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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Australian World War I Battlefields – Family Hero, James Joseph Thomas Bell – Anzac

As we watched on TV, the Anzac Anniversary Ceremony broadcast from Albany Western Australia, yesterday, the question was asked; Did our family have anyone, who sailed out on the troopships from Albany a hundred years ago? The answer was yes, we did.

James Joseph Thomas Bell, known as ‘Tom’ was born in 1891, the eldest son of William James Allen and Louisa Mabel Grace Bell (nee Day), of Gundagai, New South Wales. He enlisted at Kensington Army Recruiting on 2 September 1914, and was one of the first in the state to join-up.

After nearly six weeks of basic training the 1st Battalion marched out of the Kensington Racecourse Camp to Fort Macquarie, where they embarked on HMAT Afric on 18 October 1914. This ship of nearly 12,000 tons, with a speed of 13 knots, belonged to the Federal Steam Navigation Company of London, and had been requisitioned, along with many other ships, by the Australian Government as a troopship.

The Afric and several other ships sailed from Sydney, for the port of Albany in Western Australia, to await the arrival of all the other Australian and New Zealand troopships, which were to be escorted by several war ships across the Indian Ocean. There were a total of forty ships in the complete convoy, and 27,000 able-bodied men, who were originally to sail to England, for further training to fight with the British soldiers, on the Western Front.

The Afric arrived at Albany on the 25 October. On 30 October the fleet learned that Britain and Turkey were at war, and the Australian and New Zealand troops were to be diverted to Egypt. The convoy of ships left Albany harbour on 1 November 1914.

Further details of the soldier’s training and life on the troopships, and camps, as well as throughout the war can be found in the ‘unit histories’ at the Australian War Memorial at http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/awm4/

After disembarking at Alexandria on the 5 December the 1st Battalion marched to Mena Camp near Cairo.

(Below) A general view of the camp at Mena and a hotel, which was converted to a camp hospital.

The Camp at Mena LHN0013601 004

The ‘Unit history’ then detailed the training over the next four months before the 1st Australian Battalion embarked on Minniewaska on 5 April for the Dardanelles Campaign.

The Australian and New Zealand forces went into battle on 25 April 1914, against the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Tom Bell was part of the 1st Brigade, which ‘dug-in’ and manned the trenches on the steep Gallipoli shoreline.

C E W Bean in Volume II of the Official History of Australia in the War 1914-18, has maps and full descriptions of life and action in these trenches.

See “Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume II – The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula (11th edition, 1941) found at http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol2/

Tom Bell was severely wounded in the abdomen, in action at Lone Pine, on 26 June 1915, and was stretchered off to the ship, Gascon, where he died at 4.30 pm on 29 June. He was buried at sea about three miles off Gaba Tepe. He is memorialised on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli.

Private J J T Bell kept a diary while overseas, and this was returned to his parents after his death. Years later his youngest brother, Oscar Isaac Bell prepared some extracts for publication in the Gundagai Independent, and his daughter sent me a copy, which I shared with everyone in the Bell Family Newsletter No 5 (July 1986).Here is a copy of those extracts, which tells part of Tom’s story in his own words.

Extracts from the Diary of an Anzac

The following extracts are from the diary of Private J J T (Tom) Bell, No 1023, ‘D’ Company, 1st Btn., Infantry 1st AIF Division, eldest brother of Mr O Bell, of ‘Lone Pine’, Gundagai. Tom was severely wounded at ‘Lone Pine’ and was being evacuated to the Base Hospital on the Isle of Lemnos. He died on the way and was buried at sea.

The diary extracts read:-

Sunday, 18 October, 1914

We marched on-board Troopship Afric, and moved out to sea, which was very rough. We were all very sea sick.

Sunday, 25th October, 1914

We arrived at Albany. We have to wait a week for all the rest of the Troopships and our warship escort to catch up. Amongst our escort are three Japanese warships.

Sunday, 1st November, 1914

We leave Australia. Our troopships sail in three columns of five, with warships all around us.

Monday, 9th November, 1914

The German cruiser Emden, sighted by escort Sydney. They blazed away at each other for nearly two hours. The Sydney scored several hits, and the Emden beached herself on Cocos island to save herself from sinking. She was being coaled at the time and the Sydney then captured the collier and sank her after taking her crew off. 200 Germans killed on the Emden.

Tuesday, 24th November, 1914

We enter the Red Sea. We pass three Indian troopships returning to India for another load of Indian troops.

Saturday, 5th December, 1914

We arrive at Alexandria, Egypt. There are hundreds of English, French, and Indian troopships and warships in the harbour. They all saluted us as we passed.

Thursday, 10 September, 1914

I met a lot of Gundagai men today, Lt Beeken, from Solomon’s Store, Bugler Fitzsimmons, Larry Quinn, Bill Laffin, Harold Hansen, Micky Burke’s son, Tom Smith and George Bramley. Sir George Reid inspected us.

Wednesday, 24th February, 1915

I met Fred Elworthy, Jim McLean, Clem Harris, Bill Oliver, Doug Carr, Bill Eurell and Hjack Rolfe.

Saturday, 10th April, 1915

We leave Alexandria, preparatory to sailing across the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles. We have five Generals aboard with us. General Birdwood gave us a very stirring address. He said that before we land we would be issued with 3 days’ rations and two hundred rounds of ammo. He advised us to be very careful of our water supply.

Monday, 12 April, 1915

We get a good view of the Dardanelles. We enter a bay at Lemnos Island. Hundreds of troopships, battleships, cruisers, submarines and other craft, and moving around us everywhere British, French, Indian, Russian and other nations were represented the crew of the Queen Elizabeth pay us a visit. They said,”Look out for the Turks”.

Saturday, 24th April, 1915

We steam out from Lemnos Bay. Everyone seems to think there is something doing. We anchor on the north side of Lemnos Island. We are surrounded by cruisers. We are issued with three days rations, and ammo. Which weighs over 100 lbs altogether.

Sunday, 25th April, 1915

We arrive at Gulf of Saros. We land in knee deep water, under heavy rifle and shrapnel fire. The noise is terrific. We chase Turks with our bayonets from the shore for three miles. I could feel the bullets- whizzing past my face but I was lucky. We dig in. We were covered in the landing by heavy artillery fire from our warships. While chasing the Turks, we sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other songs.

Thursday, 20th May, 1915

I heard the two Putlands were killed. I met Clem and Vern Harris, Bill Eurell, Bill Oliver and Roley Carr.

Monday, 24th May, 1915

An armistice to bury our dead, after 23 days continual bombardment. We were relieved by the 7th Light Horse. I heard George Elliott is about. Will try and find him during next lull.

Friday, 11th June, 1915

I met George Elliott tonight. We had a long yarn about home and it cheered us both up.

Friday, 25th June, 1915

I met Bill Oliver and Fred Cornett. The cruiser Lord Nelson, set fire to the village of Maidos, full of spies.”

Tom Bell was wounded in action the next day and died on the 29th June while being evacuated to the Base Hospital.

See his Personel File at the Australian Archives website http://www.naa.gov.au/

Many of the above mentioned ‘Anzac’ friends did not survive the war either, but it is nice to know they rest in peace, and are remembered a hundred years on.

See Lone Pine Memorial at http://www.cwgc.org/

Although we do not plan to go to Gallipoli this year to visit the Lone Pine Memorial, we can find much information on it, at the above Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, to honour our family hero, Private James Joseph Thomas Bell, an original ANZAC.