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. Our focus this year is on the 17 men on our Memorial who died on the Western Front in 1917.
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 our replica was dedicated by the NSW Governor in 2010.
Today we wish to specially recognise the 8 men on our Memorial who were killed during the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt. The 3rd 4th & 5th of May 1917 were the worst days of the War for the AGL family with almost 20% of the War casualties occurring on just those 3 days.
In February 1917, the Germans began a strategic withdrawal to what we know as the Hindenburg Line. The intent being to straighten out their line and reduce the amount of territory they had to defend as well as to achieve a greater sense of security in what was a very strong defensive position.
In April, our 4th Division was tasked to attack the Line east of Bullecourt with the assistance of tanks, the first time Australian troops were to use them.
The First Battle of Bullecourt commenced at 4.30am 11 April, lasted 10 hours and, though the German lines were reached, was a failure. The tanks proved a liability, the infantry was constantly shelled by both the Germans and their own artillery, their supply lines were cut, and on the left flank they were surrounded. The 4th Division took 5,000 men into the battle and sustained casualties of 2,200 and also nearly 1,200 men were captured. This was the most Australian prisoners taken in a single battle during the war.
Another attack was planned the following month. This time it was the 2nd Division and because of the bad experience with tanks in the previous battle, they refused to have them involved but placed 96 heavy machine guns to provide support.
The field of battle was basically flat farmland with just a few minor dips and folds to provide cover; and with the enemy holding the higher ground. The front line formed a re-entrant or U shape. In the lines of the famous Crimea poem, as the Australians advanced as well as the enemy to the front, there would be guns to the right of them and guns to the left of them.
If you were standing at the centre of the Australian line you would see a road that led to the enemy around 500 metres ahead on slightly higher ground protected by 3 belts of barbed wire, each 10 metres wide. If Juniper Drive behind me were that road, the enemy would be at the Sales Office on the bank of the river.
To your left stretching across around 800 metres to Majors Bay Road was the 6th Brigade and 500 metres beyond them was the village of Bullecourt. A British Brigade was tasked to attack the village and keep the defenders diverted from concentrating on the rows of Australians attacking across their front.
Back to the centre and to your right stretching across around 800 metres to the ferry wharf was the 5th Brigade and 800 metres beyond them were the trenches around Queant. It was hoped that the defenders there would be pinned down by artillery and machine gun fire that would stop them from firing at the rows of Australians moving across their front.
The attack commenced at 3.45am 3 May. On the left the British attack faltered and the men of the 6th Brigade moved to the right to avoid the cross fire from the village. Despite that within an hour they successfully held half of their objectives and soon had advanced a further 500 meters; but there was now a 1.5km gap between them and the British.
Meanwhile on the right, the New South Welshman of the 5th Brigade who were in a more exposed position had failed to keep pace and sustained massive losses from enemy fire from ahead and the right. With up to an 80% casualty rate in officers & NCO’s the attack had broken up in confusion; within an hour of the start it had ceased to exist as a fighting force.
In the centre, the 6th Brigade continued to hold its exposed position in the German trenches being subject to both enemy and friendly artillery fire. During the afternoon the 7th Brigade came up on the right and captured some of the original objectives. By nightfall the they held some of the trenches but there was only a narrow line extending back to Allied lines for supply, evacuation and support.
Units of the 1st Division started relieving the 2nd in the early hours of 4 May. Being impossible to capture further enemy trenches without great loss, it made sense to abandon the position. However the battle continued. By 10 May they were exhausted and the 5th Division was brought in.
The battle ended a week later with both sides exhausted. The casualty cost to the Australians was 7,000 men, and to the British in the village was 4,000.
With 10,000 Australian casualties on a piece of land measured between where we are now and the Mortlake Punt, the two Bullecourt battles left a very sour taste in the mouths of the Australians. It is generally agreed the battles formed little strategic or tactical purpose. The troops now believed they not only had to overcome very resilient German forces but also the short comings of the High Command.
For an attack to succeed it requires planning, training, courage, initiative, mateship, and luck. For you as an individual to survive requires all these but mainly luck. The bullet that tugs your tunic but kills the man behind you. The shell that explodes among a group and you are the one hit by the shrapnel. You need luck to survive.
