Breakfast Point War Memorial
ANZAC Day Dawn Service
This morning we have come together to acknowledge those who have fought and died in all wars. With 2016 being the Centenary of the initial battles of the Australians in France, we have a focus this year on the Western Front and the 8 men on our Memorial who died there.
The tradition of ANZAC has continued throughout the ages. Australians and New Zealanders fought side by side in the Western Desert in WWII, again in Korea and there was an official ANZAC Battalion in Vietnam. More recently, there was an ANZAC Battle Group in East Timor, Kiwis served alongside Aussies in Afghanistan, and ADF and NZDF Service personnel are currently operating as a joint training team in Iraq and in the service of our nations. They have also been working side by side in Fiji assisting that nation recover from their devastating Cyclone in February this year. Our military bond runs deep and transcends our traditional sporting rivalries.
I also acknowledge five of our residents who are Legacy supported war widows.
When war was declared in 1914 AGL had around 3,000 employees at Mortlake and across Sydney. By the end of the War 340 of them had volunteered; 45 were killed; and an unknown number returned with physical disabilities and mental scars.
AGL erected a Memorial Tablet here in 1926 and when it disappeared during the redevelopment of Breakfast Point, Rosecorp and the Community instigated a replacement which was dedicated by the NSW Governor in 2010.
Today we wish to specially recognise the 8 AGL men who were killed in 1916. We welcome and are honoured today that descendants and relatives of some of them are here, together with relatives of others listed on our Memorial.
We also acknowledge the work of the knitters of our community who have done us proud with the display of red poppies commemorating the 45 men on our memorial.
The Australians started arriving in France from Egypt in mid-March 1916. They initially were sent north to the French Flanders area west of Armentieres. This area was known as the “Nursery” as it was regarded as a relatively quiet part of the line where troops could be familiarised with trench warfare tactics. They started entering front line positions at Fleurbaix south of Armentieres from early April and suffered their first battle casualties there.
Meanwhile about 150km to the south, the British High Command planned for their biggest offensive effort of the war to date – the first Battle of the Somme. The 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions were earmarked to proceed to that sector and the 4th and 5th Divisions relieved them in the line at Fleurbaix.
The British attack at the Somme commenced on 1st July and they suffered 60,000 casualties on day 1 and 400,000 by the end 4½ months later. The Battle of the Somme had a massive impact on British & Empire families. Many residents are likely to have had a relative engaged in this battle. My Grandfather arrived in France as a reinforcement and joined his Battalion, the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, on 4th July 1916. Three days earlier, the Battalion had attacked with 750 men – only 150 had survived.
Anxious to draw Germans away from the Somme bloodbath, the British High Command instigated some hastily planned diversionary attacks; one such was near Armentieres at a place called Fromelles where the Australian 5th and British 61st Divisions were ordered to attack across nearly 400m of open ground to an area dominated by an elevated concrete bastion bristling with machine guns, called Sugarloaf.
After a preliminary artillery barrage, which achieved little due to the inexperience of the gunners, the assault commenced at 6pm on 19 July. To the North of Sugarloaf the 8th and 14th Brigades captured the German front line but the intelligence was poor and the German support trenches they were tasked to capture turned out to be no more than shallow water ditches. The 15th Brigade and the adjoining British 184th Brigade attacked Sugarloaf itself, and the unsubdued machine guns inflicted calamitous casualties, with the attacking two battalions virtually wiped out. To the South, the British Division also made no gains.
The Germans were able to counter attack and get behind the Australians on the North flank. During the night there was attack and counter attack and the enemy was able to fire on the Australians from the front and rear. By morning the only option was to charge the German troops holding the old German front lines behind them in an effort to return to safety. By 8am, the attack was acknowledged as a failure and the general order to withdraw was given. But many troops remained cut off and unable to break out, they continued fighting until silenced.
There is virtually universal agreement among historians that the attack was unnecessary and poorly planned, with troops who had been in the front line only a week; and yet, as was customary at the time, none of those responsible for the planning was held accountable.
