Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Phillip John Vincent – Bullecourt

In a previous blog I mentioned Lance-Corporal Frank Leslie Bell, who was killed in the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917.

Another family hero, who had been involved and survived the First Battle of Bullecourt was Private Phillip John Vincent. He was the youngest son of Alfred and Elizabeth Vincent (nee Bell). His father had died in 1910, leaving Elizabeth a widow, and  “Jack’ as he was known, a young fellow not yet sixteen years of age.

In February 1916, a week after his twenty-first birthday, he followed two of his older brothers into the Australian Imperial Forces, and went into training. A newspaper article gave some details:-

“ Private Jack Vincent, who is now in camp at Cootamundra, was prior to enlisting in the employ of Dwyer Bros at Moppity for four years. When leaving for camp, Messrs Dwyer Bros wished to show their esteem of a good employee, and one whom they were very sorry to lose, although proud of his determination to go forth to battle. They presented Private Vincent with a luminous dial wristlet watch as a memento of his associations with the Dwyer Bros, who also expressed best wishes for a safe return after the war to home and friends.”

He embarked on the troopship Wiltshire in August, and went straight to England, for further training until the end of the year. He was sent to the Western Front as part of the reinforcements to the 1st battalion in January 1917. His two older brothers were already there.

A few weeks later Jack sent a letter to his mother at home in Young.

“ We have been here about three months. I have not seen much of it yet. Les Jennings, Harold Wales and Dick Short are over here. I have also met others I knew before the war.” Jack goes on to relate a humorous scene he witnessed. “ In one place where we were, the Germans used to get up on top of the trenches and light fires and run about all over the place in broad daylight. Our chaps were the same. They wouldn’t shoot at us and we didn’t shoot at them. They wanted to meet us half way with a bottle of whiskey. They used to wave bottles at us. It was funny one day. One old Fritz (a man with a grey beard) who wanted to meet our captain half way with a bottle. He was only about 30 yards from us. Anyway, he got out of the trench, and the captain got out of our trench with a rifle and bayonet. Fritz held his hands up jumped about and laughed like mad. But he would not come over. He said he was afraid of the bayonet.”

About the same time as his mother received this chatty letter, Jack Vincent was in the thick of fighting in the First Battle of Bullecourt.

On the 11th April the Australians had been ordered to take the German trenches near Bullecourt.

Further details of the battle can be found at-

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/bullecourt/what-happened-here.php

Bullecourt, a village in northern France, was one of several villages to be heavily fortified and incorporated into the defences of the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

In March 1917, the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line in order to shorten their front-line and thus make their positions easier to defend. This move was rapidly followed up by the British and empire forces, and they launched an offensive around Arras in early April 1917.

An attack was launched at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917.This was hastily planned and mounted and resulted in total disaster.

Nevertheless, the infantry managed to break into the German defences. Due to uncertainty as to how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld, and eventually the Australians were hemmed in and forced to retreat.

The two Australian brigades that carried out the attack, suffered over 3,300 casualties; 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner – the largest number captured in a single engagement during the whole war.

After several hours of fierce fighting, sometimes hand to hand, the Germans received reinforcements, and were able to drive the Australians from the trenches, they had captured early in the day, and forced them to retreat back to their original front line.

Jack Vincent had been in the thick of the fighting, and had survived that terrible carnage. We have no words from him giving us an idea of how he felt about it all.

Three weeks later in early May, The British and Australian Lines were approximately where they had been on the 11th April. On the 5th May, the British and Australians attacked the German Line again. After many hours of relentless fighting, the allies were able to make some progress, and over the next few days were to successfully recapture the ground lost in the previous battle. This battle continued for two weeks until the Australian and British were finally able to drive the Germans back.

Of the estimated 150,000 men from both sides who fought at the Second Battle of Bullecourt some 18,000 British and Australians, and 11,000 Germans, had been killed or wounded.

Jack Vincent went into battle, at daylight on the 5th May, clambering towards the German trenches. It was difficult to know from hour to hour the progress of the battle, and how many had been killed, and where.

Jack Vincent had been killed, but there was confusion over the actual date and place.