The following 8 men on our Memorial were out of luck. Here are their stories:
Arthur was 33 years old, a labourer here at the gasworks, and lived in Bennett Street Mortlake. He was born in Young in country NSW and was married to Lena and had 4 children: Lillian who was 8, Frederick 7, Doris 5, and Muriel who was 3. He was bigger than average, had a scar over the knuckles of his right hand, blue eyes, and auburn hair.
He enlisted in January 1916 and embarked for England 3 months later. It would be fair to say he tested the boundaries of military discipline as during his training in the UK he twice overstayed his leave and was punished. He also had a spell in hospital and it was not until November that he reached his Battalion on the Somme where he luckily survived that freezing 1916/17 winter without illness.
In February 1917, his unit suffered around 100 casualties as they pursued the enemy withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. In March they were relieved and Arthur promptly went absent without leave again and was punished.
His 18th Battalion was on the right of the Bullecourt battle and suffered over 50% casualties. There is no record of what happened to him and his body was not found. He is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
His wife Lena had to wait 6 months hoping he was wounded or a prisoner of war before he was pronounced Killed in Action.
Despite the pensions, she struggled with bringing up four children so she sent the middle two children to live in the Presbyterian Burnside Homes where they were educated until they were able to get employment. She did not remarry and died in 1949.
The family of her youngest child Muriel are with us this morning from Nowra.
Charles was 26 years of age, a clerk, single, living in Goodwin Street in Ryde.
He was born at Richmond and was tall for that age at nearly 6 foot and slim with grey eyes and light brown hair.
He enlisted in January 1916 and departed Sydney in April and arrived in England in June. While training there he had two spells in hospital with an injured shoulder and influenza.
He finally joined his Battalion in September at Ypres in Belgium and was promptly in the front line for 10 days. Shortly after, Charles and 10 of his mates from the 19th Battalion had a group photo taken. They called themselves “The Syndicate” and their motto was “Get an eye full of it”. Of the eleven men in the photo, only five made it back home to Australia.
His unit then moved south to the Somme and eventually into the front line and in November took part in the attack on Flers when they suffered nearly 400 casualties, around 50% of the men engaged.
They then had a month recovering before Charles was admitted to hospital for 2 weeks with a fever. After rejoining his unit on 30 Dec he only lasted three weeks of the ferocious winter conditions before he was once again in hospital, this time with scabies.
Charles’ 19th Battalion was on the right of the Bullecourt battle and suffered over 60% casualties.
He was one of those wounded. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and was admitted unconscious to the field hospital but died the same day without regaining consciousness.
He was buried in Grevillers British Cemetery. He is the only one of our 8 with a grave. All the rest are commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
Rupert was 29 years old, a fitter, single, living in O’Brien Street, Bondi.
He was born in Devonport in Tasmania and the family moved to Tumut NSW where Rupert went to school.
He enlisted in January 1916 and embarked two months later, arriving in France in June.
Just 4 weeks later his unit had a leading part in the infamous Battle of Fromelles. His 31st Battalion briefly occupied the German trenches before withdrawing. They suffered 60% casualties, over 500 men. Rupert was one of the fortunate ones unscathed.
In October he was assigned to the 8th Light Trench Mortar Battery. This unit was comprised of infantry soldiers manning the light (3 inch) mortar.
Over the next 6 months his unit was in & out of the firing line suffering casualties. Rupert also had 3 stints in hospital with various ailments brought on by the Somme winter conditions.
In May his unit was on the right flank of the 2nd Bullecourt battle.
In the first half hour of the attack he was in a shell hole when a shell landed, killing him and wounding his 2 comrades, and a subsequent shell buried him. His body was not recovered.
William Porter was 22 years old, single, living in Vaucluse. He gave his occupation as engineer possibly more of what we would call today a technical draughtsman.
He was born in Dublin and after his parents died he arrived alone in Sydney in 1913.
He was tall and well-built and, showing the confidence & initiative that would later see him promoted to officer rank, upon enlistment in May 1915 he put his age up 4 years from 19½ to 23½.
