A Family at War

Part 3: Active Service in France and Belgium

(last updated: 15 February 2018)

Over this time Samuel and Fanny would have been sustained by the knowledge that their boys were in England and not France, and by the hope that the war might end before they could cross the Channel. Late in May 1917 they received a postcard from Bert dated 7 May and informing them that he and Sam had 'volunteered to go to France. We will be leaving some time this week, so I will say Good Bye and Good Luck just until I come back'. Their relative peace of mind was ended and both, but Fanny especially, would be subject to the wearing anxiety and suspense of waiting always for news and fearing always the worst. For all they knew, indeed, their boys may already be in the trenches, have already been confronted by the infinite perils of life at the front, and too terrible even to contemplate, be lying crushed and broken and buried in the fields of dead of France or Belgium.

We have no record of how Samuel and Fanny responded to Bert's news. It is possible that Samuel replied along the lines of Peter McCormick who, on hearing his son was soon for France, wrote: 'I may say I have more confidence in your goodness and manliness today than ever before, I know you will play the game and do your best under the most trying circumstances' (cited in Luckins, 2004: 29). Like many other mothers, Fanny may have sought to reassure her boys (and herself) by talking of their future homecoming or, more simply, invoking Christ's help in protecting her sons.

The two brothers sailed from Folkestone for the Machine Gun School at Camiers in France on 10 May 1917. On 12 June Bert wrote to his sister Hilda to inform her that:

I am going up to my company tomorrow, so I suppose we will be beside the real thing, but it may be a month or more before we do any fighting. The weather is pretty warm ... we have terrible thunderstorms here, some of the boys got flooded out the other night again. I had the laughing side of them, talk about lightning and thunder, I have never seen the like ...

Four days later the boys were posted to 10 Machine Gun Company which operated in support of the 10th Infantry Brigade in the 3rd Division of the II Anzac Corps. Their unit was then commanded by Captain Harold Ordish, a professional soldier and former instructor at the Royal Military College Duntroon (on 7 July Ordish was promoted to Major and transferred to HQ 2nd Division. He was replaced by one of his subordinates, and a former student of his at RMC, Captain Augustine William Wardell from Neerim South in Victoria). The Free brothers were to serve together in No 6 Team of the company's 3rd Section which was commanded by Lieutenant Frank Hales Potter (pictured below on the right), a bank clerk from Bairnsdale in Victoria, who, together with Ordish and Wardell, had sailed from Melbourne on the HMAT A11 Ascanius on 27 May 1916 (Potter was then a warrant officer but was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant a month after he arrived in England).

The boys' team leader was LCpl George Piggot Holmes (pictured below on the left), a fireman in the Victorian railways who hailed from Geelong but was working at Woomelang at the time of his enlistment on 8 April 1916. He had sailed from Melbourne on the RMS Orontes on 16 August as part of the second reinforcements for 10 MG Coy. Also on the ship was another of the boys' gun team, Pte Joseph Gordon Wright (pictured below). A 27 year-old farmer from St Arnaud, Wright had enlisted on 10 April 1916 and joined 10 MG Coy in Belgium almost exactly 12 months later. His great-niece, Jenny Clark nee wright, tells us that her grandfather, Joseph's younger brother Charles Edmund Wright, had enlisted in November 1914 and served in the 13th Field Artillery Brigade at Gallipoli and later in France where he was awarded the Military Medal. He returned to Australia in October 1918 under the special leave provisions granted to those who had enlisted in 1914.

The Free brothers joined their unit just after the Battle of Messines in Belgium in which 35 members of the company and 750 from the Division overall were either killed or wounded. On 28 June they and the rest of their unit were inspected by the GOC 3rd Australian Division, General Sir John Monash, who, in addition to inspecting the troops, awarded the military medal to two of their members: Sergeant Albert Edward Victor Taylor, a telephone mechanic from Seymour in Victoria, who had embarked for overseas service the SS Ascanius on 27 May 1916, and Private (later Sergeant) Percival Vivian Augustus Andrews, a labourer from Taradale in Victoria, who also sailed from Melbourne on the RMS Orontes on 16 August 1916. Although they missed out on participating in the battle of Messines, it was not long before Sam and Bert would have their first experience of trench warfare, in a diversionary attack that took place in the Messines sector on 29 and 30 July.

