A SOLDIER’S EXPERIENCE:
(Article appearing over two days
in the Grafton Examiner, late 1918.)
2639 Private Verdi G. Schwinghammer,
"C" Company, 42nd
infantry advancing, June 1918
IWM Q 55013
Mr & Mrs. A. E. Schwinghammer, of
South Grafton, have received the following lengthy letter from their son,
Private Verdi Schwinghammer, written from his diary, at Overseas Camp,
Warminster, England, under the date of 18th August:-
Several times I intended writing, giving
you a little account of what occurred the last seven weeks I was in France
– before being invalided over to England – but I couldn’t make up my
mind before. However, as there are only two days before I go back to
France Again, I will give you a short account (with the aid of my diary)
of what we experienced and went through.
After my very enjoyable fourteen days’
leave (and which I told you about before) I took train from Victoria
Station, London, to Dover where we stayed a day in the barracks. That
evening we crossed the Channel to Calais (two hours’ journey) and
marched to our big camps there just outside the city. I saw all the great
fortifications of Calais and its harbour and also many of the old
interesting monuments. Just fancy this city for very many years belonging
to England, we having won it fighting France and afterwards lost it again,
France was then our enemy, now she is our Ally. How history changes.
Although Calais is 45 miles from the line, we soon realised that we were
near the seat of war.
We had just finished tea and got into
our tents when the air raid warning sounded. It was a beautiful clear
moonlight night. The Chinese Labour Battalion (4,000 of them) camps adjoin
ours at Calais and they are comfortably housed in huts. I might say that
they (and our South African coloured troops) do great work behind the
line, working, thereby releasing other men for more important jobs. But
they are very frightened and haven’t the morale of the white races.
Although the ‘planes were some distance away (we could faintly hear the
droning of them), as soon as the alarm was given, the Chinese could be
heard squealing and yelling and running for their lives to the sea beach
where strong "dug outs" are constructed for them in the sea
wall. Some 70 or 80 of them were too interested in playing Pak-a-pu (or
some such gambling game), secretly in one of their huts, to go to the
trouble of taking shelter and which afterwards proved as you will see,
fatal for them. It was without doubt one of the most dreadful nights of
suspense I have ever experienced. An air raid is the most dreadful of all
the horrors this war has produced, and the majority of us soldiers would
rather be in the front line and put up with the huge shells from the guns,
than experience an air raid.
From the shells we have a fair chance of
escape, but it’s a dreadful feeling to lie in one’s tents and huts and
hearing the planes humming overhead and not knowing what minute a bomb is
going to fall on you. A bomb will kill at 150 yards – sometimes further
– from where they are dropped. Of course we soldiers had no dug outs but
could only lie in our tents and await results – the tents being
sandbagged up for about 18 inches in height, and that prevents fragments
from the bombs hurting us, if one drops close to us. Of course the
searchlights were operating (but they are practically useless of a
moonlight night) and the anti aircraft guns firing. However the Hun planes
got through the barrage and made for the city (the water in the harbour
looks like a silver stream from an aeroplane, and enables them to pick out
their targets. By this time the civilians were warned and in their dug
outs (Calais has a population of 50,000).
The Calais antiaircraft defences were
firing but only at random as it was too moonlight to pick out the
aeroplanes and fragments from our own shells were falling all around us.
Sometimes many of our own people are killed from our own shells when they
are "duds" (that is when they fail to explode in the air). We
could hear the bombs dropping on the city, and although we were about two
miles away, the explosions were terrific and the ground where we camped
fairly quivered. Having "laid their eggs" (that’s what the
soldiers call dropping bombs from an aeroplane) the ‘planes – there
were seven or eight of them – returned to their base which is in Belgium
– the distance from the frontier to Calais, as the crow flies, being
only thirty miles and an ordinary plane can do that in half an hour. About
an hour afterwards another air raid alarm was sounded – a second
squadron of planes was on its way to attack the city. They again got
through the barrage, and this time they hovered over our camp.
