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The Somme, the bloody Somme, in 1918


(Article appearing over two days in the Grafton Examiner, late 1918.)

2639 Private Verdi G. Schwinghammer,

"C" Company, 42nd Battalion, AIF



German 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 were in.

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 time.

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 bombardments).

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.

Four 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 defeated him.

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 cutting lucerne.

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 came over.

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 these parts. 

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 and wounded.

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 hill.

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 mine.

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 "Blighty".

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 unhurt.

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 our billets.

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, AIF



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