World War I, Family Hero – William George Blanchard

Many years ago, when I seriously began researching my maternal grandmothers family ‘The Bells,’ I was very fortunate to be able to track down various branches including the Blanchard family, who had migrated to Western Australia. These were first cousins of my maternal grandmother, Harriet May Bell.

 William George Blanchard, born 1885,at Picton, New South Wales, was the second child, and eldest son of Joseph and Alice Blanchard (nee Bell). Through family connections, I found and corresponded with, his eldest son, Charles William (Charlie) Blanchard, for a number of years. He was able to tell me his father had served in World War I, and that his ‘job was to drive ammunition trains to the Front Line’. I was able to access William George Blanchard’s military service records at the Australian Archives, but these were basic, and had very little actual information. I also visited the Australian War Memorial seeking information on these ‘engine drivers,’ but found very little in official records. Even recent searches on the Internet had little success.

However this week I struck ‘gold’ in the historical newspapers on TROVE at the National Library of Australia. Now using family oral history, Australian Archives World War I military service records and extracts from the newspapers I have been able to add much information to this Blanchard twig of my family history.

 When a young child, William George, along with the family moved to Western Australia where the father, Joseph Blanchard found employment as an engine driver on the Midland Junction Railway. In 1906 Joseph Blanchard died suddenly leaving his wife Alice Blanchard with seven children. William George, the eldest of the children had also found employment in the railway by this time.

 William George Blanchard married Maud Lyons in 1908. They had a family of three surviving sons by the time World War I had been declared.

William George Blanchard had served several years in the local militia. He tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Forces in April 1916, but was turned down for medical reasons. In December the same year he applied to join the newly formed Railway Corps. He was finally accepted and was put into basic training. In January 1917 he was promoted to Sergeant and on 21 January embarked at Freemantle on the troopship ‘Miltiades’ for overseas service.

 DSC02798

The ‘Miltiades’ was of 7814 tons and a cruising speed of 13 knots. It was owned by G Thompson and Company of London and was leased by the Government for the transporting of troops and supplies from Australia in World War I.

 William George Blanchard disembarked at Devonport, England on 27 March 1917 and after further training was deployed overseas in France on 19 April 1917. On 12 October 1917 he was attached to the (British)Royal Engineers for special duties. [See below] While there, he ‘ was reprimanded by his commanding officer for failing to salute a ( British) officer’ — and I bet he wasn’t the only one.

He became ill in May 1918 and was admitted to Lakenham Military Hospital in Norwich, England.

 This Military Hospital was located in the premises of Lakenham Council School, which had only been built by the City Council in 1913.It had scheduled to receive its first pupils in August 1914. In fact, with the outbreak of First World War hostilities, its intended use for educational purposes was delayed until 1919, because the premises were requisitioned by the Army Council for use as a military hospital. [Ref:http://eventful.com/norwich/events/lakenham-military-hospital-colmans-detective-barry-/E0-001-087655001-9

 William George Blanchard later joined his unit in France and was transferred to ‘old gauge’ rail operations with the narrow French line.

When the war was over he spent a long furlong in England, before returning to his unit, to be transported home to Australia. He boarded the Konigin Luise on 21 June 1919.

 I believe the Konigin Luise was originally a German ship which had been converted by the Germans for mine-laying duties in the English Channel. She was later shelled and after much damage the wreck was finally captured. She was virtually rebuilt and was later used by the Government to bring troops and nurses home to Australia.

 After the war, William George Blanchard returned to employment with the Western Australian Government Railway. His son Charlie Blanchard was able to send me copies of much of his service in the railway.

 My ‘gold’ this week was in the form of informative newspaper extracts detailing the service of the Australian Railway Corp:-

 Australian Railway Corps on the Western Front as recalled by Lieutenant R J Burchell (MC), 4th Company Australian Railway Corps,( and Member of Parliament for Freemantle 1913-1922).

” There were three broad-gauge and three light railway companies, the original strength of each being 269 of all ranks which was increased by reinforcements to 300, so that the Australian railway operating troops totalled 1800. We were attached to the Royal Engineers for duty and discipline–a fact we did not appreciate. Our only connection with Australian corps was that we received AIF orders and an AIF paymaster visited us periodically for the purposes of pay. We took our places alongside our comrades of the Britain and French railway services, and whatever work came our way, in whatever circumstances, we did it.

Our first job was in the Ypres area with the British Second Army, under General Plumer. That started on October 5 1917, and we were at work up to the conclusion of hostilities-13 months. We were not fighting troops, but I may say that the whole of our sphere of operations was within range of the enemy’s artillery, and he paid particular attention to the railways, both with his heavy guns and aeroplane bombs. Even Hazelbrouck, the furthest back station of the 4th company, was under fire from the 15in guns. The first time I went into the station on a train the water tower was toppled over by a shell just as the train was entering the station. In the latter stages of the war the aeroplane bombs were of huge size. At Peronne the Australians captured German bombs estimated to weigh a ton, while for some time before the end the British planes were using 15cwt bombs. With both planes and guns the enemy paid systemic attention to our main lines of rail, so you can realize that life in a railway unit was not altogether a picnic. The 5th Company, [William George Blanchard’s Battalion] based at Peselhoek, had the worst spot of the lot in the Ypres area for danger. Their section of the line was continually exposed to bomb raids and gunfire, night and day, and their casualties were heavy.

