138. Passchendaele 1 – Oct 9, 1917: W Hickey, B Nicholas & H S Ray

The tone of historians who write about Passchendaele (Poelcappelle on 9/10/17 and Passchendaele on 12/10/17) always touches on the sense of despair. Despair because the attacks could never succeed, and those there at the time recognised this reality; despair because the attacks went ahead anyway; and despair because the level of casualties served no military purpose. Possibly there is also the realisation that the overall disaster that Passchendaele represented was driven by the failures of a small number of key individuals – both political and military – who, ultimately, were never held to account. Much of the writing focuses on who could and should have acted to avoid the tragedy in the first place, or at least bring it to a quicker end.

The essential story is well-known. After 4/10/17 the weather changed and rain turned the battlefield into a quagmire. The change in weather meant that the previous ‘successful’ strategy could no longer be employed. Most significantly, the essential artillery support was, effectively, no longer available. As importantly, the actual physical movement of the troops on the battlefield – this covered everything from putting in an attack to evacuating wounded and bringing up essential supplies – was utterly compromised. It was hardly possible to fight in the conditions – it was also pointless – and it proved impossible to ‘win’. The morale of the German troops did not collapse. Rather, British and Dominion troops lost faith in their commanders and wondered aloud at their blind stupidity and indifference to their fate.

As far as Poelcappelle – the first act of the disaster – was concerned, by the end of the day (9/10/17) the AIF had fallen back to its original positions and there were over 1,000 casualties. It was but a sign of far worse to come.


Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, 11th Edition 1941
Chapter XXI – The Plan Breaks Down. Passchendaele I – October 9th

For a general background on Poelcappelle see:

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [p 353 ff]

Carlyon, L 2006, The Great War, Pan Macmillan, Sydney NSW
[Chapter 32]
Chapter 32 is aptly named, ‘The way of the cross’

See also 2 articles in the most recent edition of Wartime-Official Magazine of the Australian War Memorial, Issue 80 Spring 2017:
‘The Most Dangerous Battle’, R Prior
‘The Tragedy of Passchendaele’, A Ekins


William HICKEY (5369)
23B KiA 9/10/17

William Hickey was nearly 41 yo when he enlisted in March 1916. He was a widower with 3 children. One of the children, the boy ( Lawrence/Laurence) was 9 yo at the time his father enlisted. There is no indication as to who cared for the children when the father enlisted. Hickey’s parents were dead and he gave his older sister – Joannah Harrap of West Alberton – as his next-of-kin. She had a large family so perhaps the children stayed with her. There was another sister who also had a large family. However, whatever arrangements were made for the care of the children at the time he enlisted, when the issue of medal distribution came up in 1922, the son, then 15 yo, was living at an orphanage (St Augustine) in Geelong.

William Hickey was born at Yarram. Unfortunately, no family member completed the (National) Roll of Honour form so there is only limited detail on his life. There does not appear to be any record of him attending any local school. However it appears that for at least 3 years – to 1899 – he ran a mail contract at Gelliondale. His name appears in the 1915 Electoral Roll as a labourer of Alberton West.

He had his initial medical at Yarram and completed the enlistment in Melbourne on 28/3/16. There was no indication that he had tried to enlist previously. News of his enlistment was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 5/4/16. Incredibly, he was described as ‘young man’:

We hear that three young men of West Alberton, Messrs. W. Hickey, R. Appleyard and Geo. James have enlisted, and go into camp early this month.

On the enlistment forms he gave his occupation as ‘farm labourer’. His religion was Roman Catholic.

Private Hickey enlisted as reinforcements for 23 Battalion. His unit left Melbourne on 1/8/16 and disembarked at Plymouth on 25/9/16. There were 2 months training in the UK and then he was taken on strength in France in early December 1917. He was hospitalised wth Trench feet in early January 1917 and repatriated to England (Brook War Hospital) where he stayed until 10/3/17. He did not rejoin 23 Battalion in France until 3/7/17.

Initially he was reported ‘wounded in action’ 9/10/17. His sister, as next-of-kin, was notified on 14/11/17 that he was wounded, but there were no other details. In January 1918 this status was changed to ‘wounded and missing’. Finally, on 7/5/18 a court of enquiry determined that he had been ‘killed in action’ on 9/10/17. His sister was advised by cable dated 16/5/18. Two months earlier in February, she had been sent the standard letter asking if she had received any word from her missing brother or any relevant information from anyone else. She replied (5/3/18):

I am very sorry to say that I have not had any letters from my Brother since he has been missing. Thanking you kindly if you could only let me know what has happened to him as he is the only brother I have got. I think it must be a serious case. Thanking you very much.

