“I SAW Sgt. Evans (18, D) in a shell hole, after the attack was over on May 3rd at Bullecourt. Several attacks were made that day. We went over at dark, failed & came back. Then we tried a second time & failed again. I was wounded near the German wire after our 2nd attempt & all those who were still alive were taking shelter in shell-holes. I saw Sgt. Evans in one & he offered to help me back, but Pte. MacInnes (18, D), who was in the same shell-hole came back instead. Sgt. Evans helped to dress my wounds & then we left him & never saw him again. It was then about 9.30AM. I managed to get back to our lines by getting from one shell hole to another.”
This was Private Richard Harrison’s account of the last known sighting of Sergeant Charles Shillaber Evans, who probably died on May 3, 1917, the first day of the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
Sergeant Evans, a member of D Company, 18th Battalion, is honoured on the Wagga Cenotaph and the Memorial Arch in the Victory Memorial Gardens
He was one of an estimated 7482 Australian casualties in the Second Battle of Bullecourt (May 3-17) which followed the First Battle of Bullecourt (April 11), in which more than 3300 Anzacs were killed or wounded and another 1170 were taken prisoner, the largest number in a single engagement during the war.
Another to die on May 3 was 31-year-old Tumbarumba soldier, Private Charles Frederick Brown, a labourer before enlisting.
“He was in my platoon at time of going into action and the last that was seen of him was lying in a shell hole in the German barbed wire with a smashed leg,” wrote Sergeant H Blight as part of a Court of Inquiry into Private Brown’s death.
“We had a bit of a setback at that place and was found impossible to get him in, stretcher bearers went afterwards under white flag but Brown was never found, am afraid he was killed.”
The year 1917 was the bloodiest of World War I for Australia, and the Riverina felt the tragedy as much as any other region.
Altogether, there were 76,386 Australian casualties that year on the Western Front in France and Belgium in battles such as Noreuil, Lagnicourt, Bullecourt, Messines, and the Third Battle of Ypres.
The previous year, after the Anzacs marched onto the Western Front, the toll was 40,000, including that other major Australian tragedy in France – Fromelles – in which 5533 were killed, wounded or captured in 24 hours.
In the Middle East, the Allies’ successes in 1916, (including the Battle of Romani in August described as the first British victory of the war), were turned around with two disastrous battles at Gaza (March 26 and April 18-20) which resulted in 10,369 casualties, including Wagga camelier, 21-year-old Lake Albert station hand Trooper Richard Graham.
Trooper Graham, of the Imperial Camel Corps, was killed on April 19 during an advance on and temporary occupation of a Turkish redoubt.
His body had to be left behind in a retreat and has never been found.
Another Wagga camelier to die in the Middle East about that time was Acting Sergeant Noel Hunter Sherrie, a 23-year-old draughtsman by profession.
He was the son of, William Manfred Sherrie, who worked at The Daily Advertiser’s office.
Sgt Sherrie was badly wounded about the end of May, 1917, taken prisoner and treated by the Turks at a hospital in Damascus.
“He was suffering from a very severe wound in the ankle which necessitated the amputation of his leg just below the knee,” said an account of his death on June 8, 1917.
“He was in such a weak state that he was unable to support the operation and died a few hours afterwards without ever regaining consciousness.
“Sgt. Sherrie is buried in the English Cemetery Damascus and an English missionary who was living in the city erected a cross bearing the name above every grave.”
On October 31, the Middle East setbacks were reversed with the stunning Battle of Beersheba in which the 4th Light Horse Brigade charged across some 2750 metres of open land with their bayonets drawn like swords and overwhelmed the entrenched Turks.
A time bomb left planted under the town hall in the French village of Bapaume by the Germans when they retreated to the stronger Hindenburg Line in early 1917 claimed the life of Tumut soldier, Private Albert Edward Beattie.
Private Beattie, a school teacher when he enlisted, was a member of the 20th Infantry Battalion, which was billeted in the town hall on March 25.
“There was a terrible explosion, and a great many were buried,” wrote Private Frank Bovington of the 20th Battalion, who at the time of the explosion was in the front line eight kilometres away.