george piggott holmes joseph gordon wright frank hales potter

Three of Sam and Bert Free's colleagues in 10 MG Coy. From L/R: L/Cpl later Sgt George Piggott Holmes from Geelong in Victoria;
Pte Joseph Gordon Wright from St Arnaud in Victoria (Joseph is also pictured in the photos of 3 Section and No 6 Gun Team below);
and C/Sgt later Lieutenant Frank Hales Potter, the boys' section commander at the time of the battle of Paschendaele.

TheWindmill Feint

The Windmill Feint, by infantry from 11 Brigade, was directed against a series of German outposts that were located forward of their main line (the plan was to make the Germans think that Haig's coming offensive was going to be launched there rather than its actual location at Ypres to the north). The guns of 10 MG Coy were grouped with those of 9 MG Coy in order to contribute to the barrage covering the initial attack and then to provide support for subsequent S.O.S. tasks. In the days leading up to the attack, Sam and Bert and their colleagues spent most of their time stockpiling thousands of rounds of ammunition. As one of their colleagues, L. M. Jungworth, recorded in his diary, this was exhausting and dangerous work:

We would have to walk through sticky mud knee deep 3 miles to the ammunition dumps and then each man took a box containing 200 rounds. It was almost too heavy for a man to lift on his back. Sometimes we would tie them on so as to have our hands free to keep from falling and then sometimes men would fall and be unable to get up. All the time we would be getting shelled but be too exhausted to care.

On the night of the attack, No 6 Team moved into its positions and waited for ZERO hour. It started raining and a stray shell landed in the midst of an adjoining section, killing two men and wounding two others. According to the unit's war diary, at 3.50am the guns of the two machine gun companies opened fire at the rate of 50 rounds per minute onto the ground 100 yards in front of 11 Brigade's front line. The focus of their fire was advanced a further 100 yards a minute until Zero plus 30 minutes when 'two guns in each section ceased firing and the remainder scorched back to a range of 2800 yds'. At ZERO plus two hours 'all guns ceased fire and layed [sic] on their S.O.S. lines'. Altogether some 75,600 rounds of ammunition were expended in the initial barrage the efficiency of which was said to be:

... shown by the statement of a prisoner who rushed over to our lines shortly after ZERO. One bullet had penetrated his left wrist and another had torn across the front of his jacket without wounding him. He stated that he he had been in a shell hole post with several others. When the barrage opened they all attempted to reach our lines and he was the only member of the party that succeeded in coming through the machine gun fire.

After heavy fighting, the infantry's objectives were achieved and the soldiers of the 42nd and 43rd Battalions dug in for the expected counter-attack. At 9pm bodies of German soldiers were seen moving from their front line towards the Australian positions. S.O.S. rockets were fired and the machines guns of 9 and 10 MG Coys 'replied within a few seconds, followed almost instantly by the artillery. Under this barrage and fire from the posts, the German movement died away' (p. 719). A further and final counter attack mounted at first light met a similar response. The operation was considered to be a success even though 11 Brigade suffered 550 casualties and 'the German Command was never in real doubt as to the true object and direction of Haig's offensive' (p. 721).

On 31 July the division was withdrawn to the rear of the line where 10 MG Coy's machine guns were overhauled and it took on reinforcements. On 13 August the unit, now totalling 9 officers and 214 other ranks, entrained with the rest of 10 Brigade and travelled to Wizernes from where they marched to Mieurles and then to St. Sylvestre Cappel where they rested in their billets and awaited new orders.

15 10 machine gun company

3 Section 10 Machine Gun Company taken in Belgium sometime before October 1917. Sam is sixth from the
left in the rear row (on his left is Joseph Wright). We think Bert is sixth from the left in the front row.

