Connecting Spirits 2012 – at the frontline

Australians in the First World War

Posts Tagged ‘Mouquet Farm

‘our stunt at Mouquet Farm’

with 2 comments

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

Today we just have one letter, from Murray to his father, a fairly long extract, which begins with some reflection on how the war dead will be remembered in the future. It is interesting to note that he expects Australians in the future to recognise the names of the battles on the western front in the same way that Gallipoli was already imprinted on the national psyche. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the European campaigns are becoming more prominent, but for many years Gallipoli has been the focus for remembrance.

He also gives greater detail about the events in the lead up to his injuries at Mouquet Farm. He talks about being cut off from supply lines, and the fact that his men had virtually no food or water, and the difficulty in obtaining supplies – quite literally, a life and death situation.

He writes again about how calm he felt during the attack, despite his misgivings about their chances of success – he says he was ‘feeling as calm and collected as if I was walking down Rundle Street’!

***

France
2/12/16

My dear Father

… I’ll start be trying to explain my feelings on the subject of being knocked in a big action or in a side show. Well, I must say, from a soldier’s point of view, there’s only the big action side of the question considered. Think of when this is all over. The next generation will naturally want to know all about the whole business. Well, by that time Pozieres, for instance, will be history. Every Australian will know the full significance of the word Pozieres and therefore if a chap is killed at Pozieres, very naturally, to those who do not really understand it is a far more honourable death than in a mere trench raid, which is a very common occurrence. Although when all’s said and done, isn’t that a very narrow-minded way of looking at things. If a man dies doing his duty and serving his country, isn’t it just as honourable a death, whether in a tremendous action or even holding the line, not even a trench raid. …

Now I’ll try and tell you a little more about our stunt at Mouquet Farm. First of all the poor beggar whom I helped has lost his leg, but otherwise is quite all right and in England. …

Mouquet Farm, France. October 1916. The war destroyed area after capture by Allied Forces.
image courtesy Australian War Memorial

When an officer takes over a Coy, one of the first things that is drilled into him is the care of his men. And I can say, without any hesitation, that it’s been one of the things I am proud of, I have always made a point of looking after my men very carefully. Well, when we got into the first trench we captured, we were cut off from our rear and had no trenches leading back to H.Q. Therefore supplies could not be brought up to us. For the first 48 hours we had a cigarette tin per man of water and a small sandbag full of dry biscuits to eat. This meant very hard conditions for the men who had worked solidly digging in to get enough cover from shell fire, both night and day. The Coy Commander on my left sent me a note to say his Coy was in the same condition … and would I make a bid across the open for water and food. I said “yes” and called for volunteers. Nearly the whole Coy volunteered and I chose 16 and a sergeant to go back. Prior to sending this party I had sent a pretty straight message to Head-quarters stating our position, primarily on account of my men because I knew they must have food and water. My party got back, having lost 9 of the 16 and no rations left. Determined to get the rations I wrote another note even stronger than the last saying that the men were nearly done and that if they didn’t help us to get rations the chaps wouldn’t be in a fit state to attack again that night. The bearer of this note went astray and got lost but eventually gave the note to Bde Head-quarters and the General read it! It was in plainer language than I would write to you in because we were in a very bad way. The General, not knowing of the previous message and of the conditions in the line immediately jumped to the conclusion that Armitage on my left and myself had the wind up and were losing heart and for that reason we got no credit for the whole action. … It was after this note was sent and no reply received that I decided that I must have rations knowing we had to attack again and therefore send another party back and luckily got a fair store of water and rations. Enough to supply my own Coy and Armitage’s with water and a little food. That food saved us absolutely – we would never have succeeded if we had not got the food and water.

When we came out of the line there was a fair old row, which I missed, and found out afterwards that both Armitage and I figured in it very much. Strictly between you and I, we were both recommended for an honour, for the work done and the General refused to forward it to the Division. …

Dead bodies in a portion of the German front line, taken the day after the Battle of Fleurbaix, which took place on 19-20 July 1916.
image courtesy Austalian War Memorial

I can’t say very much as to my feelings during the actual charge. I know that the most trying time was when we were waiting for the time to give the order. Half a minute after the order was given I was about 10 yards in front of my trench with my lads all around me in line and feeling as calm and collected as if I was walking down Rundle Street … None of us were the slightest bit nervous once we got over the parapet. To tell you the truth, I think I had too many little details to think about to give me time to worry or get frightened. I marvel the more at our calmness on the night of my wounding, because, both Armitage and I realised and spoke about it during a little yarn we had previous to the attack, as soon as we read our orders that it was a murderous errand they were sending us on. Meaning cold blooded slaughter amongst our own men. We also know we couldn’t achieve our objective, but, I can’t explain the reason, we went out to have a fling at the show quite unconcerned. I will admit this much, neither of us expected to see the dawn of the 15th Aug and we didn’t expect a single man to come through alive.