William departed Sydney the following month and after 2 months in Egypt his 18th Battalion landed on Gallipoli on the 19th August.
Three days later they were committed to a badly-planned attack on Hill 60. With no prior warning the troops were commanded to charge the Turkish trenches. With such hasty preparation it is not surprising that this action was a disaster for the Battalion which suffered a 50% casualty rate of 383 dead and wounded.
Five days later they were committed to a second attempt. The fight halted on 30 Aug with half the Hill captured, another 256 casualties for the Battalion; but William was unscathed and promoted to Corporal.
One of his AGL work colleagues Pte John Clancy was killed in this second battle and his family are with us again this morning.
For the rest of their time on Gallipoli, the 18th Battalion played mainly a defensive role near Courtney’s Post. William was appointed as Lance Sergeant on 28 Nov.
His unit arrived in Flanders in late March 1916. The following month William went to NCO School and after that his unit spent 2 months rotating through the front & support lines before they moved to the Somme.
On 25 July they joined the fighting at Pozieres. Over the next 10 days the fighting was severe and the casualties heavy. The Battalion suffered a casualty rate of 70% with 625 dead & wounded.
Four weeks later William was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, a major achievement for a 21 year old 15 months after enlistment.
In September they moved back to Flanders and after the normal round of time spent in the trenches, William was evacuated sick spending 2 months in hospital before attending a training course where he was promoted to full Lieutenant.
He was back in his unit in April preparing for the attack on Bullecourt.
His 18th Battalion was on the right flank and suffered 50% casualty rate with over 350 casualties. The casualty rate for officers & NCO’s was 70%.
Charles Bean records that he was seen in the German trenches but his manner of death is unknown. His body was not recovered.
Joseph Ricks was 23 years old, a labourer, living in George Street, Burwood.
He was born in Coonamble and married in 1910 in Wellington. They had 3 children, Curwen in 1910 who sadly died in 1912; Gladys born in 1913, and Howard born in 1914 after they moved to Sydney. Tragically, his wife Catherine died early in 1915 at Auburn.
Not long after, Joseph enlisted in June 1915. He left his daughter Gladys in the care of his sister Evelyn; and his son Harold with a Mrs A Young of Guildford.
He departed Sydney on 9 August for Egypt and arrived on Gallipoli on 29 Sep and joined William Porter’s 18th Battalion one month after the severe losses in the attack on Hill 60.
His time in the Battalion mirrored William’s except he was not promoted through the ranks but reassigned as a driver of the Battalion wagons. It would be a logical step for a boy raised in the bush. It was also a pay rise of one shilling per day.
Over the following 12 months Joseph survived the assignments to the front lines and the battle at Pozieres which cost the Battalion dearly.
In April 1917 he was charged with “creating a disturbance after ‘lights out’” and was demoted back to Private rank and sent back to his Company.
His 18th Battalion was on the right flank and Joseph was killed instantly by a shell wound to the head shortly after the battle commenced and was buried in the field but his grave was lost.
His daughter Gladys was brought up by his sister and married in 1940 in Burwood.
His son Harold was formally adopted by Mrs A (Daisy) Young of Guildford. He married in 1935 in Newtown.
Stanley Perry was 24 years old, a labourer, single, was born near Gunnedah, and lived in Rockdale.
He enlisted in December 1914 and departed Sydney in April 1915 and eventually joined the 2nd Battalion at The Pimple opposite Lone Pine on Gallipoli on 26 May.
The attack at Lone Pine on 6 August was a vicious and bloody mainly hand to hand battle in the open, covered trenches and tunnels. The 2nd Battalion was the leading wave in the southern section & had 520 killed or wounded, out of a total strength of 582. Stanley was one of the lucky 62.
This battle claimed the life of his AGL colleague Sgt Robert Easton whose relatives are here with us again this morning.
On 29 August he was evacuated sick with dysentery and eventually admitted to hospital at Heliopolis and remained in Egypt until after the evacuation of Gallipoli.
His unit arrived in France in March 1916 and after 3 months and some battle casualties moved south to the Somme where on the 23rd July they joined the attack at Pozieres.
