Flers November 1916
From mid October 1916, the Australian divisions were moved from the front near Ypres to the section of the Somme front near Bapaume. It was the closing stage of the Battle of the Somme. In November, the Australians took part in two unsuccessful attacks – 5 and 14 November – in the immediate area of the destroyed village of Flers. Bean covered the battles in Chapter XXV – ‘Flers. The Somme Battle Ends’ – of volume 3 of his Official History.
While Australian casualties – 2,000 for the 2 failed attacks – were far lower than at Pozieres, Bean concluded that Flers amounted to … a series of operations which, through the weather and the state of ground, were undoubtedly the most difficult in which the A.I. F. was ever engaged. (940)
In the preceding months there had been repeated unsuccessful attacks on the same section of the front, and now it was Winter. However, the Australian attacks went ahead because by this point in the Somme campaign the objectives were more political than military. For the Australians, there was no element of surprise because German intelligence knew in advance of both attacks. Once again, coordination broke down between the artillery barrage and the movement of troops across no-man’s-land. The Germans were able to either hold or counter attack and regain all their positions.
Bean identified additional problems faced at Flers. The weather was the critical consideration. It was not just the extremes of Winter; but also the impact of the weather on the terrain over which the battles were fought, and stretching back several miles from the front line. Specifically, it was the mud.
Even the movement of the troops from the staging camps and reserve lines to the front line was a nightmare. Comparatively short distances took hours to cover. Bean described how troops took six hours to cover distances of only two miles and whenever they had to move under such conditions they always arrived exhausted. (900 – 902)
His description of the dreadful conditions leaves little to the imagination.
On his journey into the trenches, each infantryman now carried his greatcoat, waterproof sheet, one blanket, 220 rounds of ammunition, and, when fighting was in prospect, two bombs, two sandbags, and two days’ reserve rations, besides the remnant of that day’s “issue”. Thus burdened, the troops dragged their way along the sledge-tracks [sledges were employed to pull both supplies and the wounded] besides the communication trenches, the latter – except in the actual front-system – being now never used. But the sledge-tracks also were by this time deep thick mud, which, especially when drying, tugged like glue at the boot-soles, so that the mere journey to the line left men and even pack-animals utterly exhausted. In the dark those who stepped away from the road fell again and again into shell-holes; many pack-animals became fast in the mud and had to be shot, and men were continually pulled out, often leaving their boots and sometimes their trousers. (918)
Bean also detailed how once the men finally made it to the front line trenches, the weather conspired to make matters even worse.
Coming into the trenches under such conditions, and starting their tour of duty in a state of exhaustion, the garrison at the front line usually had to stay there forty-eight hours before relief. At first the men tried to shelter themselves from rain by cutting niches in the trench-walls, but this practice was forbidden, several soldiers having been smothered through the slipping in of the sodden earth-roof, and the trenches broken down. If, to keep themselves warm, men stamped or moved about, the floor of the trench turned to thin mud. At night the officers sometimes walked up and down in the open and encouraged their men to do the same, chancing the snipers; but for the many there was no alternative but to stand almost still, freezing, night and day. (919)
These were the conditions in which the incidence of ‘trench foot’ multiplied. As Bean observed,
After a tour in the line during this continued wet-weather offensive, practically all the men in many Australian battalions were suffering from “trench feet,” at least in its incipient stages. Thus, when the 27th Battalion (7th Brigade) was relieved after the fight of November 5th, ninety per cent of its men were said to be affected. (920)
Importantly there was hardly any relief from the weather and the appalling conditions anywhere in the battle zone. Troops slept in the open even in the reserve lines. Men had to improvise what shelter they could, with their ‘blankest and water proof sheets’ (899).
Bean suggested that the Australian troops found the dreadful winter conditions even more difficult to manage because of what they remembered of the weather ‘back home’.
There can be no question that the Australian force, reared in a land of almost continual sunshine and genial warmth, was throughout this period being subjected to intense suffering: the reserve trenches were little better than the front line; the camps now springing up in the rear of the ridge, were ankle-deep or knee-deep in mud. In the nearer rest billets… the rain poured through the leaky barns, drenching the straw on which men were supposed to rest. Firewood, through difficulties of transport, was unobtainable, and the troops even in the billets could not dry their sodden clothes except by the heat of their bodies or by using for fuel the farmers’ gates and fences, or the matchboard lining of military huts. (941)
Hardly surprising, the appalling conditions had an impact on the men. Bean alludes to it in terms of ‘morale’.
