Click to escape. Subject to Crown Copyright
Category: Western Front

Click to go up one level


4 - 6 October 1917

The following is a description of the Battle of Broodseinde (Ypres) written by  2639, Private Verdi G. Schwinghammer, "C" Company, 42nd Battalion A.I.F. 

It was awarded the third prize of 100 francs at the Third Australian Divisional Essay Competition, held after the Armistice at St Maxent, near Abbeville, France.

Our five weeks happy stay in the village of Remilly came abruptly to an end one night when the Sergeant came and awakened us at about 3 o'clock and told us to get up and be ready to move off in a couple of hours time. This news had the effect of a general stir and we were busy packing our packs and getting things in general ready.

After a hurried breakfast and having said "au revoir" to the hospitable proprietress - Madame - of our billets (who brought us wine, apples, etc. as parting gifts) at daylight we started on our memorable march of 42 kilos, which occupied three days and taxed our endurance qualities to the utmost.

Popperhinge (Belgium) was now our location and we remained here five days resting our bodies and feet in particular, which latter suffered most through the long march.

Whilst here "Fritz" came over regularly every night in his aeroplanes and bombed the town and camps. One night he dropped two bombs close to our tents (fragments coming through the canvas) and also dropped a bomb on the machine gunners' camp - which adjoined ours - causing the death of 36 Australian soldiers. That night many bombs were also dropped on the town doing great damage and killing many civilians and soldiers. Every morning we could hear our Guns bombarding the enemy’s positions, prior to our troops attacking. One afternoon our procedure in the battle was explained to us and we were shown an aeroplane photograph (also a model) of the country we were to attack and advance over and also our objectives. The little woods, swamps and ruined buildings (which we afterwards found out) were very plainly shown on the photographs.

On 2nd October we were told that our attack was to take place two mornings after - that was 4th October. The various chaplains came and gave us Church services in the open on the parade ground. Then after a good meal we began packing up. After all our extra "tools", etc. were given us (such as 150 rounds small ammunition, bag containing 8 Mills' bombs, ten rods - I was a rifle grenadier - eight sandbags, shovels, two days’ rations, etc.) we marched to the Popperhinge railway station and entrained for Ypres.

An hour’s journey brought us to the ruined Asylum near Ypres (that was as far as the train could go as the Ypres Railway station had been blown to pieces) where we dis-entrained and marched single file (on account of the huge amount of traffic on the roads) through the ruined city to an open piece of ground at the back of the Madeline cemetery where we bivouacked for the night.

Just in front of us were our eighteen-pounder batteries, which kept "barking" (firing) all night and on our right was a huge naval gun which fired at regular intervals. German planes came over during the night dropping bombs and raining machine-gun bullets on us but none took effect in our locality.

Daylight revealed a great number of Australians camped on either side of us, and we walked amongst the various Battalions to see if there were any that we knew. We were told to rest ourselves that day, which we did, with the exception of walking down to the water point at Ypres to refill our water bottles. This gave us an opportunity of seeing the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall (which was one of the finest buildings in Europe before it was destroyed by the Germans.

The amount of traffic going up to the line was tremendous. A continual stream of ammunition lorries, food lorries, water carts, cannons (some drawn by mules, some by motors), Red Cross Ambulances, etc. etc. and thousands of troops wending their way up. No wonder that some of the thoroughfares to the lines were called after those of London, such as "Hyde Park Corner", "The Strand", etc., and, as far as traffic was concerned, they didn't belie their names.

At dusk we were given a hot meal, for some the last on this earth, for others, the last hot one for four days and, after a final talk given to us by our Captain and the Chaplains, we commenced the approach march to the line. It was now 9 pm and all were in good spirits and quite cheerful. Physically we were fit and alert and ready for battle. How different we were to be in less than twelve hours later.

Men do not go into battle sad and gloomy (as many civilians wrongly imagine). They are quite the opposite even though they know the dreadful things they have to face and that some of them are going to their death. We passed along, what seemed and endless track of duckboards "keeping in touch", which was very necessary, if we were not to get lost.

We had our first rest (a few minutes halt) just in front of our batteries, which were firing spasmodically. After resuming the march again there were frequent stops, caused through broken duckboards, and slipping off the boards into the mud and getting bogged. At several of these unofficial halts, the following, amongst others, would be heard: "Put out that cigarette", the answer from the smoker being "Oh, he's windy" or "He's got the wind up". I may say that we were previously warned not to smoke or talk during the approach march. I am a non-smoker (the same as quite a number of the soldiers were) so cannot describe the comfort or ease of mind which the men said that smoking gave to them when in danger or sitting under a bombardment. I always drew my cigarette issues and put them in my gasbag, and the men always knew where they could get a smoke.