Over this time, Fanny and her daughters would have prepared for the boys and their friends parcels containing cakes, puddings, cigarettes, soap, insect repellent, tins of fish and fruit, socks, flannels and balaclavas which the recipients found a God-send while on sentry duty or mending the wire strung-out before their trenches. The parcels, copies of local newspapers, and strings of letters written by friends and family members were always welcome, reminding them of happier times at home and, as Corporals Harold and Vernon Willey had earlier told their parents, helping them 'forget, for the time being, some of the hardships and horrible scenes we daily see' (Donald Times, 20 April 1917). Again we don't know exactly what Fanny and her daughters wrote in their letters to the boys. It is likely though that their mother's letters would have been much the same as those of Maria Keat who expressed pride in her 'darling soldier boy' Alick, constantly reassured him that he was neither forgotten nor unloved, and kept him fully informed both of family news and what was going on across the district (McQuilton, 2001: 136).

On 24 May, the boys' younger siblings celebrated Empire Day at school where, at the direction of the Education Minister, the lessons consisted of 'readings, addresses, recitations and songs of an imperial and patriotic character' (Donald Times, 11 May 1917). It is possible that they and their parents were at the local hall in June the same year to hear Melbourne-based Sergeants Skill and Campigli, who had received a DCM at Gallipoli while serving with the 8th Battalion, address a recruiting meeting. The correspondent for the Quambatook Times tells us that the 'fair number' attending the meeting heard musical items rendered by a Miss Wood and Messes Kirk, Sneddon, Stroud and Davison, with Miss Ingram playing the accompaniments. The correspondent added that:

Both Sergeants were given a splendid hearing and on each one rising to address the audience they were given a great ovation. Sergeant Campigli, in a stirring address, outlined the great need at the present time for recruits to reinforce the men at the front, stating there were more eligible men in Australia today than had gone from these shores to do battle for a right and just cause. The Sergeant then appealed to the audience for recruits for the sportsmen's thousand, but without success. An offer was made by local people giving 5 for the first recruit, 2/10/- for the second and 1 each for the next five, the offer to remain open for 3 hours after the appeal was made ... but the offer, though appreciated by many, was not accepted. [The report ended by reminding the paper's readers the recruiting film] 'Why Britain went to war' is to be shown in Lalbert Hall on Thursday 5th July.

The excitement generated by this and other official occasions continued, however, to be offset by news, which spread like a fire in stubble, of the war's 'swiftly accumulating tragedies'; and the sight of more and more of the district's women in mourning. In March came news that Lance Corporal Alfred Joseph of Quambatook had been killed in action at Dernancourt, and that Private Oliver Goldsmith from Corack had died of influenza in London's General Hospital: 'a young man with fine prospects of a successful career ... [his life was] cut off before he had the opportunity of fulfilling his mission' (Donald Times, 2 March 1917). Another former Corack resident, Sergeant James Neyland, was killed in action in April while serving with the 1st/6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders. Neyland was 36 years old, had served in the Boer War and enlisted while working as a gold miner in South Africa. In May came the news of the deaths of Privates 'Ossie' Davey, James Perry of Corack and James Duncan of Donald. Like James Neyland, Duncan had earlier served in South Africa. Though 33 years old and married, he was unable to remain in Australia 'while so many shirked the Empire's call'. Leaving 'his lonely wife in the care of friends', he enlisted in 1916 and fought in the battle of Baupaume. There he was wounded in the arm and repatriated to England where he died of pneumonia (Donald Times, 12 June 1917). The lengthening casualty lists and newspaper accounts of stupendous battles occurring in places near where her boys were serving would have made Fanny more anxious still about their safety and well-being, more wary of the approach along the drive of a strange horse and rider, and more fearful of having returned to her, unopened and unread, her own letters to her sons.


General Sir Douglas Haig's new offensive was to take place at Ypres, a name that people in the Wimmera weren't initially sure how to say although they would have ample opportunity to perfect its pronunciation before the year ended. passchendaeleLocated 22 miles from the Belgian coast, the city of Ypres had before the war been an important centre of commerce and agriculture. It sat in the centre of a flood plain which in centuries past had been recovered from the sea and now lay at the base of a number of small hills and wooded ridges that spanned the city's eastern approaches. This area of Flanders had been the site of bloody battles between the British Expeditionary Force and the Germans in 1914. These had ended in a stalemate with the Germans entrenched on the heights and the British occupying the plain below. Although under observation and constant fire and harassment by German gunners, the British were determined to hold on to both Ypres and the semi-circular salient that extended out from it. The 'Salient that so many had died to preserve could not be abandoned to create a straighter, more logical line of defence. As every yard of earth had been fought for, it had to be preserved at all costs' (Steel and Hart, 2001: 19). The price of this irrational if understandable single-mindedness on the part of Britain's military and political leaders would prove to be very high indeed.