The big Red Cross Hospital was on the
land side of our camps, and from our tents we could see the huge red
crosses painted on the roof of it. It was full of wounded and he nearly
dropped a bomb on it – missing by about 100 yards. We could hardly hear
ourselves speaking from the hum of the machines now – the Hun planes
being only a few hundred feet above us; and yet we couldn’t see them. He
was dropping the bombs all around us, but up till then he hadn’t dropped
any within the camp. We were lying in our tents, when all of a sudden we
heard a hissing noise coming through the air, and before we could speak a
word, there was a terrific crash and the ground rocked under us, our tents
being covered with dirt and broken wood – he having dropped four bombs
on top of the Chinese huts, not ninety yards from where my tent was. After
a while we could hear the drone of the planes gradually getting less, and
then knew that they had dropped bombs and were flying home.
After a while the "all clear’
alarm was sounded and we emerged from our tents to view the damage, and
alas the death all around us, I never such wreckage of wood before; and
they were picking up fragments of the Chinese everywhere. Next morning
when the Chinese roll was called – seventy were found to be missing,
they having been killed in the raid and scarcely one body was
recognisable. The death toll in the city was very light, (not more than a
dozen casualties) the bombs by God’s providence falling mostly in the
harbour and in open fields. On our way to the station next morning we saw here
several bombs had dropped in open fields, and the holes they made
were, without any exaggeration, large enough to accommodate a buggy and
pair. One bomb unfortunately, fell in the street outside the beautiful and
ancient Roman Catholic Cathedral of Joan of Arc, and although no
structural damage was done to the building, yet all the beautiful stained
glass windows were broken to pieces by the concussion, and the street was
covered for almost half a mile with fragments of stained glass.
This was the largest raid they had had
in Calais since the war began. It was a great pity that none of the
raiding planes was brought down. You might say why didn’t some of our
own aeroplanes go up and fight them. Well this was impossible on account
of it being a moonlight night. The only time an air fight at night is
possible is when it is dark. The our planes go up keeping in the dark
themselves, until our searchlights pick up an enemy machine, and then
rushing in at the enemy ‘plane out of the darkness. Of course our anti
aircraft guns have to cease firing then, in case they hits some of our own
machines – the same applying to the machine and Lewis guns which
comprise part of the barrage.
One can quite understand the civilian
population of London being afraid of air raids, when what I have written
is only a very feeble account of how dreadful an air raid really is. Just
imagine an air raid on Sydney or even Grafton. Another big air raid I was
in was at Poperinghe (Belgium) last October, two nights before the third
battle of Ypres and I am sorry to say that 56 of our own Australian
soldiers were killed that night and dreadful material damage and many
casualties inflicted on the people of that fine city. Of course I have
been in many small air raids. We (the Allies) now have ascendancy in the
air, and its some satisfaction to know that for every ton of bombs that
the Germans drop on us, we drop ten tons on him. I have witnessed several
thrilling air fights of which I will tell you later.
The next morning we left to rejoin our
battalion, taking train from Calais, travelling most of the day and
arriving at St Omer where we stayed the night. This is a fine city with
100,000 inhabitants and possibly one of the finest Cathedrals in the
world. This city is now only 22 miles from the line. I was pleased to meet
Charlie there as his battalion was out resting and they were billeted
there. As soon as the sun went down the air raid was sounded – many of
the civilian people taking shelter in the basement of the town hall –
and I expected another big raid, but although they flew over the city at a
great height, they dropped no bombs there – their murderous business for
that night being intended for some other place.
Next morning (22nd March) the
paper told us the grave news that the Germans had broken through the Fifth
British Army and were advancing towards Amiens and the Somme. We enquired
our Battalion’s whereabouts, were told to take train on to Lottingham,
where we would find them resting. When I left my Battalion to go on leave,
they were in the line at Ploegsteert, but came out a few days after I left,
and were promised six weeks’ rest, as we had been in the line, on and
off, practically all winter. You will see how this promise was kept, but
of course war alters everything.
As we travelled along in the train, we
could see something was in the air, as we passed many trains crowded with
British soldiers, going south, also trains loaded with big guns, and the
roads were fairly blocked with transport traffic. At mid-day we reached
Lottingham and there at the station was my own battalion and hundreds of
other Australians waiting to entrain. They had received word at five that
morning to go south to keep the enemy back in his advance, and although
they had only had a fortnight’s rest, they were all happy and in good
spirits, and looking forward to the new part of the line we were going to
– our division (the Third) never having been down the Somme way before,
we always held the Armentieres – Messines – Ypres sector, when we
Afte4r dinner we entrained again and at
midnight reached Caestre where we got out and marched many kilos (a
kilometre being two thirds of a mile) to a small village where we camped
in an old barn. The next day marched out again to another village. Stayed
there a day and resting until the next night we marched to railway station
at (--censored--), arriving there at midnight, and sleeping on the road,
catching train again the next morning, travelling all day and reaching
Doullens that evening at six. Great activity prevailed at this important
railway station, thousands of British, French and other soldiers arriving
there by train every few minutes. The French people were very good to us
there, giving us free beer, etc., they were preparing to evacuate the town
as the Hun was advancing towards it. Happily they didn’t have to do so,
as the advance was held up (?) miles from there. We then heard the news
that the enemy was bombing Paris and could scarcely believe it at the
We had no sooner left the station, the
sun being now down, when Fritz came over in his ‘plane and dropped bombs
right on the station, killing many British and Australians. The weather
was now cold and rainy, and we were completely knocked up, through so much
travelling, and for want of sleep. We rested on the roadside and were
given a drink of hot tea. Continued our march and at midnight arrived at
the motor lorries, which were to convey us to our destination. Picture in
your mind 450 large motor lorries, packed together, extending along the
road for a couple of miles, and then you will be able to conceive the
magnitude of what transporting an army means.
Much of the success of battles depends
on the way and time that men can be shifted around from place to place and
I might here say that after weakening our front in Flanders, to enable us
to rush assistance down to the Somme, the enemy with huge overwhelming
forces, broke through up there, and captured the fine city of Bailleul,
also Armentieres (which he had previously batter3ed to pieces by his
For three hours we travelled in motor
(packed on top of one another – no licenses required in the military
cars and no penalties for overloading them either – that is of course up
near the line – and occasionally we could see a flash in the sky or else
hear the boom of a cannon, which told us we were approaching the enemy. At
daybreak we reached a village, getting out of the cars there, and
finishing our journey on foot. We could now hear the roar of the guns
quite plainly, and there was much movement in this little village. We then
started our march to the lines, which proved a longer journey than we
thought. After we got a distance along the road, I saw a sight, which will
always remain in my mind and which I shall never forget – it was the
refugees fleeing from the villages in front of the advancing Huns. There
was hardly one of us who wasn’t touched to their heart. I will try to
give you a little description. Crowds of men and women (old ones too) with
children tramping along the roads, leaving the villages and homes where
the most of them have been all their lives.
They carried all they possessed, some
had bundles thrown over their shoulders, others pushed wheelbarrows,
little carts and perambulators containing children and clothes, whilst a
few had horses to haul their carts, and mothers leading children. Old men
and women were in charge or soldiers (the British Government gave what
assistance it could). Then there were the nuns, carrying huge loads on
their backs, and before them scores of little orphans from orphanages and
schools, marching in front of them. The old parish priests (Cure’s) in
their black robes and long white snow hair, leaving their beloved churches
behind were pitiful to see.
Some of the [people drove their cows,
horses, goats before them, many of the people would stop at the shrines
(which are a feature of France) on the roadside to kneel down and say a
prayer; and other would bless us soldiers as we marched along. There was
no crying or weeping and everything was very orderly. The people had a
determined look on their faces, and gained the admiration of the soldiers,
for their grim determination and self resignation. I have nothing but
great regard and admiration for the French people, they have suffered
dreadfully, and borne it all heroically and without complaining.
Continuing our journey, we reached the
village of Heilly, it having previously been evacuated – I might mention
that the city of Amiens with a population of 50,000 was evacuated in two
days. We rested here, intending to wait until the "cookas"
arrived for breakfast but the order came to march, and find the line. So
of we went, crossing the river Ancre (a tributary of the Somme), where the
engineers were busy mining the bridges, so that we could blow them up if
the enemy advanced there. We also came across a few British soldiers, the
remnants of the Fifth Army, asked them where the Germans were and they
said their patrols had been sighted on the ridges a few hundred yards in
front of us – which afterwards proved to be correct.
Much criticism has been levelled against
the Fifth British Army, but it must be taken into consideration that they
were the newest of all the British armies, having been young city boys,
and they had tremendous odds to face and being outnumbered by the Germans
five to one. But what vexed us Australians was the fact that they didn’t
destroy their guns or aeroplanes as they retreated – the enemy thereby
getting tremendous booty (including fifteen of our ‘planes intact –
and which he afterwards used against us), but perhaps they had more
difficulties to overcome than we imagined.
We were now told that we would have to
find the enemy, there being no front line, as the Germans were advancing
and we were marching to meet them. They had advanced fifteen miles on a
twenty mile front in three days, but were now tired and weren’t making
much progress. The air was now full of enemy ‘planes – they were only
flying a few hundred feet above us, as we marched, but were only scout
planes (had no bombs to drop). They would find out that a strong body of
troops were advancing to meet them, and then fly back and tell their
officers. There were none of our ‘planes about, but of course they
can’t be everywhere at one time.
We now advanced in artillery formation
and reached the beautiful but deserted town of Sailly-le-Sax. Here we
rested whilst scouts were sent forward to reconnoitre. Soon afterwards
they came back with information that some of the enemy were in the town of
Sailly-Laurette a mile due north of us. Our General now decided to form our
front line a few hundred yards in front of Sailly-le-Sax which we did.
The remainder of the newspaper article
was not entered in the scrapbook, this later version, typed by Verdi
himself on his return, continues his narrative of the Somme campaign.
Readers will note differences in spelling of some of the French villages
and towns, perhaps the differences being caused by newspaper typesetters
misreading a lengthy handwritten letter:
About midday we arrived at the pretty
and peaceful little Tillage of Sailly-le-sec, and our Commander decided
that we should entrench here and make a stand against the enemy. Scouts
gave us the information that the enemy's advance guard had arrived at a
position about two miles ahead of us and was resting there.
Scouting 'planes of both sides were now
active getting information.
An old trench system made by the French
at the beginning of the War was converted by us into fairly good trenches,
but our dugouts were very rough and crude, a sheet of tin, or a door from
a house in the village, covering the top of the trench, with plenty of
straw on the bottom of our trench. This constituted our trench. In the
afternoon Germans were observed in the village of Sailly Laurette
(about a mile in front of us ) and a patrol of British Cavalry were sent
out to dislodge them, which they did with only one casualty. It was the
first time that we had seen Cavalry in action and it was a fine sight.
The country where we were was really
beautiful. Green fields, crops and flocks of sheep and cattle on the
hills. The ground was free from shell holes and the absence of noise gave
the place more an aspect of peace than of war. We were very tired after
our last four days marching and all slept that night, not a gun being
fired. but of course a guard kept watch.
Next day we explored the village or
rather its well kept and clean houses, with their, in many cases, fine and
beautiful furniture which very soon was to be smashed by shell fire. The
house was very fine and contained much wine in the cellars which we made
good use of, filling our water bottles with it, and carrying many bottles
back to the trenches. An excellent piano with plenty of the latest
Parisian music gave us much pleasure till dark when it was time to get
back to the trenches for business.
The next day was also very quiet and one
could walk on top and in front of our front line trench all day without
being fired at by the enemy.
