Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Postcards from "Somewhere in France" - Part One

Bert, a 20 year-old stretcher-bearer from the 7th Field Ambulance, 7th Infantry Brigade, AIF, sent this photo-postcard from “somewhere in France” in late December 1917, to 18 year-old Jean, from South Townsville.

Photo-postcard of members of the 7th Field Ambulance, Pont d'Achelles, France, dated 28 December 1917. Bert is in the second row, 4th from left (circled).
Source: Private Collection of Trisha & Murray Fielding

Dear Jean,
P.C. photograph of some of the boys. Yours truly, middle of second row, marked x. No mail from you for some considerable time. Davy Jones having a say. Had a pretty good Xmas. Could have been better & worse. I was well satisfied. Letter follows at an early date. Best wishes & remembrance to all. From yrs. B. xxx

Bert’s promised letter to Jean no longer exists, but this postcard, and a dozen others he sent to her while on active service in France, provide a fascinating glimpse of life for a World War I soldier on the Western Front. I recently came into possession of these postcards as part of a larger collection, inherited through my husband’s family, and I hope to write a series of articles about them.

Bert (who appears at this stage to have been an acquaintance of Jean’s family and three of her cousins, who also served in WWI), always writes in a very general way, often starting out by thanking Jean for her recent letter or postcard; then something about the weather, how busy he had recently been, and telling her that he was in good health. Such correspondence was necessarily mundane, otherwise it would never have been passed by the censors. No doubt Bert’s letters were a little more illuminating, though we’ll never know.

But I’ve been able to find out quite a lot about Bert and what his unit were doing and experiencing around the times he wrote his postcards, by researching the WWI Unit Diaries available online through the Australian War Memorial.  Through those diaries (and other archival material) I have been able to “read between the lines” of Bert’s postcards, to discover a little of what life was like for him throughout the course of the war (Bert enlisted in April 1915 and served until the end of the war).

Although it does not give a location, the photo-postcard Bert sent to Jean of “the boys”, was probably taken at Pont d’Achelles, which was in the Armentieres - Nieppe sector of France, and was occupied by British forces for most of the war. Pont d'Achelles was the site of a combined dressing station and collection post during the battle of Messines in June 1917.

According to the War Diary of the 7th Field Ambulance for December 1917, they were located at Pont d’Achelles, in France. Bert told Jean that he had had “a pretty good Xmas”, and the unit diary records the following on 25 December 1917:

Christmas Day – A dinner was given to the patients and personnel of the unit. The Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society donated 2/6 per head for each patient and also gave a present to each of the 120 patients in Hospital.

Main Dressing Station, Pont d'Achelles, France, 1916-1917.
Source: Museum Victoria
The above photograph from the Museum Victoria, depicts the main dressing station at Pont d'Achelles, which was only a few kilometres behind the battle line. Main dressing stations were normally located close to the action and operated by the field ambulance. In most situations the field ambulance would establish one main dressing station for each division. It was at the main dressing station that sick or wounded infantry would receive limited medical care and in some cases undergo emergency operations.

Main Dressing Station, Pont d'Achelles, France, 1916-1917, showing five Nissen huts.
Source: Museum Victoria
An entry in the War Diary of 7th Field Ambulance, dated 16 December 1917, reads:

The Main Dressing Station at Pont D’Achelles was originally built for the Messines battle and consists of five large Nissen huts and 17 small Nissen huts, and some small miscellaneous hutments for the Personnel. 120 patients were taken over from the 9th Field Ambulance. Under instructions from the A.D.M.S., the Station was to be used as a combined Main Dressing Station and Divisional Rest Station with accommodation for 100 patients and a gas centre was also to be ? for the treatment of cases direct from the line.

Bert’s reference to “Davy Jones having a say”, when he had not received any mail from Jean for “some considerable time”, indicate that he thought mail may have gone missing when ships were sunk by German U-boats.

In Part Two, I’ll discuss Bert’s first postcard to Jean, sent from Egypt, in 1915. Stay tuned!

Australian War Memorial
National Archives of Australia
Museum Victoria

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