There is a Red Cross report but it is very limited. The only witness who claimed to have seen him killed was E A Millard (1746) who was in same company (B Coy). Private Millard claimed that Hickey was killed by shell fire in the reserve lines and that ‘he was not badly knocked about’. Millard did not know if he had been buried. Emmanuel Alexander Millard was a station hand from Portland who was half Hickey’s age. He wrote the witness statement when he was in hospital in April 1918 suffering from recurring trench feet. He survived the war and returned to Australia in May 1919.

The war dairy for 23 Battalion presents an understated account of the fighting on 9 October and essentially represents the attack as a success. It gives total casualties for the attack as ‘about’ 67: 2 officers and 65 other ranks.

Incredibly, Private Hickey’s body was recovered at the end of the War. His sister was advised in December 1920 that her brother was buried in the ‘Tyne Cot British Cemetery, 5 ½ miles east north east of Ypres.’ (Plot 22 Row E Grave 16). It appears that identification was made by the cover of the pay book found on the body: ‘Hickey, 23rd Bn.’ As for several others in this group of men killed in October 1917, there was no personal kit returned to the family.

There was a will made by Private Hickey, dated 1/8/17, that left his personal estate to his 3 children. Their address was given as Bennison, about 50 km from Yarram. It is not known with whom the children were staying at Bennison. Their two aunts were both living at Alberton West so it does not appear that the childen were staying with them.

As indicated, when it came to the distribution of medals, there was the usual communication to ascertain if there was a male recipient. When the sister gave the details for the only son – Laurence Hickey – she indicated that he was in an orphanage at Geelong (St Augustine). This was in 1922 and the boy was 15 yo. The aunt, as the child’s guardian, was entrusted with the medals.

William Hickey’s name appears on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. His name also appears on the honor roll for Stacey’s Bridge. Oddly, his name is not included on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for HICKEY William 5369
Roll of Honour: William Hickey
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Hickey
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: William Hickey

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project


Bryon Fitzgerald NICHOLAS MC (370/Lt)
24B KiA 9/10/17

Bryon F Nicholas was the younger brother of George Matson Nicholas – Post 95 – who was also killed. The connection that both brothers had to the Shire of Alberton was through education. Both were teachers at local schools some time prior to enlisting. Bryon Nicholas had been the head teacher at Gormandale East in 1912 and in 1913 he was in charge of the part-time schools at Carrajung South and Willing South.

Bryon Nicholas was born at Ballarat in 1893. He attended St Patrick’s College. Ballarat. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour was not submitted for either of the Nicholas brothers.

He enlisted on 12/3/15 in Melbourne. At the time he was 21 yo and single. His occupation was given as ‘State School Teacher’. The next-of-kin was his father – John Pern Nicholas – who was living at Trafalgar. He gave his religion as Roman Catholic, whereas his brother had given his as Church Of England.

Bryon Nicholas had had no prior military service before enlistment. He joined as a trooper in the Light Horse (13LHR) and left Melbourne on 28/5/15. He served on Gallipoli from September 1915 to the the evacuation. His first promotion – to lance corporal – came in November 1915.

By the time Nicholas reached Marseilles in March 1916 he was corporal. Initially in France he served with the 1st Australian and New Zealand Mounted Regiment but in late August 1916 he transferred to 21 Battalion. In September 1916 he was sent to the UK to undertake officer training at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was appointed 2nd Lieutenant on 21/11/16 and in January 1917 he returned to France and was taken on strength in 24 Battalion. In April 1917 he was promoted lieutenant and also in April he was awarded the Military Cross. The award was for an action on the night of 17/3/17. In part, the citation read:

On the 17th March during operations against the enemy position on the Bapaume Ridge, Lieut. Nicholas was in command of a forward post, under M.G. and rifle fire. At considerable personal risk, he pushed out and dug in 2 standing patrols.

The award was gazetted in London on 11/5/17 and Base Records in Melbourne sent a copy to the father in Trafalgar on 5/9/17, 5 days before Lt Nicholas was killed.

