On April 25, 1917, nine Gordon cricketers were stationed within their AIF divisions near Bullecourt or recovering from their wounds in nearby hospitals. They would have observed a minute’s silence and for some a swig of rum was consumed to remember their fellow diggers who had fallen at Gallipoli.
The Australian "Digger" memorial at Bullecourt
Four of those cricketers Alister Maclean, Johnnie Moyes, George Swan and Ron Eaton had somehow survived the First Battle of Bullecourt from April 10 to 11, while another five, Frank Bamford, Henry Gordon, Harry Braddon, Charles Cook and Colin McCulloch were unaware that the British command were about to send them back over the same ground in a week’s time.
No doubt, defeat had flattened their spirits, having just endured one of the coldest European winters on record and two weeks earlier, 3400 of their fellow Australians had died or were wounded in one of the Western Front's bloodiest battles, the First Battle of Bullecourt.
This was Anzac Day, 100 years ago today, at Bullecourt, in France.
It was two years since the Gallipoli landing and the Australians, many of them veterans of those battles, had again been let down by their British command, this time with "new-fangled" tanks that did not perform. Now, licking their wounds and awaiting orders to attack again, they were unaware that one of their great victories was just a couple of weeks away. That victory would cost them dearly, leaving a total of more than 10,000 casualties from both Bullecourt battles, including about 3500 killed in action.
Major Johnnie Moyes
This sacrifice would "live in history as long as history exists", wrote the celebrated war correspondent Charles Bean. In the villages of France and Belgium, the bravery of the Australians is still commemorated. An Anzac Day service is held each year in Bullecourt where a proud statue of the Australian Digger has pride of place.
The Gordon "veterans", including the highly decorated Alister Maclean had been back in action after spending the winter ‘on holidays’ in Flers, while Johnnie Moyes was back after being wounded at Pozières and George Swan, who had fought at Gallipoli and Pozières, had again fought gallantly against immeasurable opposition at Bullecourt in the first encounter on April 11. They had been joined by new recruit, Ronald Eaton, who had played in both the 1913-14 and 1914-15 seasons for Gordon, having started as a nineteen year old. He played mainly Third Grade over the two seasons and was a very promising all-rounder, scoring 436 runs and taking 45 wickets in the two seasons. He was promoted to Seconds just when the war came and took 5 wickets in his two games. A promising start like so many of his friends who were taken away and not given the chance to play again.
Frustrated by a lack of support from the untested British tanks, the Australian troops proceeded nevertheless to attack the German lines at Bullecourt and both George Swan’s 47th Battalion and Major Johnnie Moyes, who was the commander of the 48th Battalion on that day, made inroads to occupy sections of the Hindenburg Line. As was customary, the battalions sent up flares to signal artillery support but conflicting orders were sent to Ron Eaton’s 12th Field Artillery Brigade that the support wasn’t needed. Now cornered without assistance, the Germans counter attacked and isolated the Australian battalions who became completely surrounded.
Almost a quarter of the battalion troops were forced to surrender with a total of 1,142 soldiers taken as prisoners of war. Fortunately through some skillful maneuvering, some of the 47th and 48th Battalion, including Johnnie and George, were able to avoid surrendering and under heavy fire re-took the German trenches at their rear. Finally artillery from the British 5th Army arrived to provide support but they became confused and their bombs started to fall on the Australian battalions. What sort of luck is that to be bombed by the Germans and the British at the same time! No wonder we like to beat them at cricket!
In the chaos that followed, Johnnie Moyes was severely wounded in the right thigh but fortunately was able to get to an ambulance station for treatment.
As Anzac day came and went in 1917, the diggers couldn’t believe what they were hearing as the British commander instructed the Australian 2nd Division to relieve the 4th Division and again attack the Hindenburg line at Bullecourt. The five Gordon cricketers who had relieved their exhausted team mates were:
- Frank Bamford – Agent from Clanwilliam Street, Chatswood
- Henry James – Clerk from Middleton Street, Chatswood
- Harry Braddon – Barrister from Cherry Street Turramurra
- Charles Cook – Builder from Patrick Street Chatswood
- Colin McCulloch – Solicitor from Lane Cove Road Warrawee
These cricketers had all played for Gordon in various teams in the years before 1915, but none of them would enjoy a day at Chatswood Oval again either through their injuries or in the case of Colin McCulloch his tragic death on April 11, 1918.
Very disappointingly, the second battle became a repetition of the first except that the Australians held a 400 metre long section of the Hindenburg line, not previously broken, and after some sporadic fighting, by 15 May all action ceased. The battle had meant 7,000 more losses for the Australians and with the loss of life, horrific injuries and no prospect of any progress, the troops were now being pushed beyond their limits.
Colin McCulloch, who was a prolific writer during the war, best summed up the early morning of May 3, 1917. Quote:
I wonder, did I ever give you my impressions of this bombardment we put up just before the attack near Bullecourt, on the very early morning of the day on which we moved up? I had only joined the battalion the night before and from 2 to 3 was on gas guard. A little after 3, the gun fire suddenly grew terrific – all night it had been heavy, but I can’t describe what it was like when the final ten minutes opened. There were guns in the hundreds all round us and it was a most uncanny and awesome experience to watch and listen to a bombardment like this. The whole sky is a blaze with flashes from the guns – worse sheet lightning I have ever seen. The earth rocks, and seems to shudder as the guns fire. “Drum fire” it is called – You know how a kettle-drum is played – well try and imagine hundreds of guns firing at the same rate – it is simply indescribable – and just ahead of the ridge one sees the innumerable rockets and flares, which poor old Fritz is sending up, as if in anxious interrogation as to what is going to happen, although he knows it only too well – and then quite distant from the tremendous roar of 15 inch naval guns and howitzers etc. one can distinctly notice the short sharp bark of the 18 pounders and “pock” of the machine guns and the crackle of rifles. All these have sounds of their own and one can distinguish them at once.
Then, the uncanniness is increased by one seeing very distinctly a battalion of men moving up from supports – and hearing hoarse voices from goodness knows where – All this while the traffic of ammunition wagons etc. on the roads is endless – and finally with the first light of day one notices first the long string of horses – drawn A.M.C (Australian Medical Corps) wagons climbing slowly toward the clearing station over the rise and later men singly or in groups, who, though wounded and often badly, are still able to walk to the station. The whole sequence of sights and sounds a nightmare that one will never forget.
Charles Bean summed up the second battle of Bullecourt as, ‘in some ways, the stoutest achievements of the Australian soldier in France, carried through against the stubbornest enemy that ever faced him there’. No one could ever deny that it had taken exceptional bravery, and great sacrifice, to break into the Hindenburg Line and hold on to a section of it.
As we commemorate all of the fallen ANZAC soldiers throughout history, spare a thought for those nine brave Gordon cricketers who were in that hell hole on April 25, 1917 facing a very uncertain future and wondering if they would ever come home. While eight of them did return, only one played cricket for Gordon again. Ironically that was the legendary Johnnie Moyes, who was wounded twice in France and went on to become a renowned radio broadcaster.
The Gordon District Cricket Club owes its very existence to these brave men and we won’t ever forget them.
Lest we forget.