This battle was the worst single day in Australian military history. The 5th Division lost 5,333 men killed or wounded, and had 400 taken prisoner. The British lost 1,550. The battle was heavily censored and remained somewhat unknown apart from newspaper casualty lists. It has become better known in recent times with the discovery of the mass grave of missing Australian soldiers at Pheasant Wood. It is also well known as Adolf Hitler was present in the German trenches.
Some of the wounded could have been recovered however the Australian Divisional commander refused the offer of a cease fire to retrieve them. Those who have been to Fromelles will know the famous Cobber statue showing one of the soldiers ignoring that order and retrieving a wounded comrade.
There was 1 AGL man killed at Fromelles.
Meanwhile, on the same day, the 1st Division reached the rear area of the Somme near Albert.
From July 13 – 15 the British had made 4 attacks at great cost to capture Pozieres which was seen as vital to the capture of the heights of Thiepval. The final attack had made some gains and the 1st Division was tasked for another attack.
The initial object was to capture the German trenches between the Albert Road and a trench called Old German Lines #1 (called OG1) and then capture the village. They would have the British 48th Division in support on their left.
After a preliminary artillery bombardment, the 1st Division attacked at 12.30am on 23rd July and seized the front German positions. Thirty minutes later they attacked again after another bombardment and this brought them to hedges just outside the village. They continued their third phase of the attack to the road through the village as the Germans fell back. The Germans counter attacked at dawn but were defeated. The 1st Division had now taken all the objectives they were set except for OG1.
The area had been turned into a virtual moonscape making it difficult to determine exact locations. However during the day they deepened their trenches in preparation for a German counter attack and to prepare for further attacks on the village. The German strong point considered impregnable and known as “Gibraltar” was captured; and they continued to attack to capture the village.
After 3 days of battle, on 27 July, the 1st Division had lost 5,285 men and was replaced by the 2nd Division. Pozieres was the only place in which any ground had been gained in the general attack.
The next objectives were the Old German lines and a prominent Windmill to the east of the village. On 4 August OG1 & OG2 were captured, and the windmill the following day. The Germans counter attacked with artillery on the night of 6 August preventing the 2nd Division being relieved by the 4th Division. The battle ebbed and flowed with vicious fighting, but the 2nd Division held onto their gains.
After 10 days of fighting the 2nd Division had lost 6,848 men, and on 6 August they were replaced by the 4th Division. As the British still wanted to capture Thiepval the 4th Division was then ordered to proceed north along the ridge to capture Mouquet Farm.
The narrow frontage of the attack in the valley south of Mouquet Farm made it very easy for the German artillery to incessantly pound the 4th Division whose troops were very exposed. Unknown to the attacking troops, the German defensive troops were also in deep cellars and were thus able to withstand artillery bombardments and repulse infantry attacks.
By 21 August, after fierce fighting with little gain, and having sustained 4,649 casualties, the 4th Division was replaced by the 1st Division which returned to the front line a full one-third under strength after the losses it had sustained a few weeks earlier.
The 1st Division made some ground but lost a further 2,650 men and as such was now effectively destroyed. The 2nd Division was returned to the battle to replace the remnants of the 1st, however it fared little better. In 4 days they lost 1,268 men and had to be replaced by the 4th Division which continued the attacks on Mouquet Farm but failed to take the position from the German defenders. The last Australian attack was on 3 September.
During the seven weeks of fighting at Fromelles and Pozieres, the Australian 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Divisions suffered over 27,500 casualties, including nearly 9,000 killed. As a way of understanding the scale of these losses, the Australian casualties over eight months of fighting at Gallipoli were 26,100 including 8,141 killed.
The casualty figures for Fromelles and Pozieres represented 50% of the total strength of Australian troops in France and finding replacements for the all-volunteer army was problematic. These factors eventually lead to the disbandment of the fledgling 6th Division being formed in England and to the Conscription debate in Australia.
There were 3 AGL men killed at Pozieres.
The remnants of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions all moved north to the quieter Ypres sector to rest and rebuild. The troops expected to remain there for the winter as they and the 5th Division had all suffered major casualties and loss of confidence in higher command.
In October they were dismayed to find they were being sent back to the Somme.
The Somme winter of 1916-17 was the harshest in 40 years. The autumn rains had turned the valley before Bapaume into a swamp and the conditions became the worst the AIF encountered in the war.
As they reached the Somme, the great offensive was nearing its end. The fight now was about seizing suitable positions for the winter during which major campaigning was impossible. On 5 November units of the 1st Division launched one attack near Gueudecourt before dawn and another near Flers in mid-morning. The advance in the mud was extremely difficult and, while troops from both assaulting forces held parts of the enemy trenches for some hours, the partial gains were not defensible and they withdrew. A further attack was made near Flers on 14 November by units of the 2nd Division, and these modest gains also had to be given up.
On 18 November, the Battle of the Somme officially ended and for the remainder of the winter of 1916–17 the Australians garrisoned the line east of Flers. From there they kept pressure on the Germans by means of small attacks and raids. However, the main battle was against frozen mud, ice and frost-bite.
One soldier described the conditions: “in the front line we weren’t allowed to have a brazier because it weren’t far away from the enemy and therefore we couldn’t brew up tea. But we used to have tea sent to us, up the communication trench. Well a communication trench can be as much as three quarters of a mile long. It used to start off in a huge Dixie, two men would carry it like a stretcher. It would start off boiling hot, by the time it got to us in the front line, there was ice on the top it was so cold.”
Eventually supplies of hot food and warmer clothing were made available but troops still had to be frequently rotated through the front lines so they could survive the conditions.
The ‘Somme Winter’ experience was not easily forgotten by men who served through it.
There were 4 AGL men killed during this time.
The 8 AGL Casualties we are honouring today in chronological order are:
Dick Parton was 33 years old, a gas fitter, married but separated, and lived at The Avenue in Strathfield. He was born north of Toowoomba to English parents and had 7 siblings and 4 step-siblings. He was tall & slim with brown hair and blue eyes.
He enlisted in August 1915 and embarked on the 23rd December. He had a spell in hospital in Egypt in February 1916 with tonsillitis and arrived in France near Armentieres on 30 June.
His unit had one week’s experience in the front line, then after a day in reserve they were back in the front line preparing for the battle.
His unit was the right hand Battalion of the 14th Brigade. The right hand side of the Battalion was severely mauled whereas the left did occupy the German trenches. They were eventually forced back as their flanks were exposed & they subsequently were surrounded & had to fight through Germans to get back to their original front line.
They suffered 625 casualties out of the 851 committed: a casualty rate of over 70%. This included over 220 missing. Dick was one of the missing.
He was not declared dead for another 15 months. His name is not on the list of the likely unnamed soldiers in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
With no grave, he is commemorated on the VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial at Fromelles.
Frederick Thomas was 27 years of age, a labourer, single, living at Dulwich Hill. His connection with AGL is unclear.
He was born in Albury and raised by his grandparents. The woman he regarded as his older sister was in fact his mother. He was possibly unaware of this as he called his next of kin his father whereas he was his actually his grandfather.
He enlisted in August 1915 and embarked on the 23rd December. He had a spell in hospital in Egypt in February 1916 and arrived in France near Armentieres on 31st March.
His unit had 2 weeks in the front line in late April and again in June. They then prepared to move south to the Somme to join the battle there. They arrived north of Amiens on 11 Jul & after a week’s training they moved to the rear area near Albert in preparation for the major attack at Pozieres.
Just after midnight on the morning of 23 Jul the attack commenced. The initial objectives were captured but the casualties were severe. 3rd Battalion had a casualty rate over 50% with 96 killed, 43 missing, & 359 wounded.
Frederick was one of those killed. He was buried in the vicinity of Pozieres but his grave was lost.
He is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France.
Thomas Lewis was 26 years old, a bootmaker, living at Cabarita Road, Concord.
He was born and went to school in Cobar and was the third of 9 children. He was married to Blanche and had one child: Cecil Kenneth who was 7.
He enlisted in November 1915 and embarked two months later. After just 2 weeks in Egypt he arrived in France near Armentieres on 31st March.
