superiors. His judgments sometimes appeared to them oblique, and he seldom explained them, since he loathed to thrust himself forward and attributed to those who dealt with him an understanding of his motives which they seldom possessed. He had the sensitive man’s high code of honour-however unpalatable the truth, he told it bluntly and left it at that. These qualities made him a difficult subordinate-not popular with his superiors, but of far greater value to them than they were aware; for, in his ability to inspire his own staff and battalion commanders, and. through them, his whole brigade, he had no equal in the A.I.F. His brigade staff comprised a group of youngsters-E. C. P. Plant, brigade-major; R. H. Norman,’ staff-captain ; Lieutenant Rentoul, 2 brigade signalling officer; together with Captain Gilchrist ,engineer ; and Lieutenants Savige and Roydhouse “learners” (attached for staff-training). All these lived together as one family. Any morning they – together with ‘‘Gelly ’’ in his shirtsleeves and old felt hat – might be seen breakfasting in a large shell-hole outside brigade headquarters in Sausage Gully.” (Bean, p 601)

Jack was awarded the MC for action in the second battle of Bullecourt on 3 May 1917 , gazetted on 1 June 1917:

“Captain Jack Roydhouse, Infantry.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.
He displayed great courage and determination in
organizing and carrying out bombing attacks,
setting a splendid example to his men. His work
helped materially to hold our positions”

Jack survived the war, returning to teaching, at Hale School, Perth (he is mentioned here in 1922, in charge of the school cadet corp).

Reg’s letter continues:

Hope you got my photos safely and you liked them, had them taken in Bournemouth one Saturday afternoon, I used to go in there on ‘Jane’ sometimes, it is only 44 miles from Rollestone & I could get down in 2 hours, Jane took me 1500 miles while I was at home, so I got about quite a bit, + cheaply at that, I couldn’t possibly have done so without her, I have only £17/13/3 to pay now and I am sending Dad money [out?] whenever I have a few francs to spare, so will soon have her paid for, I hope.

 

“The 28th Btn Comforts fund is quite the first thing of its kind, Col Read tells me he has [???] £150/./. from them besides numerous cases of sensible goods, the money is spent on all sorts of things, such as sports materials & games of all sorts, also vegetables and tucker is bought for the boys when we are in billets and they are fed up & fattened and enjoy life immeasurably, they look a wonderfully healthy lot and are all in the pink, including yours truly.

Col. Read was Lieutenant Colonel George Arthur Read DSO . Before the war he had been a manager of a wool export business and enlisted in the AIF in March 1915 as a private but rose astonishingly quickly ending up as to commanding officer. Read had been appointed Captain in August 1916, and then temporary Major in the same month. Appointed Major in November and then Lieutenant Colonel and CO of the 28th Battalion in January 1917. He was seriously wounded in the aerial bombarded after the Battle of Polygon Wood but survived, being invalided back to Australia. He died in 1929.

The Battalion Comforts fund was collected by volunteers back home from the local community. Laura was a tireless volunteer throughout the war, first as secretary for the Fremantle Soldiers Comforts Committee and then the Fremantle branch of the Red Cross Society. “RED CROSS SOCIETY, W.A. DIVISION. FREMANTLE FOODSTUFFS DEPOT. In connection with the work undertaken by the Red Cross Society and the supply of foodstuffs and extra comforts to the returned soldiers in the various Military Hospitals and on returning Transports and Hospital Ships, the Society are desirous of securing suitable Accommodation in a central position in Fremantle for the purpose of a depot for this work. All parties who have a room, or shop which they could place at the disposal of the Society for this work, either free or at a nominal rent, are requested to communicate with Mrs. R. H. GILL, of Essex-st., Fremantle who is Hon Secretary pro. tem for the Committee.” (The West Australian, 21 January 1918)

Reg continues:

Old ‘Newt’ has a Base job somewhere in France, about the best thing for him, everybody is sick of the Political soldiers who don’t know the first rudiments of soldiering, anyway he can’t do much harm where he is. No. 3 A.G.H. has left Brighton and is established somewhere in France, I think it is at Abbeville, should so much like to see Anderson again, perhaps I may yet! in his official capacity.”

I cannot find out the identity of “Old Newt”, but “Anderson” must surely be Major Thomas Lynewolde Anderson who had been a doctor in Fremantle at some point before the war and was a medical officer for the 3rd Australian General Hospital (3AGH) which was at that time in Abbeville in the Somme.

The State Library of Victoria (SLV) has an old photo album of TL Andreson‘s with fascinating photos of the 3AGH, firstly at Lemnos for the Dardenelles campaign, then near Cairo before moving to Abbeville in France. It includes many photos of Anderson’s following posting to the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital (1AAH) at Harefield Park in England. Extracts from the album can more easily be seen here.