Haig's idea was to break out from the Ypres salient, first capturing the ridges that extended from Pilckem in the north-east, through Passchendaele to the east, and around to the Gheluvelt Plateau that lay to the south-east of the town and was intersected by the road to Menin. Once this was achieved, British and French forces would then sweep northwards, isolating and eventually capturing the German-controlled ports at Ostend and Zeebrugge. The new offensive would thus not only relieve the pressure on Ypres but also end the threat Germany posed to Britain's own Channel ports. More ominously for the troops involved, Haig was also convinced that a major campaign in Flanders would finally break the resistance of the German Army, which had already suffered huge losses at Verdun and on the Somme, and win the war.

The 'Third Battle of Ypres', as Haig's offensive was known, began just before dawn on 31 July 1917 when 'a long jagged line of flame burst from the ground some way in front' of the British soldiers crouching in their frontline trenches, and was 'followed by a tremendous crack as our field guns opened fire' (Captain Thomas Outram 1st/5th Battalion King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, cited in Steel and Hart, 2001: 99). The noise of the subsequent artillery barrage was so deafening that Private Alfred Warsop of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters could neither hear nor make himself heard by his childhood friend standing next to him in their trench. 'I shouted but I couldn't hear myself at all. I wanted to tell him that we would keep together so I grabbed his hand and we went over together as we had gone to Sunday School - hand in hand' (cited in Steel and Hart, 2001: 101). passchendaeleAnother soldier thought the noise so loud that it would be heard in England. The undulating roar of the bombardment would certainly have been heard by the Free brothers in their trenches in the Messines sector. As Roland Leighton had done in 1915, it is likely they and their colleagues would have listened to it 'not with equanimity, but with a certain tremulous gratitude that it is no nearer. Someone is getting hell but it isn't you - yet' (cited in Bishop, 2000: 202).

The first stage of the attack, conducted entirely by British and French troops, achieved mixed results. While much of the Pilckem ridge and the approaches to Passchendaele were captured, virtually no progress was made on the Gheluvelt Plateau. Unable to subdue their opponent's artillery fire, the German front-line divisions suffered significant casualties but so did the British especially in the wake of a number of follow-up attacks aimed at either exploiting localised German weaknesses or 'straightening the line'. The overall number of killed and wounded suffered by the British between the beginning of the offensive and the completion of the first stage on 28 August totalled some 68,000. 'Battalions of fit strong men, forged by their training and previous battle experiences, had been reduced to husks'. And no 'fewer than twenty-two divisions had been through the mill and could no longer held to be effective' (Steel and Hart, 2001: 137 and 212).

The second stage of Haig's offensive involved the British Second Army which now included both I and II Anzac Corps. The Second Army's task was to advance across the Gheluvelt Plateau to the Passchendaele ridge some three miles from the British front line. Drawing on the lessons learnt from the battle of Messines, the objective was to be achieved not in one but four separate 'bite and hold' operations. Each operation was to be well prepared, involve relatively limited advances, and provide time for the assaulting troops and supporting artillery fully to consolidate their positions before the next attack was commenced. Australian forces were to be involved in all four operations. On 20 September the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions, would be required to push some 1,500 yards along the Menin Road. Six days later they were to assault the German positions around Polygon Wood. On 4 October the 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions were to capture the village of Broodseinde and its surrounds. In the fourth and final operation, which would take place over the period 9 to 12 October 1917, these same divisions were to attack and occupy the village of Passchendaele.

