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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RHG injured at Gueudecourt – November 1916

Despite surviving the horrors of the Battle of Pozières, in July/August 1916, Reg was soon to face more of the same at Gueudecourt, near Flers, in November. According to C.E.W. Bean, the official historian “The Australian divisions, almost restored by their rest at Ypres, were now to plunge into the hardest trial that ever came to them.” Official History, Vol III, Chapter XXV – Flers. The Somme Battle Ends, p.894.

After Pozières in August, the 7th Brigade moved north to Flanders and spent most of September billeted at Steenvoorde, behind the lines near Ypres, training and refitting with a large batch of reinforcements and men returned from hospital. There were many promotions to replace the officers and NCOs lost in action during Pozières. Reg was promoted to Captain on 1 October 1917 to replace Capt A.S. Isaac in charge of C Company. Capt. Austin Stirling Isaac had been wounded in the arm at Pozières (which resulted in amputation but he survived the war) and was the only company commander to survive the night of 28/29 July:

Reg had previously complained to his brother about the delay in having this promotion conferred for the job he had been doing already for some time – I’m sure it was a typical complaint. (Reg’s letter to Theo 11 September 1916)

The rain during this period was incessant and the training ground reduced to a quagmire – which was rather fitting for what was to come. But the period was peaceful and a welcome respite – there was even a full sports programme with the 28th victorious in the football. During off duty hours the men were free to roam around Steenvoorde that the relationships with the local inhabitants were very cordial and it was a common sight to see the men of the brigade working in the fields, in the absence of the local men who had all been conscripted. [Neville Browning, The Blue and White Diamond – History of the 28th Battalion AIF 1915-1919 – pp146-7]

ANZAC soldiers wearing sheepskin jackets, and a mixture of slouch hats and steel helmets, resting on their way up to the trenches at the Somme, Dec 1916

In October the 28th AIF moved to Ypres, which was derelict due to two years of almost constant bombardment, and from there into the front line. The ‘weather was becoming wintry and the terrain and trenches were waterlogged due to the abundance rain that fell with monotonous frequency’. It was here that the 28th experienced the largest rats they had ever seen. “These unpleasant rodents, the size of well-grown kittens, infested dugouts and shelters and tunnelled into the earthworks…. One even had the temerity to bite the Regimental Sergeant Major’s nose one day when he was snatching forty winks!” [H.K. Kahan, The 28th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force : a record of war service ] The Battalion then moved back to the Somme, to the front line at Dernacourt near Albert, which caused some resentment, as the survivors of Pozières were not keen to return to the Somme believing that countless lives had been needlessly thrown away there for such little gain. The general feeling running through the AIF was that the Australians had done more than their share of fighting and dying. The weather was still dreadful and the condition of the trenches appalling. Mud oozed from the trench walls and communication trenches were reduced to canals. Reg’s mate Lieutenant Roy Phillipps was wounded at this time by attempting to walk across open country to inspect his Company post rather than attempt to negotiate 150 years of thigh deep mud in the communication trenches. He was almost half way across when a bullet struck the ground to his immediate front. he started to lope through the mud when another round went past his head. He wrote “the third got me, I tell you I was a bit blue crawling the rest of the way, some thirty yards expecting one in the neck”. Phillipps had been shot through the thigh and it took six stretcher-bearers nine hours to haul him two kilometres to an aid post through waist deep mud and slush.  (Browning, pp152-4)

The Battalion moved up to Gueudecourt, near Flers, for an attack on a German trench system named The Maze scheduled for 5th November. The 28th were detailed to take Gird Trench (known to the Germans as Gallwitz Stellung) on the left hand size of the Maze.

The Maze (Browning, p172)

Captain Charles Bean, Australian Official War Correspondent, knee deep in mud in Gird trench, near Gueudecourt in France, during the winter of 1916

Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud outside Flers. November, 1916.

But the conditions were appalling. The mud caused havoc for the attack, preventing the men exploiting the creeping artillery barrage that preceded the attack and was supposed to cover the advance across no mans land. There was a gale, which preventing reconnaissance by air. Leading to poor execution of the barrage, with plenty of time for the Germans to emerge from their dug outs and face on the oncoming assault. The 28th, struggling through the mud, were decimated by the German machine guns, pinned down in no mans land, some for many days, in what we now see as typical of the First World War. The mud hampered the evacuation of the casualties and of the remaining men, most of them suffered from trench foot  – 90% of the 27th Battalion (Browning, pp157-9; Bean, Ch XXV, pp 917-920) The 28th’s Battalion War Diary for November 1916 typically records the horror of this period in its tragically understated way:

“3rd/4th   Took over front line from 53rd Bn AIF. Trenches in very bad order. In mud from 12 inches to 3 feet deep. Location M. 24. A. GUTDECOURT. Map [?]

4th   General work improving front trenches and preparing for attack of next day.