In military railway work, owing to the conditions resulting from continual interruptions in the line by shell fire, you so not worry about mileage, or time-table. The main thing is to deliver your load safely where it is wanted. If you come to a spot on the direct road where the line has been blown up by the enemy, you go back, and endeavour to reach your destination by a roundabout route. The amount of work behind a great army is tremendous. Despite the network of lines, I have seen 280 trains per day pass over a single section of line, and the trains carry 1,000 ton loads. The system of traffic adopted mainly for army work was that of the Midland Railway Company, England. The French system of railway signals, which was in use, is much different from the British, and entails a much greater eye-strain on the engine drivers. Many of the men practically ruined their sight in the service.

As I have said, the lines were frequently cut by enemy fire. The British Engineers carried out repairs at any hour of the night or day, with remarkable expedition, but the French were not nearly so prompt.

After three months in the Ypres area, we were sent to the Somme, near Peronne. We had 30 miles of line to work, our main function being to supply ammunition, material, and food to the 5th Army, under General Gough, and provide engine power for six 15-inch guns, mounted on railway waggons, which operated from the ends of our lines. The 5th Army connected with the French Army on its right, and our corps was the last connecting link of British railway troops on the Southern end. We had exceptionally heavy work in this sector, culminating with the great German offensive. The attack began on March 21, and three days later we were compelled to evacuate as the 5th Army was pushed back. The Australian railwaymen did particularly fine work during those critical days. The men of our company were warmly commended for their services at Tincourt in unloading ammunition at the advanced dump under heavy machine gun fire. Three of them were awarded the DCM, and six received the Military Medal over that episode. The German attack was pressed home so rapidly that the big rail-mounted guns were abandoned b. We managed to get two of the pieces away y the gunners in the nick of time. An attempt was made to rescue two more, but, while they were being hauled away, the line was so badly cut up by enemy gunfire that the rails spread, and the guns could not be moved further. Our fellows stuck to it as long as there was work to be done, but quitted only when everything that could be shifted had been shifted. The French railwaymen had all gone 12 hours before….Lieut. Burchell was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty… on this occasion]”

[See also http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/bellenglise/calvaire-cemetery-montbrehain/tincourt-british-cemetery.php for those Australians that died there]

Lieut Burchell continues, “Many hard things have been said about General Gough and the 5th Army, …often by Australian soldiers. But the difficulties and odds against which they had to contend are seldom realised. In numbers the odds against them were eight to one, and the enemy had an immense concentration of artillery. The attack began on March 21, but the Australians did not come into contact with the remnants of General Gough’s force until the following Tuesday. In the intervening five days the 5th Army were forced back over 30 miles, fighting continuously, at a terrible disadvantage. The whole of their ordinary transport organisations was gone, and they had no fixed supply and ammunition points, and they were for long periods without food.

After unceremoniously leaving the Somme we were sent to Dunkirk, where we served until the conclusion of hostilities. Even Dunkirk can hardly be described as a safe spot well behind the firing line. Indeed it had the reputation of being the most heavily bombed city on the whole front. The official figures carefully recorded by the municipal authorities show that 7514 projectiles were dropped on it during the war… the town was decorated by the British Government in recognition of its sacrifices

Our welcome to Dunkirk was a warm one, for on our very first night there was a succession of air-raids, and 500 bombs were dropped. The port has fine wharf and harbour accommodation, which was used for the purposes of landing great quantities of ammunition from England, and it was on this account that it received so much attention from the Germans. Their spy service must have been remarkably good, for every time one of the great lighters full of ammunition arrived there would be an air raid. We were there for six months, working ammunition from the docks….”

[Reference:- With The Railway Corps on the Western Front, Interview with Lieutenant R J Burchell, Western Australian (Perth, W A: 1879-1954), Monday 2 June 1919, page 6, retrieved from Trove 11 February 2017 – http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27606481 ]

 Another newspaper extract from Lieutenant-Colonel Fewtrell [DSO] invalided home 1918….” There was a light railway running out to the Ypres salient, and on this railway I trained my 4th Battalion officers and men. I am as you know, a railway construction engineer, and there were a number of others. The result was that in about four weeks we had a first-class railway construction battalion, our reinforcements having come up in the meantime. Then the whole of the Anzac Corps was suddenly removed south again on the Somme, and we arrived there about the beginning of November, 1916. We had taken over a new area from the French, and the mud was frightful on the roads along which the ammunition and supplies had to be got up to the troops holding the front line. There was so much stuff that had to be got up that I have seen at night time as many as three lines of traffic. As the mud was 2 feet deep in many places you can imagine what a task it was, and one of the first things we were asked to do was to make decent roads.

Then I was made officer commanding light railways. We constructed a mile of light railway a day, and within ten weeks we were supplying 40,000 men and 8000 horses with all they required, carrying the supplies right into Bapaume. One night we took up to within 300 yards of the battle positions the whole of the guns, with the exception of one battery, for one of the Australian divisions. At the end of ten days the Canadians had built a broad-gauge line into Bapaume and when we pushed out to the Hindenburg line we had passenger trains running into the town every half-hour-just like the suburban system at home…”[Reference:- Colonel Fewtrell’s Return, Sydney Morning Herald (NSW:1842-1954),Saturday 30 March 1918, p12, retrieved from Trove 11 February 2017 – http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15782819

 What a productive day with my Bell Family History with researching and writing up.

The moral of the story in family history research, never give up and think’ outside the box’

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2 thoughts on “World War I, Family Hero – William George Blanchard

  1. Hi Nola,

    Thank you very much for your informative posts. They are of particular interest to me because our family trees intersect a number of times. After reading your post re: William George Blanchard I thought I would send you a couple of pics I have of the armored narrow gauge engine of the type used in France during WW1. I will forward them in separate Emails as they are quite large. These were taken at the Duxford Land Warfare section of British Museum during my last trip.

    Let me know if you are unable to open them.

    Cheers,

    John Caling

    Currimundi, Qld.

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