HIS MAJESTY THE KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned officer in recognition of his gallantry and devotion to duty in the field:-
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a forward post. At great personal risk he went out and dug in two standing patrols. Later, he rendered valuable assistance in repelling an enemy counter-attack.

In June 1917 Lt. Nicholas was sent to the UK for further staff training. He rejoined 24 Battalion in late July. He was killed in action on 9/10/17.

There is no Red Cross report. The war dairy for 24 Battalion indicates that the battalion was taking casualties in the support lines and then at the ‘jumping of tapes’. The covering artillery support was described as ‘weak and irregular’. The advance was slow and the troops were pinned down by strong resistance from Daisy Wood. It notes that Lt. Nicholas was killed some time before 7.30 a.m. Casualties for the single day were 36 killed and 77 wounded.

In addition, there is an account – unsigned, but presumably by Captain E V Smythe, 24 Battalion – that states,

Lt. Nicholas was sniped through the head and chest on the 9th Oct. 1917 in the attack on DAISY WOOD forward of Broodseinde Ridge. Lt. Nicholas was buried on the day of his death by a party organised by Capt. E. V. Smythe (M.C) of this Battalion. Approx. location of grave Sheet 28 N.E. D. 23.a.8.2. Approx. 500 yards N.E. of BROODSEINDE.

Bean, in the Official History (p897) states that Lt. Nicholas was killed by machine gun fire.

The cable advising the parents of the death was dated 16/10/17. Despite the efforts made by Capt. Symthe, the body never recovered and Lt. Nicholas is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

An extensive amount of personal effects were returned in September 1918. Once again the relative difference between the scope and amount of the officer’s personal belongings and those of the enlisted men was very apparent. There was a valise which contained: 1 Trench Coat, 1 Cap, 1 Shirt, 1 Suit Pyjamas, 1 Kit Bag, 1 “Sam Browne” Belt, 3 Pr. Socks, 1 Collar, 1 Hair Brush, 4 Boot Brushes, 2 Razor Strops, 3 Razors, 2 Shaving Brushes, 1 Cigarette Case, 1 Pocket Knife, 1 Badge, 1 Drinking Cup, 1 German Book, 1 Soap Dish. There was also a suit case with: 3 Photos, Letters, 1 Hair Brush, 1 Coat Hanger, 1 Pr. Gloves, 2 Towels, 1 Cap, 7 Collars, 1 Tie, 5 Pr. Socks, 2 Handkerchiefs, 1 Pr. Puttees, 1 Pr. Stocking Puttees, 2 Mufflers, 1 Pr. Underpants, 1 Pr. Slacks, 1 Pr. Breeches, 1 S.D Tunic. There was also a kitbag: 1 Rug, 1 Pr. Ankle Boots, 2 Prs. Socks, 1 Balaclava Cap, 1 Muffler, 1 Small Book of Poems, Post Card Views, Letters. Lastly, there was a separate parcel, probably with the few articles on him when he was killed: Letters, Cards, Photos, Spray Wattle & Fern, Badges, Red Armlet & Red Tabs, Wallet, Rosary.


Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, 11th Edition 1941

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for NICHOLAS Bryon Fitzgerald 370/Lt
Roll of Honour: Bryon Fitzgerald Nicholas
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Bryon Fitzgerald Nicholas

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project

Harold Seymour RAY (1526)
24B KiA 9/10/17

Harold Seymour Ray was born at Seymour and went to school at the local state school there. It is not known when the family moved to the Shire of Alberton but certainly by the time Harold enlisted in March 1915 they were well established there. Also by this time, the father – William Ray – had died. Harold gave his mother – Eleanor Ray – as his next-of-kin and her address was Alberton. Harold himself appeared on the 1915 electoral roll as a ‘labourer’ of Alberton West.

There was another brother – Robert Hudson Ray – who also enlisted from the Shire of Alberton. There was a third brother – Sydney Neville Ray – who also enlisted but he was in Sydney and had no contact with the Shire of Alberton. The 2 other brothers – Robert and Sydney – survived the War.

There was a fourth brother – Percy W Ray – but he did not enlist. It appears that this brother also moved to the Shire of Alberton but probably not until after the War. In 1922 his address was c/o South Gippsland Butter Factory, Yarram. As the oldest brother – both parents were dead by this point – Percy received Harold’s medals .