It would be idle to suppose that any force could support without signs of bending the tremendous stresses which – for the Australians – began at Pozieres and reached their climax at Flers. The morale of the A.I.F. was never low; even in the worst conditions at Flers the response of the troops often amazed even those who knew them best; but this period represented the bottom of the curve. (940)
Apart from the obvious contradiction in the claim, it is clear from Bean’s writing that morale was in fact low. For example, in the very next section he went on to acknowledge one or two cases of desertion – ‘almost unknown in the Australian force’ – by … young soldiers who, finding themselves at the limit of their endurance, walked over to the enemy. (940) Then he follows up with the story of one soldier from 24 Battalion who had tragically reached the limit of his endurance.
At least one man of finer fibre [as opposed to those who tried to avoid ‘trench service’], when his battalion – the 24th – was ordered to undertake the nightmare journey through the crater-field back into the line, turned to his mates and, saying simply “I’m not going in – I’m finished,” shot himself. (941)
Flers took place just days after the first conscription referendum and it demonstrated, yet again, that as a direct consequence of the ruthless – and arguably, pointless – manner in which the fighting on the Western Front was being waged, the demand for reinforcements would be unrelenting. And the demand was always going to be greater than the numbers that could be raised through voluntary recruitment.
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, 12th edition 1941.
Norman Waterhouse BOOTH 2 Lt
18 Battalion KIA 7/11/16
Norman Booth enlisted at Liverpool, NSW on 26/7/15. He had tried to enlist earlier in the year but had been rejected. At the time of enlistment he was 39 yo and he gave his occupation as accountant. As his next-of-kin he listed his mother – Mrs Emma Booth – and her address was “The Rectory”, Milton, NSW. His father was deceased. Norman had been born at Parramatta on 16/11/1875. He joined reinforcements for 18 Battalion and left from Sydney on 8/3/16.
Despite the obvious NSW connection, 2 Lt Booth had a direct association with the Shire of Alberton. In January 1915, the Anglican reader at Yarram, William Vernon Rymer, had enlisted and Norman Booth was appointed as his replacement. The appointment was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24/3/15:
Mr Booth, the new Church of England reader, has arrived in Yarram, and conducted services on Sunday last. He is a genial sort.
It is also possible that Norman Booth’s father had been a Church of England minister in Yarram in the late 19C.
His work as reader – he was also described as the curate – in the local church did not last long. From late May 1915 there were reports in the local paper (26/5/15, 2/6/15) that he had passed his medical and that he was going to Melbourne to enlist. He was issued with a railway warrant by the Shire Secretary, dated 31/5/15, for the trip to Melbourne. However, he must have been rejected, presumably on his second medical, when he reached Melbourne. This is based on the evidence of a MT 1486/1 (1915-1915) for him, and the obvious fact that he did not enlist in Melbourne but at Liverpool, nearly 2 months later.
When he was in Yarram, he attended Empire Day celebrations at the Yarram State School. He accompanied Rev George Cox, who as noted in earlier posts, had a strong link to the school. At the school, he spoke to the students. What he said that day offers an insight to his own motivation. It was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (26/5/15) and it is quintessentially Imperial in tone:
The text of his [Mr. Booth] address was “courage.” The best boys were not always those with the biggest muscles and biggest physique (Laughter). The big Germans were given to bullying. He instanced Lord Nelson as a type of courageous man – a weakling as a boy, who was taken to sea by his father, and ordered aloft. Asked if he were afraid, Nelson replied, “Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m going to the top of the mast.” And he did so. That showed the difference between physical power and moral quality. They sang “Britons never never shall be slaves.” [the students had just finished the tune] There was no slavery under the Union Jack, which floated for freedom. Unfurling the flag, he said the cross represented the sacrifice for the whole world – and for the Redeemer. They used their powers but not for themselves. They were fighting for the Belgians, that those people might have that freedom which the British nation enjoyed. (Applause).
When he embarked from Sydney, Booth held the rank of 2 Lt. His service record indicates that, in terms of previous military experience, he had spent only 1 year in each of the junior and senior cadets – so his rise in the ranks was very rapid. He passed his exam and secured his commission in early December 1915, less that 6 months after enlisting.
He joined 18 Battalion in France in June 1916. He was wounded – GSW head and neck – at Pozieres on 3/8/16 and repatriated to England. In the telegram to his mother, the wounds were described as ‘severe’.
2 Lt Booth recovered and was discharged from hospital on 21/10/16. He rejoined his unit on 23/10/16. However, just 2 weeks later, he was killed in action (7/11/16). There is confusion over the exact date of death. The official date is given as 7/11/16 but there is strong evidence that it was 6/11/16. Certainly, the battalion war diary specifically records his death – 2/Lieut BOOTH N. W. KIA – on 6 November. He was killed by shell fire. The battalion was at Montauban, about 7 Km from Flers. The war diary also records the appalling conditions – Trenches in fearful condition. Mud everywhere & knee deep in the trenches. Men suffering badly from wet and cold.