A few shells were now falling pretty close to us, and the next stop was close to a "pill box" (captured German concrete dug out) near which, to my surprise was a fire, from the light of which one could see several dead lying about. We were now on ground which, a few days previously had been in the enemy's possession, and the dead had not yet been buried. Machine-gun bullets were now hissing overhead as "Fritz" occasionally "rattled" his machine guns. We were told to keep quite still when an enemy verey light went up, as it was practically impossible to make out stationary objects when verey lights are sent up, but the slightest movement is easily noticed.

After a while it was found that we were on the wrong track, and the order "About turn" came along, which meant going back a considerable distance the way we came. Eventually the right track was found and we continued moving onwards.

Shells were now falling amongst us and we took shelter, that is, huddled together in shell holes, until the shelling ceased. The next movement brought us closer up and the enemy lights now seemed almost on us.

As we were getting into position a bullet got one of our men close to me, killing him instantly. We were all sorry that poor old "Brumby" (that was the name we called him) had fallen. He came from the backblocks of Queensland and was a rough diamond, but had a good heart and was popular amongst us. He was uneducated and couldn't write, and I used to write his love letters to his girl in Queensland for him. He said to me, just a few minutes before he was killed "Well, I have been used to the bush all my life, sleeping out amongst the dingoes, etc. and I was never afraid before, but I feel frightened tonight". We assured him that everything would be all right, but he fell dead from a bullet soon afterwards. Such is war.

A Corporal in charge of our platoon told us to make ourselves comfortable. I said "Where are the trenches?" (having pictured in my mind well made and comfortable trenches which we generally occupied when holding the line). He replied "These are the trenches", which were merely a series of shell holes filled with water. Our tape was laid in a line in front of them. A white tape was generally laid down in front of the trenches to keep us in line so that we could all advance together when the battle commenced. We were now glad to rest our weary limbs, even if it was only in a muddy shell hole, it being now 3am. The approach march having occupied six hours.

In passing I may say that this was my first ''Hop Over" (battle) - although I had been up to the line on working parties before – and I was quite fresh, in fact, quite excited and had no idea of the dangers and didn't realise what was ahead of us and what we had to go through.

The Officers and N.C.O.s were now busy seeing that the various sections were all in order and in their proper positions. The Germans were only about two hundred yards in front of us and they were continually firing flares (verey lights) which lighted up no-mans-land splendidly. It is a wonderful and very pretty sight to have seen the many coloured lights which the Germans (and we too) used to illuminate no-mans-land with, and-also for signal purposes. We used to say that the Germans had the contract for lighting up no-mans-land, thereby saving us the trouble and expense. White and gold lights were used for illumination and red and green for signals. A civilian display of fireworks could not equal the "free" exhibitions we used to witness nightly and it would have gladdened the hearts of many children to have seen them.

A Corporal and I shared a shell hole between us. He said to me "I am going to have a little snooze, wake me about 5am". This appeared to me to be very brave to even think of sleep under such conditions, but he was very weary and also an old soldier, and had been in several battles. However he didn't get his desired snooze. The shells were falling more often- and getting uncomfortably close. One burst not very far from us giving us a shaking and covering us with mud, so we crept further out into another shell hole. As the lights went up I could see figures in single file in front of us, whom I thought were Germans, but were only the British troops then holding the "line" being relieved by us preparatory to our attack.

About half past five I saw many red and green lights go up from the German positions and remarked to the Corporal how pretty they looked. He said "Now we are in for it" -"The Germans have taken a tumble that we are going to attack them and they are sending up their S.O.S (save our souls) signals to their gunners". Almost immediately a heavy barrage (many cannons firing together) descended on our positions and continued until our barrage opened up half an hour later. The Corporal remarked that the "Minnies" (nickname for the German trench mortar- Minen Werfer - a dreadful weapon) were coming over, which at that time I didn't know anything about. Now I do.

We could hear "Stretcher Bearer" being called out as casualties occurred, those close to the railway lines suffering heavily. The last hour previous to hopping over seemed to me to be the longest that I have ever experienced, and I was continually looking at my luminous watch to see the time. All one's past life seemed to be pictured in one's mind during that short period and our thoughts were naturally of home and our loved ones and also what the future would bring forth.

