Just over 100 years ago my grandfather Will Mathers and his brother Tom, both in the 8th Australian Field Ambulance, took part in the Battle of the Somme, on the front line from 18 September 1916 to 8 November.
The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of upper reaches of the River Somme in France. It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front; more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Tom kept a diary throughout the war [see Endnote 1] and his diary account provides a terse but graphic account of the experience of being a stretcher bearer on the front lines.
Tom and Will enlisted on 2 September 1915 and being strongly opposed to killing anyone, managed to get assigned to the Australian Medical Corps. In January 1916 Tom was promoted to Sergeant and Will to Lance Corporal. At some later stage, both asked to be returned to Private as they did not want to be separated. They shipped to Egypt in April 1916 and after further training in England were sent to France on 15 August 1916. Tom and Will were assigned to A Section of the 8th Field Ambulance at Estaires as stretcher bearers. On 22 September they marched about 9 miles to the town of Armentières and established a hospital. They had plenty of work to do as the Germans often bombarded the town, which was mostly in ruins, and a great many civilians were injured, also one Private in A Section. On 12 October, they went by lorry to the front line about 18 miles away.
Thursday 12 October – First experience in Trenches
6.00 pm sent with Will and others to trenches, raid on. Entered trenches about 7 pm then commenced bombardment doing away with parapet. With gas helmets on alarm given. Taking place of R.S. and went to front line. Then Will and I picked up man with shrapnel in kidney and commenced our way back. Took gas helmets off after we took him off stretcher and carried him. Were almost beaten when some of his own companions came over back from a stint and an officer insisted on carrying for a while. 100 of our boys went over, blackened; took many prisoners, killed many, destroyed trenches. Only 3 killed, 20 mostly slightly wounded.
Friday 13 October
Took our own men to aid post, then to cleaning station on wheels. Two German prisoners passed us, one a major. Took nearly 4 hours to get 8 men in. After wounded German brought in about 1 pm returned with him to hospital. Our lads all returned safe.
Australian infantrymen who were once taught that “the bullet and bayonet are the deciding factors in fighting” saw on the Somme that the destructive power of artillery now dominated the battlefield. Shrapnel tore men to pieces, high explosive blew them to bits and destroyed trenches, smoke covered the turned-up, stinking ground. Added to this were gas shells. Some of the battles on the Somme involved the worst artillery shelling experienced by Australians during the war.
Stretcher-bearers worked to exhaustion, usually exposed to fire, carrying men to the aid posts close behind the front line. Sergeant Albert Coates recorded: “Many men buried and torn to pieces by high explosive. For a mile behind the trenches it is a perfect hell of shell fire. Terrible sights. The stretcher bearers are having a terrible time, some blown to pieces together with their living freight”.
Monday 16 October
6.30 am review. 7.30 am breakfast. 8.30 am parade at headquarters, dismissed till 11 am then we all had a vote for or against conscription in Australia. Will and I most of us are against. [See Endnote 2].
Tuesday 17 October
2.30 pm parade, full marching order. Marched from Strazelle to Balieul, 10 miles. Arrived there about 5 pm, commenced to rain. Took train from here to Longpre in cattle trucks. Had a good sleep among the straw. Slept whole night in train and arrived about breakfast time at Longpre.
Sunday 22 Oct 1916 – Back to the front, south of Longueval.
Have to take over a field ambulance from the Tommies. 3.00 pm went out to relieve 3 sections. On 3rd post out, all guns behind us now, awful uproar. Ground covered in shell holes, mud, extremely hard work to carry men. A continued bombardment, guns and trench mortars never cease. 12.00 pm our relief in later. 12 stretcher carries, 8 walking, 1 died.
Monday 23 Oct
1.30 am relieved. Carried case through, all lost way. Will, Hep and I lost till 4 pm. Three of us in small dugout, shells landing around us. We are covered in mud, wet. Managed to carry one case over the top, but it is too slippery we kept falling into shell holes and mud. We go through sap (part of trench) in soft mud up to our thighs and got home 3.30 am.
Tuesday, 24 Oct
2.30 pm set out to relieve 14th Field Ambulance. Carried 2 cases through, the ground is so slippery we cannot carry over the top, so take to saps and we are knee deep in mud. 12.00 pm we are relieved on time but as usual a stretcher case comes through and it is our turn to carry it, we had an awful time and had to throw the stretcher away and carry man. It is awful carrying over such ground, guns going all around and shells flying. We reached the next post about 2 am.
Wednesday 25 Oct.
Got to bed about 5 am. Had to get breakfast at 9.15 am to go to Fleurs post to relieve other ambulance for 30 hours. Took over at 2.00 pm on first shift, had 3 carries before 6.00 pm. Took a blind man and one with broken arm through. We are between 2 batteries and Fritz is sending over plenty of shells, feeling for them- There are six of us in a small dug-out, all wet and covered in mud from head to foot. It is very cold. We had tea in dug-out, too cold, wet and noisy to sleep.
Thursday. 26 Oct.
6.00 am had breakfast in dug-out. Our planes are active and Fritz is shelling near us again. After 2.00 pm Fritz sent over an awful bombardment of high explosives. We were carrying cases through it and they were landing all around our dug-out. One of the lads W.B. was giving up heart. 7.00 pm after 31 hours shift, cold, hungry, wet clothes and all spent we were relieved by another Field Ambulance.
Friday 27 Oct.
Spent day at Green Dump (near Thiepbal Pass just south of Longueval). 5.00 pm marched out to first post for 24 hours, then another for 24 hours. 150 infantry men, mainly machine gunners, were put on to assist us with the stretchers.
Sunday, 29th Oct
Slept at Green Dump in a stretcher for the night.