When finally a roll call was made, and he was found missing, inquiries were made of this mates, to ascertain what had happened to him. This was carried out by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross, whose records are at the Australian War Memorial and now available on-line at http://www.awm.gov.au/

Private W Huckle of D Company, 14th Platoon recalled-” I saw him killed at Bullecourt. He was hit with shell fragments about the body and was killed instantly. I knew him very well, he was the only man of that name in the Company. We held the ground, but I do not know the place of burial, and I cannot refer to anyone for particulars. He was sure to have been buried near place of casualty.”

When the Imperial War Graves Commission began their work a couple of years later, Phillip John (Jack) Vincent’s burial place at Bullecourt could not be determined.

Nearly one hundred years later the Bullecourt Digger gazes silently over the fields, where Jack rests peacefully amongst his fallen comrades.

He and all his ‘missing’ companions are not forgotten, but are memorialised at the Australian National Memorial at Villers – Bretonneux, which we visited on the fourth day of our tour.

Here below Vern and I, with the Australian flag, stand in front of the Australian National Memorial, honouring Private P J Vincent, whose name is etched forever into the grey stone wall of the memorial.

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Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Polygon Wood

Polygon Wood – Now there is a name that brings an emotional lump to the throat.

This area is about eight kilometres east of Iepers, and is approached from a small road off the main Menin Road.

We could see the 5th Australian Divisional Memorial through the trees, as we got off the bus, but we visited the Polygon Wood Cemetery first.

The Polygon Wood Cemetery was irregularly used as a front line cemetery between August 1917 and April 1918, and then again towards the end of the war. It is now a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. Many of the identified burials were for those who served with the New Zealand Infantry Forces. There was also a lone German grave in this cemetery, which we thought was rather unusual. The Battle of Polygon Wood took place on 26 September 1917.

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There was a walled avenue, which led from this cemetery to the Buttes New British Cemetery, which is located below the Australian 5th Division Memorial.

This cemetery was made after the war when a large number of graves, mostly from 1917, were brought from the battlefields around Zonnebeke.

Also standing here is the Butte New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial, which commemorates nearly 400 New Zealand soldiers, who lost their lives around Polygon Wood in 1917 and 1918, and who have no known grave.

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Overlooking this quiet sanctuary was the Australian 5th Division Memorial.

The Memorial was a grey stone obelisk, which stood upon a long elevated bank known as a ‘butte’, and is approached by a steep flight of stairs, which were extended some years after the Memorial was erected, in 1919. This is ‘Australian’ land acquired by the Division after the war.

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There were several story-boards located here, which we spent some time reading.

More information can be found at –

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/zonnebeke/fifth-australian-division-memorial/battle-of-polygon-wood.php

The 5th Australian Division was formed in Egypt in February 1916 after the withdrawal of Australian troops from Gallipoli. When the first Australian troops were sent to France to serve in trenches along the Western Front, some battalions were left in Egypt for further extensive training.

However, by July 1916 all the Australian Infantry Forces had arrived in France, the 5th Division being the last to arrive, took their place as re-inforcements at Armentieres.

It was from here the 5th Division, the most inexperienced as far as battlefield action goes, found themselves at the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. This attack was poorly planned and was not fully executed, or supported as it should have been, by the British forces, which resulted in the greatest loss of life of Australian soldiers, in one day, for the whole war . There were over 5,500 causalities, including 400 prisoners. The 5th Division was totally incapacitated for several months and were not ready for combat again until October 1916. We were to hear more about this horrendous battle from our Tour Guide, Pete Smith the following day, when we visited the new cemetery at Fromelles.

We then boarded the bus and took the short drive to the Hooge Crater cafe and museum, for a late lunch.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour- Iepers

The second day of our tour began with a walking tour of this beautiful medieval city. Perhaps I need to fill you in on a bit of history of this place first.

Ieper is an ancient town located in the Flemish province of West-Flanders (or Vlaanderen). When World War I was declared in August 1914, it was known by its French name, Ypres.

Soon after the declaration of war and the German mobilisation, more than 8,000 German soldiers passed through Ypres on the 7 and 8 October 1914, on their ‘push to the coast’.

Within a few days French and British soldiers arrived in the town to set up a blockade to stop the full-on German offensive, as they realised the strategic importance of the town.

It was the British soldiers who first called it ‘Wipers’, which was a much easier name to pronounce. They were there for four long years from October 1914 to November 1918.