Just as day was breaking, zero hour (5.55 a.m.) arrived, and as if by magic, our guns opened up and we rushed forward to commence the attack. It was said that we had one eighteen pounder battery to every twenty five yards, on a front of several miles, besides many larger guns and hundreds of machine guns and Lewis guns that morning. Imagine all these firing together. Our barrage seemed to almost silence the German guns. For the first five minutes or so 1 could remember nothing, but after I had collected myself, I found myself going automatically forward with my section. After hopping over I saw no more of my Corporal, but afterwards learned that he had his right leg blown off, and I am glad to say that he recovered and returned to Australia.

It was now pretty light and the scene that confronted us I will never forget nor could I adequately describe it.

It seemed as if hell had been let loose on earth. The ground was shaking and the air hot and full of the smell of powder from the guns. The noise was terrible. Dead and wounded were lying about everywhere and as far as one could see on either side was a mass of soldiers moving forward behind the barrage. Shells were failing in front of us and amongst us and earth was being thrown up into the air. In front of us our barrage was slowly creeping forward, the sight of which was one of awe-inspiring grandeur. Behind and amongst us a few "shorts" (our own shells which fall short amongst us) and some German shells were falling. I saw one shell fall amongst a group of men, seeing human limbs, etc. being hurled into the air.

After I had gone a few hundred yards I came across a group of our "C" Company men, who were lying in a group, all badly wounded. I knelt down and found one of them to be our Lieutenant whom I made as comfortable as possible, and gave him some whisky which he carried in his bottle. He (Lieut. Ballard) died later. I gave the others some water, emptying my own water bottle in doing so, but we could always get plenty of water after a battle, by taking the water bottles from the dead soldiers. Whilst I was thus engaged our Captain happened to pass by and sharply told me to advance and get on with our platoon and leave this kind of work to the Army Medical Corps. However, this rebuff, which was quite military and correct did not prevent me from assisting some more of my wounded comrades further on. The Red Cross had more than they could do to cope with the wounded.

We were now getting close to a German Pill Box, which was rushed and captured. By now Germans were running towards us surrendering (from the various Pill boxes that had been captured). A lot of them put up their hands and shouted ''Mercy Kamerads". Some of them were waving red cross and white flags, and, as they passed us, they .were relieved of any valuables they possessed, souveniring the enemy being a strong characteristic of the Australians. One German ran out of a shell hole to me and handed me his watch, which on the spur of the moment, 1 took, but was afterwards sorry for taking it, because I felt if ever I was taken prisoner, I would not like my watch to be taken from me.

I came across several of our men badly wounded ( some with arms, legs, etc. off) but the way they bore their pain was wonderful - no complaining or grumbling. It was a frequent sight to see a wounded German and a wounded Aussie helping each other to get to the advanced dressing station.

A shell burst near us and a piece cut through my puttee and made a small flesh wound as big as a sixpence. It was hardly worth taking notice of at the time and it eventually healed up, but afterwards gave me a lot of trouble, as it was poisoned.

By now I had lost my section, in fact I had got right away from my Battalion, which I could tell by the various distinguishing marks (generally coloured patches that each Battalion wore on the back of our tunics).

In my endeavours to find my Battalion I got bogged in a small swamp where many others were bogged (some of them wounded). I managed to free myself and found my Battalion again.

During all this time we were gradually advancing and shell fragments and machine gun and rifle bullets were flying all around us. When one considers the amount of material that is hurled about in a small space in a battle, it is surprising to see the number of soldiers who come out alive and unwounded.

At last we reached our objective and on looking at my watch found it was 9am - three hours since the attack commenced, but it didn't seem that 1ong. Ours was the second or middle objective. The 41st Battalion was advancing through ours and going forward two hundred yards, while the 44th Battalion was digging in three hundred yards behind us. The Platoon Sergeant showed us where to dig our trenches and told us to hurry, as our barrage was only timed to play in front of us just long enough to give us a little protection while digging in.

Digging our trenches proved very easy as the ground was soft, in fact, too soft – it used to fall in - and when we were down three feet we came to water, so the trenches were soon quagmires, and we were wallowing in them like a lot of pigs. Our trench was right in front of a Pill Box which was made into Company Headquarters.

While digging in, several were killed. Lieut. Hart, one of our young officers and one of the most popular and best loved men in the Battalion, was killed by a bullet only a few feet from me. (Several of our men were now not with us, many having been killed , others wounded.)

Our contact aeroplane flew overhead and we lit the flares (which had been supplied to us) to show our positions to the plane. After our barrage ceased, intermittent fire was carried on by the artillery of both sides all day.