When the mother completed the (National) Roll of Honour, she gave Alberton as the location with which her son (Harold) was ‘chiefly connected’. Yet for all the obvious links to the Shire of Alberton, Harold Ray’s name is not included on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honour. Yet his brother – Robert Hudson Ray – is included. And to show how inconsistent the recording of names on memorials could be, while Harold’s name is not on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor, it is recorded on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial.

When he enlisted in Melbourne on 6/3/15, Harold Ray was 33 yo and single. He gave his occupation as farmer but, as noted, his occupation on the local electoral roll was labourer. Moreover, as none of the Ray brothers featured in the relevant rate book it is most likely that Harold worked as a farm labour in the district. He identified that he had served 2 years in the senior cadets. He gave his religion as Church of England. He enlisted as reinforcements for 24 Battalion.

Private Ray embarked from Melbourne on 8/5/15 and served on Gallipoli. He was evacuated from the Peninsula on 8/11/15 and taken to hospital at Mudros suffering from eczema. He was back in Alexandria by mid January 1916 and then transferred to France at the end of March. He was wounded – shrapnel wound right arm – on 5/8/16 and hospitalised in France. He rejoined his unit on 21/9/16. In March 1917 he was hospitalised with scabies and septic sores and there was more hospitalisation with scabies over March and May. He was killed in action on 9/10/17.

The cable advising of the death was dated 24/10/17. The mother by this point must have left Alberton as she was living with her oldest son – Percy W Ray – in Caulfield, Melbourne. The mother died in June 1919. It is possible that at that point, after his mother’s death, Percy Ray moved (back) to the Shire of Alberton.

On the first anniversary of the death, the following in memoriam was placed in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. It was placed by the brother – Robert Hudson Ray – who had been repatriated to Australia in April 1918 and discharged on medical grounds. He had been severely wounded in August 1916 and hospitalised for a long time in the UK.

RAY – In loving memory of my dear brother, Private Harold S. Ray, late 24th Battalion, who was killed in action near Ypres on 8th Oct., (sic) 1917.
Inserted by his loving brother Bob, late 24th Battalion.

A small amount of personal kit was returned to the family in June 1918: 4 Books, Belt, 3 Brushes, Housewife, Pair Scissors, 2 Pipes, Cigarette Lighter, Camera.

There is a Red Cross Report of the death. At the time he was killed, Pte. Ray was working as a batman for 2 Lt. Leonard A Bacon. Lt. Bacon gave the following witness statement:

I state that Pte. Ray was killed by a bursting shell at the entrance to a pill-box on Broodseinde Ridge and he was buried just near the entrance. I saw him afterwards, hit by several pieces. He was my batman and his friend Harold Gallagher wrote and gave particulars to his people.

The statement was dated 7/3/18 and at the time Lt. Bacon was in 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth. He had been seriously wounded on the same day. After extensive hospitalisation in France and England Bacon was repatriated to Australia and discharged as medically unfit (27/11/18).

The more extensive account of the death was provided by the Private Gallagher mentioned in Bacon’s account. It was written on 6/4/18.

I might say that he was a pal of mine ever since we enlisted … and we were always together right up to the time he was killed in action on the 8.8.17 (sic). At the time he was killed we were in supports together both of us in a pill box. We were then Batmen. Harold Ray was making up a dinner for the Officers just at the mouth of the pill box. I was about 6 yards away from him when a shell landed right in the mouth of the pill box killing Harold Ray. He died about ten minutes after he was hit. We carried him out of the pill box. I then took all his belongings out of his tunic and sent them down to Battn. H.Q. telling them to please forward them on to his people. He was buried by his comrades about 300 yards from Zonnebeke lane near Kay Farm, at the time of his burial things were so hot here that every bit of ground was under shell fire so it was impossible to erect a cross over his grave. If at any time we are in that part of the line again, I will make it my business to visit his grave and erect some sort of cross.

While the date is obviously wrong, Pte. Gallagher’s account confirms the essential details. Once again, despite the extreme circumstances of the fighting on the day there was some attempt to identify the grave. However, the grave was never recovered and Private Ray’s name appears on the Menin Gate Memorial.