The second night we were on the Somme we
had one solitary eighteen-pounder gun on our Battalion front, which was
kept moving from place to place and then fired, thereby making the enemy
think we had many guns.
days had now elapsed since the Hun sat to rest and reorganize after his
great advance. If he had kept going instead of resting for these few days,
he could have easily captured Amiens as there
were practically no troops to block him. But by now he had (we also) heavy
guns up and in position.
The Hun now thought that he would resume
his advance and capture Amiens (which was his objective - 11 miles away-)
but he didn't succeed as his opponents were Australians who severely
It was Easter Saturday morning March
1918, the nicest day that we had had for ever a month, and the sun was
shining beautifully. All that morning things had been very quiet – not
even a gun being fired - the only noise being from the aeroplanes as they
cruised about the skies.
All my section were asleep in the rough
dugouts and I happened to be on duty, that is keeping watch in the trench.
About mid-day the enemy suddenly opened up on us, putting down a terrific
bombardment on a front of several miles and commenced his attack.
We were all rather surprised at his
audacity in attacking us in broad daylight, but he was evidently suffering
from a swelled head, owing to his previous great advance of several miles
wide and deep on a big front.
Of course the noise from the guns woke
everyone up, and there was a rush to the different positions in the
trench. Our rifles were always ready for action - bayonets fixed, loaded
with bullets, etc. and leaning against the parapet.
In less than three minutes, our machine
guns and Lewis guns were at work sweeping the ground in front of our
trench with bullets.
The enemy didn’t know exactly where
our front line trench was, and the shells directed against our particular
trench fell wide of the mark, but he put down a terrific bombardment on
the town of Sailly-le-Sec which was only a few hundred yards at the rear
of us and the town soon became a mass of flames and a heap of ruins. He
also heavily bombarded the back areas, to try and prevent reinforcements
coming up to our assistance.
Our trench was slightly sheltered by a
rise in the hill, and was not so exposed as other parts of the Battalion
front, but nevertheless bullets were whizzing round our heads the whole of
the time that the Battle was raging.
From a point in our trench the observer
could see the Germans massing ready for attack. They came in mass
formation to the top of the hill in front of us, and then out into single
line (but still in mass formation) in a wave rushing forward towards our
trenches. When they came ever the rise of the hill they were excellent
targets for our machine and Lewis guns which mowed them down like a person
About two o’clock the battle had
reached its highest, but we were holding our ground and hurling the enemy
back as he repeatedly made fresh attacks. _
There were many thrilling airfights
during the progress of the battle, and we saw several German and a few of
our own 'planes come down in flames. About three o’clock he made his
last attack and was again pushed back. From then onwards just a few shells
We were still in our trenches and hadn't
lost an inch of ground, although very many of our men were killed or
wounded, but the enemy losses were appalling. As the evening sun shone on
the hills, one could see, plainly, thousands of dead Germans strewn on the
sides of the hills. Australians from every part of Australia took part in
this battle, and many brave and heroic deeds were done by them that day.
This was one of the decisive battles which saved Amiens, the others being
fought around Villers Bretonneux on 25th April 1918.
We remained in these trenches until we
took up the offensive on the 4th July and commenced to push the enemy
back. Next day (Easter Sunday) was quiet and uneventful and I was on a
patrol party that night.
Easter Sunday again broke fine, and the
Huns bombarded cur positions in daylight and from our trenches, on one
occasion, we actually saw the bomb leaving the ‘plane. I was again on
patrol . Our work was to go out to an unoccupied post near Sailly-Laurette
Cemetery (which our men had dug the previous night) and see if Fritz had
found and occupied it - a trap that we laid for him. We crept out and lay
flat down with our rifles loaded with bayonets fixed and pockets full of
bombs. Stayed in this position until midnight, but saw no sign of the
enemy, and were relieved by another patrol.
We then marched back to a hill a couple
of Kilos behind Sailly-le-Sec, arriving there about 2am. We were very
tired and just lay down on the ground, covered with our groundsheets and
slept soundly till morning although it rained heavily all night. Three of
us kept guard in turns in case gas shells came over.
Next day we dug little holes in the side
of the hill and made ourselves as comfortable as possible, getting many
‘furnishings’ for our dugout from the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, close
by. We stayed here two days, it raining all the time.
1 was just coming off gas guard on the
third morning when the Germans attacked the Fifth Division Australians,
who were then holding part of the front line. He shelled the back area
(where we were) very heavily and we had a rough time of it, many
casualties occurring. Several of us went along a gully afterwards called
"Shrapnel Gully" - which he was not then shelling – for
shelter. Just as we got there a huge shell burst fifty yards from us- a
fragment of it flying past my face and nearly cut the nose off the pal
next to me.
The order now came for us to get ready
to go up to the front line and reinforce our troops . Some of us marched
as far as the canal when we were told that we would not be required as the
5th pushed the enemy back without any further assistance.
That night several of us were detailed
to cross the canal and for "Tommy" stragglers, and many amusing
incidents occurred in crossing the canal in the flat bottomed punts,
several of them -capsizing but the canal was not very deep.
The next day we rested and at dark
shifted further up on to a flat where we dug fresh trenches (reserve line)
and occupied them. Stayed here three days sleeping during the daytime and
digging trenches at night
Whilst here we saw many airfights, and
several Hun 'planes down in flames, including the famous German Aviator
Baron Richthofen whose grave I subsequently saw in the Military cemetery
at Bonnay. A German 'plane fell in front of our trench which we
souvenired, 1 myself, getting several pieces of the wings. One afternoon
we were heavily shelled with whiz bangs and a private and an officer were
killed and several wounded in the next trench two me. The two men who got
killed had only that afternoon returned from English leave and hadn’t
been five minutes in the trenches when they were killed.
We had working parties of a night
digging trenches on the hill near the brick works, the chimney of which
was a familiar and well known landmark to all Australians who were in
One night myself and a pal were detailed
to go to Headquarters for the rum issue. We didn't know the way, and it
was raining and pitch dark but we found Headquarters alright and back the
large jar of rum, the officer paying us the compliment of telling us that
he knew that we would bring back all the rum and not drink it on the way,
as he feared some of the other men might do.
On Sunday night 7th April we went up 'to
the front line again, occupying as a dugout an old tunnel, which the
French had constructed at the beginning of the war. It was deep, with a
small entrance (one had to crawl on hands and knees to get in it) and was
bomb proof and accommodated about forty. 0ne drawback it and wet and dark.
We stayed here seven days resting and sleeping during daytime and
patrolling every night. The nights were dark and the mud bad but nothing
eventful happened although we had very many narrow escapes from being
sniped by enemy machine gun bullets and had our clothes torn to pieces (as
we were continually falling over in the dark amongst the barbed wire). We
could hear the Germans talking and singing every night and I suppose they
could hear us too. The position where we were was very exposed - we
couldn’t move about during daytime and food could only be brought up to
us at night. Altogether it was a very miserable time.
We were all soaked through, food was
very short, there were no cigarettes available, and as we had neither
matches nor candles, we were always in the dark. It was pitch dark in the
tunnel in daytime.
I got myself very knocked up and our
officer told myself and a pal to go out to the village of Bonnay and rest
for a few days. As soon as night came on we started and walked till
midnight when we laid down in a gully and slept till daylight, although a
few shells fell close to us during the night.
At daylight we continued our journey but
had very little strength left and no food with us. We eventually reached
Bonnay at mid-day and great activity prevailed here, the being crowded
with soldiers. Up till then this town (the civilians had evacuated it) had
not been shelled. It was about five miles from the German lines. I had
three real good days rest there with plenty of hot food which gave us
fresh strength again. On Monday night, 15th April a party of us
marched back to our company which during our absence had been relieved and
gone back to Shrapnel Gully. Several shells fell close to us on the way
back but no casualties occurred.