Lying in their billets well to the rear, the Free brothers would have been woken by the roar of the guns which marked the beginning of the second stage of the Third Battle of Ypres. It is likely that they and their mates would have clambered on wagons or the roofs of near-by buildings to watch the red glare on the horizon interspersed with flashes of light generated by the larger guns or exploding ammunition. Their preparations for their own involvement in the offensive would have been accompanied by the constant sound of artillery, rumbling and cracking like outback thunderstorms, as the battles of the Menin Road and Polygon Wood proceeded apace. passchendaeleOn 3 October 1917, the unit moved to the rear of the line near Vlamertingue where they made ready for the first stage of an attack against enemy forces dug in around the village of Passchendaele. In 10 Brigade's sector, this was to be carried out by the infantry battalions. Numbers 1 and 3 Sections of 10 MG Coy, under the command of Lieutenant Smith, were to provide supporting fire for the attacking infantry while 4 Section, under Lieutenant Woods, would advance with the infantry and assist in the consolidation of the final objective.

Thus on the evening of 3 October 1917, the two brothers and their comrades found themselves digging in their guns on a barrage position in the vicinity of the Bremen Redoubt. It had began to drizzle and sharp, chilly squalls drove in from the southwest causing the battlefield to become, in the words of the official history, 'greasy' if not yet 'drenched'. A German artillery barrage, which preceded an attack of their own on the same night, began to fall among the waiting Australian infantry who were, by this stage, crowded together just to the rear of the front line. In spite of the casualties this caused and the ever-worsening weather, the morale and expectations of the troops was high in large measure because this was to be the first time in which the divisions of the two Anzac Corps would actually fight side-by-side.

The attack began at 4 am and soldiers of the brigade moved forward under the barrage provided by the artillery and the machine guns of 1 and 3 sections. After heavy fighting all of the brigade's objectives were achieved. The attackers dug-in and Sam and Bert and their colleagues hastily moved their guns forward to a new barrage position from which they could cover likely assembly points for the expected German counter-attack. This did not eventuate however, and, after a sleepless night, the company was relieved by one from the British 66th Division.

The brothers were no doubt relieved that they had survived but also pleased that they had performed their tasks professionally and well - Sam was now the No 1 in his team which meant that he fired one of the section's guns - and had helped the attacking infantry achieve all of its objectives. While the cost of the attack would have given them pause for thought (the Australia divisions lost over 6340 men killed or wounded including 26 members of 10 MG Coy) they had little time to dwell on its possibilities, for already they were getting ready for the next and more difficult stage of the operation.

machine gun team no 6

Gun Team No 6 showing Sam and Bert seated together on the left. Bert has written on the back:
'this photo was taken in the open in France ... it is our gun team, that big fellow behind Sam is [Joseph Gordon] Wright
from St Arnaud, he knows all your [Shepherd] relations down there, I got twelve letters today one from Hilda
and Jean, had one from W. Gilchrist he has just landed in England, we are still out spelling
so there is no news much ...

This involved a two-phase assault by the troops of 3 Division on Passchendaele itself. It would prove to be much less successful. The attack, which was to be conducted by the 9th and 10 Brigades, was to begin at first light on 12 October 1917. On this occasion, 1 and 4 sections of 10 MG Coy were to form the barrage battery and 3 Section under Lieutenant Potter plus a subsection of 2 Section were 'to move forward to [the] jumping off tape with the infantry' and join in the attack. Bert and Sam and the other soldiers from the two brigades spent the night of 10 October on grassland flats to the east of Ypres. According to the official history, 'tents, which were to have been provided, were not there' and so the soldiers had to camp 'on the wet grass, under such timber or old sheets of iron as they could find' (p. 910).

passchendaeleThey began the approach to their jumping off points at around 6pm on 11 October. As the history of the 39 Battalion described, the area they were crossing had just been 'won from the enemy, and consequently was badly broken up by gun fire into a series of shell holes'. This and continuing driving rain made the ground almost impassable except along duckboard tracks which had been laid the previous day. These had also been visible to the enemy and so the approaching soldiers found they were being 'accurately and persistently shelled not only with high explosive, but, at some points, with [mustard] gas'. Those who got off the duckboards risked being drowned in sodden shell holes, or, in the pitch dark, found themselves crawling over the bodies of British soldiers who had been killed or wounded in the lead-up attack.