Panorama of 3AGH at Abbeville in TL Anderson’s album. (Source: SLV)

Reg finishes the letter:

The good old 28th kept its name up again quite recently, the Germans have a healthy respect for what they call the “diamonds” they reckon us about the best of British troops, but as they say “too reckless”. Must close this now ducky [one?], I love you plenty,  plenty. Good bye darling.

            Ever yours,

Reg. “

Reg is referring to the battalion’s part in the second battle of Bullecourt, for which the battalion was awarded battle honours. The nickname “Diamonds” must come from the 28th Battalion’s identifying colour patch, a blue and white diamond, which was worn on the sleeve of the soldiers’ tunics. Bean goes into detail on the Australian’s colour patches here.

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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.

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.

 

RHG and the ‘Black Anzacs’ Raid at Armentières

Reg with the 7th Reinforcements of the 28th Bn AIF finally joined up with the Battalion just outside Alexandria in March 1916, just as the Battalion was preparing to embark for France.  Within a few months Reg took part as the Battalion Scout Officer in a successful trench raid at Armentières on the night of 6 June 1916 (a combined operation between the 28th AIF and the 26th AIF which was a battalion raised from Queensland and Tasmania) which was later nicknamed the ‘Black Anzacs’ raid. The events are best described in Reg’s own words in a letter he wrote to his brother Theo, who was at that time serving with the 2/6th Gurkha Rifles in Mesopotamia:

France 16th July 1916

My dearest Theo, I was more than delighted to receive your letter and enclosures yesterday, it is a long long time since I heard last from you, so it was more than ever welcome especially to know that you are safe and well. Well dear old chap I have had many exciting times and adventures since landing in this country, amongst other things I am now the owner of the Military Cross which I am sure you will be pleased to hear, I will tell you about that later on. I have also been home & have seen the dear Pater & Mother, all the Bowers & most of the relations. I suppose I had better begin at the beginning and tell you as much as I can of what has happened.

We landed in France on March 21st [1] and on a bitter cold night, after 3 days in the train in a 3rd class carriage all the way from Marseilles, at about 9.0 pm & they started to issue iron rations in a blinding snow storm, they finished the job in about 2 hours & then we had a 12 mile march to a camp, at which we arrived about 2.0 am. no blankets, cold & wet through we turned into tents the floors of which were a veritable sea of mud, however when one is tired mud doesn’t concern and I for one slept like a log.[2]

We spent about a week in camps and billets & then had a 3 day march to the firing line, our spells in the trenches usually being 16 days in the front line and 5 or 6 days out again in billets “resting”! Resting consists of fatigues.[3]

We were round Armentieres Salient for about 10 weeks and then shifted up to Messines. Our casualties have been very heavy on the whole from shelling and some shelling goes on I can tell you, one afternoon they put 1100 shells, HE & shrapnel on a front of 200 yards in 50 minutes. I can tell you Theo it is like hell. I had been made Scout Officer for the 28th battalion, and had all the patrols to do at night between our lines & the Hun’s, not a very nice job as flares are going up between the lines continuously throughout the night, we have had several exciting little encounters with hostile patrols, until in the end, just before we left that portion of the line, we were completely masters of “No mans land”, the Germans being afraid to come outside their own line, as a matter of fact we patrolled up & down outside their line & if any body was seen by us they were immediately bombed.

Men of the 2nd Australian Division in the front line at Croix du Bac, near Armentieres, 18 May 1916

Australian troops repairing a communication trench at Armentieres, May 1916.

 All this of course was leading up to one thing, a stunt we intended to carry out, and to carry it out properly “No mans land” had to be ours. A raid was to be made on the Enemy’s trenches and I, as Scout Officer had the job of cutting their wire entanglement. Our trouble of course was the short hours of darkness, as it did not get dark until 10.30 pm and was daylight by 1.45-2.0am however the raiding party went back to a farm house and  practised for nearly 3 weeks, trenches in replica of the point of entrances having been constructed, until everybody in the party (x6) knew not only his own job but everyone elses as well. My job was certainly the most trying of  the lot as we had to get up to their barbed wire and cut a  passage through it wide enough to admit the whole party 2 deep and it had to be done in absolute silence, as if we were heard the whole party would probably be seen and cut to pieces by machine guns before we could get back, our trenches here were 300 yds apart and the country between quite flat covered with long grass.[4]