The next afternoon a German 'plane our
lines and discovered where we were although we had camouflaged our
"possies" with green bushes &c. He signalled to his artillery
by means of lights and for two hours we were subjected to dreadful
bombardment from the German batteries, many officers and men being killed
That night I was one of a covering party
for a fatigue that was digging posts.
About six o'clock Fritz ceased shelling
and we emerged from our dugouts to get some tea. As soon as we did he sent
over his last salvo of shells which were whiz bangs, and which I am very
sorry to say killed one of the best pals I ever had. (Private Alan H
Tanner of Chinchilla, Queensland). He was standing up in his "possy"
about ten yards from me, when a shell burst near him, a portion of the
shell piercing his steel helmet and going through his head. They carried
him to Bonnay but he died that night and was buried in Bonnay Military
Cemetery the next day. Three days afterwards, a few of us got permission
and walked into Bonnay to see his grave on which has since been erected a
cross, a photograph of which I have.
On Friday, 19th April, at dark, we
marched to the front line again over the old sector which we previously
held. Went out on patrol that night. The next day was quiet and uneventful
but at midnight a chap and myself were detailed to go to the 44th
Battalion on our left report "all well". On the right (where we
were) and bring back word to our officer whether the 44th was alright. I
may say here that we weren’t holding a continuous front line, but a
series of "posts" from two to three hundred yards apart, and we
used to keep in touch (by patrolling) with each post during the night. My
mate was a Queensland bushman and said that he knew his way and wouldn’t
get lost, so off we started, carrying our rifles loaded, and with bayonets
fixed in case we came across any of the enemy. }After falling in many
shell holes and falling ever several dead Australians, we reached a
machine gunners post and they put us on the right track. We eventually
reached the 44th post, reported all well, found that they were
alright, and then started back to our own trench. But a heavy fog was now
on us and the moon had also gone down.
We kept too much in one direction and
walked on and on without finding our trench. The German Verey lights
seemed to be going up all around us and we were afraid that we would walk
into the German trenches. However, we kept on, and at last came to our own
trench, and our hearts were light again. Our officer thought that we had
been taken prisoners because we had been over two hours away whereas had
we not got lost we could have done it in half an hour.
Next day Sunday (21s April was quiet and
we did trench duty till twelve midnight when we were relieved. Whilst I
was on duty I challenged two persons coming down the communications trench
but they proved to be two Aussies carrying a large dross which they
intended erecting whilst it was dark over the grave of one of their pals
who was killed while holding this part of the line and who was buried just
in front of the trench.
These two Aussies (whose battalion was
in the reserve trenches at the rear) risked their lives coming up to the
front line, in order to put a cross on a grave, thereby showing the spirit
of comradeship which existed between very many of the Australian troops.
At midnight we were relieved and marched
back to the outskirts of Bonnay and dug ourselves in on the side of the
We had a beautiful view from here. The
river Ancre (tributary of the Somme) was on one side of the valley and the
town of Bonnay on the other.
The next five nights were occupied in
working parties digging trenches. I never worked so hard in all my life
and to make matters worse it was nearly always raining.
Every night as soon as it got dark, we
put rifles on one and shovel and shovel or pick on the other, and off we
marched to trenches. We were each given a certain amount of trench to dig
but very often my mates, who finished theirs first, would come and finish
Often when engaged on these working
parties we were shelled and had to take shelter in our hastily dug
shelters. One night a shell dropped amongst us wounding the officer in
charge and three others. It was quite common to hear a bullet hit a shovel
while we were digging, and we generally cursed our luck if such happened
as a bullet wound in the leg was considered a very good
Early on the morning of the 24th
April, about 4am we had just returned from our usual working party, had a
drink of tea, and were just getting into our shelters, when a sudden enemy
bombardment came down on us. The Hun was attacking the front line at
Villers Bretonneux (held by Australians) and put down a
terrific barrage on the back area where we were and also on the town of
Bonnay. Shells were falling in and amongst our dugouts for seven hours and
we were wearing our gas masks most of the time, as much gas was sent over.