5th  The Bn in conjunction with 27th Bn & Coys of 25th & 26th Bn who were on our Right and the British Division on our left made an attack on the German line known as GIRD TRENCH. Owing to the inaccuracy of our Artillery fire, through lack of observation, the enemy were not kept down in their trenches by our barrage and the advancing troops were subjected to very heavy rifle & machine gun fire which prevented them reaching the objective. Our losses in this attack were 1 officer (Lieut W R Moore) killed and five wounded (2/Lieut F Muller, Lieut A W Curran) Previous to the attack four officers were wounded. Capt. R C Phillips, 2/Lieut MG Hammond, 2/Lieut CC Flower, Lieut RH Gill. The casualties of other ranks were as follows. 58 Killed, 166 wounded, 50 missing, 27 Other ranks were evacuated to Hospital suffering from effects of wet & [exposure?] ”
Battalion War Diary, 28th Battalion, AIF – November 2016

Australian Pioneers making a duckboard bridge across the trenches of the ‘Maze’.

Conditions for those wounded lucky enough to be rescued from no mans land and taken to the aid post were not much better. The aid post was incessantly shelled and there were no rations, water or blankets for the wounded. Those unable to walk were left lying on stretchers out in the open during the cold night. One casualty was discovered to have died of exposure over night. (Browning, p163)

 

 

 

 

 

Is it not recorded exactly when or where Reg was wounded – only ‘previous to the attack’ like Roy Phillipps and M.G. Hammond. Reg’s casualty list on his file at the AWM records a ‘GSW’ – gun shot wound – to his left wrist. The wound was serious enough for Reg to be sent for treatment to England.  Reg was heading back to England once more.

 

Place of Casualty

 

Date of Casualty

Date From whom received
10.11.16 CO 28th Bn, List Wounded in action France 3-6/11/16
19.11.16 A.I.F.List 114 Placed on Seconded list France 4.11.16
7.11.16 8th Sty Hosp. Adm. GSW Lt Wrist. Rouen 6.11.16
9.11.16 do To England. GSW Lt Wrist ,, 8.11.16
9.11.16 HS”Austurias” Embarked for England
GSW Lt Wrist
Havre  

9.11.16

Of the other people mentioned by name in the Battalion War diary:

Lieut W.R. Moore: killed in the action “MOORE. Killed in action on November 6, Lieutenant W. R. Moore, fourth dearly beloved son of Mr. and Mrs. A. Moore, 193 Newcastle street. Perth; Deeply mourned. – His duty nobly done” The Western Mail, 8 Dec 1916

Capt. R C Phillips: Reg’s mate from Perth, Maj Roy Phillipps, MC & Bar, DFC – previously covered in this post here.

2/Lieut MG Hammond: Captain Meysey George Hammond MC MM – was one of the wounded had only just returned to the battalion on 23 September, having been wounded in the leg at Pozières. He ‘walked with a pronounced limp and with the aid of a walking stick’. During  the deployment before the attack, his left elbow was shattered by enemy fire and he had to be forcibly received of his command and sent to the dressing station. It was a wound that would have seen the end of active service of most men. The 3rd London General Hospital back in England (the same place Reg was treated) found that “there is almost complete fixation of the elbow at right angle, and at present no use in forearm or hand, although there is no organic lesion of nerves”. Despite this wound, rendering his left arm permanently useless and needing to be supported in a sling, Hammond convinced the authorities to return him to front line service. In January 1917 he was promoted to lieutenant and for his actions as an Intelligence Officer near Westhoek on 20 September 1917  he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for his actions at Polygon Wood. While having only one functioning arm and the added handicap of a walking stick, he managed to single-handedly capture 20 German prisoners and gather important information. On Christmas Day 1917 near Ploegsteert, Hammond had a narrow escape from a sniper when a bullet was stopped by his field notebook and his cigarette case as it tore through his breast pocket. In early 1918 Hammond was posted to the Australian War Records Section in England but following numerous appeals to his superiors he returned to his battalion in France in May as captain in command of ‘A’ company. His actions near Morlancourt on 10 June 1918 were recognised with the award of a bar to his Military Cross. During the fighting he moved across no-mans-land, ten metres in front of his men, directing the attacking line with his walking stick hanging from his useless left arm and a watch in his right hand. Despite the danger he frequently had his back to the enemy while following closely behind the creeping artillery barrage, and would occasionally straighten the line with a wave of his stick. When his men followed him into the German trench, Hammond had already captured a number of enemy prisoners. He was mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet the following day and died on the 14th June 1918. A fellow officer said of Hammond that ‘I am quite sure that [he] did not know what fear meant never once saw him duck for either a shell or a bullet’. He is buried in Vignacourt Cemetery. [https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C118771]

2/Lieut CC Flower: Cyril Cecil Flower, a clerk from Perth, was also wounded at the same time. He had been promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant on 16 August 1916, after Pozières. He was wounded again, severely, on the fateful night of 28 September 1917 but survived the war returning to WA in May 1918. He is recorded as Captain CC Flower as a contributor to Herbet Collet’s History of the 28th AIF in 1922.

Lieut AW Curran: was wounded for the second time. Appointed 2nd Lieutenant on 30 August 1916 having being Mentioned in Despatches on 9 June 1916 after the Raid at Armentières “For consistent goodwork during 3½ months on Gallipoli and two months in France; As Signalling Sergeant he displayed great resource and coolness in repairing lines whilst under fire.” He became Battalion Signally Officer ad was Mentioned in Dispatches again on 2 January 1917 “For conspicuous work in maintaining communication and excellent conduct under fire. Am original member of the battalion, his work through has been of the highest order. He distinguished himself on three separate occasions since March 1916.”

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