This town was the focus of German operations in the north west, as they tried to recapture it. However, despite major offensives and severe artillery shelling, which reduced the town to rubble, the town never fell into German hands during the war.

This town was also the main staging post for allied forces before they went out to fight in the surrounding area, known as ‘ the Salient,’ which is a battlefield feature that projects into enemy territory .

Every allied soldier fighting in Belgium most likely would have passed through this town, at some time.

I can imagine several of our family heroes marching out at night, to their positions in the trenches, batteries and observation posts. Most of the troop movements were at night, because there was some advantage to travelling under the cover of darkness, in such open and flat country. The enemy was not easily able to observe the size and position of troops, and then bombard the area with artillery and bombs.

With the centenary of World War I, there is so much material on-line that literally ‘puts you there’, such as this film.

The film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the Third Battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going in to action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres and then shows the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/ruins-of-ypres-1917-movie.php

Today it is difficult to image there was so much destruction here, and how everything was painstakingly restored after the war, right down to the cobblestoned streets. In fact the whole city is a memorial to World War I

From the moment we got off our bus at our hotel, we could feel a special atmosphere about the place. It took me a while to work it out. There was a busyness, but not the loud brashness of many tourist places. The people we met were welcoming, but not patronising. In many places on our travels throughout Europe, the people smiled and rushed out to greet us, but we knew they were looking for our ‘tourist dollar’.

At Iepers it was different. There was a quite respectfulness, as if they knew why we were there, especially as our Australian accents soon announced us. Everyone we met wanted to help us understand and to know, what had happened there all those years ago.

However, I must point out the place was not silent and morbid. In fact when we arrived in the hotel restaurant for our dinner, there were obviously several celebratory parties in progress, including a large school group.

Perhaps you could say there was a certain ‘joyfulness’ about the place too. I don’t really know why, but maybe it is an appreciation of the sacrifice of all those thousands of soldiers, from all over the world, all those many years ago, so that their city could remain in existence, and be reclaimed and rebuilt.

After a wonderful dinner and a good nights sleep, we were ready to begin our walking tour of the city.

We started our tour not far from the hotel at St Jacobs Church. (below).

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If you look carefully you can see the original doorway and footings of this medieval church which survived the war, but everything above the door was rebuilt.

We then proceeded to a section of the city wall ramparts, where actual shops had been built into the earthen bank. This area was also used as allied headquarters during the war.

We then visited the Menin Gate. Nothing I can write, can do it justice, but I will try, with a separate blog or two soon.

After a very emotional visit to the Menin Gate, we proceeded along the main street until we arrived at the Great Market Square. It was a huge cobblestoned area, surrounded by beautiful Gothic buildings faithfully and painstakingly restored after World War I. The Gemeentehuis, or Town Hall is one such building. (Below).

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The weekly markets were taking place in the Square and it was interesting to wander through the stalls. We found them similar to what we could expect to find at city markets back home, and it gave us a comfortable familiar feeling, as the grey over-caste sky gave way to warm summer sunshine.

We headed for the huge inspiring Gothic building, which took up nearly half the square itself. It was the Lakenhalle or Cloth hall.

So much about the history of this building can be found at-

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/cloth-hall-lakenhalle.php#

This beautiful restored and refurbished building is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, for the city for the World War I Anniversary celebrations. Lots of information can be found here.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk/ypres-salient/museum-in-flanders-fields.htm

Within this building is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum is spread over two floors and is an incredible place. It uses all the modern technical equipment to tell the story of the war, not only from the city’s perspective, but all those who endured those terrible times. Although the history was well told and illustrated, I found it crowded, gloomy and very oppressive, as it is painted all black inside with little light, except for a cold reflected light from the display cabinets and strategically place down-lights..

A large shop can be found on the ground-floor, where I was able to purchase many gifts and books, which will add to my knowledge and understanding of this very special city, and its surrounding villages.

I was pleased to get outside and have a quick morning tea at one of the many pavement cafes, on the edge of the Square, before we returned to the hotel to join our group to begin our bus tour of the Ypres Salient.

As we boarded the bus the sunshine had deserted us again. Our next stop would be the 5th Australian Division Memorial at Polygon Wood.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – The Bullecourt Digger

We were on our third day of touring the Australian Battlefields of World War I, and had just paid our respects to one of our family heroes, Lance-Corporal Frank Leslie Bell, at the Queant Road Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

As we boarded the bus we saw the weather had began to deteriorate with storm clouds gathering all around.

