Monday, 7 August 2017

Postcards from "Somewhere in France" - Part Four

Following on from Part Three... It was late July before Bert sent another postcard to Jean. In the time between his postcard of 20 June 1916 and 30 July 1916, the battle of Fromelles had taken place. At Fromelles, more than 5,000 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in a single battle. It has been described as “the worst day in Australian military history”.

Postcard sent to Townsville from 'Somewhere in France', 30 July 1916.
Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding
Somewhere in France
On active service
July 30th 1916
Dear Jean,
Three letters and post card received from you today. Answering your letter first opportunity. Will be very busy for week or so. Pleased to hear all well at home. Ernie has arrived here. So far unable to get in touch with him. Doing my best. I think he has had his first taste of the square dinkum. Wonder how he likes it. No news much same old routine. Weather very choppy. Keep on smiling & writing. Best wishes & remembrance to all at home. With best wishes & fond love.
Your sincere and affectionate,

Bert noted that he would “be very busy for a week or so”. That statement probably turned out to be a gross underestimation. In August the 7th Field Ambulance were at Vadencourt, where they were overseeing a Corps Rest Station.  Lt. Col. Huxtable noted in the Unit Diary daily numbers of sick and wounded, which numbered up to almost 600 per day. Three of their own men were killed, or died from wounds received while carrying out their duties, and many others were wounded.

The work of a stretcher bearer at this time was both arduous and hazardous. The task of retreiving mangled men from the mud and mire of the battlefield was a ceaseless job that required great bravery. It was often carried out under heavy shell fire, sometimes in the dark; it was slippery, dirty, dangerous, phsyically exhausting and mentally harrowing work. On 15 August, Huxtable noted that ten men from the unit had been recommended for recognition for their bravery in connection with their work as stretcher bearers “during recent heavy fighting during the attack on the Pozieres ridge by 2nd Aust. Div.”.

Australian stretcher bearers carrying a white flag, passing the old cemetery at Pozieres.
Source: Australian War Memorial
This firsthand account, from the diary of Edward Charles Munro, a stretcher bearer with the 5th Australian Field Ambulance, dated 25 August 1916, recalls stretcher bearers working under fire:

Some of the 7th Field Ambulance bearers had to carry in a very exposed position near the front line and one went ahead carrying a white flag. When they were advancing in the open, Fritz shelled them and hit seven. I saw the diminished party returning with the white flag still aloft while the shells were bursting all around. While I was watching them a shell burst nearby and scattered them, some being seriously wounded.[1] 

On 22 August, the 7th Field Ambulance were in Becourt Wood. From here, members of the Unit were sent to relieve at Chalk Pit advanced dressing station, close to the front line at Pozieres. On 26 August, Huxtable wrote that:

63 bearers of the 7th Field Amb. were sent to Chalk Pit A.D.S. to relieve bearers of the 6th Field Amb. who are to be withdrawn to Becourt, as they have now been 13 days continuous duty carrying to Chalk Pit A.D.S. and are now more or less exhausted.

The Unit Diary of the 7th Field Ambulance shows that between 22 and 28 August, 1016 sick or wounded men passed through the Advanced Dressing Station at Becourt.

Celluloid postcard, with fabric pansy and grass seeds, 1916. Note how Bert has written his initial underneath the words “My thoughts abide with you”.
 Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding.
19. 9. 1916
Dear Jean,
Yours of 30th July to hand today. Pleased to hear all well as yours truly is at present. Letter at early date from yours always. B.

By the time of writing this postcard, Bert’s unit was billeted in Reninghelst, in the Belgian province of West Flanders. Four months elapsed before Bert sent another postcard to Jean, although it is difficult to say whether there was a genuine break in correspondence, or whether some of the postcards Bert sent to Jean have been lost in the intervening century.  

In December, the 7th Field Ambulance was at Bernafay Wood and Bert’s next postcard, sent in January 1917, was again brief.

"The King at the Front". Outside a captured German dugout.
Postcard dated 15 January 1917.
Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding.
15 January 1917
Dear Jean,
No word from you for some time. Hope you had a merry Xmas not like yours truly had. Letter follows first opportunity. Best wishes & remembrance to all. 
Love B.

For the first time in any of his correspondence to Jean, he sounds a little despondent. He alludes to the fact that Christmas was not a happy time for him, and indeed, the 7th Field Ambulance’s unit diary shows that there was no break from work on Christmas Day. Another long absence of correspondence follows, with the next postcard not sent until early September 1917. (This will be pictured in Part Five)

[1] Australian War Memorial