Two ‘locals’ – Gordon Martin and William Edward Babington – were killed in action on 8 June 1917 at Messines.
The fighting at Messines was heralded by the detonation of 19 mines under the opposing German lines. The German troops were demoralised and many surrendered. The allied troops were able to secure their objectives. Messines also saw the more accurate and effective use of artillery. The ‘creeping’ barrage was used to significant effect, although there were still casualties when the advancing troops went forward too quickly. A large number of British tanks were employed and there was more effective targeting of enemy positions, thanks in part to better maps and improved observation techniques. Overall, the military operation was judged ‘successful’.
However, if the battle was judged a ‘success’, the casualties were still very high. As Beaumont (pp.323-4) puts it:
Messiness has been heralded as a classic illustration of what could be achieved on the Western Front when an operation was well planned by competent leaders [The planning by Monash, in charge of 3 Division, was said to be exemplary] and the infantry were asked to advance no further than the distance covered by their own artillery. … It should also be remembered that Messiness [7-14 June] cost 26,000 British casualties, of whom almost 14,000 were from II Anzac Corps, many of them victims of gas.
One of the 2 local men – Martin – was from 39 Battalion and the war diary for this battalion described how the men were subjected to heavy gas shelling even before they reached the assembly trenches for the attack. They had to move through Ploegsteert Wood where the gas was incredibly thick. Using their box respirators they struggled though the heavy gas in the dark. According to the account in the Offical History (Vol 4, Chapt XV) many officers collapsed from the effort involved in keeping the men moving.
The total number of casualties for 39 Battalion, to the point when they were relieved early in the morning of 9/6/17, was approximately 470. There were comparatively few deaths, but 300 were wounded and another 145 were missing.
The other local man – Babington – was from 37 Battalion and the overall casualty level was similar. The casualties, to the point the battalion was relieved – 11 am on 9/6/17 – were 492. In this instance there were 67 deaths, 331 men were wounded and only a handful of men missing.
For the AIF, ‘victory’ at such a cost was unsustainable, particularly given the very low recruiting numbers back home.
Gordon MARTIN (179)
39 Battalion KiA 8/6/1917
Gordon Martin was a volunteer whose military service was not remembered in the local area. His name does not appear on any memorial in the Shire of Alberton. Yet he definitely enlisted from Yarram. He had his initial medical in Yarram with Dr Crooks on 28/1/16. A railway warrant (#260) for travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process was issued in his name by the Shire Secretary on the same date. The address that appeared on the embarkation roll was Barry’s Hotel, Alberton. The occupation given was ‘operating porter’, suggesting that he was employed at the Alberton Railway Station. Possibly he had not been living and working in the Shire very long but the reality is that he did enlist from there. There is no evidence that he was ever given a formal farewell from the Shire.
To make his life even more unknown and unrecorded, there is very little detail of his military service and the circumstances of his death. There is no Red Cross file for him and his family did not complete the information for the (National) Roll of Honour. Nor is there any correspondence in his service file to throw additional light on his life in the AIF.
Gordon Martin was born in Dunolly. His enlistment was completed on 21/2/16 – nearly one moth after the medical in Yarram – and at the the time he was 22 yo and single. His religion was Church of England. His father – John E Martin of Seymour – was given as his next-of-kin. He enlisted as reinforcements for 39 Battalion.
Private Martin embarked for overseas on 27/5/16 and reached the UK on 18/7/16. He joined 39 Battalion in France on 23/11/16 and was killed in action at Messiness on 8/6/17. His family was notified of the death at the start of July (2/7/17). He was buried at Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert, Belgium. Personal kit – Identity Disc, 2 Note Books, Photos, Testament, Prayer Book, Fountain Pen, Scissors, Cigarette Case, Razor – was returned to the family in March 1918.
As already indicated, while the casualties for 39 Battalion at Messiness were very high, relatively few men (24) were killed. Private Martin was one of them.
William Edward BABINGTON (228)
37 Battalion KiA 8/6/17
Unlike Gordon Martin, William Babington was very well known in the local area and his name appears on many memorials: the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor, the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial, and the honor rolls for the Yarram State School, the Presbyterian Charge and Stacey’s Bridge.
William Babington was born on 22/9/1891 at Trentham. He grew up in the local area, attending Yarram State School. His father – William Dunn Babington – was a dairy farmer at Jack River where he had a 114 acre property. The son worked on the family farm and on his enlistment papers he gave his occupation as ‘dairyman’. The mother was Williamina (sic) Babington. There another brother – John Sutherland Babington – who had enlisted very early in the War (16/9/14). He was younger (20 yo) and at the time was also helping on the family farm. All his military service was in the Middle East and he returned to Australia with the rank of sergeant in July 1919.
When the father completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour he indicated that Stacey’s Bridge was the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. William Babington was also closely identified with Devon, where, prior to enlisting, he had been the captain of the local football club.
At the time William Babington enlisted he was 25 yo and single. His religion was Presbyterian and he appears to have been actively involved in the church as a young person.
