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