“When we were relieved two days later, we marched back through Bapaume and saw the result of the explosion,” Private Bovington wrote.
“The infantry and engineers were still digging and looking for the missing.
“I do not know whether Pte Beattie was found.”
Another 20th Battalion soldier, who wrote of Private Beattie and two other soldiers missing after the explosion, said their bodies were never recovered.
“I was not present on this occasion but was told this by an Engineer Officer whose name I do not know,” wrote Private CG Smith.
In his book The Great War, Les Carlyon says the first Battle of Bullecourt was almost an afterthought aimed at British forces pinning down Germans in the area so they could not be rushed south to defend a big French offensive.
According to the Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) account of First Bullecourt, the attack mounted by the Australian 4th Division (4th and 12th Brigades) and the British 62nd Division was hastily planned and mounted – and resulted in disaster.
“Tanks which were supposed to support the Australian infantry either broke down or were quickly destroyed,” the AWM says.
“Nevertheless, the infantry managed to break into the German defences.
“Due to the 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 AWM, in an information board in the Canberra memorial, says that advancing across snow-dusted fields, with little support, the 4th Division men ran into a hail of machine gun bullets and shrapnel fire.
“It tore through them,” the information board says.
“Once they entered the enemy’s trenches, vicious fighting with bombs and bayonets ensued.
“Soon, ammunition was running low, tanks were burning on the battlefield, and the Germans were counter-attacking strongly.
“In the end, the survivors were forced to withdraw.”
The 4th Brigade lost 2339 men out of 3000, and the 12th Brigade lost 950 from less than 2000.
In his 1992 book A Dictionary of Australian Military History, now retired The Riverina Anglican College principal Dr Ian Grant said as a consequence of First Bullecourt it was many months before Australian soldiers were confident enough to work with tanks again.
The website diggerhistory says Bullecourt is perhaps the WWI battle that engendered the greatest distrust and contempt in Australian troops for their British commanders.
It says First Bullecourt essentially wiped out the Australian 4th Division as a fighting force for months.
A renewed attempt to secure Bullecourt began on May 3.
Involving the Australian 2nd Division (5th and 6th Brigades) and the British 62nd Division, the attack was more successful, but, according to the AWM, “inspired a series of ferocious and costly German counter-attacks over the next week and a half.”
The Germans withdrew after a counter-attack was repulsed on May 15.
“Although the locality was of little or no strategic importance, the actions were nevertheless extremely costly,” the AWM says.
Inscribed on a plaque in the Australian Memorial Park at Bullecourt are the words that Yass soldier, Private John Ware, of the 3rd Battalion, wrote home after Second Bullecourt.
He wrote: “... to try and describe a battlefield to you would be impossible, but if ever you saw a sheep camp in time of drought you will know how many sheep [died] in one night our men are lying about just the same only a drop of blood spilt to show where they are hit.”
The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company was involved in the enormous underground explosions at Messines that could be heard in England and which killed thousands of German troops in seconds before the start of a successful Allied offensive.
The Australian involvement was the inspiration of the movie Beneath Hill 60.
The 3rd Australian Division, involved in its first major battle, was successful south of Messines village, while the 4th Division made a follow-up attack.
The success came at a high cost, however, with another almost 7000 Australian casualties.
After success at Messines, the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, launched a series of summer offensives broadly known as the Third Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, but which included battles involving all Australian divisions.
There was Menin Road (1st and 2nd Divisions, September 20), Polygon Wood (4th and 5th Divisions September 26), Broodseinde (1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions, October 4) and Passchendaele (3rd and 4th Divisions, October 12).
The Australians were met with determined German defenses, including concrete machine gun boxes, and rain that the AWM says turned the battlefield into a quagmire.
Haig abandoned the Ypres offensive in November.
Some 500,000 men were casualties, including 38,000 Australians. – With Dr Anne Flood
Wagga war historian and author, Dr Anne Flood, is researching WWI soldiers whose names appear on the cenotaph and the memorial arch.