The cable advising of 2 Lt Booth’s death was dated 16/11/16. He was buried in a temporary grave and then, finally, at AIF Burial Ground, Grass Lane, Gueudecourt (AIF Burial Ground, Flers, Picardie).
As an example of the difference in status in the AIF between an officer and other ranks, the personal kit belonging to 2 Lt Booth, which was returned to his mother, was composed of no less than 5 lots: one valise, one black kit-bag, one black tin trunk, one suit case and one small tin trunk. There were at last 100 individual item listed. The greater part of the kit was clothing but there were also many books, maps, writing equipment and unique officer kit such as ‘walking canes’ and field glasses. The field glasses in themselves also interesting. The mother returned the ones she received in the kit because she was sure they were not her son’s. She wrote, giving a more detailed description of the pair of glasses her son owned, and requested that they be located because her son had specifically requested, if he were killed, that they be given to one of his brothers. After considerable investigation – and correspondence – the Commanding Officer 18 Battalion was able to locate and return to the mother a pair of field glasses that, most probably, was the pair that had belonged to her son. The provenance of the glasses returned was certainly not definite but, more importantly, the whole episode suggested the length that fellow officers had gone to, in order to accommodate the request.
The mother, who from the start had been identified as the next-of-kin, was highly indignant that she had to establish that her husband was dead before she could receive her son’s medals.
Unfortunately, the mother did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. 2 Lt Booth’s name is recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor but his death is not indicated. His name is not included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. This omission is striking, given the direct link with the Shire. On 29/11/16 his death was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative:
We learn with regret that Lieutenant Norman W Booth, formerly a reader in connection with the Yarram Church of England, was killed in action in France about the 17th [sic] of the present month. The sad happening will be regretted by the large number of friends he made whilst engaged in spiritual work here.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
National Archives file for BOOTH Norman Waterhouse 2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Norman Waterhouse Booth
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Norman Waterhouse Booth
Alexander LAING 766
23 Battalion DOW 7/11/16
Alexander Laing was born at Drouin in Gippsland and was nearly 19 yo when he enlisted on 1/3/15. His connection with Yarram is not completely clear from his file. On the form to record background information for the (National) Roll of Honour, his father identified the Melbourne suburb of Kew as the town or district with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. The father, as next-of-kin, also lived in Kew. Further, Kew State School was given as the school attended. It appears that even though he was born in Gippsland, Alexander grew up in Kew; and then he returned as a young man to work in Gippsland. His occupation on enlistment was listed as farmer, by which he intended farm labourer.
There was a brother – Duncan McLaren Laing (2224) – who also enlisted. Duncan was also born in Gippsland, at Warragul. He was some two years older than Alexander but he enlisted nearly fourteen months after his younger brother, in April 1916. At the time of his enlistment, Duncan’s occupation was given as farm labourer. Duncan was injured in 1917 – gunshot wound to left leg and right hand – and had two fingers amputated. Subsequently he was returned to Australia in 1918 and discharged. There is correspondence to indicate that he was living in Yarram in the early 1920s.
It appears that, prior to enlistment, both brothers had returned to Gippsland and were working in the Yarram area as farm labourers. Certainly, Alexander was sufficiently ‘local’ to be included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. Both brothers also feature on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.
Private Laing was attached to 23 Battalion which was only formed in Melbourne in March 1915. His unit embarked for Egypt on 10/5/15. After the battalion completed training in Egypt it was despatched to Gallipoli at the very end of August 1915 and did not return to Alexandria until early January 1916. On Gallipoli, 23 Battalion was heavily involved in the fighting at Lone Pine.
23 Battalion left Alexandria for France in mid March 1916 and reached Marseilles on 26/3/16. The battalion moved to the Armentieres section in April 1916 for a relatively ‘quiet’ introduction to the Western Front. Then in late July and early August and then again in late August, 23 Battalion was involved in the savage fighting at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. The casualty rate was so great that, effectively, by the end of the fighting, 90% of the original battalion, raised in Melbourne just 18 months earlier, had gone: killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
Private Laing’s file shows that he was charged with and convicted of two charges at a Field General Court Martial, held on 26/6/16 ‘in the field’. The two charges were ‘disobeying a lawful command’ and ‘using threatening language’. The files from the court martial reveal that on 9 June 1916, Private Laing and another soldier from the same company – Private F J Staig (2793) – had clashed heatedly with Acting Company Sergeant Major Kirby over the order to join a fatigue party. Private Laing had sworn at the CSM, while Private Staig had actually attempted to strike him. Drink was a major factor. The most succinct account of what happened came from one witness, Corporal Osborn.