Monday, 30th Oct
Had breakfast and spent one of the most unpleasant days of my life in the car (a car used for bringing in wounded), teeming, cold, and we are wet through, Towards evening took out my bible and read. I never felt God nearer in the midst of it all he seemed to be speaking to me. Will is not well. Now for the first time I can really appreciate the beauties of nature, being among all this carnage and waste where we are living like beasts and very little shelter.
Wednesday, 8th Nov
We are now billeted in a French Chateau [Chateau d’ Olincourt]. What a peaceful and charming time after all the slush and noise of battle. No groans are heard here, all is peace. We are almost 40 miles behind the lines and three miles out from town. What an awful thing for men to go through. Men are broken hearted. The 1st and 2nd Division has lost a lot of men already.
The Australians fought at Flers and Gueudecourt in the dying days of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916. Basically, these last operations were conducted to try and push the British positions forward out of the low valley beyond Flers and up to the Bapaume ridge for the winter. From there the British could look over the German rear lines rather than the other way around. But the Flers fighting achieved little and it was conducted in the most appalling conditions. So bad was the going across the devastated landscape between Longueval and Flers that the first Australian units to make their way in late October 1916 up to the front from rear camps, a distance of about eight kilometres, took between 9 and 12 hours. The men were worn out before they arrived. Further torrential rain produced a situation where to get along with full equipment over a distance of just three kilometres could take up to six hours. In these circumstances attack after attack was simply postponed.
In the cold and the wet, illness flourished along with a particularly nasty condition called ‘trench foot’, a form of frost bite which impeded circulation to feet clothed in heavy boots for hours spent standing in mud and freezing water. The skin literally rotted, resulting in extreme cases, in gangrene and amputation. The only remedy was lightly laced boots, fairly constant drying and rubbing of the feet with oil, and putting on dry socks until they too became sodden.
The main Somme fighting came to an end on 18 November in the rain, mud, and slush of the oncoming winter. Over the next months winter trench duty with its shelling and raids became almost unendurable and only improved a bit when the mud froze hard. The wet and the cold made life wretched. Respiratory diseases, trench foot, rheumatism
and frost-bite were common. Many survivors would later say that this was the worst period of the war and that their spirits were never lower. Large-scale fighting did not resume until early 1917 when spring approached. Tom and Will were on the front-line in 1917 also, but I will keep that for another post.
So what was the outcome of the Battle of the Somme?
The Battle of the Somme ended in a similar fashion to the Battle of Verdun, with minimal gains and heavy casualties over a long period of fighting. The deepest point of penetration, made by the French, was a mere 8 kilometers and the deepest for the British was only two miles. The modern consensus is that the battle was a disaster, even though it did help take German pressure off of the Verdun front. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, the French suffered 204,253 casualties and the Germans suffered 465,000 casualties. Additionally smaller countries like Canada had 24,029 casualties, Australia had 23,000 casualties, New Zealand had 7,408 casualties, and Ireland had 25,000 casualties.
Adolf Hitler was one of the participants on the German side and suffered a wounded leg during the battle that kept him out of the war until March of 1917.
Endnote 1. The World War 1 Diaries of Thomas Mathers 1897-1963
These diaries were transcribed by Thomas Mathers’ daughter Elaine around 2003. There are four diaries 1915-16, 1917, 1918 and 1919. The smallest diary is 4″ x 3″ and the largest 5″x3″ and after 80 years they were hard to read in places, with dampness and some fading.
Endnote 2. The Australian Referendum on Conscription in October 1916
In the first few months of war many Australians enlisted to fight. The number of men who volunteered was greater than needed and at first some were turned away. News of casualties on the front began to reach home and support for the war declined sharply. It became more difficult to persuade men to sign up. Recruitment campaigns became more intense. Posters and speeches targeted men ‘eligible’ to enlist. Many eligible men over the age of 21 who hadn’t enlisted were labelled ‘shirkers’ and ‘traitors’. Tom and Will’s brother John remained in Australia and received several white feathers. He was embittered by this, as the sons had agreed that Tom and Will would enlist, and John would remain in Australia to care for his mother.
The heavy losses of the Somme and pressure from Britain induced Prime Minister Billy Hughes (1862-1952) to renege on his commitment that conscripts would not be obliged to serve overseas (conscription for home defence remained throughout the war). In late 1916, the introduction of conscription consumed the nation, and the question was put to the nation on 28 October 1916 in a plebiscite in which soldiers also voted. Tom’s diary records that he and Will voted no on 16 October and that “Will and I [and] most of us are against”. While troops who had not seen action voted in favour of conscription, those who had, largely voted against it. Men who had survived were reluctant to compel others to endure what they had committed to before realising the nature of industrial warfare on the Western Front. Despite heavy propaganda Hughes was unable to secure the required majority of votes and the proposal as a whole was defeated. (Peter Stanley. soldiers_attitudes_towards_war_australia)
The result of the first plebiscite, a 51.6 per cent no vote from an impressive voluntary turn out of 82.5 per cent of voters, led to Hughes being expelled from the Labor Party the next month, but retaining the prime ministership with the support of 24 pro-conscription Labor members and the opposition.
Enlistment for the war continued to fall, and in 1917 Hughes called for another referendum on the conscription issue. This conscription campaign was just as heated as the first, with the most prominent anti-conscription activist being the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix. Support for conscription was strongly divided on religious and class lines with middle class and Protestant voters supporting conscription and working class and Catholic voters against. Tom and Will were protestant, but a majority of soldiers at the front were against, and additionally Tom and Will were pacifists. On 20 December 1917 the nation again voted “No” to conscription, this time with a slightly larger majority. Australia, South Africa and India were the only participating countries not to introduce conscription during the First World War.