There is an intriguing twist to this particular case of the lost grave. The oldest brother – Percy W Ray – wrote to Base Records in early September 1922 asking if there was any more information on the recovery of his brother’s grave. He received the standard reply,

….regret to inform you that no burial report has been received in respect of your brother, the late No. 1526 Private H.S. Ray, 24th Battalion. For some considerable time past an exhaustive search has been made over the various battle areas with a view to recovering the remains of the fallen and in the circumstances it must reluctantly be concluded that the Graves Services have failed to locate your brother’s last resting place.

However, while the family probably never knew about it, over the next two years (1923-24) there was correspondence – preserved in the service file – suggesting that the grave had in fact been located.

The correspondence is incomplete but this is the likely account of events. In the first half of 1923, one of the teams searching for grave sites found a body wrapped in a groundsheet that was traced to Pte. Gallagher (1524) – the Private Gallagher above who had helped bury Private Ray– and on the body they found some religious ‘emblems’, recognisably Roman Catholic. The AIF in London therefore wrote to Base Records in Melbourne and asked them to follow up with Gallagher to ascertain what he knew of the groundsheet and religious items. Gallagher replied, and although his original letter is missing from the file, his version of events is known because it featured in the letter sent as a reply from Base Records to London. It is clear from Gallagher’s account that he believed the body to be that of Private Ray,

Your letter of the 20th July to hand in reference to the late Pte. Harold RAY, 1526, of 24th Batt. I might state that he was my pal, we went right through together until the 8th (sic) of Oct. 1917. In reference to the ground sheet I can safely say that it was mine as I was attached to the headquarters Lewis Gun Section in 1916 and a part of 1917. I did have my name on it. [presumably the ground sheet identified him by name, regimental number and some unit details] Well Pte. RAY was killed on the afternoon of the 8th of Oct (sic). Both he and I with several others went into a pill box to cook some dinner when a shell burst right in the doorway killing Pte. RAY and wounding two others. This happened while we were in close supports ready to go over the top at Daisy Wood in the morning. I carried Pte. RAY out of the pill box and covered him with my groundsheet. He was buried the next day by Cpl. Davis of the 24 Batt. At Zonnebeke about 300 yards from lane near Kay Farm.

I might state that Pte. RAY was not of the Roman Catholic faith. I can account for those religious emblems found on him. While we were in Egypt we went out to see Mary’s Well, also the fig tree alongside the well. Just before you get to them there is a little church, we went inside and while inside they sold us some religious emblems of the Roman church. I remember Pte. RAY saying to me that he would keep them for good luck. I might state that there were three of us bought these emblems, the other being L/Cpl Greenwell of the 24th Batt. He could also account for those emblems being on the late Pte. RAY.

In the letter to London it s clear that Base Records supports Gallagher’s version of events and believes the body to be that of Private Ray. The problem however was that the body had been recovered at Courcelette, 100+Km from Zonnebeke. Not surprisingly, Base Records believed that the War Graves Commission made an error in identifying where the body was recovered –

… the only explanation that can be adduced in light of present advice is that the War Graves Commission were in error in referring to the actual place of casualty as Courcelette.

Surprisingly – but, admittedly, there could be vital correspondence missing from the file – the final position taken was that the remains were not those of Pte. Ray. The two key pieces of evidence that led to this conclusion were that the body …was believed to have been buried about the Autumn of 1916 [nearly one year before] and, of course, the location – Courcelette rather than Zonnebeke.

However, if the body was not that of Pte. Ray then it is difficult to explain the groundsheet. It was clearly Gallagher’s groundsheet and Gallagher remembered using it to cover his friend’s body.

In the end – and this is where the correspondence finishes- the only possible explanation the authorities adopted was that there must have been two groundsheets; and so Base Records wrote to Gallagher (17/1/24) thanking him for his assistance, explaining that the body was not that of his comrade and asking him about a second groundsheet,

…the question is raised as to whether you were in possession of another ground sheet similarly marked, and if so, I should be very much obliged if you were to also enlighten me regarding the circumstances of its disposal.
… I should be glad to learn of any details you may be able to call to mind regarding the possession of an additional ground sheet bearing what appears to be at least a part of your regimental description.

There is no evidence of any response from Gallagher in the service file.

The case highlights the difficult work of identifying the bodies of soldiers buried in makeshift graves in the heat of battle. There also appears to be every possibility that Private Ray lies in an unmarked grave because of some clerical error.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for RAY Harold Seymour 1526
Roll of Honour: Harold Seymour Ray
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Harold Seymour Ray
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Harold Seymour Ray

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project

Comment on this post

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.