Road to Remembrance | Fragile traces of the past

HOME FRONT: An Australian Comforts Fund photograph of a Miss Coll knitting socks direct from a sheep’s fleece. PHOTO: AWM H02438

HOME FRONT: An Australian Comforts Fund photograph of a Miss Coll knitting socks direct from a sheep’s fleece. PHOTO: AWM H02438

Leslie Russell Blake was a talented young surveyor and geologist who had been on Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition before he left Gympie for the Western Front in 1916.

During the Somme offensive Blake used his skills to great effect, earning the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous and continual gallantry’ in making a detailed survey, under heavy fire, of the Australian front line from Pozières to Mouquet Farm.

Wounded several times in France, Blake was promoted captain in 1918. Hit by shrapnel at Hargicourt, he died, aged 27, only 39 days before the war ended.

Blake is one of an estimated 2000 Australian soldiers whose dated signatures, unit numbers and birthplaces, scribbled in lead pencil, cover the tunnel walls of Naours Cave, 20kms from Amiens in northern France.

Soldiers visited the underground city when resting or convalescing before returning to battle.

French archeological researchers are identifying the soldiers and uncovering the stories behind this Great War graffiti in a multi-year project.

Archeologist Gilles Prilaux writes in The Silent Soldiers of Naours that “the fragile traces left by these Australian soldiers is a poignant testimony because many of them died a few days later in the hell of the trenches of the Somme.

“I imagine these warriors from the other end of the world… in small groups walking silently through the darkness of the underground labyrinth.”

Visitors to Naours Cave in 1916 included Hobart schoolmaster Captain Ivor Margetts, Perth frame maker Sergeant William Police and Lismore-born labourer Private Raymond Dorrough.

Margetts was killed at Pozières while Police and Dorrough, who were both taken prisoner at Bullecourt on April 11, 1917, returned home and lived long lives.

Not far away from Naours Cave is the village of Vignacourt, a staging point, casualty clearing station and recreation area for the troops.

It was here that soldiers visited the photo studio of farmers Louis and Antoinette Thuillier to have postcards made with their images to send home.

The Australian War Memorial’s exhibition of 74 Thuillier photographs, Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt, will travel to Warwick, Murray Bridge, Bundaberg and Cowra in 2018.

Soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) serving on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918 spent lengthy periods of time in training as well as on recreation, sports competitions, visiting local villages, writing letters to loved ones, and rest in temporary billets.

Away from the frozen battlefields, soldiers welcomed gifts from the Australian Comforts Fund (ACF) – wool socks, balaclavas and scarves or a hot drink at ACF canteens as they left the lines exhausted.

New socks helped in deterring the menace of trench foot and ACF volunteers hand-knitted 1,354,328 pairs, along with hundreds of thousands of other woollen garments that were sent to Australian soldiers in Europe.

Historian Peter Burness in Australians at the Great War says behind the lines in France “hundreds of men were often accommodated in a village’s barns, stables and lofts.

“Some centres had longed-for warm baths, delousing facilities and laundries …”

Sergeant Ted Rule of the 14th Battalion wrote of the lice that plagued soldiers in the line: “The chats (lice) attacked in massed formation … under the armpits, the crutch, and round the knees and the waistline.”

Soldiers were also entertained by concert troupes, such as the Anzac Coves, which 100 years ago was rehearsing near Ypres for its Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington.

Australians were paid more than British soldiers and inevitably many spent some on two-up and other forms of gambling.

On July 22, 1918, at Allonville in France, a crowd estimated by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Hyman as 11,000 attended “a real Australian race meeting … held under the very eyes of the Boche … to give the boys a ‘slap up’ happy day, because for weeks past there had been nothing but strife and strafing.”

Hyman borrowed a huge butcher’s scale to weigh the jockeys and says two officers were killed in the first race but “we were able to keep the fact from the crowd …”

Not all soldiers punted their pay – 20th Battalion Private Leicester Johnson wrote: “Can’t understand why some chaps can be such goats as to waste their hard earned wages in this manner.”

Getting drunk and other undisciplined – even illegal – behaviors also went on behind the lines, where military police were occupied finding men who had gone absent without leave and deserters.  

Australians, alone among the Great War armies, were fortunate to escape execution as a military punishment for the crime of desertion.

Historian Dr Peter Stanley, in Bad Characters, says about 350 British soldiers faced the firing squad but Section 98 of Australia’s Defence Act meant that the AIF refused to allow its men to be executed.

However, Stanley says the AIF’s rate of absence and desertion in mid-1917 was four times greater than other divisions of the British Forces.

The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

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