Anyway off we started at about 10.0 pm with our faces blackened armed with revolvers, bombs, knobkerries & wire cutters, I took the lead with my Scout Corporal and 4 Scouts and we got over to their wire safely and started to cut,[5] we got on very well and cut away steadily for an hour and a half and were working up to what we thought was a bush when suddenly a head with a helmet appeared over the top and stared in our direction, we were then only 5 yards away from it, and had cut through at least 30 yards in depth of wire and were only about 15 yards away from their parapet wall we laid perfectly still & did not make the slightest sound I can assure you. Suddenly a flare went up from their trenches and fell a bit short and then 3 more heads, one with a helmet & 2 with the flat German forage caps ran round the side & stared in our direction & in the light of the flare we saw that what we had taken for a bush was a fortified listening post made of sand bags and steel loophole plates painted green. I was now in a quandary, the time was midnight and it  was too late to start a fresh path and quite impossible to cut away to the right or left as we had been observed & apparently so by this Listening Post, then I had to consider the safety of the main assaulting party lying outside the line.

Map

Captain Cecil Maitland Foss MC, 28th Battalion, of Babakin WA

You may be sure I had the Huns well covered with my revolver & some bombs ready to throw, so we laid there for 10 minutes and then watched each other and I then decided the only thing to do was to retire noiselessly whichwe did, replacing the wire as we retired and covering up our tracks.[6] Eventually we reached the main party & I told Captain Foss what had happened and he gave the order to return to our trenches. We all got back safely without a single casualty, and next day the General in an address to the Battalion complimented me on the work I had done the only thing possible under the circumstances and pulled my leg generally.[7]

Anyway the next night it has to be tried again, only this time with an artillery preparation, so once we crept out at 10.30pm and laid doggo until 11.15pm when we opened up a terrific bombardment also opened up and another similar one on the left, trench mortars with their 60 lb bombs played on the line and blew it to ribbons until 11.35pm when the scouts pushed forward and saw that the passage was clear the main party following closely and over we went into their trenches and stopped in them killing off any that were left alive (we bagged 25 and took 4 prisoners) for 10 minutes and then we retired back to a ditch in “No mans land” and laid low until their retaliation had ceased and then got back into our own trenches.[8]

Our casualties were 2 killed and 5 wounded, I got a crack in the left ear from a splinter of shell which amounted to nothing, so we were very lucky on the whole.

Nominal Roll - Appendix 6

Nominal Roll - Appendix 6 pg2

We got a lot of valuable information, papers, bombs rifles, ammunition, helmets uniforms, maps etc. A party was told off to visit the Listening Post and found it there exactly as I had stated also the remains of 4 dead Germans in small pieces, one of our trench mortar bombs had burst near & blown them all to bits, I can tell you it gave me immense satisfaction to have my story confirmed. We had all been promised a week’s leave if the raid was successful[9] and two days 
after I was told I could leave for England on the Friday.

By Jove Theo the joy of going home again after eleven years. We left Boulogne on Saturday at 6pm and arrived at Folkestone at about 7.15pm by the “Invicta”, do you remember her & got into the boat train arriving at Victoria at 10.30pm I called the Pater & Uncle Clifford and then went to the Hotel Cecil and to bed. At about 10.0 am Sunday Uncle rang me up and told me to come down to Bromley by the 1.0pm from Charring X. A few minutes after the dear old Pater rang up and could hardly speak from excitement. I arrange with him to go  down by the 9.28 am Wednesday to Haslemere, I had a parade on in London early on Tuesday morning so it was no use going down and coming back again, he quite understood the position, so I went on to Bromley & spent Sunday, Monday with them. Uncle, Aunty, Uncle Bert, Katie, Alf, Margy & her husband, Theo and Baish were there & we had a ripping time, can you imagine it all.[10] On Monday I went over in the afternoon to see Aunty Minnie  and Marjorie and in the evening Uncle Cliff, Aunty, Daphne and I went up to town & had dinner at the Trocadero & then on to a play called “A little bit of  fluff”. Awfully funny.

Administrative Headquarters, AIF, Horseferry Road

On Tuesday morning I went up to town with Uncle and had to attend the parade and in the evening the Officers of the raiding party entertained the Colonel to dinner at Frascatis and after to “Tonight’s the Night”, we all had a very jolly evening and next morning I set sail from Waterloo for Haslemere & was met by the dear Pater & Mater in their car and driven out to the “Malt House”,

The Malt House, Lurgashall, West Sussex

The Malt House, Lurgashall, West Sussex

they have a lovely home old chap, it is very quaint and old, the house is over 400 years old and simply full of old oak, black oak beams everywhere and furnished beautifully in the mater’s good taste. They were both very good indeed to me. I had a splendid time, motored everywhere round the country and visited a lot of people. I managed to get an extension of two days from the War Office, so did not leave Haslemere until the Saturday evening train at 6.15 pm and Aunty Maud and Uncle Clifford met me at Waterloo Station and I took them to the Hotel Cecil and shouted them supper, after supper we had a lovely yarn and then I said good bye to them at Victoria Station & came back to bed.