Among those Dr Flood has found so far with a Wagga district connection known to have died in 1917 are:
Private George James Minty (March 3, at Armentieres)
Private John Bradney (April 2, Louverval), his brother Wentworth Edward Bradney (September 24, Polygon Wood)
Archibald Frank Redhead (May 6, Bullecourt
Norman Hector Gill (April 11, Arras)
Jesse Maxwell Creasy (March 15, Bapaume)
John Ernest Alexander Bruce (February 25, Butte de Warlencourt)
Charles Frederick Brown (May 3, Bullecourt)
Charles Shillaber Evans (May 3, Bullecourt)
Reginald Port (May 14, Bullecourt)
William Charles Ledwell (April 2, Bullecourt)
Reuben Munney Thornel Oakman (May 3, Bullecourt)
Archie Lorne Box (April 6, Bullecourt)
Joseph Henry Martin (May 3, Bullecourt)
Gordon Stanley Boyton (May 3, Bullecourt)
Roy Harold Boyton (September 26, Polygon Wood)
George Bolton (May 5, Bullecourt)
Thomas Matthew Larkin (April 11, Bullecourt)
Alexander Murdock McKenzie (May 8, Bullecourt)
Joseph McWaters (April 9, Bullecourt)
Richard Graham (April 19, Gaza)
Noel Hunter Sherrie (June 8, Damascus – wounded at Gaza)
Arthur Douglas Bye (November 5, Broodseinde)
Harrie Granville Crittenden (November 3, Ypres)
Francis Joseph Cullen (May 17, Louverval)
Samuel Davis (October 13, Ypres)
Leonard Stanley Dobbs (August 17, Ypres)
Stanley William Ford (October 17, Belgium)
John William Henry Hallam (June 8, Belgium)
Charles Thomas McIntosh Heath (September 26, Ypres)
Malcolm Manley Henningham (October 12, Ypres)
Wilfred Frank Hinton (October 13, Passchendaele)
Arthur Douglas Hogan (October 9, Belgium)
Arthur Vincent Hull (October 9, Belgium)
Norman Ramsey Irvine (October 9, Belgium)
Frederick James Jackson (June 8, Etaples)
Percy Oswald Jamieson (April 9, France)
George Whiting Kelly (December 3, Palestine)
Morton Edwards Kem (March 4, Butte de Warlencourt)
Howard Maitland Lyons (February 26, Lille)
Colin McCully (May 27, died in England from wounds suffered in France)
John Mooney (May 4, Bullecourt)
John Muir (October 12, Passchendaele)
Norman Albert Murphy (June 17, Messines)
Charles Benjamin Palmer (February 22, on the advance to the Hindenburg Line)
Gilbert Harding Pratt (May 21, Bullecourt)
Colin Lindsay Smith (April 2, Doifues)
John Edmund Smith (October 6, Belgium)
Lindsay Stuart Smith (April 15, Mouche)
James Beveridge B Stinson (September 20, Mennin Road)
William Taylor (August 5, Flanders)
Alexander Thwaites (December 12, Messines)
Frederick George Towner (September 19, Ypres)
Frederick Upward (Ypres)
Henry Bede Waddups (January 21, Houplines)
Ernest Claude Wilson (October 9, Ypres)
William Herbert Birrell (October 4, Ypres)
James Aaron Baker (October 3, Polygon Wood)
Leslie Breasley (September 20, Ypres)
Stanley Gordon Brown (October 3, Passchendaele)
Francis Richard Brown (August 4)
Charles James Bruce (September 21, Polygon Wood)
James Livick (December 12, Messines)
Wilfred George Marshall (October 23, Ypres)
Alfred Frederick Mate (September 4, France)
Cecil James McFarlane ( 36th Battalion, December 20)
Joseph Andrew McMullan (June 9, as a prisoner of war in Germany)
Patrick Joseph Nash (September 26, Polygon Wood)
John Lancaster Norman (October 29, Ypres)
Walter Leslie Plummer (October 6, Passchendaele)
Lancelot William Quick (August 19, Ypres)