The Horrors of the Western Front 1916-1917
Despite official censorship, harrowing stories from the Western Front were filtering back to Australia, contained in the letters of the soldiers themselves. Corporal Clair Whiteside from Officer, who knew and served with some of the Pakenham Diggers, was lucky to survive the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916. He wrote home from hospital to his parents graphically describing the ordeal: moving up to the front line trenches under heavy fire from the Germans; seeing men in the waves ahead of him being killed by machine gun fire, which in Clair’s words looked like “putting up cardboard nine-pins in a hurricane - only it was human beings who were facing up to it”. He then had a near miss with a piece of shrapnel which cut through the wood-work of his rifle and dented the barrel. Clair then waded waist deep through the ditches in no-man’s land while under constant machine gun fire, before being shot by a German sniper: “Got a nasty one on the head and of course, for a minute, thought I was done for. Had the sensation a poor rabbit gets when you hit him on the ears. Did not go round in a circle like poor old raw bunny but I can tell you it seemed to lift me bodily ...”. Clair then faced a bigger challenge: trying to get back to his own lines. He ended up spending the next “few hours, which seemed as many days, lying low till dark then crawling when night arrived” in an attempt to get back to the British lines. In the process, shells were exploding and bullets whizzed about him. Clair was shot in the shoulder and had bullets pierce his tin “dixie” (a tin used for food) on his haversack. He also had to struggle through his own side’s barbed wire before he “dropped down in a trench full of friends” (Whiteside 2002 pp. 49-51). Clair was one of over 5,000
Australian casualties at Fromelles in those few hours of battle. Amongst the dead were three Pakenham Diggers: Tim Halloran, Theodore Hoddle-Wrigley and Stanley Sawers. Within weeks, the Australians were again suffering terrible casualties, this time at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. In his diary, Private Frank Doyle of Pakenham Upper described moving up to the Front at Pozieres: “for three hours we rushed about under shrapnel and H.E [high explosives], dead all over the place. It was like a nightmare, eventually we were guided to the front line” (Austin 1992 p. 184). Again, Pakenham had cause to mourn, with Richard Copland, Robert Cornwall and Robert Slessar all falling at Pozieres. Although Frank Doyle survived Pozieres, he later died of wounds sustained during the infamous Battle of the Somme later in 1916. In the trenches of the Western Front, the Germans were not the only enemy. In a letter to his sister Margaret Jeremiah, Albert Kempster from the Toomuc Valley wrote: “the snow is awful [sic] in the trenches in the winter time. I have been in the trenches standing in the mud up to my arm pits. It is terrible in the line in winter time and in the summer it is scorching all day long (Undated letter to Margaret Jeremiah). Albert too, was later killed in battle.
The first signs of war weariness
It is little wonder then, that many people began to question “why does the war continue?” As Belle Mahone of Pakenham South wrote to a local newspaper in March 1916: “This is the question which thousands of people are asking to-day. When first this horrifying war began to rage, no one doubted that it would soon end. We thought God would surely not allow the continuance of this monstrous slaughter, this wholesale massacre which dyed the hills and gullies of Gallipoli red with the life-blood of our own brave lads .... and still the awful struggle continues ...” (SBMJ 16/3/1916 p. 3). Belle’s letter indicates a degree of war weariness had crept into the community as the slaughter dragged on, although Belle herself actually felt that people were not doing enough to support the war effort. Belle was particularly critical what she described as the “spirit of happiness, and love of pleasure, which still dominates the natures of the majority of Australians” .... [This] seems to indicate that they are apt to forget those thousands of soldiers fighting and struggling to the death - and those thousands who lie asleep in France, or at Anzac. A very dear friend ... one of the best and truest that ever existed - found a last resting place in Gallipoli, and when one thinks of the thousands like him, who sacrificed their lives in the flower of their youth, it seems incomprehensible that their fellow creatures should continue to enjoy themselves as they did prior to the war” (Ibid). It is possible that the friend Belle was referring to was Private Tom Bryan of Pakenham South, who had been killed at Gallipoli in June 1915. Regardless of Belle’s passionate appeal, many people would have shared the sentiment expressed by Veronica Mullane (a student at St Patrick’s School) when news came through that her mother’s cousin had been wounded at the Front: “Is not this war dreadful?” (Advocate 6/101917, pp. 34-35).
Click on the images above to read about these diggers' experiences on the Western Front in their own words (or those of their mates)