The next morning I had to catch the 8.50 am at Victoria for Folkestone and when we got there I found we had 6 hours to wait before the boat left so went for a walk round the old familiar spots, and just for the fun of it called on Miss Bradwick little thinking that they were still there, but sure enough Beatrice came into the room and I said I’m sure you don’t know who I am & she said Oh yes I do, you are Reggie Gill and how is Theodore!  We had a long yarn & she was very interested to hear how we all were and what we had done.

General William Riddell Birdwood, known as The Soul of Anzac

Well the blasted boat had to go so I got back to this land of “strafe”[11] once more. When I got back to camp, the Btn had shifted up to Messines or rather opposite that place.[12] I was greeted by everyone with showers of congratulation, I found I had been awarded the Military Cross, of course I was very pleased for the family’s sake. I had a  personal letter of congratulation from General Birdwood &  then came showers of letters from home.

Well old man you must be dead tired of reading this by now, about the longest I have written, so I will say so long, look after yourself dear old man, won’t you, please God we shall meet again some day.

Ever Your affectionate brother.

Reg. H Gill

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[1] The 28th Battalion arrived in Marseilles on board the H.M.T. “Themistocles” from Egypt.

 

 

[2] see ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918’, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (12th edition, 1941) Chap III – The Arrival in France, pp. 75-78

 

[3] see the Official History, Vol III, Chap IV – The Move to the Front, pp. 99-108

 

 

[4] Official History, Vol III, Chap IX The Raid at Armentieres, pp 243-245

 

[5] Official History, Vol III, Chap IX, pp 246-247 ‘In order to cut a passage, Gill lay on his back beneath it with his head towards the enemy’s trench and the wire across his chest, while his scout corporal, Tozer (Lieut. H. J. H. Tozer, M C., M.M.; 28th Bn Clerk; of Perth, W. Aust.; b Footscray, Vic., 24 March, 1892) lying almost on top of him, pressed the wire down. Gill had adjusted his steel wire-clippers to cut only two-thirds of the way through each strand, so that there should be no “ click ” to betray the operation. Each wire thus partly severed was easily broken by the hands’.

 

[6] Official History, Vol III, Chap IX, pp 246-247 ‘The wire-cutters had evidently run straight into a German listening-post. It soon became clear that they had not been actually seen; but to attempt proceeding farther would mean the certain discovery of the raid, of which the main body was then still assembling in No-Man’s Land. Gill and Tozer lay perfectly still for ten minutes, and then wriggled stealthily back, joining up the ends of the cut wire as they did so. The assault party had been waiting in a ditch near some willows in No-Man’s Land, and had just begun to crawl forward to its “ jumping-off ” position ’when Gill encountered it. The hour was then past 11.30, too late for an attempt to cut the wire at any other point. A message reporting the check was sent to Brigadier-General Paton, who had come up to a special headquarters in the line. By the time it reached him-12.30 a.m.-it was too late to adopt the third possible course and have the raid preluded by a preparatory bombardment, although that alternative had been previously discussed and plans for a bombardment were in existence. Paton accordingly decided to arrange for the attempt to be undertaken the next night after a short bombardment, and the party was withdrawn.’

 

[7] I imagine Reg took a lot of stick for effectively calling off the raid on the first night after all the painstaking preparations. One of the other raiders, Private Daniel Quinn of the 26th AIF, reported home in a letter published in the local paper “We started to cut Fritz’s barbwire and we came across a listening post, and we had to turn back very disappointed and wild. When we got back, to our trenches all the other fellows in the brigade roused upon us and said that we were frightened.” http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/1044231

A copy of Reg’s report is in the file of the 7th Brigade for June 1916:

RHG's report pg 1

RHG's report pg 2

 

[8] Official History, Vol III, Chap IX, pp.247-249

 

[9] Official History, Chap IX, p. 251

 

[10] The families of George Clifford Bower (‘Uncle Cliff’, stockbroker living at ‘Newquay’, Durham Avenue, Bromeley, Kent) and Theodore Herbert Bower (‘Uncle Bert’). Uncles Cliff and Bert were the brothers of Reg’s mother, who died in childbirth with Reg in 1881.

 

[11] ‘strafe’ – verb, now meaning ‘to attack repeatedly with bombs or machine-gun fire from low-flying aircraft’. Origin: early 20th century: humorous adaptation of the German World War I catchphrase Gott strafe England ‘may God punish England.’

 

[12] see Official History, Chapter XI – Opening of the Offensive and the Move to Messines