We were on the first day of our tour of the Australian Battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium.
We had already visited the graves of some of our family heroes earlier in the afternoon, and now as we neared the city of Iepers, we were to visit another, Gunner Louis Alexander Bell, who had been killed in action on 26 October 1917, and was buried in the Perth (China Wall) Cemetery.
This cemetery was located about three kilometres east of Ieper on the road connecting Menin to Ieper. It was begun by French Troops in November 1914 and was later used by the 2nd Scottish Rifles in June 1917 and given the name ‘Perth’. ‘China Wall’ was from the nearby communications trench, known as the Great Wall of China. This cemetery was used for front line burials until October 1917 and contained about 150 graves.
After the war many men were transferred here from all the isolated graves and small cemeteries in the area around Ypres, and there are now over 2790 allied soldiers buried here.
It was late in the afternoon and the sky was dark and over-caste and atmosphere was particularly gloomy, as we got off the bus. The cemetery was enclosed and mature trees enveloped and sheltered the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and many of the headstones of this large cemetery.
I had also brought a map of this cemetery, which I had downloaded from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at http://www.cwgc.org/ and marked the grave.
Once we had oriented ourselves by locating the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and ‘Stone of Remembrance’ on the map, we soon found the headstone of Gunner Bell.
This headstone was in a little clearing and was open to the sky. A misty dampness was visible on the top section of the headstone, which showed a gentle shower must have fallen earlier in the day.
We were thankful we had found this headstone was not under the gloomy trees, as it allowed us to take some good photos.
On the foot of this headstone, flanked by a cheery yellow daisy, the family memorial read “ IN LOVING MEMORY, OF OUR JACK, ALSO TOM, WHO WAS BURIED AT SEA.
Louis Alexander Bell, known as ‘Jack’, was the second son of William James Allen and Louisa Mabel Bell (nee Day) of Gundagai in western New South Wales.
I was able to access his full military service from the Army Personnel records held at the Australian Archives. These are now on-line at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/ .
.He had enlisted on 18 August 1915, soon after his older brother, Tom, had died being medically evacuated from the Gallipoli Peninsular.
Jack Bell embarked with the 1st Light Horse, on the HMT Mashobea on 4 October 1915 for Egypt and arrived in Cairo on 10 March 1916. He was soon afterwards transferred to the Artillery unit and trained there before embarking for England on HMT Corsican
at the end of May. He went into further training with the 119th Howitzer Battery until the end of the year. He spent some weeks in an English hospital before being declared fit for duty and being deployed on the Western Front with the Australian 2nd Division Artillery and later with the 4th Division and Field Artilleries.
A detailed history of these artillery units can be found at the Australian War Memorial website at https://www.awm.gov.au/units.
Here is a brief extract for the 4th Division Artillery in 1917 when Jack Bell joined them.
“In March 1917 the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line and the 4th moved forward to Bullecourt. The brigade moved to Flanders in June and was in constant action to Novemeber, supporting allied attacks on Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, and then Passchendaele, as part of the Third Battle of Ypres. During this period, the brigade suffered its heaviest casualties of the war – 151 in October and 145 in November – including killed, wounded, and evacuated ill.”
Jack Bell’s 110th Battery (Howitzer) in the October offensive on the Passchendaele Ridge suffered severe casualties when five were killed,( including Jack Bell), and fifteen were wounded.
Gunner Bell was buried at ‘Tokio Farm’ near Zillebeke where he died in 1917, and was later removed to the nearby Perth (China Wall) Cemetery by the Imperial War Graves Commission.
A more detailed story can be found within the unit daily reports, also held at the Australian War Memorial.
Some weeks before we left home I had accessed these reports and had read widely on the situation on the Passchendaele Ridge in October 1917.
I was so struck with the Commanding Officer’s report of the 4th Australian Division Artillery Brigades of the 25 October 1917 I took a copy with me. I also downloaded a ‘Trench Map’ of the area from http://www.awm.gov.au/sites/default/files/Ypres_Offensive.pdf
As I stood beside his grave and looked across the very flat landscape to the north-east I could see in the distance on the skyline, behind a row of trees, a small elevated area, which I guessed would perhaps be the ‘Passchendale Ridge’. According to my Trench Map the area would have been no more than 60 feet above sea-level.
It was here I re-read the 4th Divisional Artillery Brigade commander’s report written on the 25th October 1917- “ the position of the guns was as follows, 30, 18 pounders and 8, Howitzers, with an ample supply of ammunition, were all in positions within 3000 to 2500 yards of our front line.
This was done under appalling conditions.
Every round had to be taken up by pack transport.
Horses and men were short in numbers; the drivers had often to make three or four trips a day.
The enemy’s shell-fire increased in volume.
The weather became worse, the shell-torn country became a morass through which men and horses had to struggle before reaching their Battery positions.
At the positions themselves there was no cover as material could not be got up.
The enemy was using large numbers of gas shell which seriously affected all ranks; men in consequence could hardly speak above a whisper. Gassed, wet through, under shell-fire night and day and rapidly diminishing in numbers these Batteries had carried out their task. Their guns were forward, well supplied with ammunition, but in doing so their strength had been absorbed… and they were relieved by the 4th and 5th Field Artillery.”
Our Tour Guide, Pete Smith, had explained to us as we travelled through the area how terrible the fighting had been in September and October 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres, and after reading this description by someone who was there at the time, it gave me a further appreciation of what Jack Bell faced on the 26 October 1917- truly a family hero.