The soldiers in the village of Bonnay suffered terribly, many being killed
as they were fleeing from the village, it being afterwards jocularly
called "the retreat from Bonnay".
From our positions we could see the
shells falling on the village – buildings being blown up and set on
fire. One shell fell on the Red Cross Hospital (which was a disused
school) in the very room where a doctor was at the time operating, killing
everyone in the room.
Some of the shells fell in the river and
volumes of water many feet in height were thrown up. Our Battalion
suffered heavily, over forty being killed and sixty wounded. At mid-day
the shelling ceased and dead and wounded soldiers - also horses and mules
– were lying about everywhere. One shell burst a few feet from our
dugout and, with the exception of a severe shaking , we all escaped
The next day a German aeroplane flew
over our positions only about a hundred feet above us. He rained machine
gun bullets on us but none took effect. I was going down to the river at
the time a for a wash and as I heard bullets whizzing around my head,
quickly took cover - that is fell flat on the ground. Our anti-aircraft
guns were now firing and one shell hit the ‘plane it dashing to the
ground a mass of flames, the airmen of course being instantly killed.
On the 27th April we went up
to the front again where we stayed three days, things being fairly quiet,
and nothing interesting happening.
On the night of 30th April we were
relieved, (getting lost coming out -walking about all night) and went back
to the hill near Bonnay. The next day I was on a salvage party in Bonnay
and saw the great damage done there by the bombardment.
That night we marched to La Hussoye
(four Kilos further from the line than Bonnay). This town hadn’t then
been shelled, although it was evacuated.
The next five days we were on
working parties at Heilly, constructing a huge shell and bomb proof dugout
in an old Napoleonic wall there. One afternoon I had just emerged from the
tunnel, with a bucketful of dirt when a salvo of shells fell close by, a
large piece of shell flying past my head and knocking a stone out of the
wall – a narrow escape!
The weather was now beginning to get
nice as Spring was coming. I often used to go into the little Church- at
La Hussoye and play the organ. Every time that the guns were fired the
building would creak and shake. 'Everything in the Church was as the
people had left it on the previous Palm Sunday (I918). The decorations and
beautiful vestments being much admired by all the soldiers who visited it.
Every night the German airmen bombed the
town, but no damage was done, the bombs falling into open fields.
On the night of the 5th May,
just after midnight, the enemy commenced to shell the town for the first
time but all the shells fell into a paddock about two hundred yards from
The next night (after we had left the
village and fresh troops arrived) the shells fell right in the billets
killing and wounding many .
on the morning of 6th May we marched 5
kilometres further on to the important junction town of Querrieu (also
evacuated) and great activity prevailed here, there being English,
Australian, French and American soldiers here. Whilst her we were given
hot baths with clothes (free of vermin) which made things very much more
comfortable and pleasant for us.
The trying times that we had been
through were now beginning to tell on us as we had been forty two days in
or near the front line without rest.
Many of the troops were now ill with
trench fever and on the morning of the 8th May I was myself
removed to hospital (several tents erected in the convent grounds) with a
poisoned thumb (caused through enemy barbed wire) and trench fever.
I remained here three days and during
the nights we were heavily bombed, many falling close to us but only
killing a few horses and mules.
As I got no better, on the 12th
May I was taken in Red Cross motor ambulance (via the outskirts of Amiens)
to Allonville. As we passed through Amiens it was being shelled and
shrapnel was bursting over the city.
After a day in hospital at Allonville, I
was taken in a Red Cross hospital train to Rouen where I was admitted to
the American Fred Cross hospital. Stayed there a week (having my thumb
lanced) and then went by train to Le Havre, embarking on a hospital ship
"Albassissi" and arrived in England (Southampton) where I was put
on a train and taken to hospital at Portsmouth and then across to Ryde in
the Isle of Wight.
I remained in England nine weeks and was
then sent back to France again, being just in time for the heavy fighting
we were engaged in for the last few months of the war.
2639 private Verdi G. Schwinghammer,
"C" Company, 42nd Battalion,