On the morning of the 9th Ptes Staig & Laing fell in on parade drunk. They abused Sgt Maj Kirby & called him a Bastard. Pte Staig attempted to strike Kirby.
Private Laing was found guilty and sentenced to 90 days field punishment 2. Private Staig, convicted of the more serious offence, was sentenced to one year imprisonment with hard labour.
On 11/8/16 the conviction from the court martial was quashed. The timing is probably significant because it was just a few days after 23 Battalion was brought out of the line at Pozieres. It was relieved on 7/8/16.
Three months later, Private Laing was seriously wounded in the fighting at Flers. On the day (7/11/16), 23 Battalion relieved 21Battalion in the front line. The battalion’s diary records that on that day 1 soldier was killed and 18 were wounded.
Private Laing was evacuated to 36 Casualty Clearing Station with either gunshot or shrapnel wounds to his legs. The file also records that there were compound fractures and at least one of his legs had to be amputated; but even this extreme action did not save him and he died from his wounds on the same day. He was buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe, about 25 kilometres from Flers.
It appears that the cable advising of his death reached Australia on 16/11/16, just over a week after his death.
In contrast to the personal kit of 2 Lt Booth above, Private Laing’s kit was rather sparse: Disc, Pocket Knife, Song Book, Correspondence.
National Archives file for LAING Alexander 766
National Archives Court Martial records for LAING Alexander 766 [NAA Series Number A471, Control Symbol 5193, Barcode 3540193]
Roll of Honour: Alexander Laing
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alexander Laing
Alfred Lindsay NEWLAND 2 Lt
6 Australian Machine Gun Company KIA 8/11/16
Alfred Newland was born at Pomborneit in 1895. When he enlisted in early 1915 (19/2/15) – 22 Battalion – he was still only 20 yo and required the consent of his parents. At the time he gave his address as that of his father: W A Newland, Laverton Victoria. He was single and his religion was Methodist. His occupation was recorded as labourer.
Alfred Lindsay Newland was the much younger brother of William Andrew Newland who was the recruiting sergeant appointed to assist the work of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in 1916. William had enlisted earlier, on 19/8/14. At the time he was 34 yo. He was also married and his wife resided in Yarram.
The 2 brothers were living and working in the Shire of Alberton in 1914. Their names feature in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative as players for the Yarram team in the local football competition (13/5/14, 3/6/14) and also local bike races (13/3/14, 27/3/14). Both worked for the local council. William was ‘engine driver to [the] shire’, a position from which he resigned (11/9/14) after he enlisted. Alfred was a labourer for the Shire. Alfred was also involved with the local fire brigade (18/11/14).
Both brothers’ names are recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and Alfred’s name is featured on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. On both memorials, Alfred Lindsay Newland is recorded as L (indsay) Newland.
Private Alfred – more commonly known as Lindsay – Newland rose through the ranks. He was made corporal then sergeant in early 1916 and in mid October 1916 he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant. Tragically, he was killed in action (8/11/16) less than a month after receiving his commission.
At the time he was killed, 2 Lt Newland was serving in 6 Australian Machine Gun Company. His death was recorded in the war dairy for this unit. He was one of 2 officers from the unit killed that day. The fighting was in the area of Bayonet Trench, near Gueudecourt on the Flers battlefield. He was buried at AIF Burial Ground, Flers.
The cable advising of his death was dated 20/11/16. Word reached the Shire of Alberton in late November. The following appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 24/11/16:
We are informed that a cable message has been received in Yarram announcing that Private L. Newland has been killed in action in France. The news was received with feelings of regret, as when a resident of Yarram he was a very popular young man, and a member of the Yarram Football Club.
In due course – July 1917 – 2 Lt Newland’s personal kit – (1) Military Books, 4 Handkerchiefs, Holdall, Pr Mittens, Pr Socks, Note Books, 2 Devotional Books, Arabic Book, Correspondence and (2) Photos, Gum Leaves, Railway Ticket – were returned to the family. The parents received his commission in November 1918. Unfortunately, the parents did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
National Archives file for NEWLAND Alfred Lindsay 2 Lt
Roll of Honour: Alfred Lindsay Newland
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alfred Lindsay Newland
Note: While only 2 of them had a direct connection to the Shire of Alberton, there were 4 Newland brothers who served in the AIF. One of the other 2 brothers was Lieutenant Colonel James Ernest Newland VC. The Victoria Cross was awarded for conspicuous bravery in April 1917. For further information on the family contact Rob J Newland, Rye: firstname.lastname@example.org