Private Babington had his first medical on 21/1/16 in Yarram with Dr Crooks – this was exactly one week before Gordon Martin’s medical – and he was re-examined in Melbourne on 16/2/16. The official date for his enlistment was 8/2/16 and he joined as reinforcements for 37 Battalion. There was a formal farewell for him and 20 other local recruits – Gordon Martin was not there – held at Yarram on 24/4/16. It was reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – on 26/4/16. On the occasion, he and the others were told that, The charge of the Light Brigade faded into insignificance compared with the brave deeds of our Australian boys at Gallipoli. It was one of the many occasions when the farewell was used to appeal for more volunteers. The Shire medallion was handed to the men.
Private Babington embarked from Melbourne on 3/6/16 and reached England on 25/7/16. There was a period of further training before he proceeded to France and joined 37 Battalion in November (22/11/16). He was promoted to lance corporal in March 1917 (5/317).
On 1/11/16 the local paper published a letter written by Private Babington which covered, in detail, the voyage from Australia on the troopship Persic, and first impressions of the enormous military camp on Salisbury Plain near Amesbury. He noted of the camp, You will hardly believe that this camp is 12 miles by 13, nothing but huts as far as the eye can see. He also noted that … there are over 40,000 Australians camped here.
Lance Corporal Babington was killed at Messines on 8 June 1917. One witness statement in the Red Cross file had the date of death as 7 June, the first day of the battle. There are other inconsistencies in the several witness statements but, generally, it appears that he was shot, in the chest, and died within a few minutes. Several refer to him being shot by a German sniper and as he was a lewis gunner it is highly likely that he would have been targeted. Some witnesses reported him being buried but others were unsure, and one even reported that he saw the body still in the field three days after he had been killed. Most agreed that if he had been buried, the grave would have been in Ploegsteert Wood. There is also a record of the grave being SE of Messines. However, in the end, there was no formal identification of any grave and Lace-Corporal Babington’s name is recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres.
The cable to advise the family of the death was dated 22/6/17. However, it appears that the information did not reach the family until 26/6/17. Three days later, on 29/6/17, the death was reported in the local paper:
Mr. W Babington, Stacey’s Bridge, received the sad message on Tuesday night that his son, Lance Corporal W. E. Babington, had been killed in action on 9th (sic) June, 1917, and conveying the sympathy of King and Queen and Commonwealth. Lance Corporal Babington previous to enlisting was a popular young man, a good footballer and captain of the Devon team, and worked with his father as a dairy farmer. … Lance Corporal Babington paid the supreme sacrifice for his country. The sympathy of our readers will be extended to Mr. and Mrs. Babington and family at Stacey’s Bridge in the loss of their son.
The article also described how The night before the sad tidings reached his parents a letter came by mail, saying he was fighting only 200 yards from the enemy.
Then on 21/9/17 the following additional article on the death of Lance Corporal Babington appeared in the local paper under the heading A Gippsland Hero. The father obviously provided the paper with the correspondence he had received from the UK. It is worth quoting the letter in full because it illustrates how the all-pervasive, background narrative of the sacrifice of the Christian soldier was so commonly applied at the time and in such a highly personal way. No matter how dreadful the loss of the son, there was a strong and comforting religious ‘explanation’ of the tragedy.
Mr. Wm. Babbington (sic), Stacey’s Bridge, has received from the chaplain at the front particulars relating to his son’s death. He writes: – Dear Mr. Babington. – You have had the official word of your son’s death in action, Lance Corporal W. E. Babington, No. 228. on the 8/6/17. It was in the great battle of Messiness, that splendid victory, but won only by much sacrifice, and your fine lad was one. He was a hero. I have just been talking with O.M.S. Redd[?], of his Company, who was beside him when he fell. It was right up to the very forefront of the attack, and your boy was fearlessly brave – was one of those who by their indomitable courage made the attack so successful. A shot from the enemy, however, got him, and he died on the spot. His comrades thought the world of him, and the O.M.S tells me it nearly knocked the heart out of him to see your boy fall. They were fine fellows, these boys of ours, good souled and fine spirited. As their chaplain I thought very much of them, their earnest interest in the real things that count. How keen they were for religious ministrations, and at services and communions they gave splendid attendance. They went into the fight well prepared, and the God above them gave them strength and courage. As He will give to you for your great sorrow. God help you is our prayer. We always pray for you all in our services. Your boy with the rest was keen on these things, yours in much sympathy.
A. Irving Davidson, Presbyterian Chaplain to the Regiment.
Personal kit was returned to the family in March 1918: Calabash Pipe, Folding Scissors, 2 Notebooks, Cards, photos, Letters.
The contrast between the 2 men killed on the same day highlights just how significant the locals’ definition of ‘local’ could be. It also throws light on the fate of the itinerant, working-class volunteers: if a person was not tied to a particular location, his effort and ‘sacrifice’ could easily dissipate, if not disappear.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 4 – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917 (11th Edition, 1941)
William Edward Babington
National Archives file for BABINGTON William Edward 228
Roll of Honour: William Edward Babington
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Edward Babington
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: William Edward Babington