The leading platoons did not reach their assembly points until around 3am whereupon they pulled their waterproof sheets over their heads for shelter against the rain, and tried to sleep. But as 39 Battalion's history records, their ordeal was by no means over:

Zero hour was still two hours ahead. Continuous heavy rain fell the whole time and the Germans kept up ... [their] bombardment. Little schrapnel was used, and the ground was so soft the shells buried themselves before exploding. But for this circumstance, the waiting troops would have been decimated before the battle began. As it was, heavy casualties resulted. The men longed for zero hour, preferring activity to a passive submission to a heavy bombardment.

During the move to the assembly point, Bert became separated from the No 6 Team. In a letter written in 1918, Bert's then section commander, George Holmes, told Bert's mother that Bert 'never got up to us at the front ... [and] was when last seen to my knowledge on or very near the barrage line'. The attack on Passchendaele began at 5.30am and required the leading lines of infantry to walk just behind the artillery and machine gun barrage while dodging the incoming German shells and dealing with pockets of resistance that remained after the barrage had passed. The attackers were hampered by the worsening weather and intense fire coming from positions on their left flank. While a few eventually reached the village of Passchendaele, the heavy casualties and lack of support forced them to withdraw and to consolidate their line roughly where the attack had begun. There they held on grimly until relieved by 11 Brigade the next day.

herbert adlerNumber 3 Section, which lost three of its guns in action, was withdrawn from the line at the same time although Sam and its other surviving members continued to help man the barrage position that was maintained on Abraham Heights for a further week until they were relieved by a Canadian machine gun company. Bert was posted as wounded and then missing in action on 20 October 1917, the day before 10 MG Coy returned by train to Mieurles. The unit's overall losses were four killed in action, 27 wounded in action, one, Bert, wounded and missing in action, and four missing in action. The 3rd Division suffered some 3199 casualties in all and would take months before it was able and ready to fight again. Among 10 MG Coy's missing in action were three members of 3 Section's No 12 Gun Team: T/Sgt Henry Clifford Binks, Cpl George Frederick Hatty and Pte William Henry Pascoe who are pictured below and were all killed by a shell burst some 300 yards from the village Of Passchendaele. They were buried by their comrades where they fell but as the allied forces were forced to retire their bodies were never recovered. They are among the many thousands of soldiers who were later memorialised on the Menin Gates.

Among the company's wounded was the boys' section commander, Lieutenant Frank Hales Potter who had suffered a gunshot wound to the thigh. He was evacuated to the local Casualty Clearing Station and thence to the Australian 14th General Hospital where he died on 3 November 1917. Along with his former OC, Major Ordish, and Sergeant Francis Kelly, Frank was subsequently mentioned in dispatches for his bravery under fire. Also killed during the battle of Passchendaele was Bert and Sam's old school friend from Lalbert, Herbert Adler (pictured on the left). Bert, as he was known as, was then serving as the number one gunner in 2 Section of 4 Machine Gun Company. According to statements provided by his colleagues to the Australian Red Cross, Bert and three of his gun team were sleeping in a trench just prior to the advance to Polygon Wood when they were struck by a shell and killed instantly. One of the informants, LCpl Albert George Collumbine from the unit's No 1 Section helped bury Bert and his colleagues 'about 200 yards from where he was killed at Zonnebeke (about a mile from Zonnebeke station) and a cross was put over the four, who were buried close to each other'. Bert Adler's body was recovered and his final resting place is Dochy farm New British Cemetery.

henry clifford binks william henry pascoe george frederick hatty

Sent to us by Stephen Berry, these photos are of the three members of 3 Section's No 12 Gun Team who were all killed by a shell burst outside the village of Passchendaele.
From L/R: T/Sgt Henry Clifford Binks, Pte William Henry Pascoe and Cpl George Frederick Batty (Stephen's great uncle). Binks and Batty were 'original 10 MG Gun men'
who sailed from Melbourne on the HMAT ASCANIUS, trained together at Lark Hill and proceeded to France in November 1916. While Binks and Batty were Victorians,
Pascoe came from Bundaberg in Queensland and, after undergoing training at Camieres in France, joined the unit in June 1917.

Click here to read about Sam and the Free family after Passchendaele.

machine gunners

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