Written by Allison Russell

April 9, 2012 at 1:00 am

‘a horrible fascination’

with 3 comments

It’s November, and Murray has arrived back in France, and is pleased to rejoin his Battalion, although he is disappointed his Commanding Officer won’t let him go ‘in’ with the boys so soon after his return. He predicts the battle that is about to take place, will be ‘a big affair’. He writes to his mother about his sense of fascination with the ‘big war game’ and the ‘marvellous feeling’  of hopping over the parapet. He reassures his mother that he is sure he is coming home, but we can only guess at her emotions – no doubt she wasn’t quite so sure.

Later in the month he tells her about the awful conditions – cold and wet, which leave them in mud up to their waists. He muses about where he will spend next Christmas (ie Christmas 1917). With hindsight, we know the war will not be over by then – it is unlikely that Murray’s wish will come true.

***

France
9/11/16

My dearest Mother

Well, here I am back in harness and I must say I landed with an awful bump after my glorious holiday in London.

… I had a few days in the base in France before being drafted onto the Battalion. Then followed a disgusting train journey which lasted two and a half days, with no wash and nothing to eat. … However I landed back with the Battalion and I can tell you it was absolutely great to be with the “boys” again. I haven’t got my old Coy. yet, and won’t get it back until after this stunt which will be over before you get this. We’re going into the line at the same spot nearly as where I got wounded.

The C.O. won’t let me go in this time because I’ve only just arrived. I really honestly must admit I’m sorry because it’s likely to be a big affair and I don’t want to be out of it.

This big war game has properly got a good hold of me. There is a horrible fascination about it that I can’t explain. While you’re not in the line or near it, you’re homesick or fed up with life in general and would give anything to be out of the whole business, but as soon as there is any likelihood of a good scrap it really makes my blood tingle at the thought of it and when you actually hop over the parapet it’s really a marvellous feeling. You have absolutely no thought of being hit yourself, and I’m fully convinced even now, after being hit once, and after all I’ve been through, that without doubt I’m coming home to you dear, safe and sound. I’ve often tried to imagine being killed but no matter how hard I try, I can’t. I’ll be there all right, don’t you worry. …

Today is George’s birthday … I hope he had a happy day and that you drank his health for me. Headquarters mess are drinking it at dinner tonight. We celebrate all family birthdays. The old Padre had news of a little grand-daughter and we had to drink her health last night.

***

Somewhere in the mud
21/11/16

My dearest Mother

… The conditions are awful just at present. Mud up to your waist in places. We live in it up to our knees just about, and I can tell you it’s pretty crook. All the same, it’s dead funny at times when a Colonel or someone flash falls head over heels … The rotten part is that … after getting properly saturated in this wet mud and properly wet to the skin you have to try and sleep in the same clothes without any blankets, and its bitterly cold at present. We had a quite heavy snow storm the other day so that will give you an idea of the temperature.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so confoundedly dirty in all my life before. We’ve only got muddy water from shell-holes to wash in so can’t get a decent wash and we’ve still got about 20 days to do up here. …

I had hopes of getting another crack and spending Xmas with Mr Peto [in London] and have promised to do so if I have the luck to get another Blighty, but I’m afraid the chance is dwindling away. I suppose I’ll spend it over here.

I wonder where I’ll spend the next Xmas. By Gad I hope its home, because I’m just about fed up of this show.

Written by Allison Russell

April 8, 2012 at 1:00 am

“Hell” on earth

with 2 comments

This series of letters begins with one from Murray to his Uncle Fred in London, asking him to send a cable to Australia to let his family know that he has been wounded. He is evacuated to a London hospital, where he spends a miserable 21st birthday, with no-one to visit him. He has received five ‘cracks’ (or shrapnel wounds), one in the left arm and four in his back.

A view of the Quarry at Mouquet Farm, in December 1916. On the left are a number of sandbagged dugouts.
image courtesy Australian War Memorial

We have included a long extract from a letter to his father, in which he describes his experience of the battle at Mouquet Farm, where he was injured. The battle at Mouquet Farm took place between 13-15 August. He writes about his apprehension about taking ‘the good old boys into a real fight’, and the feeling of exhilaration while the first charge on the German trench was taking place. He describes being buried when a shell blew in his trench, and his efforts to convince the doctor that he was fit to continue fighting – ‘But I made up my mind that if the men could stay in that hell I could’. All around him, men were dying; a ‘slaughter of human life’. With such heavy losses, they evacuated the trench they had taken, and it was during this time that Murray was injured, as he tried to help a seriously wounded officer to safety.

***

24th General Hospital
Etaples
France

Dear Uncle Fred

Just a short note to let you know that the beggars have got me at last. On the night of the 15th about midnight we were sent out onto what I call an absolute hell on earth. God it was awful. I lasted 2 or 3 hours and then got knocked. It was with their high explosive shrapnel and the thing burst 10 or 12 yards from me. I got on 5 cracks. One in the left arm above the elbow and four in the back just above the kidney. Left arm luckily not broken but through the muscle & therefore very stiff indeed. The back gives me more trouble because I have to lie on it on account of the arm. I’ve just been under the x-ray since writing this and found I’ve still some pellets inside.