The fighting was severe and all objectives were gained but at great loss. When they were relieved on 25 July the Battalion had casualties of 510 a casualty rate well over 50%.
On 7 Aug Stanley was appointed Lance Corporal & days later he was admitted to Hospital with appendicitis. It was 3 months before he rejoined his unit.
In February he was posted to the Division’s Command School, obviously having been identified as a future leader.
In April during the pursuit of the withdrawing Germans, Stanley was promoted to Corporal.
The 2nd Battalion entered the fray at Bullecourt about 11am on the second day & proceeded bombing raids along the trenches. In the early afternoon Stanley drew himself up to look over the top of the trench and he was shot in the head by a sniper. Death was instantaneous. The luck that saw him survive both Lone Pine & Pozieres had deserted him.
He was buried in the vicinity of Noreuil but his grave was subsequently lost.
Sidney Money was 37 years old, a boilermaker, and lived with his wife Lizzie and 2 children, Lillian who was 14 and Frank who was 13, in George Street Burwood.
He was born at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England; and married Lizzie in 1902 and the family migrated to Sydney in 1910.
He enlisted in December 1915 and departed Sydney 6 months later for England, arriving in August. He eventually joined 1st Battalion on 24 Sep near Ypres.
They soon moved south to the Somme and Sidney survived the bitterly cold Somme winter. His time at the front did not include any major battles but there was the daily grind and battle casualties experienced by all units at the Front.
1st Battalion joined the battle at Bullecourt late on the first day. They were heavily involved in defending captured trenches from counter attack and suffered over 300 casualties.
On the night of 5 May Sidney, who was part of a light machine gun section, was in the captured German trench when a shell exploded amidst the gun crew. Sidney, though unmarked, was killed instantly by the concussion.
He was buried by his comrades in a lost, unmarked grave adjacent to the trench.
David O’Brien was 23 years old, single, a labourer, and lived at Burton Street, Concord.
He was an Irishman born in Cork who had 2 brothers and 10 sisters and followed one of his brothers to Australia in 1912 and enlisted in May 1916.
He arrived in England in November 1916 and 5 months later, while he was still in the UK, his mother died and he was granted leave to attend her funeral in Ireland.
Despite the exhortations of his family who wanted him to stay in Ireland, he rejoined his unit and went to France in April 1917 and joined the 1st Battalion on 2 May just one day before the battle.
David was in the midst of the heavy fighting for 2 days and on the morning of 5 May he was in a bombing post in the captured German trench when a shell exploded nearby and he suffered a massive head wound and died instantly.
He was buried by his comrades adjacent to the trench but the grave was lost.
For the third year, the O’Brien family are here with us morning.
3rd Battle of Ypres
Later in 1917 when the Australian forces were deployed in Flanders they were engaged in a sequence of battles from May to November 1917 culminating in the battles in the mud around Passchendaele village.
During this time we suffered 38,000 casualties, among those killed were 9 men on our Memorial. Their stories will have to wait for another time but they did include:
- Sergeant William Anderson. A survivor of Lone Pine, Pozieres, & Bullecourt but out of luck in Flanders, and
- Sergeant Samuel Reeves, at 42 the oldest AGL casualty of the War, who was married with five children.
In 1917 Australia suffered a total of 55,000 casualties. This carnage is a number very hard for us to contemplate today.
As we contemplate the events of 100 years ago, it is timely we remember the events of 50 years ago being the conflict in Vietnam. This contentious war involved both Australian service personnel and an unknown number of ancillary people like doctors, nurses, entertainers and other civilians.
From the time of the arrival of the first members of the Training Team in 1962 almost 60,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam.
521 died as a result of the war and over 3,000 were wounded.
The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed; while service personnel met an unforgivably hostile reception on their return home.
This treatment of the returned personnel exacerbated the emotional well-being of large numbers of men and women many of whom have suffered ongoing psychological problems.
Today we should remember their sacrifice, honour their memory, and pledge our ongoing support.
Thankfully recent peacekeeping and other deployments of service personnel have been treated differently where the political debate has been about the deployment but all sections of society support the personnel.
These Australians either volunteers or conscripts 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.
As we did last year it is timely we 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