We were not far from the Australian Memorial Park, which is just outside Bullecourt, and this was our next stop.

Originally this park was opened on Anzac Day 1992, for the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of Bullecourt, in honour of those who had fought there. The Memorial was in the form of a large stone cairn in the middle of spacious lawns. However at the time, many felt it didn’t quite capture the spirit of the more than 10,000 Australian soldiers who had been killed or wounded in the horrific battles, which had taken place here in 1917.

The Australian War Graves Office then commissioned Melbourne sculptor, Peter Corlett to produce a bronze statue, that would better reflect the character of the Australian soldiers, who fought at Bullecourt. The ‘Digger’ statue was erected atop the cairn and unveiled Anzac Day 1993.

For over twenty years, this larger than life Digger, has gazed over the battlefields of 1917.

As we got off the bus we could see the Memorial in the distance, some hundred metres or more across the park, between fluttering flags atop the flagpoles.

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Some of our group read the story-boards at the park entrance before setting off along the long straight pathway.

We soon arrived at the foot of the cairn, read the memorial plaques, and many of the group stood in silence admiring the statue. Some were endeavouring to take photos at various angles, to capture the perfect shot of the ‘Digger’, when there was a couple of very audible ‘Wows’ from one of the group. This fellow was quite a military historian and had explained many things during the tour to those of us less knowledgeable. We all agreed it was quite a statue. However, he answered us by saying that was not what he meant.

He is ‘perfectly’ kitted just as the men at Bullecourt would have been. Nothing is missing!” he exclaimed.

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It was then the ‘historian’, and our Tour Guide, Pete, proceeded to identify every bit of the soldier’s kit from his head to his toes, and explained how it was used. The next twenty minutes was a history lesson none of us will forget, and it also gave us such a wonderful insight into the life of the soldier in the trenches.

To me, the ‘Digger at Bullecourt’ will remain one of the more ‘special’ memories of our Australian World War I Battlefields Tour.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Lance Corporal F L Bell – Bullecourt

We were on our third day of touring the Australian Battlefields of World War 1 in Belguim and France. The weather had improved considerably, and was sunny and warm.

It was a Sunday and the summer tourists and locals were everywhere, making the traffic somewhat congested on some of the narrow country lanes.

It was time to visit the grave of another of our family heroes, Lance-Corporal Frank Leslie Bell, who was buried at the Queant Road Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

Queant Cemetery is near the French villages of Queant and Cambrai and was made by the 2nd and 57th Casualty Clearing Stations in October and November 1918. It then consisted of 71 graves, but was greatly enlarged after the Armistice when 2200 graves were brought in from the burial grounds in battlefields between Arras and Bapaume
There are now 2,377 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery.

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Frank Leslie Bell, the fourth son of George and Mary Bell (nee Howe) of Armidale, New South Wales had enlisted in 1915. He was part of the 29th Battalion, who embarked on the HMAT Demosthenes from Freemantle on 29 December 1915. He spent several months in Egypt training before he embarked on the HMT Transylvania to Marseilles for deployment on the Western Front in the 4th Australian Division.

His older brother, Oliver Bell, who enlisted a few months later, was also destined for these same battlefields.

Frank Leslie Bell was killed at the First Battle of Bullecourt, on 11 April 1917.

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Bullecourt, a village in northern France, was one of several villages to be heavily fortified and incorporated into the defences of the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

In March 1917, the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line in order to shorten their front and thus make their positions easier to defend. This move was rapidly followed up by the British and empire forces, and they launched an offensive around Arras in early April 1917.

To assist the Arras operations, an attack was launched on Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 by the 4th Australian and 62nd British Divisions. The attack was hastily planned and mounted and resulted in disaster. Tanks which were supposed to support the attacking Australian infantry either broke down or were quickly destroyed. Nevertheless, the infantry managed to break into the German defences. Due to uncertainty as to how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld, and eventually the Australians were hemmed in and forced to retreat. The two brigades of the 4th Division that carried out the attack, the 4th and 12th, suffered over 3,300 casualties; 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner – the largest number captured in a single engagement during the war.

In the 1st Battle of Bullecourt, the 14th Australian Infantry Brigade orders on the 11 April 1917 were to ” attack the Hindenberg Line about Bullecourt… and to push on to Reincourt”.

Lots of other material including photos and letters concerning the Battles of Bullecourt can be found at http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/bullecourt/.

There was much confusion about the death of Lance Corporal Bell, and he was the subject of a Red Cross Wounded and Missing Report.

These files were created by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross, which was a branch of the British Red Cross. The Bureau, which commenced operation in October 1915, sought to identify, investigate and respond to enquiries made by friends and family regarding the fate of Australian service personnel, posted as wounded and missing on official Army lists. For many years, research into these files was by personal visit only, at the Australian War Memorial. In 2002, the files were digitised to preserve the fragile original documents and to provide greater public access to this valuable and unique information. They can be found online at the Australian War Memorial’s website at http://www.awm.gov.au

This file on Lance Corporal Bell included a letter of enquiry by his brother, Oliver, and three reported interviews with soldiers, who went into battle with him that fateful day.

His mate, Corporal Burns, who was one interviewed by the Red Cross, said, ” The Battalion took the enemy’s front line trench in front of Bullecourt on April 11th, after hours of fighting which began at day break. Only a few of them succeeded in reaching the trench. He, ( F L Bell), was killed by machine gun fire as he got through the wire. There was hand to hand fighting for about six hours, but the trench was lost about midday, and they were forced to retire without bringing out those who had been killed”.

His body was eventually retrieved and as he still had his identification tags on, he was able to be buried in an identified grave in a war cemetery.

We were pleased to be able to find his headstone here in this beautiful and peaceful cemetery, and pay our respects to another family hero.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Gunner L A Bell – Passchendaele

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.

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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.

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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.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

In my last blog I wrote about our experience at Mont St Quentin, while on a tour of the Australian World War I Battlefields.

After St Quentin we drove on to Peronne, where we had lunch and visited the ‘Historial De La Grande Guerre 14-18’ or the Museum of the War of 1914-18, which was housed in the old medieval castle. It was well worth visiting, as it showed the story of the soldiers, of the many nations, who took part in the war.

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove to the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

The Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension was begun in March 1917 after the Germans had abandoned the town the first time. The Germans continued to use this cemetery when they took the town back in early 1918.

The Australian 2nd Division became the final group to use it, until after the end of the war when the Commonwealth Graves Commission brought in all those soldiers in isolated graves and small cemeteries. There are 517 Australians here, nearly all lost their lives on the attack on Mont St Quentin in late August and early September 1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own website at http://www.cwgc.org/. It is worth visiting not only for the history and continued work of the Commission, but the symbolism which goes with the cemeteries, such as the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Stone of Remembrance’.

This was the first of many cemeteries we visited over the next few days, and our tour guide did a wonderful job in educating our group on these features, as well as many more concerning the general nature of these cemeteries.

We have two family heroes in this cemetery, Private Robert Edward Sherwood and Corporal James Joseph Stapleton.

Before we left home in June I had printed out from the above mentioned website, the map of this cemetery and marked the position of their graves.

We were able to alight from the bus at the cemetery gate.

The sky was grey and cheerless, never the less the cemetery was beautiful with the gleaming white headstones, lush green grass, and coloured flowers in full bloom decorating the graves themselves. The whole was shrouded in a peaceful silence.

We were the only members of the group to have soldiers buried here, and with the assistance of Pete and our fellow tour companions we were quickly able to find their graves.

For the second time that day we were in for a surprise, although perhaps we should not have been. Corporal J J Stapleton was buried between his two mates, who were carrying him to the field medical station when they were killed by shrapnel from an exploding ‘whiz-bang’ mortar shell.

This gave us a strange comforting feeling knowing that even though he had died so far away from home and family, he was not alone, but resting in peace beside his mates.(Below)

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We were able to take photos with the back -drop of the Australian flag. One of the members of our group had previously made many tours of the Western Front Battlefields, and generously shared with us all an Australian flag he had brought with him. We all appreciated this kind gesture, as it gave an added depth to all our photos.

My grandmother’s, cousin, Robert Edward Sherwood was also buried in another section of the cemetery. We  took photos of his grave with the Australian flag too.(Below)

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After reboarding the bus, we headed for the town of Iepers, where we were to stay the night.