I want you to cable home to Father and tell him it’s not serious and that there’s a fair change of going to England…

***

Interior of a hospital in England
image courtesy Australian War Memorial

4th London General
Denmark Hill
London SE
26/8/16

My dearest Mother

Well, here I am in England for my 21st Birthday, but I must say it was a miserable one. I spent the afternoon watching all the others in the ward talk to their mothers and their sisters and other people’s sisters and altogether felt horribly homesick. I was the only patient in the ward who didn’t have visitors…

***

4th London General
29th Aug 1916

My dearest Father

I’ll do my best to tell you some of my little tales of woe and probably they will help you to understand my feelings for the first week after my release from that “Hell” on earth, more generally known as Pozieres …

Father, can you imagine my feeling when I heard of dear old George’s death. I went right into Pozieres to see him and chanced the bombardment and after finding the 27th discovered that my dearest friend in the world had been killed about a month previous. Then I was told that poor Jim Phillips had been killed about 4 hours before I arrived. I had also heard of Charlie’s death three days previous. The same answer when I enquired for young Harry McLean.…

Suffice to say is that I went into the front line with a very, very heavy heart … But I’m afraid my thoughts were very unceremoniously interrupted by a note I received telling me that at 10 o’clock that night I was to go into the frontline and attack with the company … Strange to say all my morbid feelings vanished and I was literally tingling all over at the thought of taking the good old boys into a real fight.…

A view of the famous Mouquet Farm, north of the road from Courcelette.
image courtesy Australian War Memorial

My first experience of actually ‘hopping over’ the parapet was one I shall never forget. When a body of troops move forward to the attack, our own artillery put up what is known as a barrage of fire and we advance under the cover of this until we are about 30 or 40 yards from it. Then working by the clock we rush forward to the enemy trench where the artillery is firing on, to the second, and precisely at that time the barrage lifts about 50 yds & in we go before the enemy comes out of his huge dugouts. The effect of this barrage is magnificent… My impression was that we were rushing across the shell-torn ground, tripping over the barbed wire, falling into immense shell craters, and all the time watching as though hypnotised by the bursting of hundreds of shells to the minute in front of you …

On our arrival at the trench not one of those cowardly Germans offered any resistance. Everyone shouted “Mercy, Kamerad!” We mercied them and never took any prisoners. They are absolute cowards … Next morning we got the thing we expected. A tremendous bombardment from guns of all calibre … Two or three times my nerves nearly gave way but I managed to stick it. What started my nerves going was the fact that I was completely buried by a shell which blew the trench in on three of us. Two men and myself. I was on the bottom and both the men on top of me with about 2 feet of dirt on top again. Luckily my head was in the open and I could breathe but when they got to work with a shovel and dug us out it was found that both the men were killed. That upset me a bit for some time but I had just recovered by equilib. when we got orders to attack again that night. It was during this second attack that I was hit. It’s a marvel to me my nerves stood that afternoon, I was buried twice more and had reports from the right of the Company that 30 yds of trench had gone and men and all buried. The report came from the left that another 10 to 15 yds had gone there and with it about 10 men.

At about this stage Doc Jeffries came along the trench and wanted to send me back because I couldn’t keep my hands & legs still they were shaking like leaves. I said “no” but it took a lot of saying I must admit. But I made up my mind that that if the men could stay in that hell I could. The second attack was murder. I’ve never seen, nor could I imagine such slaughter of human life. I’m unable to describe my sensations except that I imagined I was walking I can honestly say without a thought of being hit through a tremendous hailstorm of lead, with tremendous sharp short thunderclaps. It was a magnificent feeling, but awful to see your own men falling by 10s and 20s all around you. My escapes were marvellous.

Stretcher bearers of the 6th Australian Infantry Brigade, under the Red Cross Flag, passing the old cemetery of Pozieres, having come from the line near Mouquet Farm.
image courtesy Australian War Memorial

I didn’t seem to want to take cover, because I had a foolish idea which certainly helps one a lot that they couldn’t hit me try as they would. Not once during the half hour I was there did I get into the trench or a shell hole. I couldn’t do my job and that too so I just made the best of it and we went up and down trying to direct the digging in. We were losing very heavily and there were only three officers left in the Battalion of those who went into the attack…

In the end we couldn’t stick any longer and although we’d taken the trench we had to evacuate and go back to the old one again. On arriving back there I found one of my officers badly wounded about 50 yds in front of the trench. I got another chap and went to get him. His leg was hanging by a strip of flesh half way down the shin bone & he was in awful agony. I had just got him on top of the parapet and was handing him in when I thought I was hit in the back with a sledge hammer and knocked about 5 yds into the trench dragging this poor chap with me. He fainted which was the best thing that could happen to him. I didn’t know I was wounded till I saw the arm of my tunic absolutely soaked in blood and felt a very wet hot feeling all over the back.

I got a man to tie me up and felt quite all right. This was about 2 in the morning. I decided I could stick it out till morning and try to help the only two officers left. But as soon as I stood up I fainted and had to clear out, and here I am in London.

Written by Allison Russell

April 6, 2012 at 1:00 am

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