The first counter attack was launched by the Germans at 7pm. It was repulsed without us even leaving the trenches. When the attack was made we put our S.O.S signals up which brought down from our batteries and machine guns a wonderful barrage.

Runners were busy throughout the night keeping in touch with the different companies and platoons and also carrying important messages. I could not but help admire their coolness and bravery in doing their work under a continual bombardment.

About three o'clock in the morning a pal and myself were detailed to carry a dead Aussie from the pill box into a shell hole, which we did. On our return we were sent to help carry a stretcher case to the advanced dressing station, which was a captured pill box about 100 yards behind our trench. This proved very, difficult as the night was dark, the mud very bad, the shells bursting all around us, but we succeeded all right. On our way back we were told to go over near the ruined Zonnebeke railway station and get the rations, but as we could not find any rations there, went back to our trench and found that the rations had already arrived by the ration carriers. It was now daylight - our second day -. A German plane flew over our trenches, so low that we could see the face of the aviator as he looked over from his machine. He dropped lights to show his artillery where our positions were and that night the Germans put down on us a terrific bombardment.

About midday the Sergeant came and asked for two volunteers to carry a serious stretcher case from the 41st Battalion (in front of us) to the dressing station. A pal and myself went and arrived safely at the trench. We started to carry the wounded chap on an oil sheet, but eventually had to wait for a stretcher. After arriving at the dressing station we sat down to have a drink of tea and eat some biscuits, which the gunners had given us. Our eighteen pounder batteries were firing close by and whilst we were watching one fire, a shell burst prematurely, close to where we were, killing an English officer and wounding several mules. Nothing is perfect and a lot of our shells used to explode prematurely.

I consider that stretcher bearers, generally speaking, are the greatest heroes in a battle, they, in my opinion, have the most dangerous and strenuous work to perform, and too much praise cannot be given them for the noble and excellent work which they carry out.

It was dusk when we arrived back at our trench and we were told to get ready and pack up as we were to be relieved that night. But we were not relieved that night, and I think that we ought to have considered ourselves lucky that we weren't. The Hun put down a terrific bombardment on us which lasted all night, and very many of our men were killed or wounded. A shell burst on the top of our trench blowing it in, and buried my body. Only my head was protruding. A couple of pals (one since killed, dug me out and freed me. I escaped without a scratch, with the exception of a severe shaking. After this my nerves went to pieces. Sitting under a bombardment plays havoc with one's nerves, and a good rest and quietness is the only cure for this.

At last daylight dawned and we prepared to move out. Started at 9am and hurried past a corner of the road which was continually being shelled, and where many casualties occurred. Each side of the track was strewn with hundreds of dead Tommies and equipment. (The latter being discarded by the wounded as they were evacuated.) They were killed the previous night going in to relieve another Company. In places the dead were piled feet high, so great were the casualties. Tired, hungry and sleepy (having had no sleep for three days and nights) we struggled along, through the mud, slush and dead, not resting until we got back a considerable distance and then fairly safe.

Coming out of the line is not the same as going in. When going in we are in order and kept together, but coming out it is every man for himself to get along the best way he can. We were now on the never-to-be-forgotten Menin Road which was strewn with thousands of dead soldiers and mules. After several rests, another digger and myself reached the outskirts of Ypres, where the Y.M.C.A. gave us hot cocoa, biscuits, chocolates and cigarettes. Strengthened by these we continued on and eventually reached the ruined asylum, where the rest of the Battalion had already arrived. We were given a real good hot meal of bully beef stew, which made new men of us.

It was now raining heavily and a seven kilometre march was ahead of us. Our Captain very kindly and thoughtfully gave myself and a mate a "lift" on one of the cookers.

Huts (on the outskirts of Popperinghe) were reached at dark, when we were given another hot meal, our packs and several blankets. One does not take blankets into battle with them - only when holding the line.

Then followed two good days rest (we slept most of the time) before going back again, this time to hold the line.

The roll was called and showed to what extent the battle had cost us in wounded and valuable lives.

In conclusion I may say that the battle was a success, that is, all our objectives were gained and held, and the total number of prisoners taken by the Australians that day amounted to over four thousand.

editors note. In the whole war only 4,000 Australians were taken prisoner and many of them were wounded. In the 42nd Battalion they lost 544 KIA but only 2 were taken prisoner. "Surrender? Don't be bloody silly, we're Australian"



Statistics : Over 35 million page visitors since  11 Nov 2002  



 Search   Help     Guestbook   Get Updates   Last Post    The Ode      FAQ     Digger Forum

Click for news

Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces