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

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