After a brief acclimatisation his unit took over trenches on 10 Apr near Fromelles rotating through the front lines and support trenches until 29 Jun. They then prepared to move south to the Somme to join the battle there.
When the 1st Division attacked Pozieres on 23 Jul, the other Battalions of the 5th Brigade were immediately engaged in heavy fighting, but Thomas’s 19th Battalion was spared until the 27th Jul when their position was heavily shelled while they were in a portion of the line that was not really a trench but a series of shell craters manned with small parties.
The Battalion suffered about 315 casualties (approx. 40%) during this shelling & a subsequent gas attack.
Thomas was one of those killed.
He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France.
Walter Nicholson was just 21 years old, a fireman (ie stoker)’s assistant, single, living in Broughton St Concord with his widowed mother and 4 siblings.
He was born at Bradford in West Yorkshire and was the eldest of 5 children. What prompted his widowed mother, & how she got the funds, to move to Australia with her family is unknown. They arrived in 1911.
He was a small chap being just 5ft 4in (163cm) tall; and weighing 9st 4lb (59kg).
He enlisted in September 1915 and embarked 4 months later. While he was in Egypt he was assigned to headquarters of the Battalion as a stretcher-bearer. I imagine a difficult job for someone of his slight build.
His unit arrived in Marseilles on 8 Jun 1916 and then moved into the trenches near Armentieres.
A month later his Battalion moved south to the Somme. After 2 weeks training they joined the battle on the 5th of Aug. They manned the front line on Pozieres Heights for 3 days & then moved into the Support trenches. Up till 9 Aug they had suffered 67 killed and 256 wounded.
On 9 Aug Walter suffered a gunshot wound to the head. It was a serious injury yet because of the massive casualty rate it was a week before he was admitted to hospital in Rouen. Two days later he was placed on a ship for England and admitted to a Hospital at Wandsworth in London on the 19th.
He was listed as dangerously ill on the 23rd and died the following day 24th Aug of the gunshot wound & a cerebral abscess.
He is buried in London’s Wandsworth Cemetery in a dedicated Australian Section.
Frederick Aplin was 23 years old, a meter reader, single, living at Lewisham.
He was born in in Melbourne but the family moved to Sydney & he went to school at Cleveland Street. He was the 3rd of 7 children. He was of average build with a fair complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair.
He enlisted in January 1916 and embarked 3 months later for Egypt. After a short stay he then departed for England arriving at Plymouth on 7 June.
Frederick then promptly went AWL for 4 days & was fined 10 days’ pay.
After 3 months training, Frederick proceeded to France on 10 Sep and eventually joined his unit at Ypres. Instead of wintering in Flanders, the Australian troops were moved back to the Somme for the final stages of the latest offensive. They left Ypres on 6 Oct & arrived 3 weeks later behind the lines.
On 7 Nov the Battalion moved into the front line near Flers. There was heavy rain with a strong & very cold wind, with the troops knee deep in icy water in the trenches.
On 8 Nov 1916 the weather eased with a fine morning but showers in the afternoon. It was a relatively quiet day on the front line by WW1 standards. His unit’s diary mentions a small German attack which was “easily repulsed”.
However on this day Frederick was killed by shell fire & was hastily buried in a shell hole outside the trench.
After the War his body was exhumed and re-buried in the AIF Burial Ground, Flers.
William’s German parents ran Bolton’s Dairy here in Concord and William worked as a labourer at the Gasworks.
Heinrich & Johanna Bolten emigrated from Germany in 1874 with one child and had 6 more in Sydney.
William was 28 years old, the 6th of 7 children and unmarried and lived in the family home in High St Concord. He was fair with blond hair and blue eyes.
Despite their German heritage William & his brother Henry both enlisted in November 1915. One hopes the people of Concord did not get caught up in the prevailing anti-German feeling of the time and supported William’s widowed mother and his sisters.
After 6 months training in England, William arrived in France in Sep 1916. He was on the Somme in November near Flers where the winter weather was atrocious with snow and deep mud everywhere. The troops suffered badly from exposure in addition to enemy shelling and sniping.
On 16 Nov there was a bit of sun and William stood up to throw his overcoat over the parapet to dry and got shot in the throat by a sniper. He died within 15 minutes.
After dark he was buried by his comrades just behind the trench but his grave was lost and he is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
Edward Hills was 31 years old, a plumber, single, and lived with, and supported, his widowed mother in Campsie.
He was the 2nd of 4 children and was educated at Stanmore Public School.
He enlisted in February 1916 and after 6 months training departed overseas and arrived at Plymouth on 13 October.
After further training in England, he departed for France on 8 Jan 1917 and eventually joined the 45th Battalion on 18 Jan at Gueudecourt, 5 km south of Bapaume on the Somme.
On the following day 19 Jan, (his first day at the Front) Edward was on fatigue duties, digging a trench behind the front line. They were returning to the rear at about 9 pm and were about five kilometres behind the front line when a shell came over and struck him and 4 others. He was conscious and eventually admitted to a Field Hospital with a compound fracture of the right leg and other shrapnel wounds.
He died 3 days later on 24 Jan 1917 and was buried in Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L’Abbe, France.
Charlie Ackling was 34 years old, a labourer living at Enfield Road Burwood.
He was born at Randwick and was the 9th of 11 children. He was married to Ethel but they had no children. He was a muscular man of above average build with blue eyes and brown hair.
He enlisted in the first weeks of the war on 17 Aug 1914 and had previously spent 3 years in the militia.
His unit departed Sydney in the first troop convoy on 20 October 1914, arriving in Egypt 6 weeks later. Here they trained for another 4 months before embarking for the Dardanelles.
Charlie landed on Gallipoli on 25 April. His original role was stretcher bearer and he would have been busy as his Battalion suffered over 230 casualties in the first few days. And in the major Turk attack on 19 May his unit had another 100 casualties.
In August, his Battalion was in the leading wave at the Battle of Lone Pine. This dreadful battle resulted in massive casualties for his unit: more than two thirds of them were killed or wounded.
Charlie was on Gallipoli for the whole campaign though he did have 2 short spells in hospital on Lemnos with illness.
After the evacuation from Gallipoli and 3 months in Egypt, his unit arrived in France near Armentieres on 31st March. They had 2 weeks in the front line in late April and again in June. They then moved south towards Pozieres.
During the original attack on 23 July his Battalion suffered severely with 500 casualties. After a short rest they returned to Pozieres for the attack on Mouquet Farm with another 160 casualties.
The Battalion then moved to Ypres where they had to recover & train replacements. In October they moved back to the Somme with regular stints in the front line.
Charlie had so far survived the Anzac Day landing, and the Battles at Lone Pine & Pozieres where his Battalion suffered horrendous casualties. He had also survived the snipers and the daily casualties in the front lines and support trenches. Since the Gallipoli landing, his unit of around 900 had suffered over 2,000 killed or wounded. He had changed his role from the more dangerous stretcher-bearer to the safer company cook, but his luck was to turn.
28 Jan 1917 was a cold, clear day with snow & ice on the ground. About 1pm a German bombardment fell on Charlie’s company position. 4 were killed and 12 wounded. He was one of the wounded with shrapnel wounds in the lung and thigh.
He fought for 5 days in the Field Hospital but died of his wounds on 2nd February and was buried in the adjacent Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension.
These Australians were volunteers who answered the call of their country. They had no say in what duty they were given, but they did it to their fullest and fought with courage, determined not to let down their mates.
On this 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Australians on the Western Front, it is timely to remember the words of the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in 1918 speaking to Australian soldiers about their attitude to freedom:
“That is what made you come. That is what made us greet you when you came. We knew you would fight a real fight, but we did not know that from the very beginning you would astonish the whole continent with your valour…
I shall go back to Paris tomorrow and say to my countrymen: ‘I have seen the Australians; I have looked into their eyes. I know that they, men who have fought great battles in the cause of freedom, will fight on alongside us, till the freedom for which we are fighting is guaranteed for us and for our children.’”.
Lest We Forget.